WordPress Community Contributors and the Spirit of the GPL

UPDATE:  See the end of the post for recent updates.

An interesting discussion has been going on in the WordPress community about the WordPress Foundation‘s rules (and enforcement thereof) that pertains to those who speak at or volunteer at WordCamp conferences (see Representing WordPress). Particularly in question is this requirement:

Embrace the WordPress licenseIf distributing WordPress-derivative works (themes, plugins, WP distros), any person or business should give their users the same freedoms that WordPress itself provides. Note: this is one step above simple compliance, which requires PHP code to be GPL/compatible but allows proprietary licenses for JavaScript, CSS, and images. 100% GPL or compatible is required for promotion at WordCamps when WordPress-derivative works are involved, the same guidelines we follow on WordPress.org.

Late last week, Jake Caputo was told that he is not allowed to help out with WordCamps, because he actively sells themes on the ThemeForest marketplace. ThemeForest, owned by Envato (who also owns CodeCanyon, WPTuts+, Rockable Press, and others) requires theme authors to sell their themes with a split license – part GPL and part proprietary. Based on the Foundation’s rules, this might follow the letter of the GPL license, but does not live up to the spirit of the GPL – disqualifying Jake from helping out.

Throughout the ensuing discussion, it was apparent that Envato does not plan to offer an option for authors to license their themes with a 100% GPL license and the Foundation is not willing to budge on Jake’s exclusion as long as he sells his theme with Envato’s required split license.  Matt Mullenweg did indicate that, if Envato had the option of a full GPL license and Jake chose it, that he would be in compliance with the rule – a point that was earlier questioned as the initial statement from the Foundation seemed vague.

Digging through the comments – and leaving a few myself – I want to point out two things of note:

  1. Matt has stated that, should ThemeForest developers become compliant either by choosing a 100% GPL license (if it were offered by ThemeForest) or by selling their themes elsewhere with a full GPL license, they would immediately be in compliance with the rules and welcome to help out with WordCamps. I think it is important to repeat that this is not a permanent ban.
  2. Matt has also stated (on Twitter), that if he or any of the big names in WordPress (specifically mentioning @nacin and @mikelittlezed1) were to violate the guidelines, that they shouldn’t speak or sponsor WordCamps.

Throughout the course of the past two days, I’ve seen several contributors question whether their other ventures constitute a failure to comply with the rule and whether or not they would be receiving similar notice.

In principle, I agree with the Foundation’s stance. Their goal is “to further the mission of the WordPress open source project: to democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software.” To do so, they intend to hold to a higher standard (the spirit of GPL) the people who represent the Foundation and who help with WordCamps. It is an extremely admirable goal.

My main issue, after much conversation on the topic, is the extremely hard-line stance by the Foundation in the rule’s enforcement. Granted, I do not know the entire history to this situation. My hope and expectation is that there would be warnings and an effort to work especially with someone who has contributed to WordCamps several times in order to bring them up to par with the rules.

Simply cutting someone off is not a good way to spread your message. The message is good, but if you turn people off to it, that doesn’t matter.

I’ve only released one work publicly and it is released on the GPL. I hope to release many more in the future and I intend to do the same. As Matt has pointed out, there are fully GPL-compliant marketplaces out there – including those noted on the Commercially Supported GPL Themes page on WordPress.org.  The appeal of ThemeForest for many theme authors, however, is that there is a readily available audience ready for the product. That may or may not – yet – be the case on other markets.

In the words of LeVar Burton … “but you don’t have to take my word for it” …

Some other opinion pieces on the matter (I’m noting things here that have come across my path, I am not specifically trying to exclude anyone or highlight particular viewpoints):

And then there’s Aaron Campbell’s commentary on Why We Love the GPL. “Idealistic Capitalist” … I like it.

Update – February 28, 2013

Envato conducted a survey about licensing among their users and published a subset of the results that specifically relating to GPL. Based on the results of the survey, they have decided to make a 100% GPL option available for authors on Theme Forest.

Jake Caputo has also noted that he has again been invited to participate in WordCamps.

1 Comment


  1. I’m closing comments here as I’m not really intending this post to be a discussion on the topic – more a roundup of what I’ve seen as a general overview for those just jumping into the issue.

    I’d rather the discussions stay at the original posts on Jake’s and WPDaily’s sites (see links above).

Comments are closed.