A few months ago I wrote a post entitled When Premium WordPress themes and open source ethics collide. It received a lot of interest and sparked a healthy debate that still, occasionally, rears its head.
The main thrust of my argument was that it was ethically wrong to actively prevent the further development of any theme that is based on open source code. And since all WordPress themes, it could be argued, are rooted in open source code, no WordPress theme should carry an artificial license that expressly prevents it’s further development and distribution.
Before this argument can be advanced it is important to separate code from design. If a theme developer decides to offer a premium theme then, as many agree, it is the design that is being charged for, not the code since charging for the code, which is inherently open source, would be, to quote one Upstart Blogger reader and commentator, not cool.
But things aren’t that straightforward. Not by a long way.
I’ll explain with a semi hypothetical case study.
Some months ago I purchased a developer license for the Thesis WordPress theme. The terms of that license are stated very clearly, as follows.
You may deploy Thesis on as many of your own sites as you like with this developer’s option, and you do not need to retain the attribution link in the footer. You can use this bad boy however you want! Seriously? Seriously. (Well, you can’t sell it, but you already knew that.)
The Thesis design is deliberately generic and the code is, apparently, cleaned up and search engine optimised within an inch of its life. I’ll be blunt. I don’t like the design and I think the code is deliberately tricky to modify. The only simple way to modify the theme is by using the integrated options panel but you will still end up with a blog that will blend in rather than stand out. And that’s not, in my opinion, a good idea at all.
So I hacked away at the code and made several changes, including adding a full width header, removing the unwieldy and unnecessarily bordered box at the top right of the theme, changing the column layout, removing the menu and replacing it with inline contextual navigation, changing the font styles, increasing the whitespace, adjusting the alignment and generally making it look nothing like what it did to start with. This is what I came up with.
I’m reasonably confident that the resulting theme, which has a working title of Revolver, could never be accused of looking like Thesis. The design has much more in common with my recent Enormous theme than it does with any premium theme.
You can see a demo of Revolver working quite happily on my the arts blog, Art Dance Music.
Although I have edited the code I have not attempted to remove any of the references in that code which advertise its origins. I could have done. It would have taken a few clicks and a few find and replace actions to clean the code’s slate but this would have seemed petty. I would only have done this if I was trying to repackage the theme and redistribute it in a dishonest fashion.
And that is not what I want to do. I want to be able to take WordPress code, open source code, and use that code to create and develop my own derivations. Isn’t that what modifying open source code is all about?
The license makes it plain that I can’t sell my new creation but it clearly states that I can use the theme however I like.
I can use it on any number of blogs. Presumably this means that if I were to offer my design services to a paying client I would be able to implement my design without any problems. It would follow, therefore, that I could get around this by deciding to make my design services available without charge, which is, of course, what I already do by offering all of my WordPress themes for free.
There is a very fine line between offering to design a wordpress theme for free for an unlimited amount of people and simply giving it away. A very fine line indeed. Many would argue that there is no line at all.
At this point some of you might be yelling at the screen, telling me that the developers license is so called because it allows me to develop and, furthermore, the license tells me that I can use the theme in any way I please as long as I don’t sell it.
But, dig deeper in the license and you will see, further down on the page, that whilst you can use Thesis on your client’s blogs any redistribution is forbidden.
That fine line I mentioned a moment ago is getting wider.
At what point, if at all, am I ethically able to release Revolver as a free WordPress theme? Or, how much modification is necessary before the theme is freed from it’s restrictive non-distribution license?