Article written by Michael

Christian, Voluntaryist, Marine, Southerner, WordPress enthusiast.

50 responses to “WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL Misconceptions, Misinformation, and Perspective”

  1. Jake

    Nice article!

  2. Kevin Eklund

    Hey Michael,
    Thanks for chiming in on this topic. I think you bring a lot of experience to the table and that’s great to have you opinion.

    BTW, it is not my intent to bash Matt or create “link bait” whatever that’s suppose mean. Most people see Automattic’s plugins and/or business model questionable because they don’t understand the relationship between the two and when commercial entities can/can’t be GPL compliant and still be allowed to have their plugins or themes in the official WordPress repository. With that in mind, and the fact that most people still don’t understand that when the GPL refers to “free” it means free to distribute, not free as in price, there is obviously still a need to explain it to people.

    With regard to:
    “Although I suppose it would be great to have someone tell me how to make tons of money, it really isn’t their responsibility to hold the hand of someone trying to figure out how. They’ve made it clear that they pretty much don’t care (and fully support) whatever business model you dream up, just as long as you comply with the GPL.”

    I like your choice of words 🙂 “hold the hand” Ha! You make it sound so simple yet you left out the fact that many theme developers did comply with the GPL and their themes were thrown out of the repository last year based on what was on the developer’s own website, and not related to GPL compliance issues. That can be devastating to someone that depends on that. That’s just not a risk worth taking for some developers and that’s why they need to be clear about what’s allowed and what’s not.

    If Matt and company could simply create a listing of what is acceptable and what isn’t with regards to GPL compliant business models and the relationship one’s business has with his/her plugins and themes that can/can’t be hosted at, you and I wouldn’t be writing about this. It’s really that simple.

  3. Kevin Eklund

    So you’re saying it’s impossible to identify common business models that adhere to GPL compliancy? No, it really not. Most would fall under a few examples.

    To assume that Matt and Automattic don’t make any mistakes is ludicrous. Do we really have to go over the Revolution2 banner ad placed in the theme repository that contained an affiliate e-junkie link?

    1. Brian Gardner

      Kevin, to be clear -the eJunkie link was placed there as a means to tracking conversions, and not a way that WordPress was going to make money through my affiliate program. When it became clear that folks wanted to come up with their own theories, the link was changed within an hour from the banner being placed to avoid any confusion on the matter.

  4. Kevin Eklund

    I think you and I are just going to have to agree to disagree here about whether or not it’s necessary to identify GPL compliant business models. I think the simple fact we are discussing it speaks for itself but I respect your opinion too.

    The article was not an attempt to find a business model for myself, it was to promote awareness, however, your attempted use of a red herring is a good try 🙂

    I read what you wrote Michael; I know you didn’t say that Matt and/or Automattic are impervious to making mistakes. Whether it’s honest mistakes, favoritism, or whatever, it’s still best to know the facts and tackle issues that most people in the WP community won’t touch or don’t have the balls to address. Like I said before, obviously there are many questions that still need to be addressed and that most individuals in the WP community share the same concerns.

    Seriously though Michael, I respect your opinion and I don’t wish to engage you in a debate as there is no judge to rule who wins and loses. And since it is most likely that neither of us will concede to other, our efforts are better left to other topics of interest. I do not wish to offend you either, so I hope you do not think that’s my intent.

  5. Kevin Eklund


    1. Can you explain why you didn’t include the links to the exact articles you are referring to and making such arguments? I think that would really help people understand what exactly you are talking about.

    2. Can you tell me why you are holding such links in moderation and not allowing me to use the article permalink you refer to as my website (such was the case for my very first comment here)?

    It’s possible they may have got caught in your filter because there are two of them within the comment that is currently in moderation. I saved them if they accidentally got deleted so if that’s the case, just let me know and I can shoot you the image and/or text of them. If this was a mistake feel free to disregard/toss this comment.

