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The Ethics Of Forking A WordPress Project

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Yesterday I spoke about the issues that arose when WooThemes changed the terms of it’s club membership prices. The upcoming changes in prices are mainly due to the release of their new plugin WooCommerce and the increased level of support that they need to provide for it.

WooCommerce is a fork of the eCommerce plugin Jigoshop. Since it’s release I have thought a lot about the ethics of forking a WordPress project.

There is no denying that forking, permitted under the GNU General Public License, has helped WordPress become what it is today. Many plugins started their life as a fork of another WordPress project (Even WordPress itself began as a fork from the blogging platform B2 Cafelog). This commonly happens when the original developer no longer supports or updates the original plugin or when someone wants to take the project in a completely different direction.

This isn’t really the case with WooCommerce and Jigoshop. WooCommerce did add some improvements to the plugin such as improved reporting, built in HTML email templates and a revised coupon system. Though having reviewed Jigoshop a few months ago, I don’t believe that the changes are that substantial. Perhaps I would feel differently if I used Jigoshop actively though the changes seemed more cosmetic rather a major change in the product.

It’s also worth remembering that Jigoshop is still actively developed. The project is well documented and there is a support forum for users too.

Forking Ethics

As I am not a developer, I am not sure how valid my opinion is on this whole situation, so please bear in mind that my opinion is based as someone on the outside looking in.

I can’t however help but feel that if I was a Jigoshop developer, I would be incredibly unhappy with the development and subsequent release of WooCommerce. They released their Jigoshop eCommerce plugin for free to the WordPress community but they supported their development costs by releasing premium themes and extensions. In my opinion Jigoshop was the best eCommerce plugin available for WordPress. Now users have to choose whether to use the original Jigoshop or use WooCommerce, which boasts 4 or 5 additional features.

More importantly, users have to decide whether to purchase a theme through Jigoshop or WooCommerce. When you consider that WooCommerce has over 45,000 club members, 107+ themes, a well established brand name and huge amounts of traffic; you realise that this isn’t a fair fight. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jigoshop are going to lose a lot of potential customers to WooThemes.

Have WooThemes did anything wrong though? Under the GPL license we are all allowed to take an existing WordPress theme or plugin and develop it into a different/better product. I think that this situation is different because of how Jigoshop made money through their plugin. They could only afford to develop and maintain such a great plugin by selling related commercial products such as themes, extensions and premium support. This is where WooThemes are going to hit them hard. Perhaps existing customers will stay loyal to Jigoshop but their business model is set up to make money from new customers. That is to say, they don’t have a membership option, therefore they generate money by selling themes individually to new users.

From a GPL point of view, WooThemes have done nothing wrong. In fact, by building upon a successful product already they are saving themselves a huge amount of time and energy. And forking is something they had to do as if they simply released child themes for Jigoshop they wouldn’t have complete control over how things worked and wouldn’t be able to modify designs for their members.

I still can’t help but feel that if I had developed a product for years, one which my income depended on selling related products for, I would be seething if a premium theme store adapted it in this manner. Particularly if that theme store had a bigger brand name, more traffic and more staff (It reminds me of top football clubs who poach new players from the lower leagues). The money, time and energy that were invested in the project could be lost.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

There are thousands of plugins in the WordPress directory that began their lives as forks of another plugin. This is generally a good thing especially when developers take on a project because the original developer no longer supports it or if they are able to adapt the plugin in a very specific way. I can’t remember coming across a situation like this before though i.e. where the developer who developed a fork of a plugin directly affects the income of the original developer.

This is perhaps a downside to the General Public License. Or perhaps not, as surely competition is healthy when the end result is an improved product for the WordPress community. Live by the sword and die by the sword!

What’s your opinion on forking? Is everything fair game under the General Public License?

Thanks,
Kevin

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Comments (5)

Comment by Muneeb says:

I think it’s fair because the Woocommerce is also a gpl plugin and anyone can fork it and create there own product based on it.

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

I agree Nicholas. WordPress users definitely win out of this as Woo have added to an already impressive ecommerce solution.

I was trying to understand how I would react in this situation if a product I developed suddenly had competition etc.

Comment by Nicholas says:

As was mentioned in the post, WordPress itself was a fork. So unless it is stated in the GPL that a fork can only be made in absence of continued support of the original or under such and such a scenario. Are we to judge under which circumstances a fork occurs?

Jigoshop knew their project could be forked and moved in a new direction. Whether they thought anyone would do so, or whether they thought a large player like Woo would be the one to do it, is another matter.

Woo made a business decision that they see as being best for themselves and their customers. Reading Adii Pienaar’s blog gives insight into the direction Woo is going and why they forked Jigo. See: http://adii.me/2011/09/the-wordpress-ecosystem/

All in all, it seems Jigoshop are happy with where they are headed and so are Woo. We as customers/users win because we now have both quality and choice to choose from, and that is never a bad thing. So while the forking issue is contentious, it seems to be bringing positives to the community more than negatives.

Comment by Kevin Muldoon says:

Hi Dan,

Thanks for replying. It’s good to hear your point of view on this subject. As I noted before, I’m not a developer so I have an outside view of this type of thing.

I wasn’t aware that you have a genesis theme for Jigoshop. Working with other developers is a great way of promoting Jigoshop to new users.

It really is refreshing to see your positive reaction to all of this. This was one aspect of GPL that I wasn’t sure how it affected the parties involved. My opinion on the whole subject isn’t yet formulated as I know I’m not aware of all the facts.

I’m looking forward to seeing how both products develop in the future.

Thanks again for your contribution :)

Kevin

Comment by Dan Thornton says:

Hi Kevin,
Nice post, and it’s certainly been interesting being part of the debate over the GPL Licence and forking.
By licensing Jigoshop under GPL, it allows for forking which can have a positive or negative effect on each party involved – positive in terms of developer freedom, and potentially negative on splitting the userbase. However, the benefits of allowing input and development of Jigoshop from all interested parties has meant that we’re able to evolve and improve the core product quickly and effectively, so it’s worth the trade off.

I suspect the two products will increasingly diverge in the future, and certainly we’re concentrating on our own product – there’s a large number of themes and additional features on the way, and in terms of a comparison, WooThemes has 6 (If I remember rightly) commerce themes, compared to 5 internally developed, and 2 external themes for Jigoshop.

In terms of the userbase, Jigoshop already has around 20,000 downloads, and importantly, in addition to the existing themes available for Woo’s Canvas, we also have a Genesis theme for Jigoshop, and we’re working with a number of premium wordpress developers, in addition to those who have already created Jigoshop comaptible themes off their own back.

So rather than being unhappy, we’re actually really pleased with progress and determined to make Jigoshop even better – there will always be competition in the eCommerce space and we just need to make sure Jigoshop is the best in terms of functionality and support!

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