Matt, the lead developer for WordPress, has come up with a post saying “WordPress Themes are GPL too“.
I have created several popular WordPress Themes, ever since WordPress started supporting Themes.
I do not agree to him saying “WordPress Themes are GPL, too” and I will put my thoughts about it in this post.

What is WordPress?

WordPress is an open source software that is released to the public for free, under a GPL License.
People download this software, and install it on their hosting servers. The software helps people manage their website’s content and its ‘look and feel’.
I do strongly believe it is one of the most versatile and powerful CMS out there as of now.

What is a WordPress Theme?

A WordPress Theme, is a collection of PHP files, CSS stylesheets and images. These files are packaged into one zip file and is offered as one “WordPress Theme”.
A Theme basically defines the look and feel of a WordPress-Powered site.
In simple words, we could say that WordPress offers the bare bones of the website and a Theme offers the skin that covers the skeleton.
You can learn more about what is in a WordPress Theme at my other site.

How does it work?

People can download these WordPress Themes, from many of the websites.
They can then install the Theme to work with their WordPress installation. One website can have multiple WordPress Themes and people can pick and choose any of the Themes that they have installed.

Why I think a Theme need not inherit GPL License?

I am just trying to put my thoughts on this issue here. I do understand WordPress has been created and maintained by lots of hard working and passionate people at the Development team. I am not in any way trying to belittle any of their work.

1. Theme’s code is not written by WordPress Dev Team.

WordPress provides the hooks for the WordPress Themes. A Theme developer basically uses these hooks and presents the content in an elegant manner, through the theme.
WordPress comes with only two themes bundled with it. Those are called “WordPress Classic Theme” and “WordPress Default Theme”. If Matt wants to dictate what license a theme should be inheriting, he can only say it for these two themes or any themes that inherits from these two themes.

2. A Theme is not released as one package bundled with WordPress.

If someone releases a WordPress Theme as one package, bundled with WordPress software itself, then he/she has to inherit the license of WordPress itself.
But, as far as I know, a theme is released on its own package and nobody includes the WordPress software itself along with the theme.
So I actually do not see any reason for a Theme to inherit the license of WordPress.

3. Themes based on a free CSS Template

I have created some of my themes, based on a design by Free CSS Templates. If the author of that template says the footer links to his website should not be removed, then I have to make sure people using my WordPress Theme, do not remove them.
If WordPress wants to force a theme to be GPL, then I will not be able to create any WordPress Theme based on such templates.
We may not have a Fall Season at The Green House for sure!

4. A Website’s design is not solely controlled by StyleSheet and Images

Matt and his team mentioned that any stylesheet and/or images in the theme do not need to inherit the GPL license. Well and Good, but transforming a design into an actual website, is not achieved, just by touching the stylesheet and images. A Theme developer has to write the code on the index.php ( and other .php files in the theme as well)

Suppose my theme displays a calendar like look for each one of the post as you see in my Pal Nila Theme.
To achieve this look, I put the following code inside the loop in index.php file.

<p class="post-date">
<span class="month"><?php the_date('M');?></span>
<span class="day"><?php the_date('d');?></span>
</p>

WordPress does not give me this code. It only tells me that I can use the_date() function with the right parameter, to get to the data that I want to display.
If a .php file has the code that I wrote (and it is not copying code from the default or classic WordPress themes), then I should be able to define the licensing terms on that, isn’t it?

Final Note:

I do understand that people’s views and opinions can always be different.
I am not against GPL and of course I am going to make some of my work to be GPL too, but I want to have a freedom of choice to decide which license I should release my work under.
I do not like the licensing to be forced on something that I created.

That’s all Folks! Let me know your thoughts.

If you are using my themes in any of your website, please read my licensing terms.

WordPress News 24 Responses so far

24 Responses to “My WordPress Themes are not GPL, got my own Licensing terms”

  1. Brad says:

    Sorry to be blunt, but your opinion doesn’t change the legal issues surrounding the GPL licensing of WordPress. If you “do not like the licensing to be forced” on your creations, power to you…but if you’re going to make themes that use the WordPress framework, php hooks, etc…then you have to, legally speaking at least, adhere to the GPL licensing for any code directly tying into WordPress (in other words, the images and css may well not be GPL, but the majority of the actual theme code would be).

