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Poll Shows Majority Consider Public Redistribution of Commercial Themes and Plugins to be Unethical

photo credit: Lukasz Kowalewski
photo credit: Lukasz Kowalewski

Four months ago, Richard Best, a lawyer who maintains a blog focused on legal matters related to WordPress and open source, published a poll asking for people’s views on the reselling of commercial themes and plugins. Best is working on a 10-chapter ebook called “A Practical Guide to WordPress and the GPL.” He created the poll to gain feedback on a contractual mechanism he is proposing to discourage the public redistribution of commercial themes and plugins.

He describes the mechanism as follows:

The proposed term would say that, if a customer decides to make your commercial theme or plugin available on a website for download by others, you may exercise a right to deactivate their access keys (if that’s how you’ve set things up) and to terminate their access to support and updates.

Best believes that this contractual mechanism is not contrary to the GPL, because it doesn’t stop them from distributing the theme or plugin. It does, however, nullify the customer’s commercial support arrangements.

That poll closed today and the results are in: Of the 121 people surveyed, 76 believe the practice of redistributing a commercial plugin or theme, for free or for profit, is unethical. An additional 10 surveyed said that they don’t know whether it’s unethical but don’t like it.

Based on the results, Best concluded that there is widespread support for the inclusion of the term he outlined which would terminate a customer’s support and access to updates if they were found to be publicly redistributing the product:

101 out of 121 – supported the inclusion of such a clause, as they selected this option:

Yes, I would support that as I understand the business is trying to protect its investment and it poses no threat to my use of the themes or plugins.

Although the number of people surveyed wasn’t particularly large, more than half of them were theme and plugin business owners. In the questions specifically targeted toward them, 47 of the 67 said they like the idea of the proposed term but 26 of the 67 said they would be concerned that the WordPress community might openly criticize them for not complying with the ‘spirit’ of the GPL.

Best believes that WordPress business owners should be able to employ contractual mechanisms that don’t violate the GPL in order to protect their interests.

“I think it’s undeniable that the development of robust commercial themes and plugins supports rather than detracts from the growth of the WordPress ecosystem,” he said. “Just look at Automattic’s acquisition of WooCommerce as an example or the power that Gravity Forms brings to WordPress as another.

“Businesses that depend on and support the WordPress ecosystem should be able to protect their legitimate commercial interests without fear of verbal attack from those who cling to misconceptions of what the GPL does or doesn’t allow.”

Best’s summary of the poll results includes a proposed clause that terminates a customer’s support and access for engaging in public redistribution. WordPress business owners are free to use/tweak the clause as necessary, but Best includes a disclaimer that he is not providing legal advice to anyone in suggesting this kind of clause.

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