Some thoughts on the WordPress community, themes, and the GPL

As some of you know, there’s been a bit of tension in the WordPress theming community about the removal of 200 themes from the theme repository last week. Many of us have been all over this topic for quite a few days now.

Matt Mullenweg was on a special episode of the WordPress Weekly podcast this afternoon and well into the evening to explain his stance on the removal and to clarify what he thinks the WordPress project is about, including GPL themes (Update: Listen to the show).

One of the things I really got out of this discussion was a sense of serenity with an announcement I’ve wanted to make. This really all comes down to something I posted in the WP Weekly chatroom:

The point is that we should stop trying to avoid the GPL and get with the program.

Yes, I quoted myself. I believe it’s a fairly accurate quote, but it may have a word or two out of place. The point I’m realling getting at is that I’ve long been a supporter of open source in the WordPress-o-Sphere, but I haven’t been playing entirely by the GPL rules myself.

Also, if you don’t know Matt’s stance on the removal of the themes by now, it’s pretty simple. He doesn’t want to promote anything on that isn’t GPL friendly.

The GPL and WordPress themes

My personal interpretation of the GPL and WordPress themes is that theme authors can license XHTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images outside of the GPL. It’d be hard to convince me otherwise when it comes to the PHP in themes.

But why are we looking for ways to justify restrictive licensing on themes? Why do we keep asking, “Well, what if I do this?” Or, “What if I do that?”

Why are we not embracing the GPL and thinking of more creative ways to build our businesses around WordPress?

My WordPress themes

Most members of my theme club at Theme Hybrid have been very supportive in the last few months as I’ve transitioned to a support/services based business model (themes are free, support and tutorials cost a minimal fee).

Even though I’ve moved in this direction, I still have a few themes with restrictive licenses, and they’ve held me back from going completely open source. Over the past year, these three themes have been downloaded a total of 133,246 times.

  • Options theme (50,609)
  • Structure theme (51,631)
  • Visionary theme (32,206)

I didn’t post these numbers to boast but to move toward a point, which I will get to in a moment. I’m not even sure how well those numbers stack up to other popular themes, but I’m fairly certain that those are decent numbers. Both Options and Structure are pulling nearly 1,000 downloads per week.

I posted those numbers because I want you to know that those three themes are what I’ve built up my reputation with in the WordPress community (at least a large part of it has to do with the themes).

Just as a sidenote: If I had $1 for every time one of the themes was downloaded, I'd be a very happy man.

What this post is all about

Effective at 11:59 p.m. on January 31, 2009, I will discontinue each of these themes.

I don’t want any themes on my sites that aren’t fully compatible with the GPL. Out of respect for those that have previously purchased licensing fees to remove credit links, I will not release these themes under a different license.

For those that have purchased any type of license for Options, Structure, or Visionary, I will make updates available if something changes in WordPress that needs to be addressed within the theme. I will also continue offering support for theme club members that are using one of these three themes.

Is this a bad move?

I don’t think so. I have a lot more to offer in the next couple of months that’ll make those three themes seem insignificant. Plus, the new themes will be completely GPL licensed.

Everything else I’ve been doing has been centered on the GPL, and it’s time to cut a few themes loose.

I also want to point out that the WordPress Weekly episode didn’t make this decision for me. It just made me want to go ahead and get the word out. I can’t say that I wasn’t moved by how much Matt believes in the GPL though. He and I share a lot of the same thoughts about building a community around open source. If you listen to him speak, it’s hard not to understand why he believes in the power of open source.

I suspect many other theme authors agree with him as well.