60 Responses

  1. James
    James Published |

    This is very Stallmanesque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_stallman) and I like it

  2. Benjamin
    Benjamin Published |

    Thank you for saying this. These very freedoms are why open source communities are incredible learning and growing opportunities. Many people in the WordPress community attribute their code skill growth to the ability to view and manipulate other people’s code.

  3. David
    David Published |

    Open source, like copyright law, is a difficult issue. On the one hand, anyone who spends a lot of time on something wants to either monetize it or (if they have more sanctimonious/egotistical reasons for making it) keep a level of control over its use. Your thoughts add a lot more nuance to a too-often ignored discussion.

  4. donnacha
    donnacha Published |


  5. haluk karamete
    haluk karamete Published |

    well said.
    embracing… and hard to disagree..

  6. AviaT-
    AviaT- Published |

    I must say that I adhere 101% to the philosophy mentioned in your article. Even though I’m not a strict coder, I have no problem sharing my findings with others, on the contrary I try to encourage the sharing of knowledge, freebies, or any other resource for that matter. I guess you’re either for open source in it’s entirety or you’re not, simple as that…

  7. Mitch Canter (@studionashvegas)

    As long as there’s open source, there will always be people who try to control it. It’s, unfortunately, the not-so-happy side of human nature. The WordPress community, however, is fairly decent as policing itself when it comes to these sorts of things. We just have to keep getting the word out about what’s going on. Education, and what not 🙂

    1. Mitch Canter (@studionashvegas)

      Also, on the flip side, it’s great to see a community so open and willing to share. Especially since in some of the other communities that have risen up around other CMS’ are… not quite so open to sharing.

  8. David Coveney
    David Coveney Published |

    Everyone decided to go along with the whole GPL++ concept that is applied in the WP community even though this is clearly what would happen.

    I always believed in the GPL for code, and didn’t believe in it for other assets. Largely because of the trouble licensing them, but also because you need some protection from people ripping off your brand’s hard work – otherwise there’s never enough money in the kitty to do something bigger and better because once you reach a certain critical mass more and more people will resell your stuff.

    Anyway, one day I decided to stop worrying about the GPL because for our business, and at our scale, it’s barely an issue and is actually more of a selling point. But it *is* a difficult position for those with big brands as they’re probably capped on what they can achieve.

  9. Boone Gorges
    Boone Gorges Published |

    +1. Thanks for putting it so clearly.

    I wrote a post a few years ago with a similar idea, emphasizing the fact that the GPL is designed to protect *user freedoms*, not developer’s whims (or commercial interests). http://teleogistic.net/2011/09/the-gpl-is-for-users/

  10. Ryan Hellyer
    Ryan Hellyer Published |

    Some people just don’t get it.

    IMHO, if someone builds GPL software and then expects others not to copy it for “ethical reasons” then they should go find another platform to work on.

    1. Dave Navarro
      Dave Navarro Published |

      Or find another planet to live on. Human nature alone is a 100% guarantee that anything successful will be copied. And GPL means “literally”.

      The “obvious” solution to me is giving the code away for free and charging for support. Our company has “purchased” numerous programs for a small fee, but we pay huge support fees each year.

      If support is the issue causing Woo to be unprofitable, then stop charging for the product and start charging for support, the very thing that is causing the issue to begin with. Stop with this limited number of sites… The more sites I have your product installed on the more I need your support and the more I pay you.

      This type of thing generally happens when you get “marketing people” involved in a product.

  11. The ethics of open source : Post Status
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  12. Wisely Woven
    Wisely Woven Published |

    Well said Justin!

  13. Mercime
    Mercime Published |

    Hear, hear! Thank you Justin.

  14. Carl Hancock
    Carl Hancock Published |

    You are correct that there is no such thing as “stealing” when it comes to GPL code. But there is most definitely ethical and non-ethical ways of how you distribute GPL code.

    I’ll give you an example.

    There are sites where you can find Gravity Forms for sale. Not from us. But by someone else who is selling it as a download at a price lower than ours. They aren’t providing any support at all. But that isn’t clear to the user. The user purchases Gravity Forms, and then comes to us asking a question… and then find out what they purchased doesn’t include support.

