Theme/plugins clubs breaking GPL?

When you go buy a theme/plugin it will say $12 for a standard (personal) license and $175 for developer license.

I recently bought a plugin on themeforest.
Not attacking the me forest itself.

GPL says I can use any plugin for whatever I want, fork it, use it on 50 sites, etc…

As much as theme/plugin clubs may want…those themes/plugins inherit the GPL which essentially says I don’t need developer license.

Please note that I have no problem with paying for themes/plugins, as long as I get value for my money.


Hey @MiroslavGlavic,

That’s a great point! I had a similar discussion about that topic with @ineagu from CodeinWP.

The GPL license tells that you can use GPL licensed code anywhere you like. But the GPL license doesn’t have any restrictions on the way plugin / theme shops can price their commercial products. Or how they can add logic that will enforce the licensing.

So yes, if you purchase a single site license, you can “hack” it, remove all the license related logic, and legally install it on another 2,000 sites :smile: But there’s nothing illegal in the pricing of multi-site licenses.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer. Though I spent MANY-MANY hours reading and understanding the license. So this is my interpretation.

If I’m buying a GPL plugin it’s usually only for access to updates, support or special features.

This is true, but I would bet what you are paying for with the “developer license” is the ability to update all those sites via the WordPress native updater.

@est73 - 100% agree. I’m a premium plugin developer and sell multi site licenses. We have quite a few users that use it on many different sites and only pay for one. But after they can’t update once and it breaks their site, they contact support for an unlicensed domain which we can choose to support or not. I think a customer of mine recently said it best.

I’m GLAD I had to pay a little bit to get the exit-intent functionality I wanted for my popup. It gives me confidence that Popup Maker has the funding to invest in support, upgrades, and improvements. I worry that some free plugins will wind up disappearing (or stop being updated by their developers) when they don’t see enough income to make it worth their attention. At that point I’d need to search for an alternative to deliver that functionality and then install and implement it on my site – which could be a huge drain on my time. Again, paying a little bit for premium features means I can be confident Popup Maker has the resources to keep its plugins operational and up-to-date.

Hey Miroslav,

Specifically about the license for products on ThemeForest and CodeCanyon (I work for Envato), you have to check whether they are 100% GPL or not. If they are they will say so in the section under the price. Unfortunately most aren’t… :frowning:

If they are, you can do what you like with them. At the moment, it still says (under the price, above the 100% GPL statement) that it can only be used on one site, which is inaccurate and which we will need to look into.

If they aren’t 100% GPL, then they are split license, with only the PHP being GPL. So you can do what you like with the PHP but need to follow the Envato license for everything else, such as CSS, JavaScript, etc…


Related… a lot of plugin and theme shops (outside of ThemeForest) that are 100% GPL limit support and theme updates to X number of sites in order to cover the ongoing costs associated with these things. So you’ll see pricing like: 1 Site $49, 5 Sites $99, 20 Sites $149. In situations like this, what you are purchasing is a license for those services plus access to the download. This is unrelated to the GPL. You can still use the plugin on unlimited sites, fork it, etc. but you won’t get technical support or one-click theme updates for sites not covered by your purchase.

The plugin seller is also free to ask people to pay them for each website use even if the customer doesn’t technically have to do that for permission under the GPL.

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@StephenCronin technically all WordPress derivative works inherit GPL license, no matter what authors say.

I have bought from Themeforest.

What if I don’t care for updates? So many customers don’t want updating because they don’t understand website ongoing maintenance.

Obligatory “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer.

Not to open a huge can of worms here, but that hasn’t been tested in court. There are arguments that argue against it.

Also, there is a difference between the “100% GPL” that the requires, which includes artwork/CSS/JS, and the “split license” that covers just the PHP code that the Free Software Foundation concluded was still also legal.

On the original topic, not much I can say that hasn’t already been said by others. Basically, it’s not breaking the GPL for a business to restrict support and updates per site however they see fit, just as long as the distributed code itself is GPL-compatible.

I do think that some businesses can be a bit misleading with their sales copy which can cause confusion as to whether or not it’s really GPL, but that’s a different issue.

@MiroslavGlavic - What Leland said.

The WordPress Foundation / Matt Mullenweg accepted the advice from the Free Software Foundation that the PHP in themes (and by extension plugins) inherited the GPL license, but that images, CSS, JavaScript did not.

The Foundation doesn’t like that much, which is why they don’t allow themes / plugins that aren’t 100% GPL on, etc, but they accepted it’s legal.

