The Ethics of WordPress, Premium Plugins, and the GPL

Is reselling a WordPress plugin for profit unethical?

A recent article by the WPMayor accuses my business of abusing the GNU General Public License (GPL). The writer, Jean Galea, raises some understandable concerns and poses some questions that deserve to be answered. He ends his post by stating that the topic of reselling premium WordPress plugins/themes under the GPL is a grey area and should be discussed more. In full agreement, I decided to write this post to provide the “other side of the story” and to offer my rationale for taking this side. First, the main question we’re trying to answer is whether the practice of reselling premium WordPress products (plugins and themes) is unethical. I will try to avoid personal beliefs in answering this and, instead, will stick with the most logical reasoning I can give.

To shed some light on the divisiveness this subject yields, here are some comments from Jeans post:

They could make more money selling an affiliate product. I don’t get why they choose to sell a product not developed by them, what’s the deal here? Someone explain the mentality of these people.

It’s a very sleazy way of making a living.

Unless they are stripping the original authors’ credits, there is absolutely nothing unethical about this re-distribution, the GPL explicitly allows it. This is what it was designed for. The problem is that some companies have built up business models that overlook this reality, that conveniently forget that this is the deal they accepted when they built their products upon the code of others.

Original developers can easily fight this by providing good support, pricing intelligently and not antagonizing their customers – it is not a coincidence that WooCommerce features so heavily in these sites. The GPL protects users is several ways, including making it more difficult for companies to retain their customers if they treat them badly or raise prices too opportunistically.

Getting angry with these sites, or perceiving them as a threat, is fuzzy thinking. The vast majority of users who are willing to pay any money will either need or perceive that they need support. None of these sites provide any support at all, they are very clear on that. The likelihood is that many people who use these sites, hoping to save money, will end up having to buy a “real” license anyway.

A smarter way to interpret these sites is see them as a safer alternative to simply getting the same themes and plugins from torrent sites or whatever (which, by the way, is what the vast majority of users currently do). By charging a small fee, it is in the site owner’s interests to at least ensure that the code contains no malware or hidden links; the guy creating torrents has no such incentive. I have a hunch that a user willing to make the jump from free to paying a few dollars is likely, in time, to make the further jump to buying from the original developer.

We obviously have two people who think about this issue in two very different ways. One argues that there is nothing unethical about it and the other judges it as “sleazy”. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion but I’d like to defend my business and myself when referred to as sleazy by someone who hides behind a computer and uses an acronym for a username while passing judgement on those he doesn’t know (I couldn’t help myself). Rather than describing anyone using negative or offensive adjectives, here is my logical argument for why selling plugins and themes at lower costs is not unethical.

The GPL Permits It

Not only does the GPL permit it, but it explicitly states that it’s permissible. It’s not as if the GPL contains some loophole that allows people to take to exploit the system (like the U.S. tax code). Additionally, it’s most certainly not stealing. To argue that reselling premium WordPress products licensed under the GPL is unethical despite it being explicitly permissible, you have to consider if the GPL is unethical for allowing “unethical behavior”. I don’t see how this could be the case given it’s popularity. Assuming the GPL to be ethical, why would the it include unethical language in the GPL (in addition to making it blatantly obvious)?

WordPress Revolves Around the GPL

WordPress would not be what it is today without the GPL. WordPress is all about freedom and that’s what the GPL offers. If you decide that the GPL is unethical for allowing “unethical people to exploit developers”, is WordPress therefore unethical for being based around such a damaging license? I don’t think many WordPress users consider it unethical.

There are GPL Alternatives

For example, itthinx (makers of a few popular, premium WordPress products) uses a license they call the Single Use Single Domain License (SUSDL). This is perfectly acceptable because they can choose their licensing terms. GPL is not required. Making premium products available under the GPL is a voluntary choice by the developers.

