Many WordPress Theme Stores Are Violating The General Public License

One thing that is quite apparent throughout the WordPress community is that a large percentage of premium theme stores are breaking the GNU General Public License that WordPress is licensed under. Specifically, they are restricting the number of domains a user can install the theme on or stopping users from removing the footer credit.

I was reminded of this recently when I purchased the ProBlog blogging theme from Magazine3 (for the new WP Mods redesign). When I went to purchase the theme I was presented with 5 license options. Unfortunately, 4 of the 5 license options placed restrictions on how the theme can be used.

  • Single License ($49) – Restricts you from using the theme on more than one site and doesn’t allow you to remove the footer credit link.
  • SinglePro License ($59) – Restricts you from using the theme on more than one site.
  • SinglePro+Psd ($69) – Restricts you from using the theme on more than one site.
  • Multiple ($99) – Doesn’t allow you to remove the footer credit link.
  • MultiplePro ($99) – Doesn’t allow you to remove the footer credit link.

This issue was discussed in great detail in the WordPress community a year or so ago.

One of the best articles published at the time which explained how the GPL affects themes came from Mark Jaquith. His article ‘Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress‘ explained exactly why any theme released for WordPress has to be released under the General Public License too and how the license doesn’t stop developers from making money from the WordPress platform.

GNU General Public License

Almost 18 months later and many WordPress theme stores are still restricting how customers can use their designs. Many theme stores are forcing customers to choose between single and multi-site licenses and some like Magazine3 are charging for customers to remove the link back to them.

Other theme stores which restrict how a theme can be used include Natty WP, Page Lines and SiteMile. If you search for WordPress themes regularly you will know that many theme stores offer single use and multi-site licenses.

I initially thought that ThemeForest, which is the biggest marketplace for WordPress themes on the web with over 1400 premium designs, also placed restrictions on how a theme can be used. Chris from Seven Spark clarified that under their terms PHP code is licensed under the General Public License whereas all of the design elements are covered under their Regular License.

Violating The WordPress License

I have wrote about the GPL issue many times over the last two years though with so many theme stores apparently ‘violating’ the license that WordPress uses you could be forgiven for thinking that the terms of the General Public License doesn’t apply to them. To avoid any confusion as to what WordPress’s stance is on this issue, I contacted Mark Jaquith directly.

Mark is a lead developer of WordPress and as I mentioned earlier, has been vocal about this issue in the past. He was kind of enough to reply to me quickly and clarify WordPress’s position on this issue once again.

Our stance is that WordPress themes derive from WordPress itself, and
thus must have a compatible license. That opinion was validated by the
Software Freedom Law Center back in 2009
. A limitation on how many
sites can use a theme would be an obvious violation of the GPL. I
wouldn’t call such themes “illegal” — I’d just say that they are, in
our opinion, violating the license for WordPress. We continue to only
promote themes on WordPress.org that are fully GPL compatible, and we
encourage people to only use themes that respect the license.

This makes it pretty clear that theme stores who are restricting how customers use their designs and charging them to remove the footer credit or use the design on more than one website are violating the WordPress license.

I am not sure if WordPress could pursue websites that violate their license or if they would ever want to. What I am interested in is how this affects customers like myself who purchase premium WordPress themes fairly regularly.

Can we simply disregard whatever restrictions a theme store applies to a design and just proceed under the assumption that all of their themes are indeed licensed under the General Public License? If this is true, then whenever we are presented with license options that charge more for removing the footer link or using the design on multiple domains we should simply purchase the cheapest option available; as the restrictions that the theme developer has placed on using the design aren’t applicable.

How would theme stores react to customers who did this though? Would they have an open discussion about the issue with their customers or would they cancel their account?

Theme Developers Need To Be Educated

I strongly believe that the vast majority of WordPress theme stores who are placing usage restrictions on their themes are doing so because they are concerned about losing money and/or having their code copied by other developers and they would adopt the General Public License if they were educated more about it. It’s worth pointing out that the most popular WordPress theme stores Elegant Themes, StudioPress and Woo Themes embraced GPL a few years ago and it hasn’t hindered their success.

When I asked Magazine3 recently why customers had to enter their license key before using one of their designs they explained to me that they had no choice as previously their popular designs had been added to warez sites and downloaded hundreds of times. I can relate to theme stores with this problem. It must be incredibly frustrating to work months on a great design only to see it being downloaded for free on a warez website.

