Dougal Campbell's geek ramblings

WordPress, web development, and world domination.

WordPress theme licensing

There is finally an official answer to the question of whether or not WordPress themes must “inherit” the GPL license that WordPress itself uses. Matt asked the Software Freedom Law Center to examine the WordPress source and how themes fit in. The final, official answer to whether themes must be GPL? Yes and no. :)

As many people have theorized before (myself included), the PHP files in a theme fall under GPL because they are reliant on the main WP codebase in order to function. The CSS, images, and javascript, however, are separate works which can stand on their own in other contexts, and therefore can be licensed however their creator wishes.

The Theme Repository at WordPress.org will only host themes that are fully compliant with the GPL. But they do now now have a directory of other sites which provide “commercially supported GPL themes“. I expect that the combination of the license clarification and the commercial directory listings will stir a lot of new buzz in the WordPress theming communities.

I imagine we’ll start seeing a lot of “free, basic” themes, with “premium” child themes that add fancier styling and javascript features [note: no "child theme" page in the Codex? Really?]. Another business model that commercial theme developers might consider trying is the “hostage-ware” model. This is where you only release the product after you receive $X in “donations” (see Kickstarter for an example of a service built on this idea, in a meta sort of way). However, I’m positive that we’ll also continue to see plenty of wonderful themes which are fully free (in both the “beer” and “speech” senses).

About Dougal Campbell

Dougal is a web developer, and a "Developer Emeritus" for the WordPress platform. When he's not coding PHP, Perl, CSS, JavaScript, or whatnot, he spends time with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat in their Atlanta area home.
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14 Responses to WordPress theme licensing

  1. codestyling says:

    In most articles i found on this subject, that one clear statement will be not clearly highlighted but it is nevertheless true: if the Theme uses a php file containing a class as example, that can also be used outside the scope of WordPress and doesn’t depend on WP, this php file is not automatically GPL!
    It’s the same as for Javascript Libraries, where WP doesn’t put it’s lisence onto automatically.
    Only those php files not useable outside a WordPress context (theme/core function calls, hooks etc.) are GPL’ed all other php file of the theme aren’t.

    • Dougal says:

      That’s a good point. I have mentioned this in regards to plugins elsewhere before.

      It is possible in some cases to break certain functionality out into separate code libraries. As long as that code is capable of being used in a context that does not completely rely on WordPress (or whatever GPL’d code that you’re integrating with), that code can be separately licensed.

      So, for example, you could have a PHP class that calls web APIs like Twitter, Flickr, etc., or which manipulates image data, or whatever. As long as that code is a “black box” to WP (i.e., it can function completely separately from WordPress), it can have its own license.

      So one could develop a theme (or plugin), bundle non-GPL libraries, and only the glue-code which interfaces WordPress and the library would have to fall under GPL.

      In this situation, you aren’t going to be able to host your project in the wordpress.org repositories, but it does give a legal way to retain some rights on pieces of code, for those who choose to go that route.

    • Dougal says:

      Oh, and as a side note, something to ponder: If we had decided to implement themes using Smarty templates, I bet the answers around this issue would be completely different. That extra layer of abstraction would have insulated the themes from the WordPress code implementation.

      Interesting, thought, yes? :)

      I submit that if someone made a WordPress plugin which allowed the use of Smarty template based themes, it would re-open this whole issue. Well, not “re-open” it. But re-define it, to a certain extent.

      There’s my pot-stirring for today :)

  2. Dan Coulter says:

    Do WordPress plugins automatically fall under the GPL for the same reason?

  3. mercime says:

    I am all for capitalism. No money, no honey :-) My $0.02 is that anyone can add to the heap of the minutiae of non-WordPress specific items in a WP theme. The bottom line is that that theme is useless unless one uploads the theme to the wp-content/themes/ folder of a WordPress or WPMU installation and activates it.

  4. Jeffro says:

    Now we have to read a bunch of posts wondering when Commercial GPL plugins will receive the same treatment in regards to a page dedicated to companies or services doing things that way outside of the plugin repository.

  5. Rahul Sonar says:

    I believe wordpress is free, so themes should be free as well. But if a programmer is hardly working on its designing, he can charge for his work!!!

  6. Matt says:

    There are a thousand ways you can get around the GPL and find loopholes, but those aren’t really things we want to support or promote.

    • Dougal says:

      I didn’t mean to imply that I support trying to work around the GPL. Obviously, I’m not pushing to make money off my own plugins (and I haven’t even made much of an effort to promote donations). But I can put myself in the other guy’s shoes, play devil’s advocate, and see that the conditions surrounding themes might not be iron clad. And if I can see it, then I’m sure that those who have more motivation have seen it, too.

      As I said in the main post, I’m certain that we’ll continue to have great themes that are fully GPL-licensed. Anything important that is ever done in a ‘for-pay’ theme can be replicated in a GPL theme, if somebody has the motivation to create it.

      I still think that a way to create smarty-based themes would be interesting, though. Not for the GPL-insulating aspect, but for the fact that it might open WordPress theming up to designers who aren’t as comfortable with the PHP code-fu that theming currently requires.

  7. Not all is as clear about this as GNU wants us to believe. The following article gives a legal analysis of the “plugins must be GPL’d” claim:

    http://www.law.washington.edu/lct/swp/Law/derivative.html

    It’s a long article but it’s well worth the read.

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  9. sampath says:

    WordPress is one of the great free CMC for blog or web so themes should be free too but i know its hard to develop difference kind of themes so i hope its ok to charge something to cover developing time.

  10. Yes using wordpress cms we can make what we are looking for in general websites

    WordPress is rocking .

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