Authors who sell on ThemeForest or CodeCanyon can choose whether they want to sell their products as 100% GPL or split license (PHP under GPL, the rest under the Envato license which is 1 site only). Anyway, if you buy something from ThemeForest, check whether it says it’s 100% GPL Compatible if that’s what you’re after.

Of course, the majority of authors choose split license… :frowning: Frowning because I’m big supporter of the GPL (all my plugins are 100% GPL) and would like more authors to choose that license.

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It is my understanding that you can license your code under whatever license you want.

You may be violating WordPress’ license by doing so. However, opinion does not automatically change the license of your work. Only a legal ruling may decide that for a specific case.

I believe this is a pretty important distinction. You can’t go around violating any license you want because you believe they’re violating another license.

I’d rather just support folks in the community who are 100% open source.

That is my understanding too. License your derivative work under the GPL and it’s all good. But use a different license, and you’re violating WordPress’ license. HOWEVER, I never understood what the actual “penalty” is for this.

Lets say someone releases a WordPress plugin or theme and it does not use the GPL license. And then it turns out to be a very popular money making machine.

I’m sure the WordPress Foundation would not be super happy about this, and not support the plugin. surely won’t list it in their repos. But then the author could just say “well too bad, but I’ll just keep selling it on my own site”, despite public opinion about the license model used.

So…what’s the big deal then? Plugin doesn’t follow rules, but then what? Or can someone actually take the author to court and have the judge say that the plugin or theme can’t be sold anymore?

Note: I do support open source software more than anything else, and I’m not planning on breaking the GPL rules myself at all, but I would like to know the “repercussions”.

That’s pretty much what happens. At best, you just won’t be allowed to host any code on, and maybe not be allowed to speak at WordCamps. There’s also the conflict with Thesis, which can at least be partially attributed to its creator’s refusal to adopt a GPL license.

A bunch of old membership plugins like WishList Member are non-GPL with obfuscated code and have operated like that for years, as well as a lot of sketchy “autoblogging” type crap. It’s just not stuff we typically hear about in this subset of the WordPress community.

There haven’t been any legal judgements against anyone for “violating the GPL” in the WordPress community, as far as I know.

That’s what I thought too, but I never got an “official” confirmation on this. Of course the Thesis situation came to mind, and that’s why I wondered about it. From what I understand, the WordPress Foundation can’t really do anything against Thesis not following their GPL rules, so they kinda use other methods to show their disapproval. Let’s call it that. :wink:

It’s like selling unauthorized iPhone protection covers or earbuds (or whatever iPhone accessory). Those are not endorsed by Apple – but what can they do, besides refusing to sell them in Apple stores? Not like that’s such a big deal for the seller, is it?

At WooThemes you can buy our themes or extensions single license but you will not be able to activate the key on more than one site. Since it’s all 100% GPL, you can install it on as many sites as you’d like and even give it away but you will not receive support or updates on anything more than the website you activated the license on. That’s typically also how it works with many other marketplaces.

Edit: sorry, meant that as a reply for the original poster.


NOT TUAT I AM SUGGESTING THIS but…what’s stopping person A registering with fake name, getting updates for the year then ogving those updates under a different name?

I’m not sure I understand. You have to pay for updates. Whatever name you use doesn’t matter. Licenses are activated per-site too. If you have a one site license, you can only activate the license on website domain. It prevents you from activating it on other domains. You can choose which domain you want the domain to be activated on our website too.

You said no updates if yo don’t pay for plugins.

What’s to stop me from paying for plugin xyz and getting the updates then giving away those updates as well as the plugin?

you said above people pay for updates/support


Not really anything, unless you were really blatant about it, like posting your support license key in a public place. Then the seller could just terminate your account, because there’s almost always a clause that is explicitly against that.

Maybe experienced theme/plugin sellers have tricks up their sleeve to detect such activity, but I’m not aware of any. As far as I know, it’s pretty much the honor system.

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As @leland pointed out, nothing is stopping you from sharing the plugin. That’s the freedom of GPL. Many terrible websites exist that resell plugins that includes updates. It’s extremely unethical and hurts the development of the extension. There’s some heavy discussion on that topic somewhere else.

It’s important to note that resellers often break copyright laws. The extension is GPL but the branding is still copyright.

Just rename akismet to michaeltieso-anti-spam plugin. That would deal with the copyright part.

I googled popular themes/plugins, downloaded them and looked at the code. Wow talk about spamware (I never uploaded them to server).

Ethics is ete of beholder.