Though I don’t believe that license keys are going to stop premium designs ending up on warez sites, it will only slow them down (most people are aware that there’s nothing you can’t download for free on the internet). Also, I don’t think restricting how a theme is used is practical at any level. Even if they can track who has removed credit links or used a design on multiple domains, do they really want to spend all their time harassing loyal customers rather than working on new products?

All WordPress theme stores should adhere to the General Public License and remove any restrictions to their themes. They can still charge extra for documentation, support and additional resources such as the original design Photoshop file. I don’t believe their income would be affected.

One of the best license setups I have seen comes from Gorilla Themes. They allow users to modify themes as they please and use their designs on an unlimited number of domains however customers still have 3 purchase options available to them.

  • Essential Package ($39.95) – Documentation but no access to support forum.
  • Standard Package ($69.95) – Documentation and full access to support forum.
  • Premium Package ($99.95) – Documentation, full access to support forum plus original Photoshop files.

I think this is one of the most intelligent ways to charge customers. Gorilla Themes are effectively giving a discount to customers who won’t take up any of their time with support queries and charged a little more to developers who need the original Photoshop PSD files. This is a great example of how a WordPress theme store can adhere to the General Public License and still make money effectively.

Are Plugin Developers Violating The General Public License Too?

18 months ago Mark Jaquith wrote on his post ‘Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress‘ that:

Theme PHP code must be GPL. You could do a split license on the CSS and JS and other non-GPL static resources. You can license those elements to one site, but let people with a developer license use them on multiple sites.

It’s therefore safe to assume that all the code in a plugin has to be GPL too. This effectively means that all plugins have to be GPL compliant. There has been a lot of discussion over the last two years about theme stores breaking the General Public License however there hasn’t been many discussions regarding premium plugins.

It’s very common for premium plugin developers to offer 2 or 3 different licenses for their products e.g. singe license, multiple site license (3 websites) and a developer license (unlimited license). Are they breaking the General Public License by doing so? On WP Mods I use a single license from Gravity Forms and Pippity. Should I be able to use these plugins on multiple sites?

Premium plugins are a derivative of WordPress therefore the GPL applies to them. As such, plugin developers should not place any restrictions on using their products.

Overview

It’s almost 18 months since Matt Mullenweg and Chris Pearson publicly clashed about Thesis not adopting the General Public License. Whereas stores like Graph Paper Press were quick to change their stance and adopt the license, a large number of theme stores have continued to place restrictions on how their designs can be used.

I hope that we see theme stores reviewing their GPL stance and allow their customers to use their designs without restrictions. It’s something that plugin developers needs to review too.

This is an important issue that the WordPress community needs to address. I would love to hear your view on this issue so please leave a comment if you have time. I would also appreciate if you could try and raise awareness of this so that more WordPress users know their rights and developers know what license their products should be released under.

Twitter retweets and Facebook likes are welcomed and if you have a WordPress related blog yourself I encourage you to write an article on your own site and give your own view on the subject (post a comment here with a link to your article and I will add a link to the article here) :)

Thanks for reading :)

Kevin

Further Reading:

This article was authored by:

Kevin Muldoon is a professional blogger with a love of travel. He writes regularly about topics such as WordPress, Blogging, Productivity, Internet Marketing and Social Media on his personal blog and and provides technical support at Rise Forums. He can also be found on Twitter: @KevinMuldoon and Google+.

Kevin Muldoon has authored 833 posts.Visit Website

Showing 33 Comments

  • Just FYI, ThemeForest uses a split-license for WordPress themes, and does in fact properly license with the GPL (adopted in 2009). You can read about it here: http://blog.themeforest.net/site-news/important-change-to-wordpress-license-takes-effect-today-please-read/

    Same goes for plugins on CodeCanyon I’m sure.

    Essentially, the PHP code can be freely distributed under the GPL but the usage of the entire theme or plugin is restricted by the single license based on the licensing of the javascript/CSS/images/etc. :)

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Thanks for clarifying Chris. I’ve updated the post to reflect this.

    Do you know how the GPL affects premium plugins where there is little or no design elements and solely PHP code? Can a premium plugin be restricted to just one website?

    REPLY
  • Well, if the plugin is purely PHP code, that code would likely fall under the GPL, and therefore the entire plugin would be GPL. (The real measuring stick is whether the code is derivative of the WordPress code. A completely independent PHP class, which makes use of no WordPress PHP code whatsoever, would be exempt from the umbrella of the GPL I believe).

