WordPress and the GPL, round two

This seems to happen every couple years. Something will come up, and suddenly the WordPress blogosphere is suddenly all a-Twitter (pun intended) about GPL-related issues. This time around, though, it isn’t an outright disregard for or ambivalence toward WordPress and the GPL, there are actual, seemingly good intentions involved, and unwilling participants caught in the crossfire, which makes this go-round much more unfortunate and sad.

@jakecaputo is a WordPress theme developer. He also happens to be a seller on ThemeForest. Until Friday, he was a speaker and planner for  WordCamps. Now he isn’t.

Say what you want about ThemeForest (I certainly have).  For the record, I’m not an advocate for ThemeForest, nor do I have any themes on ThemeForest (or plugins on CodeCanyon). If anything, this discussion has made me want to steer even further away from those places (at least until this gets resolved, one way or another — well, one way, at least).

The reason Jake got booted is because he’s on ThemeForest, selling themes. The WordPress Foundation — the non-profit entity that helps support WordCamps and otherwise provides advocacy and guidance for all things GPL in the WordPress world — has made it clear, for a long time, that WordCamp volunteers must not only follow the letter of the GPL license in how they advocate and promote their own works (outside of WordCamp), but also embrace and follow the spirit of the GPL as well. In plain(er) English this means for developers that your code must not be simply GPL-compliant (e.g. split GPL and proprietary license) but 100% GPL or compatible. All resources in your (distributed) code, all GPL, all the time.

The problem comes in when you sign up to be a seller on ThemeForest. ThemeForest (and CodeCanyon) enforce a split GPL/proprietary license and do not let authors choose the license under which their code is released. This comes in direct conflict with the “one step above simple compliance” that the WordCamp guidelines advise. Which means, essentially, that any author on ThemeForest or CodeCanyon can not present at a WordCamp because ThemeForest and CodeCanyon do not allow them to distribute their work under a license that is 100% GPL. End of discussion.

I will happily say that this sucks for individual theme authors who put their work out there and try to give back to the community by being involved in WordCamps and are now being excluded because of their involvement in Envato properties (the parent company of ThemeForest and CodeCanyon) and decisions that were made for them. But this is how I see it:

WordCamps are largely assisted by the WordPress Foundation — a non-profit that Matt Mullenweg set up a few years ago to “further the mission of the WordPress project.” WordCamps can use funds from WordPress Foundation stores and, if they make any profit, it goes back into the WordPress Foundation. The WordPress Foundation takes over — as an official, legal entity — where the views and ideology of WordPress.org left off, particularly when it comes to these issues of open source and the GPL and what flies and what doesn’t. Because it’s an organization, it has more influence than just saying “.org says you can’t do that”. But I see this going a step further than that, too. In the (hopefully unlikely) event that the GPL ever has to be defended in court as a legally-binding license (like the mutterings several years ago when Chris Pearson was refusing to put the GPL on his popular WordPress theme, Thesis), it would be the WordPress Foundation who would be defending the GPL, much like the Electronic Freedom Foundation assists in cases where digital freedoms are being violated. And that is why I don’t see the WordPress Foundation ever budging when it comes to GPL debates, nor should they. If you make just one exception, it undermines the entire license and could potentially threaten all open source software released under the GPL should it ever go to court (and even have wider-ranging backlash than that, should GPL-derivative licenses or any open source license come into the argument — if you prove the GPL is invalid, where does that leave other OS licenses?).

The WordPress Foundation is like a lighthouse for the GPL, particularly when it comes to WordPress, and WordCamps are a product of the WordPress Foundation. That’s why it’s not good enough that you simply comply with or agree with or use the GPL when it suits you. As a speaker, organizer, or volunteer for a WordCamp, you are a representative of the WordPress community as a whole, and therefore you — yes, you — need to go above and beyond what’s required. If I went to a WordCamp, knowing nothing about WordPress, and met a speaker there who sold on Envato (CodeCanyon or ThemeForest), and went to look up their stuff after the Camp, I could easily get the wrong idea about what WordPress is and where it stands when it comes to open source, the GPL and selling commercial themes and plugins.

so, wp.org is a religion now?


No. But the GPL is an ideology and the WordPress Foundation is based on that ideology.

There are a number of things that can be done to solve this problem, including — but not limited to — a compromise on Envato’s side.

1. Non-WordCamp WordPress events.

This has already been done with a number of WordUps around the world and with the recent — and by all accounts incredibly successful — PressNomics. Have a problem with the way the WordPress Foundation runs things? Fine. Start your own event that’s not a Camp. WordCamps traditionally don’t make any money and generally pretty much break even, with all the sponsor money and ticket sales going to pay for things like lunch, t-shirts and the venue. There are no shortage of willing sponsors for a WordPress-centric event, organizing a notCamp wouldn’t be any more difficult than organizing a Camp (admittedly, that’s still a pretty hefty job).

