Many WordPress Theme Stores Are Violating The General Public License

One thing that is quite apparent throughout the WordPress community is that a large percentage of premium theme stores are breaking the GNU General Public License that WordPress is licensed under. Specifically, they are restricting the number of domains a user can install the theme on or stopping users from removing the footer credit.

I was reminded of this recently when I purchased the ProBlog blogging theme from Magazine3 (for the new WP Mods redesign). When I went to purchase the theme I was presented with 5 license options. Unfortunately, 4 of the 5 license options placed restrictions on how the theme can be used.

  • Single License ($49) – Restricts you from using the theme on more than one site and doesn’t allow you to remove the footer credit link.
  • SinglePro License ($59) – Restricts you from using the theme on more than one site.
  • SinglePro+Psd ($69) – Restricts you from using the theme on more than one site.
  • Multiple ($99) – Doesn’t allow you to remove the footer credit link.
  • MultiplePro ($99) – Doesn’t allow you to remove the footer credit link.

This issue was discussed in great detail in the WordPress community a year or so ago.

One of the best articles published at the time which explained how the GPL affects themes came from Mark Jaquith. His article ‘Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress‘ explained exactly why any theme released for WordPress has to be released under the General Public License too and how the license doesn’t stop developers from making money from the WordPress platform.

GNU General Public License

Almost 18 months later and many WordPress theme stores are still restricting how customers can use their designs. Many theme stores are forcing customers to choose between single and multi-site licenses and some like Magazine3 are charging for customers to remove the link back to them.

Other theme stores which restrict how a theme can be used include Natty WP, Page Lines and SiteMile. If you search for WordPress themes regularly you will know that many theme stores offer single use and multi-site licenses.

I initially thought that ThemeForest, which is the biggest marketplace for WordPress themes on the web with over 1400 premium designs, also placed restrictions on how a theme can be used. Chris from Seven Spark clarified that under their terms PHP code is licensed under the General Public License whereas all of the design elements are covered under their Regular License.

Violating The WordPress License

I have wrote about the GPL issue many times over the last two years though with so many theme stores apparently ‘violating’ the license that WordPress uses you could be forgiven for thinking that the terms of the General Public License doesn’t apply to them. To avoid any confusion as to what WordPress’s stance is on this issue, I contacted Mark Jaquith directly.

Mark is a lead developer of WordPress and as I mentioned earlier, has been vocal about this issue in the past. He was kind of enough to reply to me quickly and clarify WordPress’s position on this issue once again.

Our stance is that WordPress themes derive from WordPress itself, and
thus must have a compatible license. That opinion was validated by the
Software Freedom Law Center back in 2009
. A limitation on how many
sites can use a theme would be an obvious violation of the GPL. I
wouldn’t call such themes “illegal” — I’d just say that they are, in
our opinion, violating the license for WordPress. We continue to only
promote themes on that are fully GPL compatible, and we
encourage people to only use themes that respect the license.

This makes it pretty clear that theme stores who are restricting how customers use their designs and charging them to remove the footer credit or use the design on more than one website are violating the WordPress license.

I am not sure if WordPress could pursue websites that violate their license or if they would ever want to. What I am interested in is how this affects customers like myself who purchase premium WordPress themes fairly regularly.

Can we simply disregard whatever restrictions a theme store applies to a design and just proceed under the assumption that all of their themes are indeed licensed under the General Public License? If this is true, then whenever we are presented with license options that charge more for removing the footer link or using the design on multiple domains we should simply purchase the cheapest option available; as the restrictions that the theme developer has placed on using the design aren’t applicable.

How would theme stores react to customers who did this though? Would they have an open discussion about the issue with their customers or would they cancel their account?

Theme Developers Need To Be Educated

I strongly believe that the vast majority of WordPress theme stores who are placing usage restrictions on their themes are doing so because they are concerned about losing money and/or having their code copied by other developers and they would adopt the General Public License if they were educated more about it. It’s worth pointing out that the most popular WordPress theme stores Elegant Themes, StudioPress and Woo Themes embraced GPL a few years ago and it hasn’t hindered their success.

When I asked Magazine3 recently why customers had to enter their license key before using one of their designs they explained to me that they had no choice as previously their popular designs had been added to warez sites and downloaded hundreds of times. I can relate to theme stores with this problem. It must be incredibly frustrating to work months on a great design only to see it being downloaded for free on a warez website.

Though I don’t believe that license keys are going to stop premium designs ending up on warez sites, it will only slow them down (most people are aware that there’s nothing you can’t download for free on the internet). Also, I don’t think restricting how a theme is used is practical at any level. Even if they can track who has removed credit links or used a design on multiple domains, do they really want to spend all their time harassing loyal customers rather than working on new products?

All WordPress theme stores should adhere to the General Public License and remove any restrictions to their themes. They can still charge extra for documentation, support and additional resources such as the original design Photoshop file. I don’t believe their income would be affected.

One of the best license setups I have seen comes from Gorilla Themes. They allow users to modify themes as they please and use their designs on an unlimited number of domains however customers still have 3 purchase options available to them.

  • Essential Package ($39.95) – Documentation but no access to support forum.
  • Standard Package ($69.95) – Documentation and full access to support forum.
  • Premium Package ($99.95) – Documentation, full access to support forum plus original Photoshop files.

I think this is one of the most intelligent ways to charge customers. Gorilla Themes are effectively giving a discount to customers who won’t take up any of their time with support queries and charged a little more to developers who need the original Photoshop PSD files. This is a great example of how a WordPress theme store can adhere to the General Public License and still make money effectively.

Are Plugin Developers Violating The General Public License Too?

18 months ago Mark Jaquith wrote on his post ‘Why WordPress Themes are Derivative of WordPress‘ that:

Theme PHP code must be GPL. You could do a split license on the CSS and JS and other non-GPL static resources. You can license those elements to one site, but let people with a developer license use them on multiple sites.

It’s therefore safe to assume that all the code in a plugin has to be GPL too. This effectively means that all plugins have to be GPL compliant. There has been a lot of discussion over the last two years about theme stores breaking the General Public License however there hasn’t been many discussions regarding premium plugins.

It’s very common for premium plugin developers to offer 2 or 3 different licenses for their products e.g. singe license, multiple site license (3 websites) and a developer license (unlimited license). Are they breaking the General Public License by doing so? On WP Mods I use a single license from Gravity Forms and Pippity. Should I be able to use these plugins on multiple sites?

Premium plugins are a derivative of WordPress therefore the GPL applies to them. As such, plugin developers should not place any restrictions on using their products.


It’s almost 18 months since Matt Mullenweg and Chris Pearson publicly clashed about Thesis not adopting the General Public License. Whereas stores like Graph Paper Press were quick to change their stance and adopt the license, a large number of theme stores have continued to place restrictions on how their designs can be used.

I hope that we see theme stores reviewing their GPL stance and allow their customers to use their designs without restrictions. It’s something that plugin developers needs to review too.

This is an important issue that the WordPress community needs to address. I would love to hear your view on this issue so please leave a comment if you have time. I would also appreciate if you could try and raise awareness of this so that more WordPress users know their rights and developers know what license their products should be released under.

Twitter retweets and Facebook likes are welcomed and if you have a WordPress related blog yourself I encourage you to write an article on your own site and give your own view on the subject (post a comment here with a link to your article and I will add a link to the article here) 🙂

Thanks for reading 🙂


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