    3. Why don’t you use a subscribe to comments plugin here? It sure would make it easier on my end.

  6. Kevin Eklund

    Okay, well that’s too bad you feel that way. I didn’t intend to make it about me (another red hearring); that’s exactly why I’m here talking with you.

    Your actions to withhold reference to the articles and not let the visitor see them doesn’t seem to be in the true spirit of openness and discussion that WordPress is built on but that’s your right and I can respect that.

    I went ahead and tweeted your article anyway that includes my comment in moderation and I have no ill will towards you. I will most likely post a follow-up article to address GPL compliant business models since Matt doesn’t seem to be interested in doing so. I also intend to make reference to your article as you have another opinion that’s in stark contrast to mine. I think it’s good to provide visitors with different opinions on topics and I would greatly like to have your input in the article as I think you possess great insight in to this matter. Perhaps together we can make sense of all this and end the controversy. Is that something you are interested in doing for the good of the WP community?

    1. Justin Tadlock

      I’m fairly certain Michael didn’t allow you to link to your article because he doesn’t want his readers to be misinformed about anything. It’s nothing against the true spirit of openness and discussion. It’s just against the the idea of having more misinformation floating around the Web.
      .-= Justin Tadlock´s last blog ..Series: WordPress Plugin =-.

      1. Kevin Eklund


        If you’re worried about readers getting misinformed I think it’s a little late for that. The comments on your post, prior to me ever writing my article or commenting on your site, were misinformed and that’s why there was and is so much confusion.

        Your own article posted on 12-11-2008 citing the 200 themes removed from does more to misinform the reader than my article ever could. That is, unlike you, I do not censor people and remove their avatar link because I disagree with their opinion. Anyone is welcome to share their opinion on my article as I believe that best defense against misinformation is open discussion so we can point out what is true and what is not. Censorship is the worst and most despicable act on the web and everyone knows that.

        I wish you the best Justin. Honestly, I don’t dislike you just because you disagree with my opinion and I won’t censor you if you choose to share your opinion with my readers. I encourage you to comment if you see any misinformation and I will update the post or write a follow-up article to tackle such misinformation.

  7. Jay Todd

    Great article, I found it to be very informative. What are your thoughts on the WP ecommerce business model? Do you think it’s been successful for them? Are they compliant with the GPL? What about the Shopp business model? I don’t think they’re GPL compliant are they? Which do you think is probably more successful?

    Sorry for all the questions. Great plugins by the way. I love your All-in-one SEO and Security Scan. Any thoughts on incorporating any of your plugins with a commercial business model?

  8. Jay Todd

    Also, what about a commercial plugin repository that’s not hosted by Automatic? I wonder if anyone would be willing to do that?

  9. Kevin Eklund

    I am a user of your All in One SEO Pack and I greatly appreciate your work to create it.

    I just donated $10 to you. I wish I could have done more but I am not a rich man and I have more donations to disperse.

    Let me know if you interested in co-authoring that article. Once again, I think you could provide some great insight. I sincerely wish you the best.

  10. Kevin Eklund

    Just wanted to make sure you got my $10 donation for use of your great All in One SEO pack plugin. Sorry it can’t be more but I have others to hand out and I’m far from rich 🙂

    For some reason my comments aren’t even showing up in moderation anymore. Anyway, I wish you the best. Let me know if you are interested in co-authoring that article. I think your opinion and insight would be a great benefit.

  11. Jeffro

    Great post Michael. There are a couple of great points you bring up. First, not all plugin authors are doing it for the money. Second is this statement:

    Open source software development is about the community being able to bring together collective and individual efforts to create applications that best serve everyone. It’s not about getting software free of charge, even though that often can be a great side effect.

    I hope whomever reads this understands that there is nothing wrong with charging for GPL software. It being free of charge is a side benefit but by no means does it have to be free (as in price).