    That said, it would be interesting to see themes released under other forms of licensing, but to be following the original license at least parts of the theme would HAVE to be GPL compliant. Not that it REALLY matters on a practical level in most cases, as it’s unlikely that the WordPress team will do much in the way of legal battles to maintain every theme out there is GPL compliant…but legally speaking, they SHOULD be.

    • Sadish says:

      Thanks for your visit and comments Brad. I understand there are some legal issues with it. but I am just putting my views here to see how many other people share a similar view (so far none). lets see.

    • Adam says:

      Uh, quite late, but I feel I need to speak up on this.

      Brad, Andrew and whoever else argues with “legal issues” – that’s plain wrong.

      For one, the GPL itself does not restrict mixing with every other license, just with “incompatible” licenses. (There is a list of compatible liceses at http://www.gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html#GPLCompatibleLicenses)

      But more importantly, the GPL covers distribution, not usage. As long as GPL and “non-free” stuff are distributed separately, and only used together at the end user’s site, there are absolutely no legal issues. This is legal reality, no matter what the mysterious “reputable source” (mentioned elsewhere in the comments) says about it.

      (In fact, the only truly reputable source on this matter is GNU and the FSF, and perhaps lawyers specialized in the open source licensing topic.)

      I understand that folks at WP.org would love to force everyone to take on their view of licensing models, and they are pretty militant about it, but that does not change the fact that it’s not the GPL that makes the restrictions, but them, and only them.

      So Sadish, from a legal perspective, you can safely put your themes under any license you want. It’s just that you’ll have to live with the fact that the WP hardliners are not going to love you for it. If you can live without their love, there’s no reason why you should not do your licensing your own way.

  2. andrew says:

    Have to agree with Brad. The legal opinion is very clear and from a reputable source.

    The adoption of GPL has made WordPress the huge success it is today.

    You are presumably making commercial success from WordPress – and GPL does not prevent you from selling themes – but it seems entirely reasonable to me that you respect the licensing of WordPress in the same way that you expect people to respect your licenses (although in the case of WordPress themes invalid as far as I can see).

  3. Eric says:

    Hello Sadish. While I truly appreciate your work as a theme developer, and the work of others too, you actually proved that themes are required to be GPL, in your own words:

    “WordPress provides the hooks for the WordPress Themes. A Theme developer basically uses these hooks and presents the content in an elegant manner, through the theme.”

    I still hope that you will continue to support the WordPress community with your work.

  4. Sadish says:

    Thank you guys for your comments.

    I will still be in the WordPress community, trying to help in whatever way possible. either through my support forums or by releasing more themes, both free and premium.

    I am still not convinced about the license being inherited from WordPress.
    Let me give you an analogy.
    Apple gives the hooks to develop Applications for iPhone. People use these hooks to develop applications for it.
    Do you think, Apple should come back one day and say,

    “since the SDK itself is free and we gave you the APIs, all the applications that are written using those APIs, belongs to Apple.”

    Even though it is not going to happen, do you think it is valid for Apple to say that?

    Somebody please explain it to me.

    Thanks.

  5. Martin says:

    Although I have to admit that I’m not trained in legal matters – and since I don’t live in America aren’t familiar with the legal system as a whole – I do agree with you, Sadish.

    These hooks we spoke about are just an interface between a theme and the wordpress engine. I do not think one can force the license of wordpress onto anything using this interface, i.e. plugins and themes. The interface does actually draws a clear line between the wordpress-code and the outer world and, this is part of what makes WordPress so cool and usable.

    I guess crossing the interface-border with the license would result in really obscure scenarios. For example: What if I use a very personal photo as header image for my blog? Would that photo, coded into the theme, be GP-licensed then too? What about contents? I make use of WordPress to publish them; does that mean my poems are now available under GPL? I couldn’t accept that.

    Regards
    Martin

  6. Me says:

    You don’t have to like the GPL license. But if you don’twant to adhere to the license agreement, then don’t use WordPress.

  7. visitor says:

    According to Matt “The GPL is the most popular Open Source license in the world” and he then pointed us to a link at blackdusk license information system. Is that a reason to use GPL as a licensing system? However, the “philosophical underpinnings” (his words) of the use of the GPL-License in WordPress I can understand. They(WP) are using GPL-License for their software, because their intentions are to co-hearse community involvement while maintaining and giving creators and developers the opportunity to keep control of their creations (nothing wrong in that).

