WordPress GPL and Ethics

WordPress is released under the GNU General Public License. Amongst other things, this license allows everyone to distribute free copies of the software and charge for it if you wish. One key feature of the license is that you have to give everyone the same rights of the license that you have. This means that others can freely distribute any WordPress plugin or theme you release. They can release it free or charge money for it.

Jean Galea started an interesting discussion on this issue on WP Mayor the other day with his article “Is the WordPress GPL Being Abused?” (There are a lot of great comments from other WordPress developers at the bottom of the article – I encourage you to read them).

Profiting From Other People’s Products

One of the websites that Jean discussed in his article was WP Avengers. The website was created by developers who were sick of WooTheme constantly breaking their promises and increasing their prices. According to WP Avengers, over the last two years WooThemes have:

  • Replaced unlimited usage with tiered licensing.
  • Closed down their affiliate program (Disclaimer: this directly hit affiliates like myself in the pocket as I had been promoting them for years).
  • Reduced developer commissions.
  • Reduced unlimited website licenses to only 25 websites.
  • Reduced lifetime support to only two years.

Led by Nathan Walker, WP Avengers are offering a whopping thirty six WooCommerce plugins. Many of these plugins cost $199 each; however WP Avengers plan on selling all of them for $299. Owners of online shops will subsequently save thousands of dollars by downloading premium WooCommerce plugins through WP Avengers instead of WooThemes.

WP Avengers Pricing

WP Avengers are not the only website doing this. GPL Club are offering all WooCommerce plugins too for $25 per month or $199 per year. They also include some WooThemes themes and premium plugins such as Gravity Forms and BackupBuddy.

GPL Club Pricing

The rise of websites selling other people’s products for cheaper has certainly rustled a lot of feathers within the WordPress community. Of course, this is not a new debate. This discussion has been ongoing for years. You can read my thoughts about GPL and the ethics of forking a project over the last three years on WP Hub (links below):

Before I revisit the issue of WordPress and the General Public License, I would first like to talk specifically about WooThemes being targeted by disgruntled developers and customers. Do I feel bad for them? No, not in the slightest. There is certainly an irony about the fact that WP Avengers are doing the same thing to WooThemes that WooThemes did to JigoShop. What goes around comes around.

For those that don’t remember, WooCommerce was “Forked” from the eCommerce plugin Jigoshop. The plugin has been developed a lot since then, however the initial release was basically Jigoshop with a WooCommerce logo and a built in HTML email template add on.

Ethically, there is nothing wrong with forking a GPL licensed plugin. There are actually many benefits. For example, when a plugin no longer has the time to develop a plugin (e.g. one that is listed at WordPress.org), another developer can take over the project and continue development. Also, plugins being released under GPL allows developers to take plugins in different directions. There are thousands of great plugins on WordPress.org that started life as another plugin. That is what the GPL is for. Code that is released under the General Public License does not belong to anyone. This allows anyone to use the code in their own projects and release it to others.

What I did not agree with was the way in which WooThemes forked JigoShop. Jigsoshop was completely free and the developer made money by selling related themes and plugins. WooThemes came in with hundreds of thousands of existing customers and “forked” the project. The developer of JigoShop (Dan Thornton) did not seem to be too upset about it all as he was pro-GPL; but there is no doubt in my mind that he lost a huge amount of money because of WooThemes. He had spent years and years developing JigoShop into the best eCommerce plugin.

WooThemes had tried to buy Jigoshop. Their bid apparently “grossly undervalued the business and didn’t come close to covering initial development costs“. When they would not sell, WooThemes rebranded JigoShop and sold it as WooCommerce. To make matters worse – they hired the developers who were coding JigoShop. Was that ethical? Of course not. It was a very scummy way for WooThemes to handle things.

So whilst I do not feel any hatred towards WooThemes, I certainly have no sympathy to their current situation due to the cold and heartless way they screwed over JigoShop.

WordPress, GPL and Ethics

General Public License

Let us get one thing straight. It is not WooThemes that are losing out due to the actions of WP Avengers and GPL Club. WooThemes make tens of millions of dollars every year and I do not think their bottom line is going to be greatly affected.

