Understand Free Software First

by Krishna on July 18, 2009

It is now official that WordPress themes are GPL, which creates problems for the business models of the design companies which were offering “premium” themes. A few weeks before this happened, a few premium theme developers such as Revolution decided to release their themes under the GPL and Alex King called them on it to see if they really understood what the GPL meant. Going by the comments, some don’t:

I think those of use who have GPL’ed our themes are more saddened by the fact that certain individuals are completely exploiting hundreds or in my case thousands of hours worth of development time and purposely trying to use the GPL for their immediate personal/monetary gain.

The problem, though, is that the GPL is exactly meant to do that. You can take any GPL code and redistribute it for free or even sell it, the only condition being that you pass on to the recipients the same freedoms that you received. This is what the GPL Preamble states:

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program–to make sure it remains free software for all its users. […]

To protect your rights, we need to prevent others from denying you these rights or asking you to surrender the rights. Therefore, you have certain responsibilities if you distribute copies of the software, or if you modify it: responsibilities to respect the freedom of others.

The GPL is about protecting freedom, not about protecting profits or intellectual property. It also makes it easier for developers to use code (as long as they share equally) and for users to distribute code without having to worry about the fine print or royalties.

Secondly, as one of the commentators stated, the producer of a GPL product like a WordPress theme has already benefited from the work of other GPL authors:

If I were to release all of your themes for free on my site, you claimed I’d be “completely exploiting thousands of hours worth of development time and purposely trying to use the GPL for their immediate personal/monetary gain.”

How is that different than the fact that you’re using thousands of hours developing the platform of WordPress for your own monetary gain?

I suppose many people are confused by the fact that money has been made on open source products, especially the big few like mySQL, Linux and WordPress. Part of this is because the GPL made no restriction on charging for free software. In theory, selling a copyable item for free doesn’t seem viable because why would you pay for something you can get for free once the first copy has been sold?

In practice, the “code” is always “free” as in zero dollars. What you really pay for is the service and the brand behind the code even if you seem to be paying for the code. Businesses have paid for separate commercial licenses for GPL products to avoid legal problems. But some assume that you can make money by simply selling GPL products, but without any service offering, that is a risky business strategy.

This kind of attitude is not restricted to the GPL. Seth Godin had a similar confusion sometime back about the Creative Commons license he was using. To his credit, he updated his post to clarify his intent, though it would have been better served if he had changed the title heading and deleted what he had written.

This is all very ironic. Many people seem to use the copyleft licenses because it apparently is cool, like supporting environmental causes, to have your code or work published under an open source license. Or they wish to benefit from the open source community. In other words, they use open source because they gain something. But God forbid, if someone else gained something by taking advantage of what the license allows them to do.

To end these double standards, people need to educate themselves about software licensing and intellectual property rights. If they cannot tolerate the freedoms that the GPL or Creative Commons gives to their users, they have the right not to use those licenses. They have the full freedom to write or pick a tighter license that explictly states what they allow. Using plain old copyright is simple enough. Or hire a lawyer.

{ 2 comments }

that girl again July 29, 2009 at 6:06 pm

If they cannot tolerate the freedoms that the GPL or Creative Commons gives to their users, they have the right not to use those licenses.

Actually, Matt has been pretty adamant that wordpress developers don’t have the right to use non-GPL licences. So if GPL for whatever reason is unacceptable to you, your best option is to find an alternative platform that supports your freedom to licence your work as you choose.

To be honest, most of the pirates and rip-off merchants would be doing what they do regardless of whether the licence terms officially allowed it. Terms of use have little to no impact on people’s behaviour in the real world. And just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. I find a lot of open-source zealots are incapable of understanding this.

Gate Latch December 16, 2010 at 4:13 am

in China, they do not respect intellectual property at all. too many software and movie pirates out there ~`-

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