In the WordPress world there’s no quicker and easier way to start a passionate debate than to bring up the issue of the GPL.
For those of you new to the discussion, the GPL is the license under which WordPress is distributed. It states, in part, that you’re free to modify and build on the code of WordPress, and distribute it in any manner you wish.
Premium Theme Controversy
Where the controversy comes in is that the license stipulates that your derivative work inherits the GPL licensing as well.
Where this has become a hot topic for discussion is in regards to “premium” plugins and themes.
The most recent entry into the premium theme market, Rocket Theme, states in their FAQ that they adhere to the standards of the GPL and yet price their themes in a manner which directly contradicts the license, a much more deceptive practice than flat out rejecting the license all together.
In short, the WordPress community tends to be all over the map when it comes to the implications of GPL licensing.
Matt Weighs In
WordPress creator, Matt Mullenweg, has weighed in on this issue several times, going so far in fact to ask a lawyer about the topic.
His position, which is supported by the lawyer and I happen to agree with, is that the PHP of WordPress plugins and themes that are distributed do in fact inherit the GPL licensing regardless of the developers’ wishes. Images and CSS files however, do not necessarily inherit the same licensing.
The problem of course is that some of the framework themes use the PHP to generate the CSS files and use very few if any images. And, as WordPress themes progress, that seems to be the direction more and more themes are heading.
In short, this issue isn’t going away any time soon.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
The reason this is such a contentious and potentially far-reaching issue is simple…
If Matt’s interpretation of the GPL is accurate, users would be well within their rights to distribute premium themes at a lower price or even for free if they chose to do so.
Naturally some premium theme developers have been very vocal about their opposition to this interpretation of the GPL. In fact, Thesis developer Chris Pearson and Matt Mullenweg have previously feuded over the issue with the threat of legal action being thrown into the mix.
Just last week Matt published the video embedded below in which he says around the 8 minute mark that premium themes that place limits on users’ rights such as number of installations or footer links are “evil.”
Put Up or Shut Up
Now I don’t know about you, but calling a company evil seems like a pretty strong statement to me. If nothing else it’s evident that Matt feels strongly about the issue.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t bothered to actually DO anything about it.
Instead he’s left users like you and I in the middle to try and interpret the legal language, debate it amongst each other, and contend with the thread of a lawsuit should we decide to embrace the rights he claims we have under the GPL.
So my request to Matt and the rest of the Automattic team is simple. If you honestly believe that WordPress themes inherit the GPL licensing, put your money where your mouth is.
Either distribute the GPL portions of premium themes for all WordPress users to enjoy or file a lawsuit against premium theme companies that don’t adhere to the GPL.
Automattic certainly has deep enough pockets to be able to afford the legal battle that’s likely to ensue. And as the creators of several WordPress based businesses, you have a vested financial interest in seeing the case through.
If you’re unwilling to take either of those steps, then I respectfully ask you to SHUT UP about the issue.
Don’t sit back and take pot shots at “evil” premium theme companies during an interview if you’re not willing to back your statements up with action.
I happen to agree with your stance on the GPL but I find myself unable to defend your attitude of superiority & intimidation towards non-GPL theme developers.
Either put up, or shut up.
It’s that simple.