    So my answer would be this: if a plugin is pure WordPress-based PHP, it is GPL and therefore you would be legally permitted to reproduce, reuse, and redistribute the plugin. However, I’d personally draw a distinction between legal and moral usage. Take Jigoshop as a nice example. Check out Jigotheme and click “Are you a developer” http://jigoshop.com/extend/jigotheme/ . As they state:

    If you['re] using this theme/extension on multiple sites we’d really appreciate it if you bought our developer package.

    The GPL restricts us from locking down our code so we’re putting our faith in the community to do the right thing.

    Personally, I know I can take any PHP code from a WordPress theme or plugin and do what I want legally; but to me the moral obligation – respecting the author’s wishes, as reflected through purchase option pricing – is paramount. If the community doesn’t “do the right thing” as Jigowatt puts it, the WordPress ecosystem would lose a lot of high quality code as premium theme and plugin shops become unprofitable. (This is partially why the split license is important to protect individual products via CSS/JS/images).

    Luckily, most customers out there are honest people who want to do the right thing, and are willing to support quality work :)

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling ;)

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    No need to apologise. The plugin issue is something I wasn’t 100% sure about so I welcome feedback from users and developers alike.

    You raise a good point about doing the right thing and purchasing the multi-site license to support the developer. I understand that developers like to split up licenses so that they can reach the low end and high end of the market. Personally, I’d rather a plugin developer increased their price of their plugin to cover their costs so that I can use the plugin freely on as many of my websites as I wanted. I do appreciate however that by doing this they are putting their product out of range for many customers.

    WordPress have voiced their view that all design elements should be GPL because a product is unusable if they aren’t included. Though the design part seems to be the only part developers can protect and release outside of the GPL from a legal point of view. I can see both sides to this.

    The one thing I don’t like is theme stores charging to have a footer link removed.

    REPLY
  • Yup, I think that the system has a delicate balance, and really depends on both sides playing fair and honest.

    First, developers need to charge a fair price – both for individual and developer licenses. If they don’t, customers are going to buy the cheap license (or worse, download it elsewhere for free) and do what they want with it.

    Second, customers need to respect the fair prices and pay for the product. If they don’t, the developer won’t be able to fund continuing development of the project, and everyone loses. The availability and breadth of quality code decreases. And WordPress would suffer in the long run if developers can no longer make a profit – they’d find something else.

    The GPL is partially what made WordPress so successful, and it should be respected. But it’s also the community’s willingness to pay for premium GPL themes and plugins that keeps the ecosystem thriving and continues to boost WordPress’s popularity (paying customers -> attracts more developers -> accelerates progress / increases popularity -> good for WordPress). Remove any component and the system falls behind, if not apart.

    Also, I think you’re right that a developer/multiuse license (available at a discount) is critical. It’s something that CodeCanyon is lacking, though they’ve promised to revisit the issue (see http://codecanyon.net/forums/thread/any-update-on-multiusedeveloper-or-volume-licenses/54130 if you’re interested). I hope they do so sooner rather than later.

    Time for me to dismount from the soap box and get some work done. Thanks for the thoughtful article, Kevin :)

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    No problem Chris. I think it’s something that needs to be discussed. I purchase a lot of plugins and themes though I also plan on releasing products in future, so I am keen to know what both sides think of this. Hopefully more users and developers can give their view on the subject.

    You make a good point of charging a fair price. I don’t think it’s in anyones interest for a good premium theme or plugin developer to go out of business.

    I’d personally love to see a lot of theme and plugin developers offering no support for their cheapest option and charge a fee for those who need support. Support takes up a lot of developers time and many customers don’t need support so this could beneficial for everyone.

    REPLY
  • At http://CyberChimps.com our themes actually follow the GPL, give credit where it is due, and can be used on multiple websites without extra fees.

    While we do make it easier to remove the link back to our theme with the paid version, anyone can easily remove the link in the footer in the free versions of our themes by removing a file, or removing a line of code.

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Good to hear Trent. That’s a good compromise i.e. allowing all users to remove the link but keeping the link initially with those who download it for free.

    REPLY
  • Hi Kevin,

    All Themes listed above are 100% GPL. Please note that GPL does allow multiple license which means that Theme author can combine one or more licenses along with GPL. Which means that any GPL-Compatible license is acceptable. Link can or cannot be part of that, depends on the license used.

    P.S. GNU is blackout, sorry for not providing some links here.

    Cheers,
    Emil

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Actually GPL does not allow multiple licenses.

    As per WordPress developer Mark Jaquith’s quote (which is noted in full in my article):

    A limitation on how many
    sites can use a theme would be an obvious violation of the GPL

    REPLY
  • I don’t think that you understood what I meant to say and it’s quite all right, no harm done.