    The third point which I believe solves the argument of Automattic possibly enforcing a double standard on the plugin repository is solved with this statement:

    These plugins are all GPL (free as in liberty). They interact with a service that is not. We don’t have access to the source code of Google, and have no liberties with it, other than being able to use their API. Whether or not Google charges for any of these services is irrelavent. The code that the GPL applies to is the plugin itself. The fact that it happens to interface with something that may or may not be commercial, and may or may not be GPL doesn’t affect the GPLness of the plugin itself.

    With this in mind, it’s easy to see that the Polldaddy plugin and Akismet are well within the guidelines of the repository. Furthermore, nothing stops someone else from creating a proprietary service that a GPL compliant WordPress plugin taps into either through an API key or some other method. The point is, if the plugin or code that interfaces with the service is GPL, the entire model is ok. The double standard argument comes into play only if the repository starts removing GPL compatible plugins that tie into services that are not GPL.

    I’m not a fan of the app store idea regardless of the cheap $1.00 per plugin. I believe Kevins first post was a great way to bring up an important topic in that some of the most well known plugin authors were not receiving very much in donations and because of the raised awareness, it provoked some people into donating money which was a great thing. The post regarding Matt, Automattic, business models and the like comes off pretty badly and presents misinformation that is easily obtainable through a couple of Google Searches.

    I don’t really think a listing of acceptable business models needs to be created by Matt. If you have a question regarding the way you are doing business and the GPL, the best thing you could do is contact Matt Mullenweg personally via email or at a WordCamp event and have a chat with him about it. Dan Milward of WP Ecommerce has done this, Brian Gardner has done this, so has Cory Miller of iThemes, Adii of WooThemes, perhaps even Jonathan Davis of the Shopp plugin. So when Matt responds in the comments that if you have a question regarding your business model and if it complies with the GPL or not to contact him, that is actually the way to go.

    When you think about it, as long as the code is GPL your imagination and creativity can take over with regards to the business model you want to use. It doesn’t have to be the same one everyone else uses and I think alot of times, plugin/theme authors are not being creative enough in creating a viable model for themselves.

    With regards to plugins being added to the core of WordPress. Matt clearly states in the video you linked to on your blog that the popularity of plugins is an excellent gauge in what the userbase wants to see added to the base of WordPress. Matt also goes on to say that most times, they won’t add the entire block of plugin code but instead, add bits and pieces so as to wet the appetites which means this leaves plenty of room for either the original plugin to expand on their offering or just continue to do it better than the implementation that is added into WordPress. As a plugin author, I would be honored to have my entire plugin or even pieces of the code added to the platform. If my business model was entirely built around that code, I would keep in mind that the code is GPL meaning it could end up in the core someday in some form or fashion. That is the nature of the license. If your business model was built entirely around that code, then your model sucks. That’s why Matt continuously stresses that the value is what is built around the code such as services, options, addons, services, support, community, etc. Not so much the code itself.

    While I am still on the fence if whether or not Matt is overstepping his boundaries removing things that are GPL compliant that link back to sites advertising non GPL compliant things, he is the leader of the WordPress project and chief maintainer of the repositories and if he believes it’s in the best interest of the community and the repository to remove these items, then so be it. If you want the benefits that has to offer, you have to play the game by their rules or get punted off. Of course, if you don’t like their rules, nothing is stopping you from continuing whatever it is you’re doing with the business just not on the domain.

    Instead of publishing that post calling Matt out on a bunch of crap and then telling him what he should and shouldn’t do was a bad idea. I wish you would have continued to discuss business models as it’s a great topic. We could dive into each one, review the pros and cons, and perhaps make a few lightbulbs go off for those in the community thinking about starting a business around their development work. But instead, we have an article which contains alot of misunderstandings, this being the most important misunderstanding of them all:

    *note* blockquote is from the article on

    It’s probably no mistake that Matt doesn’t want to acknowledge such issues. For it he did, he would have to acknowledge the fact that Automattic, a commercial entity that owns WordPress, exploits the GPL to promote it’s distribution, uses plugin and theme developers work to build upon WordPress, and then uses the GPL as a barrier to prevent anyone except Automattic from benefiting financially from the work.

