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GPL In Practice: An Interview with Jason Schuller - WPblogger | WPblogger
Jason Schuller GPL Interview

GPL In Practice: An Interview with Jason Schuller

by Ben Cook on February 26, 2010

So far in GPL Week we’ve heard from two WordPress theme developers that have embraced the General Public License and plan to continue operating under it. Today, however, we’re talking with Jason Schuller of press75 and soon to be ThemeGarden.

Jason adopted the GPL for his themes at press75 but has been fairly vocal about the downside of the GPL since that time so I was eager to get his take on the contentious topic.

Brian Gardner Interview

Jason, I am really glad you agreed to let me pick your brain a bit, I think you’ll have an interesting take on the subject. My first question would be why did you choose to release your themes under the GPL? Was it pressure by Matt, the Community, something you thought was right, or a combination of all the above?

There was absolutely no pressure by Matt or the community to switch my theme licensing on Press75.com over to the GPL. After speaking with Matt about it on several occasions, I decided that it was in fact the right thing to do considering that my product is in fact built on WordPress.

Actually, I was still working with Brian Gardner at the time on RevolutionTwo.com (now StudioPress.com) when we both decided to go GPL together. After I re-launched Press75.com, I simply maintained the GPL license for all my themes.

What, if any, benefits did you expect to receive by becoming GPL & have those benefits been realized?

One of the primary benefits of moving to the GPL was being accepted by Matt and the WordPress community in general by aligning the business with the values of WordPress. Also, I strongly believe that commercial theme developers have helped to take WordPress to an entirely new level, and the idea of being recognized for that fact in a positive way was definitely a driving factor for moving to the GPL.

It seems a lot of theme developers have become disillusioned with the GPL. Are you disappointed by how the GPL has worked in practice compared to what you envisioned before making the switch?

WordPress would probably not be where it is right now if it weren’t GPL licensed. Every aspect of the platform has grown to where it is now because of the community surrounding it.

With that being said, I just don’t think that the GPL license provides the same benefit for a “commercial” product such as paid WordPress themes. There seems to be two distinct communities surrounding GPL licensed commercial products.

One (in the vast minority) being those that want to contribute to the code, add on, customize and provide those improvements back to the community.

The second community (in the vast majority) I am referring to are those that simply package and re-release GPL’d commercial themes either for a quick buck by undercutting the original price, or as a means to hack spam innocent users websites by encrypting and re-packaging the theme with malicious code.

While both of these examples are fully within the rights of the GPL, I do not see ANY value added back to the community. In fact… in these cases (the vast majority), I would say that commercial themes being GPL licensed is doing much more harm than good to the WordPress community.

Do you plan on sticking with the GPL for future themes?

Press75.com will maintain the GPL license, but I am working on a new site called ThemeGarden.com which will be split licensed. In short, all PHP files (containing WordPress code) will be GPL licensed whereas all creative aspects of the theme (CSS and image files) will be copyrighted.

This model is still perfectly in line with the GPL and WordPress, but at the same time gives me back the right to fight some of the negative aspects as explained above.

Overall, do you feel the GPL has helped or harmed you & other theme devs?

I honestly don’t believe the GPL license has helped or harmed my business in any way shape or form. Users come to Press75.com because of the product I provide as well the support, not because my themes are GPL licensed.

One last follow up question and I’ll let you go. Do you feel using the GPL in any way puts you at a disadvantage to those theme developers that have rejected the GPL?

Again, from a business perspective, the GPL has had no affect in a positive or negative way.

The only disadvantage being tied to the GPL is the fact that you lose the ability to specify exactly what your customers can or cannot do with your product after they purchase it. Imagine spending hours/weeks on end developing a unique product, releasing that product one day, and then 2 days later finding that product (unmodified) for sale or being freely re-distributed on dozens of shitty (for the lack of better words) websites.

Again, I fully understand that this activity is 100% in line with the rights of the GPL license, but it is a little disheartening that the majority of people taking advantage of the GPL license use it in this way rather than adding value back to the community.

Jason’s response to the last question hit on a point that I think many within the WordPress community have generally missed. The successful premium themes and plugins that I’ve seen have all provided first class support and use that as one of their selling points.

Code can be ripped off fairly easily, no matter what types of precautions you take. Should it happen? Of course not. But it does. And, when even the likes of Google suggest downloading products from illegal torrents, you need to realize that piracy is just a fact of life on the web.

So how do you combat that? Focus on the support (which knock offs & pirates can’t offer).

