Recent GNU GPL issues
In the last couple of weeks since WordCamp there has been a bit of chatter on Twitter about it. Jeff Waugh agreed to write a post about it, still hoping to read that since (I think) he has a lot of experience with GNU licensing through the Linux community. WordPress.org removed non-GPL themes (or themes that linked to sites promoting premium themes, and spammy themes) from the repository and in response Alister Cameron wrote a post suggesting developers need to be more creative with business models while honouring the GPL (make sure you read the comments for clarification on “free”).
My interest in this topic
Since WordCamp I’ve been trying to read up on the GPL. I am particularly interested in this topic because I’m using Thesis, I’m part of the affiliate program and I provide support on the DIYthemes forum and through my blog. I was amazed when I first saw the Thesis theme: it’s options are great and I love the way it uses custom files and hooks to localise modifications. I am really happy with the way my blog is running right now and I feel like there might be some really cool opportunities ahead of me. So, if “premium” themes are incompatible with the GPL I want to know. If I am going to be involved in using, promoting and helping other people develop their sites with a premium theme, I will need to take a stance on this issue.
What I’ve managed to gather:
- The GPL stipulates that software be free, meaning free to be modified and free to be redistributed in its unmodified or modified form.
- Free software does not mean you can’t charge for it. You are welcome to charge for WordPress if you want, but you cannot prevent the buyer from changing it or giving it away.
- Any work derived from GPL software that is distributed, must be done so under the GPL.
- You are not obligated to make your modifications of GPL software public if you’re not distributing it.
What are derived works?
To be honest, I think the license is pretty clear and a lot of misunderstanding comes from not reading it properly. However, there is one thing that I’ve found totally unclear, and that is what constitutes a derived work in the context of WordPress.
I think it’s obvious that if you change core files of WordPress, it is a derivative, and if you redistribute that change or the whole modified core it must be GPL. So, are themes and plugins derivatives? Sadly, it pretty much depends on your interpretation and the vibe of the thing.
Some people automatically assume that something that doesn’t function without WordPress is a derived work (does that make every program that runs on Linux based operating systems derivatives?). Some people mustn’t think they are, or they wouldn’t build a business selling themes for which the code cannot be shared. Others don’t understand the license or don’t care about it.
The WordPress Hackers mailing list had a thread that suggested if you use WordPress PHP functions and interact with the core code in that way, then you’ve got a derived work, whereas you could sell images and CSS separately because they don’t interact with the code, just the output, which isn’t covered by the GPL (the bit about the output is my interpretation, without that reasoning the argument makes no sense to me). Alister Cameron has been saying a similar thing regarding business models for theme developers.
Vladimir Prelovac suggests some ways of circumventing the “problem” of GPL by avoiding interacting with WordPress functions. However, it feels like a lot of effort to find loopholes in the license. If you really don’t like the GPL that much, perhaps you should use a different platform.
In a recent interview. It was obvious that Matt Mullenweg considers themes and plugins to be derivatives.
After I read the WordPress license I thought how good it would have been if they had specified what they consider to be derived works. Some programs specify that you can use their functionality without the product being a derived work. Matt addressed that in the interview saying,
Regarding complaints that say WordPress is trying to control what people can say and what they can advertise on their sites:
That doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with WordPress, or anything like that, that’s actually the heart of how WordPress was developed. People disagreeing and fighting and arguing and debating and everything like that, we just don’t want to promote things that are sort of against the guidelines. We’re not one hundred percent consistent there yet… we need to take a sweeping look at pretty much everything on the site and say “Okay, lets really match the guidelines.”
Themes and plugins are considered derived works by lots of people, including Matt Mullenweg. WordPress.org won’t be pursuing action against premium theme makers, but they won’t be promoting non-GPL themes.
GPL is great for the community; it compels people to openness, which is awesome for users and most developers too. Some developers feel GPL makes it too hard to make money with WordPress, but I think there are a lot of ways to build a good business on WordPress even by releasing your theme and plugin source code. Those could include charging for services such as support and also customisation; I can tell you that there are a lot of people who would pay for customisation to their theme whether the theme was free or not, whether it’s easy to work with or not.
Due to the nature of themes and plugins you have to provide the source code for the user to use it. By licensing your code under GPL it allows people to use it how they like, but even if you try to add a license to your code that says you can’t distribute it and they do, what can you do? Not a whole damn lot. If people want to cheat you of the credit you deserve, they will, GPL or not.
There may yet be room to discuss what is actually a derived work. I am yet to see any descriptions of why themes and plugins are not derivatives from folks who don’t think they are. I don’t really want to make a final decision until I do. If you don’t think themes and plugins should be considered derived works and therefore under the GPL, pipe up! Your opinion is under-represented!
I totally support the move at WordPress.org to remove non-GPL themes from the repository, partly because I think it’s good that they promote the openness of the WordPress community, but mostly because WordPress.org can support whoever they want to. No doubt they could have communicated more effectively before creating a big fuss, but hey— hindsight is 20–20.
What do you think?
- WordPress license
- The Free Software Definition
- GPL Frequently Asked Questions
- GPL, plugins and themes discussion on the WP mailing list
- Matt Mullenweg, WordPress, GPL, and why I think he really gets it by Alister Cameron
- Interesting WordPress implications
- 2hr Interview with Matt Mullenweg
- (Added 27 December 2008) Removal of over 200 themes? — discussion in the wp-hackers Google group