    I don’t even understand how you can come to that kind of a conclusion.
    .-= Jeffro´s last blog ..WPWeekly Episode 59 – Roundtable Featuring Peter Westwood =-.

  12. Andreas Nurbo

    I was curious about if you could put plugins in the plugin directory that used only paid services. That is you can’t really take advantage of the plugin unless you pay for a service. Which was ok as Matt replied here .
    The theme directory is a little different. Its a gray area using a paid service for themes which depends on how its done etc.

    But I can think of a bunch of paid services which can be suited for plugins.
    .-= Andreas Nurbo´s last blog ..GWO plugin for WordPress: beta version released =-.

  13. » -Blog- WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL | Michael Torbert Wordpress Plugins: Just another WordPress weblog

    […] See the article here: -Blog- WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL | Michael Torbert […]

  14. » -Blog- WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL | Michael Torbert Wordpress Hosting: Just another WordPress weblog

    […] Go here to read the rest: -Blog- WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL | Michael Torbert […]

  15. Brian Gardner

    The bottom line to this whole GPL thing is simple:

    It’s all about the license.

    If your theme carries the GPL license 100%, you can charge for the theme, the support behind it and what not.

    If your theme carries the GPL license 100%, and you or any sites you are affiliated with are not actively promoting non GPL themes, then your theme will be considered for submission into the directory.

    It’s not gray area here – pretty black and white to me. The bottom line, as most of us theme/plugin developers have waded through is that as long as your theme/plugin is 100% GPL, then case closed. You’re good.

    1. Barry

      “If your theme carries the GPL license 100%, and you or any sites you are affiliated with are not actively promoting non GPL themes, then your theme will be considered for submission into the directory.”

      Yeah, that last part isn’t in the GPL. The GPL doesn’t dictate what I can have on my site.

      “The bottom line, as most of us theme/plugin developers have waded through is that as long as your theme/plugin is 100% GPL, then case closed. You’re good.”

      That contradicts the above statement.

      So If you’re theme / plugin is 100% GPL and the authors site doesn’t have anything on it that breaches an extra set of rules then you are ok?

    2. Andreas Nurbo

      If you check Matts response to my paid service theme question it also comes down to how things are to the end user. The theme should not complicate things for the end user or as Matt put it be user-hostile.

  16. Stuart Liedtke

    First. No. Wow, what a lesson that was. I read the post. Slowly scroll down to see what’s being said and I’m totally ignorant of these predicaments between individuals where GPL is concerned. Maybe naive is a better word. I don’t know of Mr. Eklund. I’m just a very thankful user of WordPress and especially the incredible work of plugin developers like Michael here. I don’t have a side except that Michael sees the cottage industry grass root side of things clearly and I like that. I’ll leave the business model discussion alone. Too hoity toity for me and not something I’ll pursue reading about. Mark Mullenweg has obviously made it good for himself and people will always be jealous and think they have a need to strike out. I’ve done that when I was young and naive. Now I’m middle aged and naive.

    This is a great article dedicated to the true pursuit of excellence in work regardless of the perceived rewards or lack thereof. Thank you for your dedication.


  17. -Blog- WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL | Michael Torbert | bllogger

    […] posted here:  -Blog- WordPress Plugin and Theme GPL | Michael Torbert Share and […]

  18. Katy

    Pretty nice post. I just found your site and wanted to say
    that I have really liked reading your blog posts. In any case
    I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon!

  19. Matt Mullenweg

    Thanks for taking an even-handed look at this, one of the best articles I’ve read on the whole issue in a while.

  20. Dan Milward

    Hey Chaps. What a fascinating read!!

    Kevin I’ve had an idea. Here is my plan. Why don’t you do what other people do (the real WordPress Rockstars) and contribute this so called list of acceptable GPL models back to the community. We know you can write well and it seems like you have a lot of time on your hands and it certainly seems as though you’ve certainly done your research.

    I don’t think its a big ask especially since people like Matt, Michael and Brian are busy working on their respective projects.

