Part 6/Chapter 42

The Spirit of the GPL

By early 2013, the GPL discussion had slowed. Not everyone liked it, but most accepted that the WordPress project would only support 100% GPL products. Many were surprised by a sudden flare-up around not just GPL legalities, but the “spirit” of the license. In a 2008 interview, Jeff Chandler asked Matt about the spirit of the GPL. Matt said that the spirit of the GPL is about user empowerment, about the four freedoms: to use, distribute, modify, and distribute modifications of the software. Software distributed with these four freedoms is in the spirit of the GPL. WordPress was created and distributed in this spirit, giving users full freedom.

The Software Freedom Law Center’s opinion gives developers a loophole around themes — one that helps them achieve GPL compliance — but denies the same freedoms as WordPress. PHP in themes must be GPL, but the CSS, images, and JavaScript do not have to be GPL. This is how Thesis released with a split license — the PHP was GPL; the remaining code and files were proprietary. This split license ensures GPL-compliance, but does not embrace the GPL’s driving user-freedom ethos.

The loophole may have kept theme sellers GPL-compliant, but WordPress.org rejected that approach. In a 2010 interview, Matt said “in the philosophy there are no loopholes: you’re either following the principles of it or you’re not, regardless of what the specific license of the language is.” WordPress supports theme sellers that sell themes with a 100% GPL license. Those who aren’t 100% GPL receive no promotion on WordPress.org or on official resources.

In early 2013, ThemeForest — Envato’s theme marketplace — came under scrutiny. Envato runs blogs and marketplaces that sell everything from WordPress themes and plugins, themes for other CMSs, to photographs, videos, and illustrations. WordPress is just one aspect of their business, though a significant one, and ever-growing. Envato became GPL-compliant in 2009 by releasing their themes with two licenses: GPL for the PHP, and a proprietary license for the remaining files and code.

ThemeForest has long been a popular choice for individual theme sellers. It offers exposure and access to a huge user community. As the theme shop marketplace saturated, it became more and more difficult for new theme sellers to break through.

Theme shops like StudioPress, WooThemes, and Elegant Themes dominate the market. ThemeForest offers everything a theme seller needs: hosting, sales tools, ecommerce, and a shop front. People can sell themes without the set-up work that can steal so much time. Theme sellers make good money out of selling on ThemeForest. As early as December 2011, Envato announced its first theme seller to make a million dollars in theme sales.

In January 2013, ThemeForest author Jake Caputo received an email from Andrea Middleton (andreamiddleton) at WordCamp Central. He was told that, as a ThemeForest author, he was not allowed to participate at official WordPress events. Jake had already spoken at two WordCamps, had plans to speak at a third, and was helping to organize WordCamp Chicago.

The issue was over theme licensing and WordCamp’s guidelines. WordCamps are official WordPress events that come with the WordPress Foundation’s seal of approval. Organizers, volunteers, and speakers must fully embrace the GPL — going beyond GPL compliance to pass on all WordPress’ freedoms to users. The guidelines state that organizers, volunteers, and speakers must:

Embrace the WordPress license. If 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.

ThemeForest vendors had only the split license, in which the PHP was GPL and the CSS, JavaScript, and images fell under a proprietary license. For Jake to become 100% GPL, he would have to stop selling on ThemeForest and find a new outlet for his themes. This meant losing access to the more than two million ThemeForest members — not to mention a significant portion of his income.

WordCamp Central’s actions angered some community members; some thought it was unfair to ask theme sellers to give up their livelihood simply to speak at a WordCamp. Others supported WordPress.org; they believed the stance consistent with the GPL.

On both sides, people were frustrated for ThemeForest’s authors. While the issue had little influence on the powers-that-be at WordPress or Envato, theme authors stuck in the middle suffered. With only the split license at Themeforest, they had one choice — jeopardize their short-term livelihood by moving off ThemeForest.

The argument raged in the comments of Jake’s blog, spiralling to other WordPress community blogs, and to the ThemeForest forums. Matt joined the discussion on Jake’s blog, saying that if ThemeForest authors had a choice about licensing and could release their theme under the GPL, then “Envato would still be breaking the guideline, but Jake wouldn’t, so it’d be fine for Jake to be involved with WordCamps.”

Collis Ta’eed, CEO of Envato, responded on WP Daily, [footnote]WP Daily has since been acquired and its content moved to Torque magazine.[/footnote] outlining Envato’s licensing model rationale. As a designer, Collis’ main concern is protecting his designers’ rights, while ensuring that customers can use the resources they purchase.

As with so many disagreements in the WordPress community, it came down to a difference in emphasis. While the WordPress project emphasizes user freedoms, Envato emphasizes creators’ rights. Both felt strongly that they had the moral imperative, and backing down meant violating the principles that underpinned their organization. The WordPress project places user freedoms over and above every thing else. If this meant excluding theme authors who sold on ThemeForest, then so be it.

Collis, on the other hand, wanted to make sure that theme authors felt confident that their themes were safe from piracy. He was also worried about having a GPL option for authors. He wrote, “I worry that external pressures will force an increasing number of our authors to change their license choice, some happily, some not.” Having just one (split) license meant that authors wouldn’t be forced into that situation.

From the project’s perspective, theme authors could choose to sell their themes on ThemeForest, or sell their themes under the WordPress community’s ethos (and thus speak at WordCamps). In a podcast on WP Candy, Jake said he didn’t feel he had a choice about where to sell his themes. ThemeForest had become such an important part of his income that he would have to forfeit that income if he moved elsewhere. After the podcast, Collis wrote a second post on WP Daily, in which he said:

I think I’ve been wrong in my stance. I would like to change that stance, and feel that ThemeForest should offer an option for authors, if they choose, to sell their themes with a GPL license covering the entirety of the theme.

Collis surveyed ThemeForest authors to gauge support for a GPL opt-in option. “I felt pretty guilty that our authors were paying some sort of price for selling with us, that felt pretty wrong,” says Collis. The results showed that verified authors were split; some said they would license their themes under the GPL, the same number said they would stick with the split license, and 35% said that they didn’t know which license they’d choose. On March 26, Collis announced a 100%-GPL license for ThemeForest authors. Jake was once again allowed to speak at WordCamps.