I suppose that, by now, most of you have read or at least heard about this post on the WordPress Blog. If you haven’t; it deals with Matt Mullenweg‘s (Matt is that WordPress guy yes) appeal to the Software Freedom Law Center to clarify some issues/answer some questions around the GPL and WordPress themes conversation.
The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or simply GPL) is a widely used free software license, originally written by Richard Stallman for the GNU project. The GPL is the most popular and well-known example of the type of strong copyleft license that requires derived works to be available under the same copyleft. Under this philosophy, the GPL grants the recipients of a computer program the rights of the free software definition and uses copyleft to ensure the freedoms are preserved, even when the work is changed or added to. This is in distinction to permissive free software licenses, of which the BSD licenses are the standard examples.
Basically, the GPL is a bill of rights that tries to ensure that open source remains open source (a very broad description) and anything released under GPL may only be re-released as GPL without limitations to the original license. So if I were (for argument’s sake) to download WordPress, I may use and modify it in any way that I see fit. If I decide to modify it and re-release it, I may only do so under GPL again. So, as the WordPress post explains, it follows that themes that I create for WordPress are bound by the same rule, simply because everything I create is made possible by the WordPress core; thus becoming a modification/extension thereof – the CSS and design work will be exempt from this ruling, because that will not form part of the WordPress core; my site will also function without CSS and pretty pictures. I MAY NOT release it under a different or more restrictive license (Creative Commons for instance) – essentially it remains the property of the public domain.
The GPL also does not prevent anyone from charging for modified versions – as someone jokingly put it yesterday: you can actually sell the WordPress software to anyone stupid enough to buy it from you (stupid because they can download it for free), but I am sure someone will comment here and disagree with that statement. This also means that I may buy a premium theme, copy the code verbatim, slap my own design/CSS on it and resell it as my own theme (not something that I will actually do and there will surely be some restrictions as far as the markup is concerned).
So far I have been talking about WordPress and the whole debate around GPL, but what of other open source projects/software. Some years ago we saw the birth of Joomla as a consequence of a licensing debacle around Mambo. Joomla became very popular (especially in South Africa) for quite a while, but as it’s popularity grew, it became a pain in the butt for web designers/developers; not because of licensing, but due to end users. Once people know that you get the software for free, they want you to work on and maintain it for free. How many times have I heard complaints from bloggers that they shouldn’t be paying THAT MUCH for a theme for their personal blog? How many times have I been approached by organisations that expect you to do a Joomla freebie? How many times do you have to hand someone a Linux distro, only to start receiving phone calls from people who now have technical questions or queries that they need assistance with and are not willing to pay for the support of a free product?
I think that, for starters, end users need to be educated as to what exactly open source means – it doesn’t necessarily mean FREE. Somewhere someone needs to get paid for their efforts. The open source community thrives, simply because every useful platform has some potential for being monetized. We might not always see or understand the revenue model, but it is there or else people would lose interest. Some projects might just be a means to an end, but follow the trail … eventually it will lead you to the money. Further to this, students in Information Technology, multimedia and web should be introduced to licensing and the options available to ensure that they do not violate others’ rights due to ignorance.
So what of WordPress and premium themers then? Premium themes have been given the thumbs up (as stated, you are allowed to charge), but will need to release the code for their themes under the same GPL (or no license at all) – this has in fact always been the case; I think that Matt’s post simply makes official what a lot of us have felt for a long time. I believe that the community will continue to go from strength to strength and that there will be an incentive to develop and share knowledge for this platform for a very long time still. The community is growing exponentially and I think that we can be sure to see more people giving back to the community that nurtured them and helped them expand their skills base. If you don’t believe me, go have yourself a look at the WordPress support forums.
WordPress provides us with such a solid foundation, that it has instilled enough confidence in developers to create spin-offs like BuddyPress (a full blown social networking “plugin” for WordPress Multi User) and bbPress (an open source forum platform that also integrates with WPMU and BuddyPress).
So, to answer my own question then … Does the GPL debate go beyond just WordPress themes? It certainly does. The stance that Matt Mullenweg has taken and is defending passionately, is one that I would like to see adopted by all users of open source products on all levels – it is time that we check where we stand morally, adopt the share-and-share-alike attitude and not impinge on others’ rights if the community is to keep on thriving and providing us with powerful tools for FREE. WordPress also sends out a strong message and sets a fine example of how an open source project can be successful if you stick to your guns … we applaud you Matt Mullenweg!!!