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The Licensing Implications of Premium Themes

October 1st, 2008 · 8 Comments · Release Notes

If you’re familiar with the Linux operating system, and its derivatives, you would most certainly be aware that Linux in itself is free. It’s both free in the sense that you’re free to build on the core operating system, and that much of the source code is open for anyone to see and modify. Freedom of speech free. It’s also free in that most distributions can be freely downloaded or distributed through various means. Free as in free beer.

This is the beauty of the GPL license through which Linux is released.

However, this does not preclude businesses and individuals from charging for support for Linux-related activities. For example, people can charge for installing Linux. People can charge for training your personnel in the use of Linux. People can charge for telephone, email, or chat support, and so on and so forth. So this means there is a business model that can be built on free.

And if you’re using WordPress, the very same license applies. This means that if you are to create software that is built on WordPress, then you would have to distribute it with the same license.

Does this apply to WordPress themes?

That is the question. And I think that’s the issue that has been brought about by the news that Brian Gardner’s Revolution theme is going open source.

Revolution is currently sold as a premium theme, which means you need a license to legally use it on your site (or sites, depending on how many licenses you acquire, or if you get the bulk license). Sure there are a lot of paid themes out there, but Revolution catches our eye because it’s made by none other than Brian Gardner, and it’s so darn great. And while the announcement that Revolution would shift to open source does not necessarily mean it’s because of WordPress license problem, but this is the glaring possibility that creators of premium themes are now facing.

In Brian’s own words:

I contacted Matt and Toni to see if they would be gracious enough to carve out some time to meet with us, so we could ensure that our business model was in compliance with standards set forth by the authors of the GPL license as well as with WordPress.

And commented by Thord Hedengren on the Blog Herald:

So does this mean that the current premium theme model, in which you pay for using a theme that might or might not inherit the GPL license of WordPress, is something that Automattic dislikes, and might even fight in the future? I’m reading between the lines here, and there’s been a lot of discussions around the blogosphere regarding premium themes and their legality, with no obvious consensus. While I’m not sure Automattic, or anyone else, could force a premium theme publisher to release their work as GPL just because it builds upon the GPL’d WordPress base, I personally wouldn’t want to fight about it, if it was my business model.

Premium WP themes usually come with author support. So if you paid for a theme, in most cases you are entitled to getting help from the creator. Could premium theme authors then argue that it is, in fact, this support that the users pay for, rather than the theme itself? It could be something like a subscription- or membership-based setup, where you gain XXX years support in exchange for YYY amount of money. No sir, we don’t sell the theme outright–it’s free, but you only pay for our help (now or in the future).

It’s something worth thinking about. For now, as for us behind Cutline (at least for those of us who have inherited updates and support for the theme) we’re not thinking of charging for support anytime soon. Anyway it’s part of our job to help users the best we can.

But think of it this way. Would you pay for a theme, or support (whichever way you want to look at it), if it would mean you can better implement a theme on your site, and installing, maintenance and updates would be smoother and easier?


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Revolution Going Open Source

    […] The Licensing Implications of Premium Themes Posted Wed, 1st Oct 2008 Tagged GPL, Open Source, Revolution, WordPress Elsewhere […]

  • Cuckoo

    I have 3 blogs and all have cutline 3 col. template. I have tweaked them to suit my requirements (col. width, comment form, header image/size, body color etc.) though I am NIL in CSS. Hard work
    does pay sometimes.

    I would request you to do something about fluid width template.

  • Eric

    I have no vested interest in the issue, but I sort of see themes like dynamic linking in Linux, and that you really are not altering the source code of WP propper, and therefore are not bound to use their copyright terms for your code. At least that is how I would see it.

  • S Feather

    The working theory has been that the license extends no further then hooks and APIs.

    As Eric mentioned, this is very similar to the driver issues we deal with in Linux. Is my Nvidia driver a bad thing or not because it is binary only.

    IANAL, but have no problem paying a designer for his work, even accepting the license restrictions he places on his work.

    The extreme would be to say that because WP is GPL, and the APIs are GPL, then the THEMEs must be GPL, and the GRAPHICs in the themes must be GPL (or CC). Where does it end?

    How about all the BASH scripts I’ve ever written on a Linux system?

    Licenses are limited in scope. The problem is when we try to define that scope.

  • ascetic

    still a bit confused about this GPL license related to wp themes as I am interested in making some premium themes myself. need to google for more info I guess.

    thanks for the article

  • Ganesh

    I’m exited about the release of the new completely free Revolution themes. I’d love to take a peek that them. 😉

  • Would You Consider Paying for Cutline Theme Support? | Cutline Theme for WordPress

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  • RJ

    Don’t be too excited, they are no longer FREE! That was only a publicity stunt to launch his newest site and theme designs, now they are all back to commercial license only. Way to piss off the people who helped you build your business in the first place Brian! Pathetic…

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