Last week I have published The Best and Safest Places for Free and Premium WordPress Themes. Initially, it was my intention to include a paragraph “WordPress, Themes and the GPL”. However, since the post had become a bit lengthy already without the text on GPL, I had decided to slash it.
The very same week, WordPress.org released version 3.2.2 of its popular content management system. The first time you start this version, you are greeted by a new “Welcome to WordPress 3.3.2” screen.
This screen serves three tabbed sections:
- What’s New – informing you about the most important changes
- Credits – WordPress.org’s own little face book followed by an extensive list of contributors
- Freedoms – explaining what it means that WordPress is free and open source software
Especially this last item – Freedoms – is very interesting. As far as I have been able to verify, it is the first time that WordPress is touting its horn about being free software in this way. All-in-all, enough reasons for me to get back to the topic of WordPress, Themes and the GPL. What is the GPL? How does that affect WordPress? And why should I care?
Copyleft vs Copyright
Let us start with a little history. In 1984 a computer programmer named Richard M. Stallman came to the conclusion that software had to be free. He abandoned a promising career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to start the GNU Project. From that moment on he was able to dedicate all his time to developing free software.
In case you are wondering, GNU stands for Gnu’s Not Unix. Hackers – not as in criminals, but as in super geeks – love this kind of recursive acronyms. One year later, Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a not-for-profit corporation to facilitate GNU’s funding.
The mission of GNU and the FSF is to develop and promote free software. The ultimate goal was to develop a completely free Unix-like operating system. Was – past tense – because around 1991 this wish became reality when Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel. GNU’s applications and software tools combined with the Linux kernel shaped the GNU Linux operation system.
Creating software and making it available for free is great, but how do you prevent that commercial software vendors copy the work of the GNU Project – that is intended to be distributed as free software – only to sell it as strictly licensed proprietary software? Stallman’s answer was the concept of copyleft.
Copyleft uses copyright law, but flips it over to serve the opposite of copyright: it gives you the right to run, study, copy, change, and (re)distribute. Of course there is a bit more to it. That is why copyleft has been elaborated in the GNU’s GPL – the General Public License. The same license that came with your copy of WordPress.
The Four Freedoms
The GPL license is in fact an assurance that free software will remain free. It is important to understand that the word “free” in free software does not refer to price or costs, but to freedom. According to the Free Software Foundation, there are four essential freedoms that make a program truly free software. With free software you have:
- the freedom to run the program, for any purpose
- the freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish – access to the source code is a precondition for this
- the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others, so that you give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes – access to the source code is (again) a precondition for this.
The above mentioned freedoms are the same freedoms presented to you in the “Welcome to WordPress 3.3.2” screen, emphasizing that WordPress is free software.
The free software concept has proven to be a very important vehicle for thriving innovation and product development: the source code is available, and every programmer has the right to make improvements. Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress, will probably agree that WordPress would not be where it is today without the movement of free software and the power of open source.
WordPress Themes and the GPL
How does the GPL affect themes? The GPL license distinguishes “the Program” from “work based on the Program”. Themes and plugins are not parts of WordPress but interact with it. That is why these extensions are considered to be derivative works inheriting the GPL from the Program – WordPress. Matt Mullenweg explains this in more detail in his post “Themes are GPL, too”.
The PHP code of WordPress themes is without any doubt GPL. Cascading style sheets and graphics are very important to the design of a theme, but these elements do not interact with WordPress and are therefore considered as data. Not WordPress but the browser displays the CSS and the images on the screen. And because there is no real interaction with WordPress, it is permitted to sell the CSS and images under another license than the GPL.
The GPL in Practice
How does the fact that WordPress themes are free software licensed under the GPL affect you? Let us examine the license terms of a couple of well known theme vendors.
WordPress Themes purchased from the ThemeForest marketplace come with a so called split-license: the PHP code is licensed under the GPL just like WordPress itself; all other parts of the theme like the CSS, images, and the design are licensed according to the license purchased. The latter will usually be the Regular License (generally $35) that entitles you to use the theme on one site only. There is also an Extended License that sells at 50 times the price of a Regular License. More information about the ThemeForest licenses is available here.
StudioPress’ interpretation of the GPL is very tolerant. Whenever you purchase the Genesis Framework ($59.95) or one of the child themes by StudioPress (generally $24.94), you get unlimited everything; unlimited support, unlimited updates, unlimited websites and there’s no so called developer option. It is quite common that theme vendors supply the sources of their image files only to customers purchasing a developer license. PSD files are either included with the theme or available for download from the StudioPress support forum.
When you buy a theme from Colorlabs, you can choose between a Standard Pack ($49) and a Developer Pack ($99). In neither case, you get access to the PSD files. Both packs entitle you to technical support, life-time downloads and updates. You can use the purchased theme on as many concurrent sites as you like. However, in case of the Standard Pack you will get support for only one website. With the Developer Pack, you will get support for an unlimited number of sites. So the difference here is the number of sites you will get support for.
Themify gives customers a choice between purchasing a theme and becoming a club member. As a Standard club member ($69 / year) you have access to all themes (27 at the moment), are entitled to theme updates and you have access to the support forum as long as you are a club member. Customers who purchase a theme ($39) get life-time theme updates and have life-time forum access regarding the purchased theme as well as the free bonus theme. In both cases, themes are licensed under the GPL, except for the PSD files. When you choose for the Developer variant (respectively $89 / year and $59 per theme), you get the PSD files under a separate Themify license.
ElegantThemes does not even sell individual themes. You can only subscribe to a yearly membership that gives you access to all themes (74 to date) as well as the support forum as long as you are a member. The themes are licensed under GPL, except for the PSD files which are licensed under the Elegant Themes Personal Use License. The Personal Membership ($39 / year) does not include PSD files, the Developer Membership ($89 per year) does.
Know What You Will Get
As you can see, not only the price of a theme is relevant. It is also very important to be aware of the license terms involved when purchasing a theme. Only when a theme is licensed under full GPL, you have the right to run, study, copy, change, and redistribute it with these changes. That does not mean that choosing for a theme sold under a split-license is no common sense. Absolutely not. It usually means that you are allowed to install it on one site only. When you really like a theme, go for it. Just be aware of the license terms affected.