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Making Money from WordPress Plugins, Themes and the GNU General Public License

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Making Money from WordPress Plugins, Themes and the GNU General Public License

Are you planning to release a commercial "premium" WordPress theme or plugin or even a software application maybe? Have you thought about how you are going to market the product? Have you though about the licensing issues, especially if the source code is available for all to see?

This article will discus "premium" themes and plugins in particular and the issuing of licensing under the GNU General Public License agreement.

As commercial plugins are a rare sight in the WordPress community, I’m going to discuss the general idea of commercial, paid for, premium WordPress themes and plugins in more detail and provide my views on the relevant issues raised in this respect.

My Position

First let me clarify my position. I’m new to writing plugins, in fact I haven’t been brave enough to release any to the outside world yet. I just write simple ones to get round problems on my site and then only if I cannot find a plugin to do the job from the many excellent plugin authors far more skilled in this task than myself. I don’t believe in re-inventing the wheel.

If you are a developer or have experience in this area (you might be going through this process now) I’m sure your views will be welcomed by all. So don’t be shy, correct me where I’m wrong, elaborate on a point where necessary and share any ideas I’ve missed.

GNU General Public License?

What is the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) and does it insist that everything has to be given away for free? The following is an edited quote from the GNU site (


The GNU General Public License is a free, copyleft license for software and other kinds of works.

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change all versions of a program–to make sure it remains free software for all its users.

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish)…

Developers that use the GNU-GPL protect your rights with two steps: (1) assert copyright on the software, and (2) offer you this License giving you legal permission to copy, distribute and/or modify it.

For the developers’ and authors’ protection, the GNU-GPL clearly explains that there is no warranty for this free software.


Point No1

So, point of interest number one, the GNU-GPL does not stop an author (or anyone for that matter) from selling a product for a profit.

Point No2

The author (or owner) of the product retains copyright of the product (unless they give that right away).

non GNU-GPL Licenses

There seem to be many arguments over whether or not themes and plugins can be licensed under other, non-GNU-GPL, licenses. The short answer is yes, they can, but …

Licensing & GNU-GPL Compatibility

A point of contention with writing WordPress plugins seems to be whether plugins have to be GNU-GPL compatible. This of course applies to any addition to any GNU-GPL product, not just WordPress but I will continue to use WordPress as an example (since I think WordPress is the best).

For your plugin to be hosted by WordPress ( there are a few restrictions and one of these restrictions is:

  • Your plugin must be GPLv2 Compatible.

Plus, as WordPress uses the GNU-GPL all "derivative works" must also use a compatible license. This allows the user to freely modify, redistribute and/or sell the product and source code, something usually not favorable to plugin authors making a profit. But is this really the case or can profits be make by looking at the problem from anther point of view? Read on…

Derivative Works

The GNU-GPL states:

If identifiable sections of that work are not derived from the Program, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works. But when you distribute the same sections as part of a whole which is a work based on the Program, the distribution of the whole must be on the terms of this License, whose permissions for other licensees extend to the entire whole, and thus to each and every part regardless of who wrote it.

And goes on to explain:

… it is not the intent of this section to claim rights or contest your rights to work written entirely by you; rather, the intent is to exercise the right to control the distribution of derivative or collective works based on the Program.

"Normal" Plugins

So do plugins qualify as "derivative works". The quick answer is, yes. Generally "normal" plugins could be considered derivative works.

The simpler "normal" plugins are generally heavily derivative. On the whole they tend to be just a few functions hooked directly into WordPress. These type of functions derive their calling methods from WordPress and have very little functionality in their own right, so they fall into the category of being derivatives of WordPress (in my opinion, but read on…).

"Complex" Plugins

The exception to this would be for very complex plugins which have identifiable sections not derived from the main program and which can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves. Plus, you must distribute them as separate works.

Complex plugins are far more independent. They have several files, their own mechanisms for operation, and sometimes there’s just one "plugin" file that hooks into WordPress. These have a better case for being classed as separate works.

Interpretation of GNU-GPL

The above text could also be interpret this way…

The GNU-GPL states that obviously independent parts (plugins and themes) of the main program are considered separate works and do not have to be licensed under the GNU-GPL terms unless distributed with WordPress.

Of course, if you don’t distribute under the GNU-GPL terms then WordPress will not distribute your plugin or theme, i.e. they will prevent your work from entering the repository (which is their right).

My Opinion – My Soap Box

We would not even be talking about this but for the generous work by all those concerned with blogs in general, WordPress in particular, the many plugin and theme authors and everyone in the community who give their time, work and effort for the greater good.

Before you try to commercialise your work, ask yourself this:

  • Would the effort and legal issues involved be worth the reward?
  • How soon could you’re plugin be duplicated and made freely available?
  • How much would you really earn for your efforts?

On the other hand, giving away a really great product for FREE gets you really great publicity. Plus you’re not legally bound by any contracts. Ask yourself this:

  • How much can you make from the thousands of extra visitors to your web site because of the plugin or theme you made available?
  • How many more visitors will you get because your plugin or theme was advertised on every portal of WordPress.

Need inspiration? Just look at the many companies who give their products away yet still make generous incomes. is hosted on JustHost

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