2. ThemeForest authors pull their themes off of ThemeForest.

This is a bitter pill to swallow. Many ThemeForest authors are making significant amounts of money selling on ThemeForest and going it alone would put that at risk. However, as long as you don’t have a say over the license under which you release your themes, if you want to be a part of the WordCamp system — and generally play nice with WordPress — it might come down to this. Brian Gardner (from StudioPress) pulled his themes off of ThemeForest when he realized that putting a GPL license on his profile page wasn’t good enough (editas pointed out in the comments, this was an internal decision that had been made already that just hadn’t been done yet and not specifically a direct result of these shenanigans), and Adii (from WooThemes) — who’s never been on ThemeForest (that I know of edit: I stand corrected) — put in his 2 cents about the GPL and abandoning their split license and adopting the GPL (and subsequently how that’s helped their business by way of WooCommerce). Not everyone is Brian, Adii or Matt, of course, and it’s one thing to already have a successful theme business like StudioPress and pull your themes off ThemeForest — it could be devastating if you were an independent author and suddenly didn’t have those checks coming in. That said, when I launched Museum Themes and looked at the options out there for licensing, I went the harder route — making everything 100% GPL and not using marketplace sites like ThemeForest — because being all in with WordPress, when WordPress is your business is the right thing to do.

3. ThemeForest changes their licensing structure to allow authors to put their themes up under a 100% GPL license.

This may involve some meeting at the middle from ThemeForest. ThemeForest will need to compromise their position in allowing authors to choose. Matt’s comment here indicates that if ThemeForest were to allow authors to release their themes to be 100% GPL, that they would be able to, once again, speak at WordCamps. As he points out, “all of the most successful theme companies out there are 100% GPL and their business is booming, so there’s no monetary downside to Envato.”

The ball, it seems, is in Envato’s court here. Matt has provided some clarification of the guidelines, stating that if ThemeForest/Envato allowed users to release their themes as 100% GPL, those authors (choosing a 100% GPL license) would not be in violation and be able to speak & be involved at WordCamps, but Envato (by still selling non-100% GPL/split-license works) would not. The last time this issue reared it’s ugly head, it was on the theme shops to comply — and they did — and I think the WordPress ecosystem and even their businesses have thrived because of it. I hope the same thing happens here.

the truth about hacked software

I want to get something out in the open.  It’s not illegal to hack your software.

This is probably contrary to what you might assume when you hear the words “hack” and “software” used in the same sentence, but there is an important distinction to make: hacked software is not the same thing as pirated software.

Let’s throw out a couple examples.

The OSx86 Project

OSx86 is a project whose goal is to allow people to install the Apple OSX operating system on Intel-based PCs.  (Actually, allow isn’t quite the right word…you can already do it, it’s just not made very easy – the OSx86 project is to provide tools (and documentation) to make it easy (or easier, anyway)).  The theory here is that now that Apple is using Intel chips to power their computers as opposed to Motorola chips, the hardware infrastructure isn’t a completely different animal the way it used to be.  PCs and Macs are much more closely related.  This is amplified by the fact that OSX is a BSD-based system, which is a Unix variant that shares a lot of similarities with current popular Linux distributions like Ubuntu, particularly with the ‘sudo’ element (a commandline argument that allows a user to take on the roles of the system administrator without the need to log in as the root user/sysadmin – much like the User Access Controls that exist in Windows Vista and 7).  It is a violation of Apple’s terms of use to install OSX on a PC.  However, this is not a violation of the law.  (They might like you to think it was, but just last year Apple was overruled in a case against the ‘jailbreaking’ of iPhones while they were under contract with AT&T.  Installing OSX on a PC is similar to said jailbreaking, just applied to an actual computer.)

Ripped Music

You may not think that ripping music from a CD counts as software, but the theory holds and mp3s are nothing if not digital files to be manipulated by another software application.  You may also assume that ripping a CD to create mp3s is not violating any terms of anything.  The RIAA, however, would have you believe that you are violating copyright law by ripping mp3s from a CD that you own.  The reason here being that the record company may also sell those mp3s themselves and just because you can create your own mp3 copies doesn’t necessarily mean you should.  On the other hand, we’ve all come to accept the common terms of property law which states that, once you purchase something, you can do pretty much whatever you want with it.  (This is why it’s no more illegal to copy a record onto a blank cassette than it is to sell the record to a used vinyl shop for cash.)  In this, the recording industry really has no bite since we’ve already established that copying music to a tape doesn’t violate any law (although they tried to disallow that in the 80s), so there’s no reason why creating a digital copy should be any different (they would disagree again, pointing out that it is possible to create digital copies of music with today’s technology that are a direct facsimile of the original – to which we all say “…so?”). 

