WordPress’ “GPL” and Theme Mess

So if you follow WordPress news at all, you may have heard about a crazy thing happening right now where Automattic removed around two hundred themes from WordPress.org’s theme directory. Many of these themes were removed as they didn’t fit with Matt’s vision of the GPL. Some themes were released freely, under the GPL but were really a promotion and marketing effort for companies looking to sell themes. I didn’t have any problem with this, but it seems that Automattic does, and themes that linked back to companies that sell themes that aren’t under the GPL were removed to “protect” WordPress users.

I think this is ridiculous. I, for one, am glad that I use custom themes, and Thesis, a great premium theme. I wish that Thesis was able to be part of the WordPress theme directory to take advantage of the update and upgrade system now in WordPress core, but since Matt doesn’t agree with their business model, he punishes them directly.

Matt blames theme creators for not thinking creatively when it comes to building a business around theme development, but if he keeps cutting off their arms when they try to find ways to build a business, eventually, they will give up and move on to something that gives them a better return on investment regarding their time.

Maybe this issue will become the seed of a new mass exodus to another publishing platform? Do I hear Habari waiting in the wings? I’ve been told numerous times that Habari will let theme developers easily build a business around their themes for that platform.

This all wouldn’t bother me so much, except that Automattic is making huge boatloads of money off of WordPress and that is in large part thanks to all of the community support the platform gets.

More Reading:
Automattic putting the boot to premium theme developers
WordPress.org Pull 200 GPL Themes
200 Themes Removed From WordPress.org – Matt Explains Why
More Hypocrisy from Mullenweg and WordPress with new themes jihad

15 thoughts on “WordPress’ “GPL” and Theme Mess

  1. Malcolm Bastien

    I did just notice that recently! The theme library was actually coming along nicely with everything categorized for the users, but now it – it isn’t actually helpful at all.

    Communicate what is free and what is commercial clearly for the users sake I can agree with. Removing themes because the creators behind them make a business off selling themes? It does seem a bit heavy to take such big actions.

  2. JamieO

    Another option would be to create a plugin which allows users to specify other content repositories from which they can download plugins / themes from that aren’t the wordpress.org site. At first glance this might sound at odds with the community-minded approach that Automattic has, but it’s actually based on an approach that would position the designer / developer for a site as the single point of contact for support for a site owner.

    Everybody could have confidence that anything accessible from that separate repository has been cross-tested so that the owner could add plugins without fear of breaking the theme or contaminating their database by a bad plugin, etc.

  3. GeekLad

    This is sickening. Theme developers deserve recognition for their efforts. If they wish to link to their pay-for-theme website they should be allowed to do so. I would not be surprised if other free theme directories see increased usage as a result, where themes rejected by Automattic can be posted without issue.

  4. Andrew

    It is very easy to look at this in light of the situation as it stands (I think most people are) and say that these developers have done nothing wrong and aren’t taking advantage so why is it happening. However, the principle of the move is entirely reasonable, and once you start making exceptions to your principles then you get in a mess.

    Consider this: A large web design template company (you have all surely seem the generic template sites that are around – Not WordPress, templates) decides that the repository is the perfect place to promote their generic web templates. So what do they do, they produce a limited functionality version of all of their templates as WordPress templates with links back to their site (for the full version) and dump a a few hundred to a thousand very limited themes into the repository.

    In the scenario the community gets a very poor deal. The repository becomes little more than advertising space, great new theme ideas stop getting passed on, instead the repository features only decorative themes, with the best features being sold instead of made available via the community.

    Compare this to the way Brian Gardner is now doing business. You get the best theme he has to offer, every time. If you want help and support then you pay. That is massively better for the community.

    I asked a question on my blog a few posts back, as part of a larger post, which few people picked up on. It was essentially this: Do theme developers believe in open source / free software or do they only believe in it when they are getting other people’s work for free?

  5. David Peralty Post author

    Andrew, I get what you are saying but I think that the community should decide.

