There has been a whole lot of talk in the WordPress Community in recent months about WordPress theme and plugin licensing and I bet your pretty pink boots if you’re making themes or sites for clients, it’s something you’ve barely given a thought about. Because most of the issues in the news have centered around distribution and don’t affect client work.
However, if you’re making things to distribute, you should think about it… because if you want to make some money out of your theme or your plugin and/or if you want a lot of people to know about your theme or plugin you have some decisions to make about just how you allow that software to be distributed or reused.
WordPress itself and the core of the whole story, is licensed under GPL (GNU Public License1). In short, this means that if you’re using WordPress you have the following four freedoms
- the freedom to use the software for any purpose,
- the freedom to change the software to suit your needs,
- the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors, and
- the freedom to share the changes you make.2
This is the essence of free software (free as in speech (libre) not to be confused with free as in beer, (gratis)3).
This kind of licensing is called a split license.
However, in the other camp is the WordPress Foundation, who assert that if you’re making things for WordPress you should in fact extend those exact same freedoms to the products that you’re making, be they themes or plugins.4 Frankly, it’s their prerogative to make that guideline part of the conditions of creating for WordPress (just as it is the prerogative of creators to choose other licensing, that’s the nature of freedom) and the outworking of that is that if you want to add your theme or plugin to the repository, assigning a 100% GPL to your submission is a pre-requisite. (Actually, if you want to get involved in WordCamps or other WordPress branded endeavours, you also should be adhering to the 100% GPL guideline as well). I should point out, there’s still room to profit here, you are not restricted from selling your products under the GPL, but you do need to allow people the freedom to do with your product, exactly what they want once they’ve purchased it.
That’s the guts of it, when you’re creating add ons to WordPress and you plan to distribute your creations via the WordPress repository, you need license 100%GPL,furthermore, the foundation would love it if everyone everywhere licensed their WordPress creations 100%GPL, but as with any freedom, you are also free to choose a split license if you prefer.
So, what do these issues look like at a practical level?
How and where you distribute your theme or plugin
On one hand you have the WordPress repository where pretty much all of us started off. Finding free themes and plugins that people have made available for download and which are accessible right there in the dashboard, is one of the totally awesome things about WordPress. It’s just so easy to extend the basic install with awesome free stuff and to use that awesome free stuff as the base for creating your own awesome free stuff. All of the content in that repository be it a theme or a plugin is made available under the condition that you have the 4 freedoms above to do with it whatever you wish. In the WordPress repo all the content is free as in beer as well as free as in speech. So if you want to distribute your theme here, you have a huge audience as it’s often the first place people go for themes, but clearly, the themes are up there gratis.
On the other hand, if you want to make some money from your theme or a plugin you are free to sell your creation either on your own site,5 or at commercial marketplaces. Just be mindful of the license you’re offering and be clear about it what that means for your users, and what it means for you and your place in the WordPress ecosystem.
There are other marketplaces out there as well which don’t offer 100% GPL and which may be distributed in other ways but which doesn’t allow for the four freedoms outlined above.
What you can use in making your next theme or plugin for redistribution
Here’s the bit that people don’t always take into account when they’re creating for WordPress, particularly when you’re designing up your latest and greatest theme and including elements in that theme that have been built by other people.
If you want to make sure that your theme will fit nicely into the WordPress repository and as such are releasing your theme 100% GPL, before it gets approved, make sure that all the content in your theme is also fully compatible with a 100% GPL license.
There are a number of resources to help you assess if your content is compatible with the GPL… Start at WordPress.org
Happy Theming! If there are thoughts I’ve missed or you’ve anything to add, please chime in below!
4 Matt Mullenweg on the GPL
5 Commercial GPL Theme shops