    Sometimes they get pissed at us wondering why we allow resellers to do this despite the fact they weren’t a “reseller”. Sometimes they understand and are pissed at the 3rd party that is doing this. But the primary issue is this causes brand confusion and is ultimately bad for the customer. Because not only do they purchase it from the 3rd party, they then purchase it from us and end up paying more as a result.

    Now sure, you could say it’s the customers fault. But the average user doesn’t know better. They run across a site that looks legitimate and think they are purchasing the product from a legitimate source that they can trust to assist them with the purchase, etc. when that isn’t the case.

    On top of the customer issues this causes, there is non-code related issues that come into play. These people using our brand, our logo, our web site graphics, etc. in order to market and promote selling Gravity Forms as a download.

    It hurts the end user and and outside the GPL they abuse our brand, etc. to make a quick buck. They aren’t improving upon what we’ve done, they aren’t forking what we have done and making it better or adding their own features, etc.

    They are merely trying to make a quick buck by undercutting our own pricing and only providing a download, not ongoing support or even any guarantee of updates… because you can’t get automatic updates without purchasing through us and running a plugin you can’t get updates for is just simply a bad idea for the average user for a variety of reasons.

    As we add more SaaS elements to Gravity Forms, which are coming, this will only compound the issue. Although it may ultimately eliminate it also which would be a positive as far as this particular situation goes.

    Because of the customer and brand confusion it causes, the customer is oblivious and just think he’s buying Gravity Forms cheaper from what appears to be a legitimate source.

    Ultimately this is allowed by the GPL (although abuse and monetizing our brand isn’t) and they aren’t technically doing anything wrong. But this is a good example of what I think is unethical use of the GPL.

    My example above is just an example we have encountered and in no way speaks to any current or past situations involving other WordPress commercial products or the situation with WooThemes which isn’t the same situation.

    1. Dumitru Brînzan
      Dumitru Brînzan Published |

      I would like to mention another practice that is “unethical”.

      You take a theme created by a theme developer, you open footer.php and style.css, change the credit to “Designed by John Doe” and boom! Another “expert” designer was born.

      GPL is a great license, but when people simply take all the credit for something they have zero knowledge of, that just pisses me off.

      OK, take the theme.
      OK, resell it.
      But man, just keep the copyright notices in place.

      I don’t see people distributing WordPress under a different name and developer name, right? I’m sure people would freak out if that would be done “in the name of GPL”.

      So why is the same thing considered “ethical” for themes and plugins?

    2. Paul
      Paul Published |

      This isn’t strictly a GPL problem. People copy well known brands in all sectors, clothing, watches, etc…People get scammed all the time, it’s there problem if they weren’t careful or informed.

    3. Manuel Vicedo
      Manuel Vicedo Published |

      I concur. It is legal for someone to take your licensed GPL code and do with it whatever they want– hell, when I was learning how to create a framework, I looked at WooThemes source code.

      But still, when someone copies your code directly and makes little to no modifications, most of the time it’s probably going to be unethical. Not because of the GPL, but because the intentions behind it tend to be… darker.

      If you take our themes and study them, go ahead. If you take our themes and fork them, go ahead. Just don’t take them as they are and stamp your own logo on so you can sell them, because that hurts both customers and our brand alike.

  15. Joen A.
    Joen A. Published |


  16. OneBrokeGuy
    OneBrokeGuy Published |

    I can see the argument about it being unethical, but you are absolutely right: GET OVER IT!

    Gone are the days when people thought the internet was going to be a safe haven for storage. There are far too many examples of how people do not understand that putting anything out there in the public domain has, to all intents and purposes, made it a public open resource.

    I’ve had my fair share of my own hard work taken by others – code snippets and pictures. Initially this irritated me, but once you swallow the pill that I put it out there in the first place, we can quickly realise that it’s no longer ours per se.

    Thanks for a great post!