Windows Genuine Advantage Validation Hacks

This is what lead me to start writing this post in the first place.  When Windows 7 was in beta, I signed up and was using Windows 7 for almost a year in it’s early beta and release candidate forms.  I was so impressed that I decided to actually purchase a copy for each of our computers.  Of course, according to Microsoft, Windows 7 beta/RC was not for use on any machine you actually use (which sort of defeats the purpose IMO) and there was no direct upgrade path to a retail version of Windows 7 from the RC.  It wasn’t long before someone found a way around this, which even worked for me, who bought Windows 7 Home Upgrade (the RC had the featureset of Windows 7 Ultimate).  But fast forward to both hard drives on both my computers failing (at different points).  Though you are allowed to do a format and install with an upgrade version of Windows 7, the license key is not valid for a full install,  I had to find a way to workaround the Windows Genuine Advantage Validation to use the copy of Windows that I purchased.

Commercially-Supported GPL Software

This one is close to home because not only do I write commercially-supported GPL software (in the form of Museum Themes), but I also support commercially-supported GPL software (in the form of Event Espresso). In this instance, hacking may not be anything more malicious than taking the code and modifying it for your own purposes (something that is allowed by the software license). But what if the means by which you obtained the software wasn’t one of the “official” channels? By the terms of the GPL, anyone, anywhere, for any reason has the right to take GPL software and distribute it in kind as long as they do not alter the GPL license itself. This means that you could take GPL software that you purchased and post it on your website for people to download.

However, with most commercially-supported GPL software, what you are actually paying for is not the software itself, but rather the support (and the knowledge that the software is being maintained, tested, and the developers will presumably fix any bugs you may find – all things that may be harder to come by when you are working with free – as in beer – GPL software). If you took the example above and posted your commercially-supported GPL software on your site, you would likely earn the ire of the developers if not violate the terms you agreed to when you purchased the software, and they would more-than-likely deem you invalid for receiving any further support or updates.

Common threads

At this point you should be seeing a pattern.  “Hacked” software is making the software do something that wasn’t the intended use by the manufacturer.  The consequence isn’t death, the FBI won’t come after you over your illicit VHS copies of movies you rented from Blockbuster, and you won’t go to jail.  You will not, however, be able to get support for whatever software it is that you are hacking.  The EULAs that you click through without reading, though they sound like legalese, are at the end of the day just license agreements and generally not a basis for legal action.  We have become so used to clicking through EULAs without reading that, as a result, we only follow the terms of them as far as it resembles common sense or, at the very least, supports what we were already intending to do with it.

Breaking the rules

I was going to end this post here, but I’ve recently been made aware of something that is making the rounds in the Warrior Forum.  For those of you who don’t know, the Warrior Forum is basically where spammers and black hat internet marketers are made.  It is to scammy online money-making schemes what 4chan is to griefing.  Recently, some brilliant member of the forums realized that because the terms of the GPL allow you to redistribute the software (even repackage and resell the software) that you could potentially make a lot of money stealing other people’s code and selling it.

Here’s the problem with that.

GPL software is released without any warrantee that the software even works.  No guarantee is made for support of any kind.  As discussed previously, that’s what you’re paying for.  How likely is it that the guy you got a free copy of a WooTheme from is going to help you out when you have a problem with the theme or want to upgrade it to the latest version?  Not at all.  Go to WooThemes for support?  Sorry, if we don’t have a record for your purchase, you’re SOL.  This hurts not only the customer trying to use the theme but, ultimately, becomes a big headache for the guy trying to redistribute it because he probably didn’t realize that he’s going to have to help (or ignore) the people he gave his theme to.  For someone out to make a quick buck, this was probably not part of the plan (however, for anyone actually in the business of selling GPL-licensed commercial software, this is precisely the plan).

The moral

Hacking software or using hacked software is not illegal.  Once it’s (legally) in your possession, you ultimately have the right to do whatever you want with it.  However, doing so means you should at least be aware of the consequences, namely: you’re on your own.  If you break anything after hacking your software (or using someone’s patched version of commercial software), you can’t go back to the developer and ask for a refund, or support, or much of anything, really.  Hacking is not piracy and shouldn’t really even imply piracy (though pirated software often requires a hack in order to bypass the built-in protection against just that).  Hacking is just code, which, broken down are just words, which are protected by article one in the constitution allowing free speech.  That said, there are many cases when the forces in place guiding you toward actually purchasing or using the software legitimately have benefits that outweigh whatever benefits of the hacked version.  Maybe this is in the form of support from the developer or maybe you just believe in the product and want to help them keep writing good code.  As a free-thinking individual, it is up to you to make the choice for yourself and understand the consequences of either decision.