The ones that are being affected are the independent developers who are working thousands of hours to develop unique extensions for WooCmmerce customers. They are relying on the sales of their extensions through WooThemes. If other websites start offering thousands of dollars worth of their products for only a few hundred dollars, they are going to lose a large part of their income. That income is being lost directly to people who are not forking their plugins. WP Avengers and GPL Club are not enhancing the plugins and spending tens of thousands of dollars improving them: They are simply reselling them on at a cheaper price. And for me, that is the problem with all of this.

Going back to what WooThemes did to JigoShop two years ago, I believe the issue was not because they forked JigoShop. That is, afterall, what the GPL was created for. The first versions of WooCommerce were almost identical to JigoShop, except for the WooThemes branding. Over time, they have developed WooCommerce further and made it a noticeably different product.What upset a lot of people was the underhanded way that they handled it all. When they could not purchase JigoShop, they simply hired the developers who were coding the plugin.

Right or wrong, the General Public License allows any WordPress related product or theme to be forked, redistributed and resold. When any developer develops a plugin or theme, they knowingly (or in many cases unknowingly) adhere to those same rules. Therefore, there is not much they can do if someone takes their product and resells it.

What is Good for the WordPress Community?

There is clearly nothing wrong with someone taking a free WordPress plugin from WordPress.org and offering it free elsewhere (such as within the zip file of one of their own products). Nor do I think there is anything wrong with taking a free WordPress plugin, developing it and selling the new plugin for a fee.

When you start talking about premium GPL products, the line between what is right or wrong gets a little blurred. Perhaps the terms “Right” and “Wrong” should not be used in this debate at all. “Good” and “Bad” are more suitable. GPL is supposed to benefit the WordPress community. So we need to consider what is good and what is bad for the community?

If a premium plugin is forked by another developer and used to create a different product, I think this benefits the community. Particularly if the new product goes in a different direction or focuses on features that the original plugin did not.

On the surface, it may seem that redistributing a premium plugin for a cheaper price benefits the whole WordPress community too. After all, WordPress users are saving money when an expensive plugin is resold at a cheaper price. If we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it becomes clear that redistribution has the potential to do more harm than good for the WordPress community in the long term.

Robin Hood

The people who are reselling WordPress plugins and themes are doing nothing for WordPress community. They are parasites. They are not improving the plugins. How could they? Premium plugins such as Gravity Forms are developed by large teams. How could any person or company continue to develop around forty premium plugins of that size and charge 10% of the cost. It is just not possible. All these people are doing are taking money directly out of developers pockets.

Let us get rid of the idea that a company that charges a lot of money for a product is doing something wrong. Developers are not evil. They have bills to pay and mouths to feed just like me and you. When premium products can be bought elsewhere cheaper, the developers of the plugin lose a lot of money. In the short term, this rise in websites such as GPL Club is going to benefit all of us as we can get high quality premium plugins at a reduced rate. In the long term, this is going to push lots of great developers and entrepreneurs away from WordPress.

GPL Club gives updates to “customers” (I use that term lightly) as soon as the original plugin is updated. If developers stop updating a plugin, websites such as GPL Club may cease to exist as they rely 100% on someone else developing plugins. This may seem a little far-fetched given the number of people who use WordPress; however if developers are struggling to make good money from WordPress, they may look at alternative ways of making money online.

What Say You

The issue of WordPress, GPL and ethics is dividing the community. People like Justing Tadlock are are great believers in GPL and have built their business around it. Justin noted that:

“The act of copying my themes, making no changes, and selling them is perfectly fine. I gave you permission to do so by placing it under the GPL license. Just in case that wasn’t enough, I’m giving you or anyone who wants to do so permission right now. It is not unethical for you to do these things so long as you do them within the confines of what’s allowed by the license.” – Justin Tadlock

Justin’s Theme Hybrid club is a good example of how people can adhere to the GPL and still make money. The club offers themes and plugins free but charges $29 per year for tutorials and support. Companies with different business models will be more affected by websites such as WP Avengers and GPL Club. When your income relies solely on direct sales from your product, it can be decimated by people who redistribute your products for a cheaper fee. Does that mean that all WordPress theme and plugin developers should change their business model?

I could easily write another few thousand words on this topic, however I feel that I am already covering the same ground I covered earlier. So with that in mind: It is now over to you.

What is your view on websites who are reselling premium WordPress products at a reduced cost? Right, wrong, good, bad. Let everyone know your opinion in the comment area.

Thanks for reading.

Kevin

* Hat tip to Sam from WP Squared for recommending Jean’s article to me :)