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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.


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

  • mkjones

    I think “piggybacking” is perhaps the wrong word to use.

    If Theme providers properly price their GPL themes in the first place AND follow up subscription based service or low-rate updates then users re-working these themes and using them in paid client projects shouldn’t be a problem.

    I fear that low-rate subscription theme providers like ElegantThemes will struggle to make the GPL move because of the way it would effect their business model.

    • Leland

      @mkjones: Well, when I talked about “piggybacking” I was referring to the idea of people buying up GPL themes and then just releasing them for free, essentially undercutting their business for the heck of it.

      Your scenario of commercial theme buyers using them on paid client sites seems okay to me. This would be similar to the “multi-domain” developer license in some of the older business models.

      It’s funny you mention ElegantThemes because I was actually thinking of them as well. I’m a huge fan of their themes and inexpensive prices, however I’m also wondering how they would make the switch to GPL since they do have an unusual business model.

    • Nick Roach

      Actually I think the opposite will be the case. The problem right now is that most people don’t even understand what the GPL is. The idea of selling a digital product released under an open source license is yet to be realized by 90% of the people that buy them. I guarantee you if you talk to most of the people purchasing the new GPL’d woothemes that they don’t realize that what they are buying are not the themes themselves, but access to the community and the support that comes along with it. In a few months, when all of these themes, even better/modified versions of the themes, are available for free throughout the community, the concept will be better understood. When that happens customers will be much less likely to spend $125 for forum access, and even less likely as time progresses and other unrestricted communities emerge where people will inevitably help each other for free in a more “open source” environment. The fact that woothemes even has different purchasing options, such as single theme licenses vs club access, won’t make sense once the themes are more readily accessible. It also won’t make sense to hide the download links within their member’s area, as this will only decentralize themselves from their own product. I think eventually prices will have to lower as people become aware of what they are actually buying.

      In this sense I think my pricing model will make the transition easier, if and when I do make it, which I probably will once my support system is more organized.

      I am not sure if premium wordpress theme providers will survive, even with the “pay for support model.” It is more likely that their themes will serve as a popularity gainer/traffic driver to a more standard web development company that provides unique themes/theme customizations. Or maybe a tuts+ type site for wordpress theme customizations will emerge, that could be fun.

  • Mike Smith

    I like this post a lot because it does point out the true meaning of GPL. I personally believe that some people have built their businesses using GPL but only as a way to “fit in” rather than embracing the GPL as a whole. They’re relying on the fact that republishing the paid themes is definitely unethical and hoping that noone does it while reaping the benefits of saying they’re GPL compliant.

    I think the premium theme market should do away with the “Single/Multi-Domain” differences and leave it at that. Just my two pennies though

    • Leland

      @Mike Smith: Asked this on Twitter the other day, but I also wonder the motives behind commercial theme sellers going GPL. When Brian announced his RevolutionTwo project, I’m sure all the positive attention he got didn’t go unnoticed by other competing businesses.

      Now with Matt asking for commercial GPL themes to link to in from, I’m thinking some just couldn’t resist that free promotion, as well as all the praise received from other “WordPress friendly” blogs.

      In the end though, it doesn’t really matter why…just that they did it. I believe it’s better in the long run for the community as a whole.

      • Carl Hancock

        You hit the nail on the head.

        The stampede to go GPL is directly tied to Matt announcing would soon promote commercial themes as long as they were compatible with the GPL.

        It’s a business decision. gets a ton of traffic so the referrals are valuable for not only sales but SEO juice. has an excellent Google page rank so being linked to from a site with a high PR also helps your SEO.

        If WordPress continued to ignore the commercial theme market, GPL or non-GPL, you wouldn’t see the current rush to go GPL that is currently taking place.

  • Mijk

    I absolutely agree – I think there is lot of reasons to do pay for theme, even if it is GPLed.
    And that’s why I am purchasing those – to support authors GPLed work, not to get something more (but support it is awesome side-effect).

    • Leland

      @Mijk: Agreed, although I think most people want to buy themes from the source for the support, updates, etc. Supporting the theme author (financially) is probably the “awesome side-effect” to most…not the other way around.

  • Justin Tadlock

    In your post you said that people could “redistribute code without permission of the original author.” I wanted to point out that people do have the permission of the original author to redistribute code if that author released the code under the GPL. By placing the GPL on a theme, the author is saying, “Here you go. Here’s your permission to do these things with this theme.”

    I’ve hardly seen anyone honestly touch on the real issue. The issue isn’t about sleazy sites trying to make a quick buck or cut into the theme author’s profits by releasing the theme. That’s not the issue at all. We all know these fly-by-night sites suck, and no one’s questioning that. Somehow this is the scenario that keeps coming up in conversation.

    I’m hearing a lot of Sure you can do it, but… and a lot of Yeah, it’s legal, but… coming from the community right now. I’m seeing a lot of people skirting around the real question.

    Hypothetical scenario: Let’s suppose I, Justin Tadlock, saw a really cool theme for sale (under the GPL, of course). But, I wanted to change a few things around to suit my needs and update the code to make it better. Then, I released this modified version of the theme on my website. How would people react? Would I be shunned by the original theme author’s supporters? Would the theme author openly bash me? Would he say it was unethical?

    • Silver Firefly

      Yes, I would shun that guy and I would say some of his actions are unethical (from the view of being a theme author and a consumer).

      The reason why?

      If I created a theme from scratch including designing and coding, and I sell it on my website under the GPL, I expect my clients to realise that I have to make a living. I expect them to realise I put a lot of hard work and effort into creating that theme and making it available in order to put food on the table so to speak. Plus I have no respect for rippers as the guy will have ripped my theme (modified or not).

      • Justin Tadlock

        Don’t release your theme under the GPL then. Don’t give me permission to do those things.

        It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

        • Richard Wing

          I agree Justin. Don’t apply the GPL to it.

  • Leland

    @Justin Tadlock: You’re right. It was inaccurate of me to say “without permission.” What I meant to say was “without notification.”

    I agree with you about the “fly-by-night” sites too. Names like StudioPress, iThemes, etc. are names people trust. Sure, you might be able to get them for free at, but who knows what dodgy code could be in one of those themes.

    But when a respected developer, such as yourself, bought a commercial GPL theme, modified it, updated it, and released it to the community…I would say the results would be unpredictable at best.

    Judging from some of the comments on Alex King’s post, I have a strong feeling something like that would likely have an overall negative reaction.

  • Silver Firefly

    I think the move to GPL is going to make different pricing structures pop up for support levels etc. I’m thinking of one myself.

    There’s no way prices will fall, not for support, unless theme authors undervalue their services (which they do from what I’ve seen).

    I certainly won’t be making that mistake. Giving support costs me – in terms of time spent. My time doesn’t come cheap. Neither does my expertise. So at least for me, my prices won’t be falling. And I seriously believe that with the high quality themes I’ll be putting out (at the very least they’ll match the best on the market now – I have some great ideas for making my themes stand out from the rest!) folks will want to buy, and they’ll be fine with my price structures.