Part 5/Chapter 31

Themes Are GPL Too

As the project transformed, so did the wider economy around WordPress. When Brian Gardner released the Revolution theme under the GPL in late 2008, theme developers watched with curiosity to see how it would influence his business, as it seemed counterintuitive to give a product away.

As theme authors watched and waited, commercial theme licensing came to a head. Toward the end of 2008, 200 themes were pulled from the WordPress theme repository. A statement was added to the About page of the Theme Directory that said, “All themes are subject to review. Themes for sites that support ‘premium’ (non-GPL or compatible) themes will not be approved.” This meant that the Theme Directory no longer allowed free GPL themes that linked back to the site of a premium theme seller, whether the themes they sold were GPL or not.

Premium theme developers and the wider community were annoyed. What was the problem with theme authors selling themes? The themes hosted on the Theme Directory were free and complied with the GPL. As so often in the past, people conflated the actions of WordPress.org with Automattic and the company came under fire. Some perceived theme removal as a sign that Automattic didn’t want anyone making money.

The theme sellers were genuinely unhappy. Their themes were pulled without warning. Many theme sellers saw their free theme releases as a way of supporting the free software community, and spent considerable time ensuring that they met the theme repository’s standards. They felt as though a rug had been pulled from underneath them: they’d done their best to comply with WordPress.org standards, but suddenly it wasn’t enough.

An email from Matt made the rounds in the community:

Thanks for emailing me about the theme directory. The other day I noticed a ton of bad stuff had snuck in like lots of spammy SEO links, themes whose sites said you couldn’t modify them (which is a violation of the GPL), etc. Exactly the sort of stuff the theme directory was meant to avoid.

There were also a few that violated WP community guidelines, like the domain policy. So since Monday we’ve been clearing stuff out en mass. If you’re kosher with the GPL and don’t claim or promote otherwise on your site and your theme was removed, it was probably a mistake. Give us a week to catch up with the bad stuff and then drop a note.

In a podcast on Weblog Tools Collection, Matt discussed his position on the premium theme market (transcription). In the interview, he describes how, while updating a friend’s website, he was looking for WordPress themes in the directory. He found themes with SEO links or linked to SEO sites — behavior that the Theme Directory had been set up to avoid. The WordPress.org team questioned whether they wanted to allow GPL themes that only served as advertisements for non-GPL themes elsewhere.

In the interview, Matt discussed the distinction between “premium” and “free” themes, and the importance of correct labeling. When it comes to “premium” themes, Matt argued that the word “proprietary” makes more sense than “premium” or even “commercial.” GPL themes, such as Brian Gardner’s Revolution, could be commercial.

I love what Revolution has done, where they say ‘Ok, so we still sold the theme, and we still bundle the support and everything like that with it, but it’s also available as GPL.’ So they’re able to, within the GPL framework, create a business and respect the underlying license of the community that they are building on top of.

Matt made it clear that theme developers were free to do what they wanted on their site, but the WordPress project was equally free to do what it wanted on WordPress.org, and that included whether it should or should not promote businesses that sold non-GPL WordPress products.

Part of the aim of the theme and plugin repositories is to promote theme and plugin developers. The project doesn’t want to promote theme developers who follow the license to get on WordPress.org, but then violate WordPress’ license elsewhere. So, theme sellers who sell non-GPL products outside of WordPress.org aren’t promoted on the site.

The interview delineated what WordPress.org would and would not support. People got an answer, whether they liked it or not. The storm calmed and cleared the way for 2009, when businesses started to embrace the GPL.

In the months following the debate, people wondered how to sustain a business under the GPL. As the first to embrace the license, Brian Gardner advised other premium theme sellers. In April 2009, Spectacu.la, the theme shop that first posted about themes being removed from the repo, announced that it was going fully GPL. It was followed in June by iThemes and WooThemes.

In July, Matt announced that he had contacted the Software Freedom Law Centre. They provided an opinion on theme licensing:

…the WordPress themes supplied contain elements that are derivative of WordPress’s copyrighted code. These themes, being collections of distinct works (images, CSS files, PHP files), need not be GPL-licensed as a whole. Rather, the PHP files are subject to the requirements of the GPL while the images and CSS are not. Third-party developers of such themes may apply restrictive copyrights to these elements if they wish.

WordPress themes are not a separate entity from WordPress itself. As Mark Jaquith wrote later, “As far as the code is concerned, they form one functional unit. The theme code doesn’t sit ‘on top of’ WordPress. It is within it, in multiple different places, with multiple interdependencies. This forms a web of shared data structures and code all contained within a shared memory space.”

Following that announcement, more theme sellers adopted the GPL license, though not all went 100% GPL (i.e., including CSS, images, and JavaScript). Envato, for example, whose marketplace, ThemeForest, was growing in popularity, opted for GPL compliance — with two licenses, in which the PHP was GPL, but the additional files were proprietary.

Themes that are packaged using this split license follow the GPL. The PHP carries a GPL license and other assets do not. The other elements — CSS, images, JavaScript, etc. — usually have some sort of proprietary license. This ensures legal compliance. It aims to protect author rights by removing the freedoms guaranteed by the GPL — the freedom to use, modify, and distribute modifications. Users are not free to do what they want with a theme licensed in such a way because the CSS and JavaScript are just as important to a theme as the PHP that interacts with WordPress’ internals. But it would be a number of years before this licensing debate would occur.