Theme Frameworks

What’s the next big thing in themes right now? Theme frameworks. Everyone is doing it. WooThemes has their own core framework, StudioPress has Genesis, now MojoThemes has partnered with Themify to use that as their own in-house framework. Plus there’s themes that can be used as frameworks all over the place, from Builder to Justin Tadlock‘s Hybrid to WordPress’ own Twentyten.

What’s the big deal with frameworks?

Frameworks make a theme designer’s job easier — even an armchair one who just wants to recolor the background and add a couple fonts.  They also make it infinitely easier to maintain a bunch of themes.  Think about it: you’re a theme developer and you have written a handful of themes.  Which is easier to maintain?  Six individual themes, or a single theme framework upon which all of those themes are based?  The answer is simple: it’s much easier to deal with a single framework and only have to tweak the individual themes if there’s a specific bug or feature enhancement.  And the WordPress API makes it easy to take a function built into your framework of choice — or even WordPress itself — and change the behavior of it, tweaking it to the particular needs of the theme you’re designing.

This is a concept we’ve been playing around with for a while, trying to figure out how to build a model out of it.  Up to now, all of our themes have been loosely based on the free AP-Blueprint theme framework we built and maintain here.  Each theme starts with that framework and evolves from there.  That gives us  good starting point for coding, but it doesn’t solve the problem with having to maintain half a dozen or more individual themes.  There’s got to be a better way, right?

Here’s the plan…

This is the idea I came up with the other night: we do the theme framework thing.  We build a single theme framework upon which all of our themes will be based.  We adapt all the current themes we have to use this single theme framework as child themes.

Then we make the framework completely free.  Ideally, we get it added to the official WordPress theme repository.

If you want to use our framework to build your own themes, or even start your own business: go for it.  Once we get it added to the repository, you’ll benefit from automatic updates and the knowledge that the framework meets WordPress’ high quality standards.  All of our themes will stay the same, simply enhanced by a core framework that can be regularly updated.  Not only that, but having a single framework and building all of our themes as child themes means that we can design new themes much faster.

Win-win, right?  You may applaud politely now.

So when’s the switch?

I’m currently mulling over a new theme design that will hopefully be ready in the next month or so.  Said new theme design will be the first to be built entirely on the new theme framework.  Once that’s done, I’ll start porting over the other themes to use the framework.  The framework will most likely be a modification of the AP-Blueprint theme but will be able to be used as a standalone theme if you so desire.

I won’t say anything about what the new theme design will be, but I will say this: it rhymes with Mean Crunk.

WordPress isn’t a commercial success…wait, what?

Read this.  Then come back.  It’s okay, I’ll wait.

WordPress.com Blogs Garnered 23 Billion Pageviews in 2010

It’s the last paragraph the bugs me.

The five-year-old company may be experiencing remarkable growth, but it has yet to become a commercial success. The startup reportedly makes around $1 million per month from premium and hosting services, an inconsequential figure for a company that plays such a central role in web publishing.

Automattic makes $12 million a year spending most of their time developing free software and yet, they aren’t a commercial success?  What? Seriously, what? Matt & crew are some of the biggest and most public advocates for open source and the GPL.  Monetization, while obviously a concern, is not a focus, the focus is creating a great application that millions of people use daily for free.  $12 million a year for a team of maybe a couple dozen full-time employees?  Sounds successful to me.  The fact that they aren’t raking in the dough like Microsoft or Apple is a choice not a byproduct of failed marketing, and were they to go that route, I doubt they’d have the market share that most of that article reveals.

Indian Flowers

default 750x427 Indian Flowers

This theme, inspired by vintage Indian batiks and tapestries, exudes grace and sophistication.  6 color palettes are available so you can choose the one to fit your mood, office or season.  Built into the theme are our normal treasure trove of customized social networking icons, automagic Twitter hovercards for @usernames and configurable tweet displays, and social bookmarking options on posts.  The theme is optimized for readability and includes built-in WordPress post thumbnails, custom nav menu and widgetized sidebar and footer.

View Demo | Buy Indian Flowers — $60

default 150x150 Indian Flowers
blush 150x150 Indian Flowers
ink 150x150 Indian Flowers

parchment 150x150 Indian Flowers

You might also be interested in these:

  1. AP Museum zine
  2. Scrapbook
  3. Time Capsule