Do Users Really Want WordPress Themes to be Free?

WordPress is open source and free. Attributes which have undoubtedly contributed to its spectacular growth in becoming the most popular and widely used blogging and publishing platform on the internet. However when it comes to WordPress themes, in particular commercial / premium themes, do users really want themes to be free? Although I’m sure many people would love to get premium themes for nothing (and a lot do try), I’m not referring to a free price. By free I mean the freedoms granted in the GPL license which WordPress themes must employ.

WordPress Themes Must Be Free

When developers first started selling premium WordPress themes, most adopted various propriety license arrangements for their themes. This was mainly to protect their creations from being shared and downloaded illegally, and also to protect their profit margins. After lots of debate and a fair amount of controversy in the WordPress community in 2010 about whether the GPL applies to WordPress themes or not, it was finally generally agreed and accepted that themes must also be GPL, while the artwork and CSS may be but were not required.

The majority of commercial premium WordPress theme shops have since adopted a 100% GPL license for their premium themes. A minority have elected to use a split GPL license, with the themes PHP code being GPL, but the CSS and images having proprietary licensing. However there are still a number of other commercial theme developers ignoring the GPL totally in favour of their own proprietary, restrictive theme licenses.

The Premium WordPress Theme Developer Ignoring the GPL

Recently I contacted a commercial WordPress theme developer (which I won’t name) who uses a proprietary licence arrangement for their themes and asked why they don’t use the GPL license as required by WordPress, and embraced by most other premium WordPress theme shops? The answer definitely surprised me. He claimed the use of a restrictive license, and implementation of a license key in the themes was in response to requests by users! Wait what, the users? He explained that users were complaining the premium themes which they had paid good money for were being copied, shared and distributed all over the web and used by lots of people, reducing the uniqueness and value of the premium themes they had purchased. The users were the ones asking for measures to protect their premium themes from being ‘pirated’ and becoming freely available to download around the web for anyone to use, and potentially abuse.

The disregard of the GPL and use of a proprietary license in their themes was definitely not for the reasons I was expecting. However I can see that protection measures could be an attraction for some people who pay money for a theme trying to get a more unique, exclusive design. Premium WordPress themes can be a relatively cheap option for giving your site a more unique, professional look, and it’s one of the main reasons many people choose to buy a premium theme.

There are some real advantages and benefits to using 100% GPL themes and the freedoms they offer. You are free to use the themes as you please without restriction, on as many sites as you like. Sounds great! However for users of commercial themes it also presents some factors that need to be taken into consideration. The freedoms of the GPL also gives people the freedom to copy, share, redistribute, and even resell the themes if you wish. When you purchase a premium WordPress theme hoping to make your website design a bit more unique and special, the inherent freedoms of a GPL theme mean your design might not be as exclusive as you might wish.

Would you use a premium WordPress theme from a shop that uses a proprietary licence, license key or other measures in an attempt to protect its exclusivity? When choosing a theme how important is it for you that its 100% GPL?

Have your say in the comments below.


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8 replies to Do Users Really Want WordPress Themes to be Free?

  1. Well. To me, there is no problem with purchasing the theme under GPL License. But some people make use of GPL to download premium themes for free. It’s not illegal, but it’s unfair for those who buy the theme. Making use of license key is a nice move to keep these premium themes private and working

  2. This is a very interesting point. Requiring API key wouldn’t solve a lot either. A smart thief would just take out the validation check.. and the rest of the theme would work fine. Then all they have to do is release the theme in public for illegal downloads.

    How do you monitor all that? It’s nearly impossible unless you don’t want to create new themes and grow your company.

    Again, its a decision by the developer and I respect that.

  3. A theme being GPL and being distributed “all over the web” is completely unrelated nor is there any causality. (*cough* all proprietary non-free software on torrent sites *cough*)

    This is a non- discussion.

    Do you built for WordPress then adhere to the GPL. It’s in the license. Period.

  4. Piece of advice: 90% of the redistributed “premium” themes contain malware. So stay away from them. And support the developer.

  5. As Tom mentioned above, premium themes that are distributed for free (which is illegal) contain Malware. It is interesting by the way that you found out that the users of “the person you won’t name” asked him not to adhere to the GPL.

    Personally I was also looking for free WP themes when I started building my websites, but since there are plenty of companies out there with great support forums, I stick with them. That has made me a lot of money already in man hours. Anyway, thanks for your great read!

  6. @ Jacobus – distributing premium themes for free actually is not illegal at all if they were released with a 100% GPL license.

  7. @PremiumWP I know what you mean, but recently I ran into free themes from one of the major providers of Premium Themes and they were offered for free. Then they had them tested and it contained all kinds of malicious code. Problem is these themes are provided by companies in countries in which it is useless to take legal action to stop that. But I got your point.

  8. @Jacobus – that’s why you should never download premium WordPress themes from those shady warez sharing websites.

    However it also shows to developers the beauty of using the GPL license for WordPress themes. People will copy, share and distribute themes around the web no matter what sort of license your themes have. But if it’s GPL it means you don’t have to worry about trying to stop it, taking legal action etc which just wastes your time when you could be doing other things that matter.

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