Free as in Freedom


Denis is offering a Semiologic CMS Pro Package for WordPress, which includes WordPress, a selection of his own plugins, as well as third-party plugins all in one easy-to-use package. I think this is awesome, and it is a good example of how to make money from Free Software.

I think WordPress is easy to install and maintain, but I’ve been working with it for well over a year. I’m conversant with HTML, PHP, and MySQL, so I’m able to solve the bulk of my problems myself. I also enjoy working with HTML, PHP, and MySQL, so it’s rarely a chore for me to work on all things WordPress.

But not everyone enjoys those things, and for those folks I think Denis’ offering is a great one. If you know you want an elegant, professional website, and you also know you don’t have the time or inclination to learn how to do it yourself, then the Semiologic CMS Pro Package is a worthwhile investment. I don’t know how to change the oil in my car, for example. Sure, I could learn how to do it, and save money in the long run, but I am totally dispassionate about my car. Learning how to change my oil, and actually doing it, would give me no real satisfaction. I’d much rather spend my time and energy on things about which I’m passionate, and spend a couple of dollars to have someone else change my oil for me.

I have no problem with Denis selling Free Software, as long as he is making it clear that the contents of his package are licensed under the terms of the GNU General Public License. Because all of the software is GPL, any (and all!) of his customers are free to give the Semiologic CMS Pro Package away to all their friends and neighbors. As long as Denis is okay with this, I wish him all the success in the world!

I am not so optimistic, though, about two WordPress plugins that were recently forwarded to me.

A WordPress user contacted me, offering to pay me to help him design and implement his site. While discussing what he wanted, he mentioned an AutoPost plugin several times. I informed him that I was unfamiliar with that plugin, and as such would not be able to provide much assistance. Unsolicited by me, I was forwarded a copy of a report entitled “Top 10 Tricks to Conquer Your Niche With WordPress!” Bundled with this report were two plugins: autopost.php and utopia1.php. I read only the first few lines of the report, and immediately stopped when I saw:

Obviously the report, and plugins, are geared toward Search Engine Optimization, something about which I could care less. But the restrictive copyright caught my attention for some reason, so I peeked at the top few lines of the plugins, and was astounded by what I saw. I sent the following note to Dave Pankhurst:

I recently received a solicitation from a WordPress user to help him design his site. This user made mention of several plugins he wanted to use, none of which I was familiar with. I told this user that I was unfamiliar with them, and in response he forwarded to me your entire ‘Top 10 Tricks to Conquer Your Niche With WordPress!’ package.

As soon as I read the license.txt, I immediately stopped reading. I did not pay for the report, and therefore have no reason to be reading it.

Copyright: Copyright (c) 2005 David Pankhurst. All rights reserved. This code is not Open-Source or free, and is included as a companion to the report ‘Top 10 Tricks to Conquer Your Niche With WordPress!’. Only by purchasing that report are you entitled to use the code on your own niche sites; however, you are not allowed to reverse engineer, sell, or distribute this code to others.

From the Free Software Foundation’s GPL FAQ:

*If a program released under the GPL uses plug-ins, what are the requirements for the licenses of a plug-in. It depends on how the program invokes its plug-ins. If the program uses fork and exec to invoke plug-ins, then the plug-ins are separate programs, so the license for the main program makes no requirements for them.

If the program dynamically links plug-ins, and they make function calls to each other and share data structures, we believe they form a single program, which must be treated as an extension of both the main program and the plug-ins. This means the plug-ins must be released under the GPL or a GPL-compatible free software license, and that the terms of the GPL must be followed when those plug-ins are distributed.

WordPress plugins are not forked; nor are they limited to invoking a main function and returning data. They pass data and share structures in non-trivial ways: the global $wpdb object, template tags, etc.

I have no problem with you charging a fee for your report. Nor do I have a problem with you charging a fee for your plugins. You are allowed (and encouraged) to retain the copyright on your work.

But you are prohibited from placing restrictions on how your plugins are used, once someone has paid for them. You need not license your plugins under the GPL itself, but you are obligated to license them according to GPL-compatible license:

I am not a lawyer; nor am I the copyright owner for the WordPress project, so I cannot (and will not) make any legal claims against you. I am contacting you in a good-faith effort to help you and the WordPress community understand the importance of GPL licensing.

I would be happy to discuss this with you at greater length. I cannot offer you legal guidance, so I encourage you to consult with an attorney if you have specific questions of law. Feel free also to contact the Free Software Foundation, who are the subject matter experts for GPL compliance.

Best regards, Scott Merrill

Dave responded a few days later:

Thank you for your email.

Please rest assured, the legal ramifications of the plugins and licensing have been analyzed well ahead of developing (and releasing) these plugins. Since you have notified the developers/copyright holders of WordPress, then you can also rest assured that the matter will (and has) been dealt with.

He also informed me that my possession of his work was a copyright violation, and demanded that I delete all copies. He asked for confirmation of my receipt of his message, and closed with a multi-line disclaimer stating that the email was confidential. As the recipient of that email, I believe it is within my rights to use it however I like, which is why I’ve excerpted it above. I politely confirmed my receipt of his email, and then asked Matt Mullenweg, lead developer of WordPress, whether he had extended a special, non-GPL license to Dave for use with his autopost.php and utopia1.php plugins. Matt responded “Not at all.”

As I said in my email to Dave, I’m not an attorney, so there may well be nuances of which I am unaware. But the GPL FAQ seems to be clear enough: a plugin that makes function calls to, and shares data structures with, the core WordPress application must be released under a GPL-compatible license. This means that Dave Pankhurst is free to retain copyright on his plugins, but he may not restrict the redistribution of his plugins once someone has purchased them.

Does anyone have any information to the contrary?

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