  17. Chip Bennett
    Chip Bennett Published |

    There is absolutely nothing “unethical” about exercising rights that have been given explicitly. The “Spirit of the GPL” canard is a long-standing sacred cow. It is often used as a last-resort bludgeon by those who don’t want to admit that they don’t actually want users to have the rights they explicitly gave them via the GPL.

    Reselling a product for a cheaper price? Not unethical. Selling a product you received for free? Not unethical. Even in the Gravity Forms example above: reselling Gravity Forms for a cheaper price is not unethical. (I assume that they are selling code only, whereas RocketGenius includes support in their sale price. In that case, the reseller is simply providing an option: lower price for code only, and no support.)

    Anything unethical would regard trademark (brand identity), and not copyright. If the site reselling Gravity Forms is implying that they are affiliated with RocketGenius, or that they are providing the same product (i.e. the code and the official support and community), then they are acting unethically – but it has nothing to do with copyright, GPL, or the rights granted via GPL.

  18. #WordPressWednesday 2013 Volume 8
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  19. Jesse Petersen
    Jesse Petersen Published |

    Very well-written, Justin.

    As a new plugin author this year, I have been surprised by the number of people who contact me via my site’s contact form to privately inform me that someone “stole” my code or my idea. I need only point them to the license and explain that it’s impossible to steal code that is free of obligation towards the originator.

    Some of the instances fixed an issue in my plugin and others are a direct rip-off, but I don’t care because we’re all in this together, learning from the work of others and those who came before us. It’s highly unlikely that any plugin of significant size or function is 100% purely original code without any copying and pasting from some other source — and that’s what makes our community great.

    The market is big enough for all of us to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

    1. Chuck Lasker
      Chuck Lasker Published |

      Another way to say “we’re all in this together” is “a rising tide lifts all ships.” Imagine where WordPress would be (or not be) if everyone at the beginning tried to control their code. You can simply look at the Miva Merchant shopping cart for an example (Haven’t heard of it? Exactly. They were number one for shopping carts once.) The entire reason there is a market for WordPress code in the first place is the open source community.

  20. Sidd
    Sidd Published |

    I think you want to change the link to WP Avengers. It is missing the extension 🙂

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  22. Chuck Lasker
    Chuck Lasker Published |

    Two things you said are the most important, IMO.

    1. People are going to use your code. Complaining is yelling at the wind. Watch the music industry – the artists who are embracing the digital culture of “stealing” music are succeeding, making more money than ever. The fighters are dying. Same is happening here.

    2. You don’t have to work in the WordPress community. There are plenty of places to write and sell code under a proprietary license. You joined an open source community knowing it was an open source community. Complaining is like being upset after joining your local country club that it is made up of mostly golfers.

    Mahalo, Justin.

  23. app103
    app103 Published |

    You know what really irks me? Theme developers that release “100% GPL” premium themes and then want to cry piracy when people start redistributing their themes for free. It’s not piracy when someone does exactly what the GPL says they can do. One should not lose their website for the act of exercising their rights under the GPL.

    And what is even worse is when those sites sharing their themes get taken down, and nobody has a chance to test out a theme before they decide to support its development with their hard earned cash.

    Most Wordpress users will try a bunch of themes before deciding on which one they will keep using. They shouldn’t have to pay for something that they end up not using for one reason or another. Imagine wanting to test five “100% GPL” premium themes that would cost $35 each to obtain from the original developer’s site, for which there is no free lite version released by the developer. To do that, you would have to pay $175. Then when you make your choice, for the four themes you won’t be using, you will not get a refund. That means you either have thrown away $140 on themes you will never be using, or that one theme you decided to use actually cost you $175 instead of $35. That better be some amazing theme to make it worth spending that much money. Most $35 themes are not worth anything near $175.

    Try before you buy is a business model that has worked well for the shareware industry for a long time. And the equivalent in the premium theme genre of software is the free or lite version of a theme. If you can’t offer that to people, how can you expect them to be happy with losing money when they decide they don’t like something about your theme and can only find this out after they have paid for and tried it?