That being said, I think Jason’s absolutely right that the majority of people exercising the GPL are NOT doing so to help improve the code that they’re using. Yes WordPress is where it is today because it’s an open source platform under the GPL but he has yet to present a compelling case as to how premium themes or plugins are helped by adopting the GPL.

Instead he continuously pounds the drum that they inherit the GPL and HAVE to use that license. I’m sorry Matt, but telling people they have to legalize the piracy of their work and get almost nothing in return is no way to endear the community to you or the GPL that you so vehemently believe in.

As GPL Week continues into the weekend here on WPblogger I hope to bring you some comments from one high profile  theme dev that has refused to adopt the GPL and has had a few high profile exchanges with WordPress creator, Matt Mullenweg, as a result. Stay tuned GPL fans!

Image sources: KayVee.inc & Ben McLeod

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Chip Bennett February 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm

So, more and more I’m coming to the realization that the issue isn’t the copyright license at all, but rather trademark.

It would seem that both Brian Gardner and Jason Schuller have problems regarding the dilution of their trademarks, through bundling, re-selling, and/or malicious modification of their work.

The solution seems to be straightforward: license copyright using the GPL, but fully enforce your trademark rights.

Do you want to exercise your rights under the GPL copyright license to redistribute, modify, and sell my work? Go right ahead.

But if you modify my work in any way, you cannot use my trademark.
If you sell my work, you cannot use my trademark.
If you want to be a real stickler: if you re-distribute my work, you cannot use my trademark.

All of these restrictions are fully in line with trademark law, and do not infringe the user’s rights as granted by the GPL.

I’m really starting to see that all of the Sturm and Drang surrounding GPL has really been misplaced. The real issue is trademark protection, infringement, and enforcement.

Ben Cook February 26, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Chip, while I think that is SOME of the issue, I think the GPL itself is a big issue as well.

As you mentioned, trademark infringement is a problem but you can use trademarks when saying “As compared to” like the knockoff brands do in grocery stores.

So while people can definitely go after copyright infringements, there will still be mass distribution of your work without any compensation. One way that sharing is legal, the other it’s not. Yes some of it will happen either way but IMO why open the door for the rest?

The people that are using the half & half model that Jason mentions & I believe ThemeForest uses still can’t be included in the WordPress Theme Directory apparently so why bother with it?

It’s clear no one is going to take you to court on the issue, especially since I believe they’d lose.

Carl Hancock February 26, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Just to be clear, when Jason says the PHP will be GPL and the images and CSS will be copyrighted… he means the images and CSS will be released under a limited use license and won’t be freely distributable.

This is the distribution method that I think makes the most sense for themes. It retains the GPL licensing where it is required while giving theme developers more control over the actual design.

It’s important to note that if you distribute commercial themes this way, you will not be able to be listed on the WordPress.org commercial theme page.

I’m unsure if this ban will extend to the free repository if you wanted to release a 100% GPL FREE theme while you also sell dual license commercial themes.

Chip Bennett February 27, 2010 at 7:14 am

So while people can definitely go after copyright infringements, there will still be mass distribution of your work without any compensation.

When did “compensation” enter the discussion?

One way that sharing is legal, the other it’s not. Yes some of it will happen either way but IMO why open the door for the rest?

Ben, I’m not sure I understand your point here? (Maybe I should go make some coffee, and then re-read your comment?)

Chip Bennett February 27, 2010 at 7:17 am

I’m unsure if this ban will extend to the free repository if you wanted to release a 100% GPL FREE theme while you also sell dual license commercial themes.

It would appear that anyone who sells non-100%-GPL themes (or promotes, advertises, or links to the same) will have any otherwise-eligible 100%-GPL theme rejected from the wp.org repository.

Anyone who wants to have a theme hosted in the wp.org repository must maintain at least two degrees of separation from non-100%-GPL themes.

Andreas Nurbo February 27, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Anyone who wants to have a theme hosted in the wp.org repository must maintain at least two degrees of separation from non-100%-GPL themes.

Yet another double standard in the wp.org directory world. Plugin authors can sell non 100% GPL plugins and still host their GPL plugins in the repository. The most noteworthy is of course wp-e-commerce. Is it yet again a fame thing as was the case with Light SEO being pulled and not All In One SEO or is it something else?

Ben Cook February 28, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Andreas & Chip,
I think your points are accurate and speak to a bigger problem with WordPress’ leadership but this being GPL week and all, I figure I’ll stick to one touchy subject at a time 🙂

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