WordPress Community in a Firestorm over GPL

Themeforest AuthorsA week ago, Jake Caputo was barred from par­tic­i­pat­ing in Word­Camps as an orga­nizer, spon­sor, or pre­sen­ter. The rea­son for this is based on the licens­ing under which his themes are sold by Envato’s The­me­for­est. This move, some­what pre­dictably, has caused a fair bit of divi­sion in the Word­Press com­mu­nity. Envato’s move to a split license does not con­tra­dict the GPL, but it does go against the Word­Press Foundation’s stated pol­icy on Word­Camp par­tic­i­pants, which asks more of devel­op­ers than does the GPL. The dis­cus­sion has ranged from what is per­mis­si­ble under the GPL to whether Matt Mul­len­weg (and the Word­Press Foun­da­tion) is right in their stance on the issue, to what theme authors should be allowed to do with their themes to whether releas­ing under the GPL is morally bet­ter than other licenses. All that, and what “doing the right thing” means in this context.

I’ve been a GPL sup­porter for longer than Word­Press has been around, and I’ve been using Word­Press since its begin­ning, which was 10 years ago this spring. (Actu­ally, I was using the soft­ware upon which Word­Press was based even before that.)

As addi­tional back­ground, a clear rul­ing was issued back in 2009 con­cern­ing the licens­ing of a Word­Press theme. Essen­tially, the theme and its javascript must be licensed under the GPL, but the CSS and images may be licensed in any way the devel­oper sees fit — they are not required to be licensed under the GPL. Mean­while, the Word­Press Foun­da­tion‘s pub­lished guide­lines basi­cally state that its com­mu­nity mem­bers should embrace the GPL and its ethos if they would like to par­tic­i­pate as Word­Camp orga­niz­ers, spon­sors, or speakers.

Recently, Envato changed the licens­ing under which its authors are required to offer their themes for sale: basi­cally, what­ever has to be licensed under the GPL will be, but every­thing else will have a much more restric­tive license. As a result, all of the themes for sale on The­me­for­est are auto­mat­i­cally sub­ject to a split-license schema. Some have sug­gested that this is con­trary to the spirit of the GPL even if not the let­ter, because with­out the CSS and images, a theme isn’t really a theme. Whether or not this is so, the sale of themes under a split license runs counter to the prin­ci­ples the Word­Press Foun­da­tion wishes to pro­mote through their Word­Camps. Noti­fi­ca­tion sent out to the The­me­for­est authors came as a shock to many of them… and to be fair, it should be said that many of these authors are active and val­ued mem­bers in the Word­Press com­mu­nity. This is what’s got the Word­Press com­mu­nity in a hot debate.

I’ve jumped into the con­ver­sa­tion at a num­ber of points, which was help­ful in flesh­ing out my think­ing on the whole affair. I’m not big on “tak­ing sides” within a com­mu­nity dis­cus­sion, but I will say that every­thing I’ve said has been sup­port­ive of the Word­Press Foundation’s posi­tion rather than Envato’s. (FWIW, the larger part of the com­mu­nity seems to share this view.) All that to say I hate to see a com­mu­nity divided, so draw­ing lines needs to be reserved for issues that are gen­uinely foun­da­tional, and only done after due consideration.

In this case, my major objec­tion is with Envato’s require­ment that its authors use their split-license ver­sion — to sell your work on The­me­for­est, authors can’t release their work under the GPL, nor can they sell it on their own site. Alex King has a good com­par­i­son between Apple and Envato as mar­kets for sell­ing their work. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, by com­par­i­son it makes Apple’s App Store pro­gram look like a fan­tas­tic deal for the developer.

While it’s true that theme authors don’t have to sell their work on The­me­for­est, the fact is that there aren’t exactly a lot of choices of large theme mar­kets where they can sell their fully-GPL’d themes. It’s a bit of a catch-22 for devel­op­ers whose busi­ness model requires liv­ing off the rev­enue from their theme devel­op­ment. Stu­dio­Press has pulled their themes (inten­tion­ally GPL) from The­me­for­est as a result of this ker­fuf­fle, but they’re big enough to go it alone.

wp-logo-greyStill, the Word­Press Foundation’s require­ments were always clear, and it was always acknowl­edged that they were more strin­gent than the GPL. Essen­tially, this is what’s required to fully embrace its ideals and to rep­re­sent Word­Press. In one of the com­ment threads, some­one said that any­one who has a prob­lem with the GPL shouldn’t be devel­op­ing for Word­Press. I would sug­gest that extends to prof­it­ing from GPL’d works. You can’t be look­ing for ways to get around the GPL’s open require­ments while try­ing to build a busi­ness with it… to me, that’s a lit­tle disingenuous.

You also shouldn’t cry “foul” when you’re excluded from rep­re­sent­ing the com­mu­nity (or the prod­uct) when you’re mak­ing efforts to sub­vert one of its most dearly-held prin­ci­ples — espe­cially when you are requir­ing that oth­ers do the same. This, of course, would apply to Envato, not nec­es­sar­ily the many theme authors caught in the mid­dle. The “right thing” here, in my mind, would be for Envato to allow its theme authors the choice of how to license their themes. If they con­tinue to be deter­mined not to do so, it could end up that this dis­re­spect to their authors is a case of cook­ing the golden goose. Not to men­tion the fact that they must be pre­pared to accept restric­tions upon them when they’re putting restric­tions on their authors. It’s a kind of “golden-rule vio­la­tion” that they’re being called upon. Or, as my mother always told me, “turn­about is fair play.”

As has been stated by many oth­ers, it’s the devel­op­ers caught in the mid­dle who have our sym­pa­thies. It would be great to see a 100% GPL theme mar­ket rise up out of this controversy.