    There are a lot of people, ethical people, that would gladly pay for a theme after they have tried it and found that it is deserving of their support. Those sites that are offering the “100% GPL” premium themes for free, are the only sites where one can find out if your theme really is any good. Those sites and their users are not pirates. The license of your theme allows them to do what they are doing.

    And if you think that they will never pay, you are only partially right. The ones that do not pay are the ones that would never have bothered with your themes in the first place, if there wasn’t a way to get it for free. They would have ended just using someone else’s free theme instead. And then there are the ones that just collect files, never using a fraction of what they acquire. Your theme is like a bottle cap to them, and nothing more. Digital packrats rarely pay for the bytes in their collection. For them it’s all about acquiring, not using. They don’t care if your theme is good or complete crap, and likely they will never even unzip it. If they had to pay for your bytes, they would just skip it. It would never be worth it to them.

    And then there are the others, the ones that as a donationware developer, I know too well. They support what they use, even if you don’t ask them to. And they support it in many ways, not just with their hard earned “gratitude green” cash. They tell others about the software they like and use. Yes, they recommend your work, by word of mouth on social networks, through reviews on their blogs, and to clients that pay for their advice. And all of that translates to more users for you, more money in your pocket, because birds of a feather do flock together. People who support the development of the software they use tend to hang together.

    And there is something else unique about this group…they consider themselves to have a vested interest in the software they use and they take this very seriously. They will tell you about every flaw they find and every way they can think of that your product can be improved. Listen to them and your product will be worth even more. These are the ones that would gladly pay again and again to support the development of the software they use, if the developer is responsive to them, turning silver into gold, and gold into platinum. When they get together over coffee, debating “what’s the best ___?”, you want to be the one they all agree is best.

    But if you are going to send DMCA takedown notices to sites doing what they have been licensed by you to do, make complaints to their hosting companies, never offer the special people, that always support what they use, a chance to use your software before they pay for it, you will never be able to reap the rewards they might have bestowed upon you.

  24. Maxx
    Maxx Published |

    GPL is geared for the end user and provides no protection to the developer. I can write a plugin or theme and joe blow can come along and repackage it and then sell it. Does not make sense to me.

    1. hotgeek
      hotgeek Published |

      If it doesn’t make sense to you then start making plugins for vBulletin and 30 others proprietary publishing suites. There is plenty of them where you can try and make money of it without sharing your work.

      What for me doesn’t make sense are people who see open-source successful platform, they jump in it and try to make it proprietary in order to make more cash. For me that is unethical.

    2. Dave
      Dave Published |

      Maxx, that is exactly what GPL is for, to protect the end user, NOT the developer. If you want a licence that protects the developer then Wordpress is probably not for you, try iOS development perhaps.

  25. Cheers to the GPL : Post Status
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  26. Gary C
    Gary C Published |

    Allowable does not always equate to ethical.

    Funny thing. Try starting a podcast or news website with the word WordPress in it. You will get a cease and desist letter very quickly. Why is this?

    Might it be that because using someone’s name to build your own is unethical. If I copy your theme, and make no changes, and sell it as my own creation, that is unethical. It is a form of stealing. It may be allowed under the GPL license, but it is still unethical.

  27. Mathew Porter
    Mathew Porter Published |

    Thats the beauty of online open source platforms or projects is collaboration and sharing knowledge to take peoples best skills and create something great.

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  29. Ren Ventura
    Ren Ventura Published |


    Thanks for the well argued post. As it was pointed out in a previous comment, the idea of “try before you buy” is something that is virtually absent in the premium WP products market. I recently started offering premium downloads on my site for much cheaper and this was one of my reasons. I don’t make claims to be the author or to be reselling on behalf of the author. I even explicitly state on every product page that the download is provided by me (a third party source), not the developer, and to consider purchasing from them if auto-updates and developer support are needed. I could not agree more that what’s actually unethical is licensing a product under the GPL and then trying to limit its use (or at least strongly discouraging its use without paying the yearly fee, as does an often rude developer of a popular forms plugin).

