The motivation for writing this post was an email that I received couple of days ago:

I am starting an online workshop for business owners who look to build their own website’s code for free. So I wanted to create a bundle package which included a theme, I like the CargoPress theme and it says that it is 100% GPL. Would I be able to include it in a bundle package I will be selling? Please help I am lost when it comes to understanding what you can do with GPL.

This was the first time I’d received this type of question/request, and the timing of it was just perfect. For quite some time now I have wanted to share with you the path that led me to the decision to license all of our WordPress themes under 100% GPL.

How to license premium WP products has long been a debate in the WordPress community, it has also led to many #wpdramas. We tried to delay our licensing decision for as long as we could, but now that we have launched our new website (with our own shop), we couldn’t prolong it any further.

Four years ago, when Jaka and I started ProteusThemes – as with most newcomers to this field – we didn’t pay much attention to the licenses. We didn’t consider anything other than ThemeForest back then. So, we just went with their standard split license (only PHP code is licensed under GPL, other assets like CSS and images are not).

Over the following years the business took off better than we anticipated. And the more I became involved in the various discussions that came with such growth, the more I was concerned about whether we should give licensing a second thought.

Shortly after our WordCamp Europe this summer in Vienna I sat down and wrote a table of the pros and cons of both licensing types:

Split license 100% GPL
Pros Cons Pros Cons
People can only buy our products exclusively from us. A bad reputation in the WordPress community. Promoted on w.org. It’s legal to freely give away or resell our products.
We are in control of how our products are used. Can lead to my coworkers and I being banned from organizing and speaking at WordCamps. We’ll be good guys in the WP community. We lose the ability to sell extended licenses on TF.
We can sell extended licenses. Matt hates us 🙁 Matt loves us 🙂

In line with my personal philosophy of transparency within the company (both inbound and outbound), I’d like to go through the positive/negative aspects of each bullet point and how they impacted the final decision.

OMG, we will not be able to sell extended licenses anymore!

If you choose 100% GPL on ThemeForest, an extended license doesn’t make sense anymore. With over 25,000 licenses sold in total so far, we’ve not sold a single extended license for a WordPress theme (revealing this, I can say that we sold 2 for HTML templates).

So this one was easy, extended licenses made exactly $0 so far. So we’re losing nothing. Busted!

OMG, other sites are giving away our products for free!

When you decide to license your products 100% GPL you are effectively allowing people to buy them and give them away for free. They can even resell them, either modified or as is. This has always been one of Envato’s primary arguments for why they stick to licensing only the required parts (PHP) of the WP themes to GPL.

If assets other than PHP are licensed under the Envato license, it is illegal to redistribute the item in any way. So, it is easier to choose the split license and be on the safe side. This is especially true if you’re a newcomer to the WP business and don’t have a feeling for what sort of threats you might be facing if you choose 100% GPL at the start.

However, this is not completely true. A while ago there was a thread on the Advanced WP Facebook group in which someone pointed out that even though the 100% GPL license might permit redistribution, there is another mechanism which does not: a trademark policy.

What trademark law does is change the rules of the game from:

Anyone can redistribute your product in any way.

to:

Anyone can redistribute your product in any way, but not under the same product or brand name.

When you think about it, this sounds a lot better. If the people who would want to screw your business up cannot use the words BuildPress or ProteusThemes on their sales pages, they cannot rely on doing so with one of your strongest assets: brand reputation and trust.

Everyone who’s been in the WordPress business (or any business for that sake) for a couple of years will know that the real value is not the code. It is the brand and the trust you establish with your customers. Building your brand and a good relationship with people takes time and effort and cannot be copied like a bunch of files.

Knowing that, the fear of losing all control over our products has disappeared. Even if smug people do redistribute our work, they will not be allowed to do so under the original product names, or by referring to ProteusThemes.

Positive impacts the 100% GPL brings:

We are more aligned with WP.org’s philosophy

Our products share most of the WordPress.org principles, even though we haven’t defined how in such a condensed form (yet). We are getting daily confirmation from our users that we’re on the right path. With the 100% GPL change we are getting even closer to these principles, which I believe is the right thing to do. Especially taking into account that our business would not exist without WordPress and its success.

We’ll be viewed better in the eyes of WP community

I’ve been speaking with many people at WordCamps. When the conversation comes up that I’m a founder of a theme shop selling exclusively at ThemeForest, I’ve usually been marked in some way. My experience is that most people who go to WordCamps don’t praise Envato and their marketplaces. I can find the reasons for this in all the #wpdrama from the last couple of years.

This should change now, not only because of the license change, but also because I’ll be able to say we have our own theme shop.

There will be no fear that anyone in our team will be blackballed from speaking, organizing or attending WordCamps.

Last but not least, I hope that Matt Mullenweg someday comes around and gives me a friendly pat on the back for doing the right thing.

Another potential channel of promotion

I hope that WordPress.org still accepts submissions to their Commercially Supported GPL Themes. Now that we satisfy all of their requirements (oh, I didn’t think about the haiku yet, any suggestions?), I will shortly send them an email.

My colleague Gregor and I actually published some plugins on WP.org,but so far only under our personal accounts. We didn’t want to be blacklisted there so – because of all the drama between WP.org and Envato – didn’t refer too much to ProteusThemes. Now this fear is gone too, what a relief!

Verdict

When I proposed to my team for the first time that it might be good to switch to 100% GPL, they raised quite some concerns about it. But when we discussed the possible scenarios, we all came to the conclusion that this change would have nothing ut a positive impact down the road.

Moreover, it’s no secret that the great majority of people who buy products on ThemeForest: A.) Don’t even know the licensing difference and B.) Don’t really care.

I would like to finish this blogpost with the final reaction of the potential customer who mailed me about adding our CargoPress theme to his bundle, and the 100% GPL license:

Wow I have so much respect for your company! I will be investing in all your themes in the upcoming months as I build my brand. I look forward to purchasing your future themes as well. You are very nice. I was afraid to ask at first, many authors are against people reselling their themes – as they put a lot of hard work in – which I understand. Once I am up and running I will send you the link to my project.

Sounds to me like we did the right thing. 🖖

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About the Author

Since I built my first website in primary school I’ve had a strong passion for web development. When not visiting conferences, giving talks or organizing local development related events, I focus on fast and highly optimized online solutions. I’m a windsurfer, snowboarder and beer lover in my leisure time.