As a spinoff of the discussion going on at WPMayor, I wanted to touch on the subject of plugins that include (or will begin to include) code to require license keys to use. In one of his more recent comments, the author, Jean Galea, includes the following:
“The Free Software Definition’s Four Freedoms
By the Free Software Foundation’s definition, Free Software guarantees you:
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.”
I want to focus on numbers one and three here as they are the most relevant to this topic. If a developer creates a plugin and releases it under the GPL but forces users to have license keys for it to function, is it breaking the GPL? I would say it’s absolutely violating the GPL. Here’s my reasoning:
1. Licensing a plugin under the GPL constitutes an acknowledgement that your plugin is open source, or “free software”. Remember that “free software” does not mean it’s free as in you don’t have to pay anything. It’s free as in you can do with it what you’d like once you’ve obtained it (with certain requirements).
2. The GPL does not allow the author to require a fee for its use. By doing so, they are restricting the freedom to run the program and to redistribute it to “help your neighbor”. Sure you could redistribute it and force that person to alter the code, but what if they don’t know how? The GPL does not include language that says GPL software is free only for developers. In my opinion, requiring the restrictive code to be stripped out for it to be used does not constitute free software.
Does the GPL allow me to require that anyone who receives the software must pay me a fee and/or notify me? (GPL FAQ)
No. In fact, a requirement like that would make the program non-free. If people have to pay when they get a copy of a program, or if they have to notify anyone in particular, then the program is not free. See the definition of free software.
The GPL is a free software license, and therefore it permits people to use and even redistribute the software without being required to pay anyone a fee for doing so.
Requiring a license key for its use violates this statement. If someone obtains a copy of the plugin, they are permitted by the GPL to use and redistribute it. If a license key is required for its use, and a license key requires a fee, the author is requiring a fee for its use and this is violating the terms of GPL.
If an author wants to charge a yearly fee for a license key that gives access to continued updates and support, this is perfectly fine. However, requiring a license key for its use is much different and violates the GPL. If this becomes more popular among developers, I think the practice of forking these plugins and, thus, increased competition is certain to occur.
I’m interested in knowing what everyone thinks about this. I’ve enjoyed having the conversation on the ethics of reselling WordPress products and I look forward to reading thoughts on this subject.