    If you’re submitting a Theme to wordpress.org let’s say, you are releasing a Theme under GPL or GPL-Compatible, however you can license your JS under GPL and MIT for example. That my friend is multiple license release.

    And from:
    http://codex.wordpress.org/Theme_Review#Licensing

    Themes are required to be 100% GPL-licensed, or use a GPL-compatible license. This includes all PHP, HTML, CSS, images, fonts, icons, and everything else. All of the theme must be GPL-Compatible.

    Emil

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Sorry Emil. You’re right – all themes submitted to the WordPress directory have to be GPL compliant.

    You said that all themes listed above – however the theme stores I mentioned in my article are violating the license. Also, any website or store that submits a theme to the WordPress directory must make all their themes GPL compliant. I’m not going to name names but some are breaking this rule.

    REPLY
  • There’s nothing to be sorry about :) This is very touchy area and I try to stay away from. I am one of the guys from http://make.wordpress.org/themes/about/wptrt-members/ and we had small discussion about this post on our list just to clarify few things for Theme auhors. I am sure that someone else will put their inputs as well.

    Cheers,
    Emil

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Yes it’s certainly a touchy subject. It’s almost 18 months since the topic was first brought to the attention of most users however many theme stores are still restricting what customers can do with theme.

    I don’t profess to know all the answers. Obviously anything official has to come from WordPress. I don’t think pointing the finger are those who violate the rules works either. As I said, it’s about educating theme developers and making sure they realise that they won’t lose out by being GPL compliant.

    REPLY
  • You’re absolutely correct:
    (cached version to bypass SOPA http://goo.gl/5CgLn)

    2. Basic Permissions.
    This License explicitly affirms your unlimited permission to run the unmodified Program.

    Just with this alone there can’t be any restrictions on how many sites user can run/install a Theme.

    Emil

    REPLY
  • Plugins do not necessarily have to be GPL, actually. It depends on the plugin and the specific code in question.

    “Derivative” is a tricky thing. It is almost impossible to make a WordPress theme which would not be derivative of WordPress’s code in some manner. It would certainly be possible (and rather easy if you think about it a bit) to make a plugin that is not derivative of WordPress.

    A plugin does not necessarily need to be a derivative of WordPress, and so it doesn’t need to be GPL, per se. I can name several plugins that are demonstrably not derivative of WP.

    However, anything in the WordPress.org directory must be 100% GPL-compatible.

    REPLY
  • Darren

    And many are still busy copying others code. like templatic. who sells broken themes and have no lost respect in wordpress community.

    Their support staff has not experience how to handle it and when hard question asked, they goes abusive.

    Most of their themes are not even WP 3.0 menu compatible and still they claims we are ready with WP 3.0.

    They uses the pirated codes downloaded from sharing sites and using their themes, Google detects it as a malware.

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    I wasn’t aware of that. Can you post more details about this in the forum. Specifically, which theme was it you bought etc. I can try and help you improve the theme and make add menu capabilities etc :)

    REPLY
  • Actually we (WPZOOM) are not limiting a user to use any of our themes on a single domain.
    There was an incorrect update to our Pricing static page, and it took this article to notice it :)

    We (WPZOOM) have adopted GPL a long time ago.

    REPLY
  • Great post about a confusing topic, Kevin!
    couldn’t premium theme shops develop a functionality plugin that would have an domain or user specific API key for example, restricting the additional functionality that they developed for their themes? that way, someone who pirates the theme would not have the full functionality.
    for example, when you purchase an elegant themes membership, you get access to their plugin that unlocks theme options for example. there are already theme options plugins out there, so coupling them with an API key would be feasible I believe.

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Good to hear Dumitru. I’ll update the article accordingly :)

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    As a customer, I would hate to have to activate a plugin in order to use a design. I think this moves away from the freedom that WordPress is supposed to give you.

    I would prefer if no restrictions were there but the theme company only gave support, documentation, tutorials, additional resources etc to those that have purchased.

    REPLY
  • Honesty is the key for winning this problem, but I’m also sure that most programmers of new WP Themes have never read the GNU General Public License, or they don’t know what is that.

    Consider that almost the 95% of the themes for sale, and also some free for the Footer links, don’t follow any rule, earning a lot of money by passing rules.

    Thanks for this article, it is illuminating.
    I’ve found you on Twitter, this is a quality blog to follow!

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    Glad you like the site Alessandro.