    I do believe “control” is the main object here for their use of the GPL-License. Many see this control as a “restriction”, which in a “philosophical” sense it is. Matt, many just don’t share that R. Stallman type of philosophy. Also adhering to a license would depend on the developers’ philosophy on Copyright.

    A GPL-compatible (as stated in WP License) license would be Apache License v2.0. However, the Apache 2.0 License does not interpret copyright as the GPLv3 does. A statement found at Apache on this point says it all. Remeber the point about philosophical perspective (apache.org/licenses/GPL-compatibility.html). I quote “We avoid GPLv3 software because merely linking to it is considered by the GPLv3 authors to create a derivative work”.

    I can understand the way in which Sadish sees the implementation of this License. Which would mean, he is not in harmony with the philosophy of Matt on this subject entirely. He never says he doesn’t like WordPress or the GPLv3, but his philosophy on the point of freedom, copyright and intellectual property is different. I quote him here “I am not against GPL and of course I am going to make some of my work to be GPL too, but I want to have a freedom of choice to decide which license I should release my work under”.

    Being dogmatic and sottish like “You don’t have to like the GPL license. But if you don’twant to adhere to the license agreement, then don’t use WordPress” this, only serve to create a riff where none was in the first place.

  8. Chad Garrett says:

    I think I’m on both sides. I think it’s ridiculous that the GPL would ever be used to assert my right to steal WordPress themes. But I think it’s just that the choice of the developers to use the GPL license was not explained early on.

    They don’t want people selling closed-source addons for WordPress. And according to the GPL, a theme would fall under that category, and be required to be released GPL.

    As Eric quoted you:
    “WordPress provides the hooks for the WordPress Themes. A Theme developer basically uses these hooks and presents the content in an elegant manner, through the theme.”

    In the Windows world of software development, a WordPress would be considered as a library (or DLL file). DLL files provide hooks that offer various functions and features. In GPL speak, linking to a DLL requires you to release your work as GPL.

    On the other hand, PHP code in a theme is not executable code in the traditional sense. It’s more of a config file or display file. It’s not being treated as source code.

  9. According to the GPL, any code that links to GPL code has to be released as GPL.

    You can’t just place all your calls to WP functions inside functions.php, because releasing that as GPL means that calls to your wrapper functions are also GPLed.

    It looks, then, like there is no way to prevent any php code you create for WP having to be released under a GPL licence.

    This should not really be a problem for sellers of themes – if you call a non-GPLed function (from non-gpl-functions.php, say) from a GPLed file, the GPL licence does not apply.

    GPL will also therefore not apply to CSS or image files.

    Enforcing this presents no harder problems than before. What sucks is not being able to enforce attribution, unless your footer.php code does not make any calls to WP functions. This, on the whole, hurts the community. If I wanted to be able to enforce attribution for my theme design (which I can’t do in any visible way through css or images) then I have to remove any useful functionality from my footer (such as displaying a ‘content copyright ‘).

    It’s retarded. I can understand the point of saying that WP theme code that links to WP functions has to be GPL – I don’t have a problem with that.

    The lack of any kind of attribution for my original work (in terms of CSS / image creation / original functionality) means that this will affect me not so much from not being able to control how my work is distributed (because it is trivial to copy/modify/distribute for free a WP theme, let’s be honest) but more because somebody could add their own site name to the footer and claim it as ‘designed by http://liars.com‘ and get design/development work from work I have done, and this is the thing that really does not sit comfortably with me.

  10. Anon says:

    It’s the same thing all over. People complain about the GPL and talk about freedom. The GPL is what has kept the freedom in software, without it there would be no Linux and no WordPress. It’s not like there are no alternatives to WordPress. Don’t behave like the companies who use GPL code the basis of their work and service, and then refuse to give back to the people who created the basis without charging them or demanding credit or attribution or you-name-it. Without WP, the themes are nothing. If they are something – well then you can refrain from using WP and use them with your own or some other nonGPL code. About attribution: if on my blog I had to state every name of every person who has contributed I wouldn’t have to write any text, because I’d have to list the theme author, EVERY WP author, every plugin author, and for good measure maybe all the authors of every single piece of software running on my server. Get the idea?

