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Commercial Themes and the GPL

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For those not following the latest WordPress and GPL theme news lately, some big stuff has happened in the past week or so. First, iThemes announced they were going GPL, and WooThemes followed suit later in the week.

Some people reading this blog might have no idea what I’m talking about when I’m referring to GPL themes, because I’ve never discussed it here before. Why? Because most of the discussions I’ve seen regarding the GPL and WP themes are extremely arduous, and more importantly…inconclusive.

Basically the GPL license says while there is nothing wrong with charging for GPL software, users are free to modify it and redistribute code without permission of the original author. This means someone could legally buy a commercial GPL-licensed theme, and re-release it for free.

Alex King reminded people of this fact, and the mere idea of exercising the rights granted by the GPL led to quite a bashing in the comments. Some commenters even went so far as to say they’ve lost “all respect” Alex, again, for merely pointing out the idea, not actually doing it. Alex later apologized for that post he made earlier.

While I think those people who lost “all respect” for Alex King (as a result of that post) completely missed the point, it did bring up some interesting questions. While I don’t believe there’s any doubt that modifying and redistributing GPL themes is in fact legal, I think the real question is: is it ethical or not?

In my opinion, piggybacking off the hard work of these developers, who are trying to make a living off their themes, by undercutting them for a few quick bucks is not ethical. I believe the true value in buying almost any commercial theme is not just the theme itself, but also quality support. In my eyes, there’s no better place to get support than the original source.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Is it ethical? Are commercial theme authors truly embracing the GPL? Sound off in the comments. This is probably the first and last post I’ll ever make on this topic, so make it count.

About

Leland Fiegel was the original founder of ThemeLab. He is a web developer who loves WordPress and blogging.