    Taking your scenario, my first thought is “so what!?” Let’s say thousands of themes are on WordPress.org’s theme repository, and only a few hundred are any good. That is where ratings, download numbers, tags and other search criteria help filter the crud from what you are looking for.

    What if I enjoy the design of a decorative theme? Also, what is a “limited functionality version?” If I can use it as a fully functional WordPress theme, then it isn’t really limited.

    Also, these businesses have to spend time, money and resources creating and managing their themes, and I believe they deserve something for their time. If they want to have you upgrade to a version that has an options panel to more easily control the design, then it is your choice as a consumer to decide if those features are worth the money or not.

    Brian Gardner’s business model only works because he was able to build a huge brand for himself, and how did he do that? Selling themes! You can’t tell me that he didn’t make some money that was then set aside to help market his current Revolution 2 themes.

    Also, what percentage of his buyers are buying support packages? I bet it hovers around one percent of the total people downloading and using Revolution 2.

    Part of the allure of premium themes is that not everyone will have the same theme as you because of the cost acts as a barrier to entry, meaning that you’ll have a “more unique” theme on your blog than if you had chosen a free theme.

    Thesis is one of the best themes I have ever used, and it was $165 for me to buy the developers license. It will never be part of the WordPress.org theme repository, meaning that I will not get theme update notifications from within WordPress, unless he builds it into the theme package himself like Tarski ended up doing.

    Theme developers and plugin developers only believe in open source when they can make a business from it. Otherwise, why waste the time creating advanced themes and plugins? I think without the capitalism side of this whole thing, we would never see the technically advanced themes we have today. I think that Revolution 2 wouldn’t have happened without Revolution.

    Free software, and open source software aren’t the same thing. People have to stop comparing the two. Also, I hate paying for software. I will always take the free version if it is even 90% as good as the paid version. So it isn’t like I want to see every theme cost money. I just believe that Automattic is taking steps that the community at large would not.

    Also, your statement about the type of work that companies release for free into the repository is generally false. Companies will want to put their best foot forward and get tens of thousands of people to download an amazing theme, in order to be able to up sell to them later.

    Lastly, I think that IF the only way amazingly talented design companies are going to release beautiful and feature filled themes is to have some way of monetizing their other works, then Automattic should be supporting their endeavours rather than trying to shut them down.

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  9. Ed Sutherland

    The shift to another platform may already be taking place by some premium designers. Cory Miller, who runs iThemes has begun offering MT themes. Miller said Anil Dash of Six Apart came to him.

  10. David Peralty Post author

    Ed – I saw that, and I must say, I am excited. Not the platform I would have picked, but I would laugh my butt off if MT became the next #1 blogging platform, simply because WordPress dropped the ball in helping companies monetize their work surrounding the platform. Kudos to SixApart for their smart move, and Cory as well!

  11. JamieO

    This is one of the first times that I’ve been in complete disagreement with you on a topic David. I think that the approach Matt has taken is quite consistent with their general philosophy towards open source. Feel free to visit my blog to read my fully articulated argument / response: WordPress: Committed to open source

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  13. Lisa

    While I appreciate that theme developers want to (and should) make money from their themes, WP.org is not the place to do it. Expecting to exploit a community site dedicated to GPL software is not a good marketing strategy, and neither is demanding that the core of that software include a method to build your business.

    If folks want to pimp their for-pay themes, they should purchase ad space, or find another way to lead customers to their sites—not expect WP.org to build their businesses for them.

  14. t31os

    Spot on Lisa. Theme developers are relying on WP.org to generate traffic for their business, that option is now removed, and people are chucking toys out the pram.

    The decision was a good one. I think it very sad to see developers blame their failed business models onto Matt because they can no longer get free traffic to their sites…

    If you create a product of value, you will get business. Quality speaks for itself… The market will dictate the value, whether you agree with that or not is irrelevant.

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