    That doesn’t mean I don’t link to the theme designer. It just means I can’t be forced onto the slippery slope (attribution today, banner the next, then advertisement etc.).

    • The issue is not that the code that is GPLed is GPLed. That’s right and as it should be. It’s that the content that isn’t GPLed by default (the images/artwork and css) can now be ‘legally’ (by the terms of the GPL) attributed to someone else, and that’s not cool.

      You say “Without WP, the themes are nothing.”

      I say, without the css and the images, the themes are nothing. Why do you choose a theme? Because of how it looks, or because the of php code (which is 99.99% the same across all themes)?

      With the css and images, I can also create html templates, themes for other CMSes. Without WP, these do just fine. Try using a WordPress theme without a css file. You can’t. So really, without the css (which is not default-GPLed, the themes are nothing.

      Your arguments for GPL are already sound. You don’t need to be an ass by saying ‘your themes are worthless without WP.’

      Also, if you don’t want to give attribution, by your standards you should refrain from using such themes, rather than complaining about it.

      I GPL the code that should be GPLed. Unfortunately for my WordPress themes, this now means that I can’t protect in any way against false attribution. Content that should not be GPLed is being compromised by the GPL. That seems ridiculous to me.

      “Don’t behave like the companies who use GPL code the basis of their work and service, and then refuse to give back to the people who created the basis without charging them or demanding credit or attribution or you-name-it.”

      Well, my images and css are created by me. I own the copyright. The php code in my themes that calls WordPress functions I sell with GPL. I think that’s fair. I am not ‘demanding’ anything. I am asserting my right to protect my copyright, and to be identified as the author of the work I own the copyright to. The GPL creates a real problem here by denying me that right. And here is your double standard:

      You say that “the people who created the basis” are owed something for their work; people should be willing to “give back.” I agree with this. The GPL makes it necessary for WordPress themes php code to be released under the GPL, which solves the problem in respect to the WordPress development community. The GPL also makes it impossible for this to be enforced with respect to css and images created by theme designers. This does not matter to you. Why not? Protect the rights of one party, but not the other? Please explain to me how that works with your philosophy, because that is a serious disconnect.

      Where is the ‘slippery slope?’
      If you don’t agree to the terms of licensing, you don’t have to use it. You don’t have to include advertisements or banners. Go find another theme. I can’t imagine many theme designers doing this unless they are offering a free theme, in which case, guess what? You don’t have to use it.

      If I buy/use an image with a licence that says I must credit the copyright holder in any usage, how can I release a theme with that image? There is *no way* to ensure that the terms of the licence are adhered to. How is that fair to the photographer/artist?

      Put simply, it isn’t.

      I have read a number of responses to this problem which were well thought out and intelligent. Yours was not one. Please try to look beyond the GPL zealotry and understand the problem here.

      I think the GPL is an excellent idea. I see a problem with its application here, however, that you seem to be ignoring/unable to understand.

  11. Nick says:

    You’re VERY RIGHT, you may license your creations (i.e. WP themes) whatever you want. Many theme creators work hardly to make some good themes, and for their work they have absolutely all rights to release them under a Commercial or a Creative Commons license. Unfortunately, on the other hand, there are people who just want to use freely those themes (in other words TO STEAL). Those jerks ‘justify’ their steal by falsely claim that all themes created for WordPress fall automatically under GPL license, which is obviously wrong.

    • Bobby says:

      Hey Nick

      Please note that if you believe it is theft for a person to take a WP template and use it for their own means, whether for redistribution within a WordPress file or to remove footer code etc.. then in affect you are stealing the very thing that WP was built on, thus being an open source license for individuals to use modify and redistribute however they wish. If a WP theme hooks into WordPress, like they all do in order to function appropriately as web templates, then you are fundamentally giving away your rights to that template. You have the liberty to say that your template is copyrighted etc…, but this cannot be forced and it is not a legal obligation for WP users to abide by. I would say that if anyone has a problem with others redistributing their work then they should not build their work for an open source platform such as WordPress. I do understand the hard work and time that has went into the production of these templates, and understand the dismay at not receiving any royalties, but that is the choice that web template developers make. Additionally a stylesheet can be easily modified to become your own, as it is just about changing the tags, a few mark-ups etc… So i don’t believe style-sheets within WP themes have much to go on either.

