WordPress and GPL

WordPress is a fantastic piece of software, a content management system (CMS) based on PHP and MySQL which uses plugin architecture and a template system. What’s more fantastic is that it’s free, made available under GPL licensing. To quote the WordPress Codex;

“WordPress is Free and Open source software, built by a distributed community of mostly volunteer developers from around the world. WordPress comes with some awesome, worldview-changing rights courtesy of its license the GPL.”

WordPress comes with a General Public License (GPL) which declares that WordPress is Free Software and grants users four essential freedoms:

1) You have the freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
2) You are free to access the source code, study how the program works, and have the freedom to change it in any way you see fit.
3) You have the freedom to distribute copies of the original program to other people.
4) If you modify the program you are free to distribute copies of your modified versions to others provided it is under the same GPL license.

The WordPress Core program is available for download at http://wordpress.org along with several thousand WordPress Themes and Plugins from the Official WordPress Directories.

Free isn’t always enough

There’s no denying that it’s hard to keep that ‘free‘ concept in mind when you have to build or maintain a WordPress website. You generally start off by paying for a commercial theme, which might cost $40-$60, either annually or as a one-off payment. That might not seem a lot, but then you have plugins to consider.

Even a simple website like this needs backup plugins, security plugins, SEO plugins, plugins for contact forms, image sliders and so on. If you’re looking at adding an eCommerce store to your website you could easily be looking at an annual bill of $1500 a year just to keep the plugins updated, depending on your needs.

There are literally thousands of free plugins available from the WordPress plugin directory, but not all are maintained and not all work with current versions of WordPress. Some of the plugin authors provide help and support, some never do.  You’ll also quickly realise that many of these free plugins have ‘premium‘ or  ‘pro‘ versions. In short, properly-specified versions that you have to buy. The sad truth is that some things just can’t be done properly if you only use free plugins.

What are you paying for?

Plugin and theme authors often say that when you buy their product, you’re paying for a ‘license to use‘ their product. If you buy a WordPress theme from Themeforest, or a plugin from its sister site CodeCanyon, for example, you will be told that you must buy a license for every website you use the item on. You don’t. It’s nothing more than intimidatory sales tactics.

When you pay for a WordPress plugin or theme, you’re actually paying for support and updates, not the product. You’re usually given a form of ‘licence key’ or ‘activation key’ which entitles you to support, bug fixes and product updates for a year. That support and automatic updates (if they are available) are usually linked to a single website. That means that if you install the theme or plugin on another site, you’ll have to update it manually.

After the end of the year and the end of your paid-for support and updates, the plugin or theme will continue to work (assuming core WordPress update don’t affect it) but you won’t get any more updates or be able to ask for support. In most cases, you’ll be offered the chance to renew your ‘license’ at a reduced cost.

Herein lies one of the reasons WordPress can be so expensive; If you want to keep a WordPress site up to date and as safe as possible from attacks, you need to ensure your themes and plugins are kept up to date. Always. We’ve never seen a theme or plugin that didn’t contain some sort of bug, defect or weakness, which means there are regular updates through its lifetime. You need updates. So you need to pay.

What does support include?

Support levels and durations can vary. If you buy a premium WordPress theme from Themeforest, for example, the $50-$60 you pay for the theme gets you 6 months of support, though they’ll do their best to get you to (pay to) extend it. What they can’t guarantee is that the theme or plugin won’t be withdrawn by the author a month after you pay for it.

If you pay for a licence for a premium WordPress plugin you’ll usually get a year of support and updates, though this can vary between companies. Some offer more, some less.

In general terms, support means the authors will try to help you resolve problems setting up or running their product. However, if you modify/customise a theme or plugin (i.e. change things) authors will often decline to offer any support at all, as is always outlined in their support T&Cs. They call it ‘customisation‘ and any problems you come across are deemed to be of your own doing. To a large extent, the latter point is actually quite fair.

Reducing the cost of WordPress plugins and themes

It’s not hard to reduce how much you spend on WordPress themes and plugins, but before you start looking, you need to ask yourself this question; Am I capable of using WordPress themes and plugins without needing assistance, and do I mind manually updating plugins and themes? If you aren’t confident enough to do away with a helping hand, stick to buying from the developer until you’re up to speed. If you don’t mind looking after yourself, or looking for answers to your ‘how to’ questions on Google, keep reading.

A reminder about GPL

The vast majority of themes and plugins are supplied with a GPL license that says you can do what you want with them. That means you are perfectly free to give them to other people. It’s not even the third cousin (twice removed) of illegal, and if the GPL license says you are free to distribute it to other people, it’s sure as sugar not unethical either.

The next thing to bear in mind is that the vast majority of themes and plugins have absolutely nothing in them that needs to be ‘cracked’ or ‘hacked’ in order for you to use it. You just upload them to the relevant folder of your website and that’s it. So, when you see a website that offers “nulled” or “cracked” WordPress themes, walk away. The claim that a theme has been ‘nulled’ or ‘cracked’ is absolute nonense – but hey, what else is the hacker who wants you to use a doctored theme or plugin so that he can gain access to your website supposed to say to get you to download it?

We’ve all used torrent websites from time to time but downloading themes and plugins from them is not a smart move. And scanning the download with Norton anti-virus or similar isn’t going to help – the single line of php that opens a door to your website isn’t a virus.. it’s just php.

The Smarter Option

In recent years, partly in response to the cost of running a WordPress site, a number of plugin and theme ‘clubs’ have appeared, offering members free access to copies of the more popular premium WordPress themes and plugins. These membership clubs offer their members literally thousands of items. You have to pay to join, with fees ranging from $80 to $120 a year, but once you’re a member you are free to download the same themes and plugins that that would otherwise cost you much, much more.

The main difference between buying your theme or plugin from an author, and joining a membership site where you can download it for free, is support. These membership clubs do not offer product support. If you don’t think you’re going to be able to use a theme or plugin without support, buy it from the author.

In terms of product updates, as long as you’re a member of one of these sites you’ll be able to download the current versions of whatever products you choose, though you’ll have to install them manually as you won’t have a support license that allows direct automatic updating. It might take you 2 minutes, in other words.