    Anyway, I’ve found my site included in at least one (on the WPMayor) conversation about how this practice is unethical. In that post, it was a common thing to read that it’s “sleazy business” and, basically, a low way to make a living. Some also feel that my business is a detriment to the WP community and will gain no respect from the community as a whole. That’s fine, people are entitled to their opinions. In response to that article, I decided to put together a quick post sharing my views on this debate. If it’s alright, I’ve pasted a link to it below in case you or anyone else is interested in reading. I did so because I believe this is an important conversation to have so that people understand both sides of the argument. I don’t think my business is a detriment to the WP community because I firmly believe in the spirit of open source and I love helping people use WordPress to its full potential. After all, one of the greatest reasons WordPress is so popular is the freedom it provides and the fact that average users can build their own site without spending a ton of money. My goal is to provide a way for people to do that. Thank you again for sharing your opinion!


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  31. shopguy
    shopguy Published |

    Seems like a lot of people posting comments here don’t want people to copy their theme or plug-in (like Gravity Forms)… if that is the case, why put it under GPL? I have no first hand knowledge, but I imagine you can place a theme or plug-in under whatever license you want. True, you have to give out the source, that’s just the way PHP/HTML/JS/CSS works… but at least if you put under a restrictive commercial license, “all rights reserved”, then if someone copies it, you have every right to call them unethical. Pretty simple, too simple?

    Don’t get me wrong… people will still steal your stuff, no matter what license, but at least you have every right to call them names and take them to court if you have the right license for it. With open-source like themes/plug-ins, it is probably easier to prove someone copied your work, since you can see the actual source/design, not just the resulting EXE/app/etc.

    One question… Is WPAvengers just taking the Woo plug-ins and forking them and reselling them? Or did they write their own plug-ins from scratch? I think the premium Woo plug-ins/themes are not under GPL, so don’t think WPAvengers can legally copy them like that, if they are. I guess either way the plug-ins will end up about the same, so they might look like copies… since they have some of the Woo devs on the team. Sounds legally “sticky” to me, wouldn’t want to put my business at risk by using something like that on a large scale/critical area.

  32. Diego
    Diego Published |

    Justin, I generally agree with you. While the redistribution of one’s work may be irritating in some ways, it’s a right that we grant when we distribute our software under GPL, and we should be ready to see it “stolen” at any time. After all, soon after I started selling software through my site, I realised that the value is mostly in the quality of support, rather than in the software itself.

    Not that the product is worthless, but, between buying a cheap, unsupported product, and a more expensive one, with full support, most customers would go for the latter. After all, they are not coders, they want peace of mind. A “no support” clause is exactly the opposite of that.

  33. Terence Milbourn
    Terence Milbourn Published |

    What really pisses me off is the way some developers boast openly in forums that they’ve forked somebody else’s code and “sold” it to their client, and nobody else is getting a copy.

    I just got into a debate with some numbnuts over at WPMUDEV who are trying to rewrite the GPL in their heads. They used the excuse their client has paid them for the exclusive rights to use the modified version, and just ignore the fact they are standing on the shoulders of giants.

    What was shared with them at no cost, apparently is forgotten. Either that or they place no value on it until they add their 0.01% contribution.

    The other thing that really burns me is that there’s no easy/effective (I’d settle for effective) way to shame/whistle-blow/burn them ~ for the way they are disrespecting all those that gave them the opportunity to make money out their hard work.

    A pox on their houses!

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  39. Dave
    Dave Published |

    Hey Justin,

    You may not have time to revisit this old subject, but have been engaged in a pretty heated discussion on a Wordpress developers group, with a bunch of folk deciding to label me “unethical” and that “the rest of us can and will dispose of you” [whatever that means] for daring to suggest that under the GPL licence (and so long as you avoid any trademark infringements) people/websites reselling plugins from people like Woo was not in any way ethically wrong.

    They also claimed that you supported this position [that it was ethically wrong], which was a different interpretation of the above article and comments than I took I must say.

    One person also claimed that you believe: “If you also use that code [GPL software purchased on sites other than the original developers] on projects for others who don’t know you are doing it, that’s extremely unprofessional and unethical”.

    Is this what you believe?

    Look forward to hopefully hearing back from you.



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