    It seems to me like you could have written this “list of acceptable business models” 10 times over in the time that it has taken you to personally retort to each of these comments. What a huge amount of time you must have spent on this, I hope you havent lost any sleep over it.

    Because time is short you should start as soon as possible and when you’re finished you could either sell it online using the WP e-Commerce Plugin or you could except online donations. If you choose the later and if Michael chips in $10 I’ll chip in $10 too.

    On a more serious note I’m going to talk about our business model at the UK WordCamp coming up soon.
    .-= Dan Milward´s last blog ..simpleCart + thematic (weekend) challenge =-.

  21. Andrei Belogortseff

    Michael, if you have not seen this yet, you may want to take a look at the following legal analysis of the “plugins must be GPL’d” claim:

    It’s a long article but it’s well worth the read.
    .-= Andrei Belogortseff´s last blog ..Getting online in New Zealand =-.

  22. Red

    Thanks for taking the time to make a stand on this.
    I see a pefect sense in what you wrote and it makes me angry to find people twisting the GPL.
    I use some of your plugin in most of my sites and I enjoy them, especially All in One SEO. I moved to headspace2 on a test site only to find some fundamental issues and move back to All in One SEO.

    Thanks for your continues contribution to the WordPress community.

    Keep up the good work!!
    .-= Red´s last blog ..Steve is back: over 1m Apple iPhone 3GS sold =-.

  23. Dunia

    Great articl e with complete and detail explanation. Thank you

  24. 91jianfei

    Can plugins charge and still be GPL?

  25. Darren

    But isn’t GPL software supposed to be free?

  26. Michael Roberts

    yeah, I dont understand this isn`t that GPL is by default free? It can not be charged. Or it can?

  27. John Rockwell

    Clearly this GPL business isn’t clear to everyone. The only people its clear to are the uber geek computer programmers who can’t fathom the idea that it isn’t clear t oeveryone. That other people don’t live and breath wordpress 24/7.

    Kevin Eklund cam out out on top., not looking like the rude one.

  28. Doug

    Hi, I’m shocked that anyone would slave away writing plugins and providing support- for free. You would have to literally value your time at $0 unless you feel that answering the 10,000th email about why your plugin affects someone’s modified theme is more fun than getting out for some fresh air, playing a game or talking to your family.

    It’s just sad. And the dirty little secret of this bizarre programming-for-love approach is that WordPress plugins are nearly all lousy, broken and unsupported. After all, most people come to their sense eventually or get good enough to write software that pays.

  29. Yvonne

    I paid for authorship when was used as an entry blog for that website. Then, trying to get in using Word Press with a login which I assumed was set up by Web Media, LLC. with Word Press.
    Everything Web Media promise by their marketing, they make null and void in their “terms and conditions”. It is very difficult to try to set up E-commerce when one cannot wade through all the stuff that comes up. I hate to see promises made to people who are simply trying to make a living then turned into a nightmare of having been scammed. It is a shame that I am even contacting you… complaining about the treatment I must endure trying find out which web pages simply become bait. This has cost me $25,000 and I really feel taken. Having read other comments, the internet which should be an American treasure has become a liability to more than just me.

  30. John Melone

    Michael, a lot of people are obviously confused when it gets to its legal implications. My understanding is that is largely the case because we all grew up in a Copyright-World which makes us believe that all code that was developed by one person only belongs to this person and taking all or parts of it to create something new is “theft” or “unethical”. That is very much short sighted from my point of view. There are so many great software projects (like most parts of Linux) that can just exist because people understand software as a common good that everyone can build upon without the requirement to ask for permission. I am therefore one of the few WordPress enthusiasts who supports websites like that offer Premium WordPress products for free. I do not consider this immoral or harming the WordPress Ecosystem in any way. What we as developers need to learn is that people who buy our products do not just buy code but they buy a “product experience” including support, help in customization etc. that actually creates value for the users. We need to get this right and always allow others to build upon our code, fork it or redistribute it to make it better. Thanks for your attention!

Leave a Reply