Other Side’s Questions

As I did in the original post, I will now answer the questions asked by Jean:

1. Is it ethical to profit in such a way on another developer’s hard work?

Given my explanations above, I do not believe it’s unethical when that developer chooses to provide GPL products. I understand how some people may not support it but that does not make it unethical. I do not view the GPL as unethical, nor do I think WordPress is unethical. It’s hard to see this as unethical given the developers’ option to chose licensing terms and the explicit language in the GPL that says “The right to sell copies is part of the definition of free software. Except in one special situation, there is no limit on what price you can charge. (The one exception is the required written offer to provide source code that must accompany binary-only release.)”.

2. How will we make sure end users know that they need to make this decision between buying from the original developer or a third party?

While I cannot speak for other sources, I make sure to provide a statement on every product page on proserveweb.com that informs potential buyers they are purchasing from ProServe Web Solutions and not the developer/vendor. It’s also made clear in the Terms of Service page.

3. What kind of support can such reselling companies offer?

Club Members not only receive access to every plugin and theme available, they also receive support for every month they are an active member. This support is intended to help with using the plugin in the way that is was intended, “out of the box”. No developer or vendor offers customizations as part of their support and neither do I. If customizations are needed, then anyone requesting them will be informed that their request is not possible given the standard functionality and they will require additional, custom coding to achieve their desired functionality. I provide quotes for this type of request.

4. Are these companies sustainable, how long will they be around?

My primary business is not reselling WordPress products. This is actually an ancillary service. My primary service is website design. Therefore, I don’t rely on reselling plugins and themes for staying in business.

5. Isn’t it bad for customers that some of these companies operate anonymously?

Again, I cannot speak for other sources but anyone reading this post will know that I don’t try to hide my identity, unlike a few certain judgmental commenters (couldn’t help myself again!). If there is ever an issue, my customers and clients can easily send me a message and hear back from me within a few hours (typically much less). Customer service is the cornerstone of my business and providing it requires my customers to know who I am.

My Questions

Now that I’ve answered the questions posed, I’d like to summarize my previous points by asking a few questions to those against reselling WordPress themes and plugins:

  1. Is the GPL an unethical license for allowing anyone to sell WordPress products, even if they are not the original developer? If so, then is Matt Mullenweg unethical for praising the GPL as “the Bill of Rights of software“? Matt also referred to it as “the most moral of the licenses”. If it is unethical, is WordPress, therefore, unethical?
  2. Update (Question 1) The point of this question is to ask if supporters of the GPL, including Matt, are unethical for supporting a document that blatantly encourages this so-called “unethical” behavior and, if so, if WordPress is something that “ethical” people should be using given its basis on that very document.

  3. If none of what I just mentioned are unethical, then how can something that is explicitly permitted be logically deemed unethical? Perhaps it’s just your opinion?

One last point I’d like to make is to debunk a misconception about purchasing WordPress plugins and themes from a third party source. Just because the product is not provided directly from the original developer does not mean that it is inferior. On this website, all downloads are materially identical to what is received from the vendor. All that will differ is the support. ProServe offers general support and I’ve been told from defectors that they receive friendlier and speedier service here than from there. I recommend that anyone first read a provider’s terms and learn what they offer before buying to make sure they know what they’re getting into, whether that provider is a third party or not. In no way am I discouraging buying from the author. All ProServe provides is a cheaper alternative.

Conclusion

I hope that I’ve coherently argued why I don’t think reselling premium WordPress plugins and themes is unethical. Not to get all Freudian on everyone, but I believe logic has to be taken into consideration when debating ethics to keep the conversation as objective as possible. Otherwise, all you have is a subjective debate that only takes into consideration contrasting opinions. I would love to see all types of feedback regarding this topic because I believe it is one that really needs to be discussed. It’s not exactly fair for some to be judged and referred to as “sleazy” by people who don’t consider all the elements involved so it’s important to understand the full story. I look forward to reading your thoughts and continuing this discussion.