  12. Points for clarification:

    1. Any file in a WordPress theme that calls a WordPress function *has* to be licensed under the GPL.

    2. Any file in a WordPress theme that calls a WordPress function does not have to be licensed under the GPL.

    3. The GPL is not a ‘freedom-based’ licence. It is incredibly restrictive, but it is presented as a ‘freedom-based’ licence presumably because it sounds better. See “the GPL is what has kept the freedom in software” as an example.

    4. “The adoption of GPL has made WordPress the huge success it is today.” This implies that if any project wants to be a success, it should use GPL. This is obviously false. WordPress was forced to use the GPL because it was built upon the work of another project which used the GPL.

    5. “you may license your creations (i.e. WP themes) whatever you want.” This is not the case. See points 1 and 2.

    6. The php code in WordPress themes is the least important part of the theme. The css, artwork, and html are. In a matter of minutes any WordPress theme could be converted to a standard template by removing WordPress api calls.

    7. Even though the php code is the least important part of the theme (point 6), the GPL licence is still forced on any php files that make use of WordPress code.

    8. My problem with this is that themes as a collection are not automatically GPLed. There should be a way to ensure attribution for css and artwork if that is what the theme creator wants. The GPL makes this impossible, without either hurting the end users or the creators.

  13. This is an interesting thread I came across.

    There is an analogy with Linux. Linux kernel is GPL’ed and it provides API for device manufacturers to write their device drivers. However the drivers can be non-GPL licenced. The usage of API doesn’t enforce GPL licence on the software that uses API. There are plenty of proprietary software for Linux.

    Back to WordPress. I believe if theme doesn’t change or tamper with WordPress code and just merely uses WordPress hooks (WordPress API) then it can be non GPL’ed. So every WordPress derivative CMS must be GPL’ed, but there may be add-ons to the CMS (themes) which can be non GPL’ed.

    I am not a lawyer. This is only my personal opinion about this legal issue.

  14. Tim Post says:

    When you speak of the GPL, its important to make the small distinction between “open source” and “free software”, as the GPL was written by the person who started the “free software” movement.

    The GNU GPL is written to guarantee four basic freedoms for the user:

    0 – The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
    1 – The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish
    2 – The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
    3 – The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others

    The license is intentionally viral, as its purpose is to preserve those freedoms as long as copyright exists on all works derived from GPL (or combined with GPL) code.

    The GPL is also very, very specific about the nature of any work. A program (or theme, or style sheet, or whatever is covered by the license) is either an original, combined or derived work.

    Using WP code in any theme makes the end result a _combined_ work. Your code, plus WP code is combined and executed in the same address space by PHP. Therefore, any theme using WP functions or framework (i.e., it depends on WP) must be compatible with the GNU GPL itself. A lot of the creative commons licenses are compatible, as long as they do not restrict what you can modify in the theme, including removal of HTML code like footer links. So I agree, partly, themes do not have to be GPL; themes must be _compatible_ with the GPL, meaning they must be equally or less restrictive. The 4 clause (revised) BSD license is fully compatible with the GPL2 and 3, however the GPL prevails if you distribute it.

    Technically, your themes should not combine with GPL code, because the two licenses are not compatible. However, since your themes are not distributed with WordPress, and do not contain the actual (functional) implementations of the functions you use from WordPress, there is nothing to say you can’t distribute them (yet).

    The legal issues surrounding this are solid, have been proven in court countless times and definitely apply. However, this does not, as I noted, make your business untenable. It simply means nobody can distribute WordPress with your theme installed.

    IANAL, but I deal with software licensing issues professionally on a daily basis, its my job to integrate FLOSS into our business, appliance products, etc.

  15. Nick says:

    If GPL License prevents plagiarism then I believe there is no harm in using it. I have experienced the bad side of it. I hosted a plugin on wordpress under GPL license few years back and recently I found out there was another plugin with a different name but exactly same code, screenshots and description hosted by someone else.
    When I was complaining about it on the wordpress forums, there were people who were defending that act saying GPL allows to steal the code and redistribute it under a different name.

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