    I think it’s in the interests of theme stores to work with WordPress and be compliant with rules etc.

    REPLY
  • rasamalai

    Hi there!

    How neat to fin a Scottish living in Colombia! :)

    I have a WP blog and don’t know any coding, so I use plugins, recently I added an editor that immediately added a huge green flashy banner on top of mine! It seemed that the text on it could be customized but after several tries it didn’t allow me to change anything, let alone remove it.

    I sometimes wish there was a report to WP button that would remove such plugins from their directory.

    Hoping not to offend anyone!

    Warm greetings from México, Claudia Liliana/rasamalai

    REPLY
  • Kevin Muldoon (Admin)

    @rasamalai What plugin was that? That sounds like something that needs to be removed from the directory.

    REPLY
  • rasamalai

    @Kevin Muldoon Hi there! I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I’ve looked for the plugin again and haven’t able to find it. It was some kind of editor, I wanted to be able to change the fonts in my blog-posts.

    I will look it up again and post the exact name as soon as I’m able to.try them again.

    I messed up my website, it crashes when I add plugins to it. As soon as I fix it I’ll search for it again :)

    REPLY
  • rasamalai

    @Kevin Muldoon

    Hi there! I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I’ve looked for the plugin again and haven’t been able to find it. It was some sort of editor, I wanted to be able to change the fonts in my blog-posts.

    I will look it up again and post the exact name as soon as I’m able to.try them again.

    I messed up my website, it crashes when I add plugins to it. As soon as I fix it or figure out how to move it I’ll search for it again :)

    REPLY
  • BrisbaneLister

    Good article Kevin.
    I am not a lawyer, but I have had a few court cases with major corporations over the years.
    In Australia, as I assume in most “common law” Jurisdictions, there is a law that states that “no one can sign away their rights at law”. [I found out this one when I signed a shop lease I wanted out of. I eventually got a big payout.]
    What this basically means is that no one can be held to an unlawful contract.
    An example is bank fees. You sign an agreement with a bank that charges you bank fees. Yo pay those fees. But are they lawful? If not you can ask for your money back.
    In the case of charging for multiple uses of a WordPress theme, Appthemes used to do this, but changed a while ago.
    In the case of Themeforest I have always wondered about this. The fact is, the theme cannot work unless it has WordPress,, and uses PHP, HTML, and CSS,  or Javascript /Ajax, all open source or open standard code or standards.
    If you read Theme Forest  license blurb, the list instances that would be made using RIA applications, which are basically defunct, or un needed. Eg, Flash.
    Most themes sold don’t use any of these, so its dishonest to include them in the agreement, if they don’t exist in reality.
    Because they use other people’s images and graphics, icons etc, from others and give credit for them.
    Some themes sold on Theme Forest even require other free code [such as Woothemes e-commerce
    So I think they are irrelevant for most if not all themes in my opinion.
    I have bought themes from Themeforest, but have never used the same theme twice, but if I wanted to, I would. What is the worst that can happen?
     
    PS. Nothing wrong with a Scot in The Americas. After all, wasn’t Columbus actually a Scot by birth? According to some historians who were puzzled by the fact that he was blonde dug into the records and say he was in fact born in Scotland!
     

    REPLY
  • I bought a plugin that came packaged with a premium theme. I didn’t pay extra for the theme. While I don’t have access to the theme support forum, I was told by the plugin seller that I could use the theme on WordPress websites that I sell to my clients. Is this correct under the GPL?

    REPLY
  • I’ve always felt THEMES are a rip off because they in fact completely originate from wordpress themes. I just don’t see it being legit since it does break gpl. I can understand charging for web development but to slap PRICING on theme, for brand removal, and to enforce a site limit on whats FREE is not breaking gpl.

    REPLY
  • I believe the distinction between plugins and themes has blurred to the point of not even being indistinguishable. If a theme offers advanced functionality, Isn’t it well within its rights to use a split license for CSS and JS.

    REPLY
  • One thing i dont see addressed here and that for example,i would put a licencing restriction on.
    Is the fact of..multiple sites.

    Let me explain.

    Guy buys your theme,due to GPL he can use it on all his sites.
    Though,does this also alow him to re-sell the theme for customers he has?
    (he uses your theme as base and edits it and sells it to his customer in WP installation)
    Does GPL allow this?

    Because i think there should be a strict rule on the meaning of Multi-sites.

    I would be all fine with selling my theme to a guy with a couple of sites,but not him selling it again in any way or order.

    REPLY

Add Your Voice: