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There has been a lot of debate in the last few days about licensing and WordPress. The license WordPress is under controls what can be done with it, so it has a massive impact on the community and creating add-ons for WordPress.

In this post, I want to sum up all the debate so far for you, talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the current license, and then a thought on the end about premium themes and the absence of premium plugins.

A Quick Overview

WordPress is licensed under the GPL. In short, that means that you can copy any of the WordPress code, modify it, and distribute it yourself. But in return, you have to distribute it under the GPL license as well.

The recent debate all sparked off when Daniel Jalkut wrote Getting Pretty Lonely, where he made a convincing argument for using a more open license than the GPL.

The difference between the GPL and the licenses he recommends is that when you modify the code, you can distribute it under any license you like (Even a commercial one).

Strengths of the GPL

The GPL license works well because it ensures that when a developer contributes code to WordPress, they have the peace of mind that their code will always remain under a license they believe in.

It also protects the long-term lifespan of WordPress. What would have happened if Matt had gotten bored of the project 5 years ago? Would WordPress have gone down as a 1-year experiment and we’d all be on Movable Type?

No, the GPL means that any other developer can pick up the reins and carry it on. That’s how WordPress came to be in the first place; Matt and a few others picked up the reins of another GPL project that had died when its original developer disappeared.

Why Use Another License?

The GPL isn’t flawless either. Under the GPL, all works based on the project must also be licensed under the GPL. But just as this is the strength of the GPL for some, it is also a big hindrance for others.

Consider the premium themes market; themes are a part of WordPress, so do they fall under the GPL?

To answer that question, Matt has asked the Software Freedom Law Center to investigate. Their findings were that the PHP code in the themes does, but the artwork and CSS doesn’t.

Now, there is a big difference between a law firm saying this and a judge saying it, but if a judge were to rule this way, then the PHP code of every theme available would legally have to be licensed under the GPL. And that applies to all themes, whether paid or free.

And that’s just one example. The bigger issue is WordPress itself. With a more free license, then a developer could take WordPress itself and do anything he liked with it, e.g. What if a web developer could take it, re-brand it, and sell it (or just give it) on as a custom CMS to his clients?

Or what if Matt and the other community leaders made a few decisions that the community wasn’t happy with? What can we do then? With a more free license, the answer is simple; anything we want.

So Which Should We Use?

So, was the GPL the best license for WordPress, or is free-er better?

In my opinion, WordPress and the GPL have done great together. The community that has built up around WordPress is second to none, and a large part of that is thanks to the peace of mind that the GPL gives to developers.

Their contributions are safe, no-one is going to make sneaky money off their work, and if they disagree with the leadership, they’re always welcome to branch off into their own project.

WordPress is GPL. Matt could not believe any more strongly in the GPL, and after 6 years, WordPress has grown to become by far the biggest blogging (CMS?) platform out there. It’s hard to say that the GPL has been holding us back when you look at the success WordPress has had.

But could that be put to the test?

WordPress has a huge advantage over any new competitors because of the community behind it. But when WordPress began, Movable Type had all the community.

MaisonBisson.com wrote a great article titled Why Freedom Matters, which explains how “Movable Type was ‘free enough.’,” to build a community around and it prospered for a few years. But then WordPress came along.

So if the GPL really is holding WordPress back, maybe in a few years time we’ll be reading an article on how “WordPress was free enough”, until something better came.

But for now, WordPress is free, has a fantastic community, and the development is going strong so I’m sticking with it. What about you?

Premium Themes vs. Premium Plugins

One thing that came out of this all is that WordPress.org now features premium themes which are 100% GPL (PHP, CSS and all).

I then read a post on Webmaster Source which asks the questions; what about plugins? Matt points out that premium theme authors are able to charge a fortune for their themes, but plugin developers are left to virtually non-existent donations.

There are a lot of great plugins out there. Some do charge money, but the vast majority don’t. Perhaps it is just the culture of charging for work hasn’t penetrated the plugin community yet (In the same way it hadn’t in the theme community until a year or two ago), or is it something else?

If some of the plugins I use introduced a fee tomorrow, I don’t think I’d have any choice but to pay up (At least until I found an alternative). My site is completely dependent on some of those plugins, as are most WordPress blogs.

But swapping from a free plugin to a paid one is a big change and at the very best, is going to annoy your users. At the worst, they won’t be users for much longer. Why should they have to pay for something they’ve gotten for free all along?

A better solution for making the transition might be to keep the current version free (That way, no-one is losing out on what they currently have), but put your new features into a premium version. If a user loves your plugin and wants to get more from it, then they can pay for it.

Of course, that all depends on the GPL license permitting it.

What are your thoughts on this all? Is the GPL restrictive, or is it an advantage to WordPress? And what should the plugin developers do to start getting a better deal? I’d love to hear some good discussion on this.

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