AutoMattic/WordPress Flexes GPL Muscles on Envato Themeforest


In case you hadn’t heard, there is a mini-battle brewing between WordPress Foundation & Envato, marketplace for designers and coders, over GPL Licenses for WordPress derivative products.  Jake Caputo is a designer who is caught in the middle of this GPL battle between two of the largest entities in the WordPress “community” and who can and cannot present and sponsor in WordCamp.

Having only been to one WordCamp in Seattle, I can only say that it was informative, fun, a great place to network and look for new business.

This isn’t the first time that WordPress has flexed on theme designers. Chris Pearson, and his premium theme Thesis, came under scrutiny for not complying with the GPL.

A couple things seem very clear,

WordPress are true believers in GPL

Themes are derivative works of WordPress and subject to GPL

WordPress can require GPL compliance in WordCamp as a requirement to protect their brand

Couple of things do not appear clear

If you sell a theme to a client and do not make it available for “distribution” it is not under GPL. What if you resell that theme to another client? Is it GPL then?

How much longer until GPL violators aren’t allowed to attend WordCamp?

And finally, why wouldn’t Envato just extend the GPL for their WordPress themes to also cover the CSS & Javascript?

And this is where the conversation really gets lost in the weeds. Envato’s response is that they don’t let authors choose to extend the GPL beyond the PHP of their theme because they don’t want authors to feel strong-armed (presumably by Automattic/WordPress) and prevents them from being strong-armed into that decision by taking it away. And they apparently don’t mind asking people to take sides, “where will you sit when the chips fall and you’re called to take a side?”

There are several GPL-compliant commercial WordPress Theme designers, although Envato is the largest by far.

The basic takeaway is that if you choose to distribute your WordPress themes on ThemeForest you can’t sponsor,present, or even vounteer at WordCamp, essentially boiling this argument down to making money on Themeforest or complying with the rules of the community.

Matt Mullenweg has had a lot of fingers pointed at him in this mess, not by Jake Caputo mind you, but Envato is looking more like the guilty party in this. Sure they have done a lot of good things for theme authors by creating a marketplace for them, but they are writing checks with their designer’s butts and their stubbornness is the ONLY reason why this dust-up is an issue at all.

The answer they provided as to why they don’t allow designers to license the CSS & Javascript isn’t satisfactory. I cannot think of one single reason why they can’t allow designers to choose which license protects their intellectual property, just like they can choose whether or not to attend, present, or sponsor WordCamp if that is their desire. It is my deepest suspicion that there is more going on here between Envato and WordPress and WordCamp is just the opening shot in this battle which ends with Envato changing their TOS. Envato may be a giant, but WordPress is that giant’s mother, and the legal framework that protects WordPress and it’s derivative works appears to be squarely in Mr. Mullenweg’s corner. Even the reactionaries who think that they can “fork” WordPress to get around GPL are forgetting how GPL is inherited from it’s parent.

Mr. Mullenweg didn’t need to make his software free, or open-source. He easily could have, but WordPress never would have built the community of users and developers it has today which is what truly sets it apart from other open-source CMS.

This reminds me of when Internet Marketers complain about Google algorithm updates. Not “thanks for helping grow the online marketplace and growing opportunity for commerce and marketing online,” but rather, “damn Google finally busted my site for all of those blackhat techniques they warned me not use.” As SEOs and Internet Marketers we are living in Google’s world, just like the WordPress world revolves around Matt Mullenweg and the WordPress Foundation. They made the world, you don’t have to follow the rules that they made, just don’t be surprised when they finally bust you for it.

That said, WordPress could do a better job of keeping encrypted code out of free themes & plugins in their database. Again, I’m not an expert, but those also violate the terms of GPL as I understand it. And while we are at it, how about not returning plugins & themes in search that haven’t been updated since WordPress 2.8?