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What are you paying for when you buy GPL themes and plugins?

In the last few days, I’ve written two posts about WordPress themes and prices.

I have not, however, highlighted exactly why you would pay for these themes when they’re under a GPL license. And comments and emails have come in suggesting that all of these themes (and plugins) should be free since they’re GPL.

That’s a common misconception. So I’m hoping to address it today.

What is the GPL and why is it important?

Whether or not you know it, pretty much every bit of software you’ve ever used has been licensed. Most folks have never read a single software license in their lives. Trust me, if I didn’t have to do it for work, I’d never do it.

In the old days when we bought software in boxes from retails stores (my kids don’t understand this sentence already), the box itself had a license (tiny text) and it told us that by opening up the shrink wrap, we were agreeing to it. Crazy! But true.

Even if we’ve all lived under the constraints of software licenses, most of us never paid attention to them until some software, like WordPress, became big enough and put a light on certain licenses like the GPL.

The GPL is a license that is remarkably similar to free software licenses. The moment you read “free” you’ll see why the misunderstanding exists.

These free software licenses hold to four freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.

  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.

  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

Immediately you notice that “free” means you’re free to do things. Not free as in no price or cost. The license is protecting the freedom for the software to be seen, studied, changed, and distributed.

The GPL holds to the same freedoms and adds the notion of Copyleft (a play on copyright). Along with the freedom to change code, there’s an obligation for the changed code to be released using the same license.

This means that if you make a derivative work of GPL licensed code, your derivative will also be licensed under the GPL.

And you can hopefully catch why this GPL thing is not only useful but important – because it ensures that these freedoms continue to be respected even for derivative works.

What we’ve discovered, in my opinion, is that software is repaired, advanced, and extended faster and better when it’s open. When more people can share it, inspect it, tweak it, and pass it along, you get better and stronger software.

Innovation, it turns out, works better with more people collaborating than when less do.

As you can tell, this says absolutely nothing about the price of anything. At all.

But can’t people just copy & share your code? Yes.

Because these freedoms and the GPL license don’t describe what you can charge, but do focus on letting you know that the software is free (as in speech) to distribute, it’s easy to assume that the license prefers things to be free.

In truth, the license doesn’t say anything about it. Business models are not the focus of the GPL.

Can you redistribute copies of famous plugins (like Gravity Forms) to anyone you want for free? Legally? Yes you can.

Can you redistribute copies of famous themes (like WooThemes) to anyone you want for free? Legally? Yes you can.

It is legal? Yes. Is it ethical? Yes. Will a bunch of people write tweets and posts about how you suck? Likely.

But the GPL license protects these freedoms. And the authors of these themes and plugins know it when they create their products.

The GPL license does not, however, protect copyright infringement over trademarks. So you can’t go calling it GravityForms if they’ve gotten a trademark filed for it (which they do!).

But that brings us back to the core of the question. If you can easily get a copy of the code from someone, and have the freedom to run it on your sites…

What are you paying for when you buy GPL themes and plugins?

When you buy a premium theme or plugin that is licensed under the GPL you aren’t buying that shrink-wrapped box of software like we used to buy. That software had it’s code compiled, making it hidden from everyday users. We had no insight into the code and couldn’t change it no matter what we wanted it to do.

GPL themes and plugins are different. The code is often delivered without any need for it to be compiled, we can read it, learn from it, and best of all, tweak it.

What we’re paying for is often three things:

  1. We pay for the right to get updates for a specific amount of time

  2. We pay to get support for our questions for a specific amount of time

  3. We pay to get bugs fixes for a specific amount of time

When you see that a GPL theme or plugin is “licensed for 3 sites” they aren’t saying you can’t deploy the code to 10 sites. That would be against the GPL. Instead, they’re saying that you’ll only get support, bug fixes, and updates for 3 of your 10 sites.

Many GPL themes and plugins (recently) come with an activation code. Those codes are there to help developers know that that site is one of the licensed sites where you can get updates, support and bug fixes. But even without putting in an activation code, many of those plugins will still work.

In fact, even if you’re only getting updates and support for a year, you can still use that theme or plugin for years after that. Your software won’t suddenly deactivate and delete all your site’s data. (If it does, tell someone!)

But two years later, when you want the latest update – because WordPress’ core code has changed enough that the new theme or plugin is using new bits of code to deliver things faster or better – you will be offered the opportunity to purchase it again. Because your old license offered support, updates and fixes only for a period of time.

Is that all you’re paying for?

I’m going to share with you a tiny bit more about my opinion here, and while I think you should pay attention to all that I’ve already written, I’m open to you disagreeing with this next part. I just want you to know, because my friends and I can sometimes disagree on this next part.

It’s my belief that when you buy a premium product licensed under the GPL, you’re also paying for one more thing. But not always. This is why I recommend some people to you and why I don’t recommend other marketplaces to you.

Not all premium products are alike. Not all products licensed under the GPL are worthy of a price – even if the market can handle it.

I believe that you are also paying for someone else’s expertise. (This is how I decide what products I buy)

I believe that regardless of the license, when you pay for a premium product, you’re making a choice to pay for a specialist. Free (as in $0) alternatives may exist. Some people run to them. I steer clear.

When I buy a premium product, I’m putting cash in place for a trade of experience. And I only pay that cash to people who I trust.

Marketplaces that gather eyeballs which are filled with people I don’t know, who often write crappy code, are not where I spend money. I do it with people whose expertise I can validate and where I have an expectation that what I’m really getting is XX years of experience wrapped up in lines of code.

I know people love some marketplaces and find they have real value by being aggregators. I get it. I just politely disagree. I find they are often havens for hacks that write poor code and don’t support it. And in those cases, the whole point of the premium charge (support, bug fixes, updates) is useless. Instead, you end up getting ripped off.

You’ve heard the joke of the engineer who found the source of the problem, sent an invoice and was asked to itemize it. So he wrote, “$1 for chalk mark, $49,999 for knowing where to put it.”

I buy premium products, licensed under the GPL, without any intention to freely distribute it and hurt the potential market for the developer. But I do love the GPL because it means I can read the code. I can learn from it. And I can adjust it if my requirements are special. Most importantly, however, is that I buy it from someone whose expertise is such that I’m actually learning something.

After all, seeing someone’s mess rarely teaches me anything.

So embrace the price tag on GPL themes and plugins – if you can validate the quality. You’ll find it’s worth it. And you’ll discover it’s worth way more than free.

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