10+ GPL Myths Debunked

As a WordPress theme shop owner, I’ve become hyperaware of any issues that surround the GPL and how they relate to WordPress products.

I decided to publish this article that dispels several myths about it. And even though I’m a self-proclaimed GPL nerd, do note that I am not a lawyer.

Myth #1: It’s okay to redistribute free GPL code. But paid GPL code? That’s not allowed

This one gets the top slot, because it’s the most common misconception I hear about the GPL when it relates to WordPress products.

It is explicitly allowed, according to the GPL. Price tag or not.

As stated in the preamble of the GPL v2:

When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price.

Myth #2: Okay, fine. But you need to ask permission if you’re going to redistribute paid GPL code

Permission to redistribute has already been explicitly granted under the GPL, so there’s no need to ask for more permission.

Myth #3: Well if it involves paid code and you don’t get supplementary permission from the developer, it’s unethical

Again, redistributing code is explicitly allowed under the GPL, and it doesn’t matter if it’s free or paid. Debating ethics is another matter.

If you’re a developer of paid GPL code and imagine you’d be upset if somebody resold or gave away your code for free, you may want to reconsider releasing under the GPL at all.

Or better yet, focus on building such a rock-solid brand that any code redistribution would have an inconsequential effect on your business.

For background, read this: It’s legal but unethical

Myth #4: Okay, but if somebody redistributes my paid GPL code then I can write a blog post about how they’re taking food away from my family and everyone will hate them

Probably.

Myth #5: You’re not buying the code. You’re buying support and updates

You’re still buying the code. If you weren’t buying the code, then you’d be able to get it for free elsewhere. That may not be the case, because…

Myth #6: If someone sells GPL code, they must provide free copies on request

No, they don’t.

You’re free to ask someone who possesses GPL code for a copy (kind of like you’re free to ask them how their day was, what the weather is like, and so on), but they can’t be compelled to comply with your request.

In fact, the GNU website has a FAQ covering this very situation:

If I know someone has a copy of a GPL-covered program, can I demand he give me a copy?

No. The GPL gives him permission to make and redistribute copies of the program if and when he chooses to do so. He also has the right not to redistribute the program, when that is what he chooses.

Myth #7: I saw a cool WordPress-powered site. That means I can totally rip off its design and code, even though it was never publicly released. It must be 100% GPL, after all!

Pay close attention to the “it was never publicly released” part of this myth.

If the code was never publicly released, then you can’t assume the GPL (or any other license) applies.

So don’t start ripping custom WordPress site designs off willy nilly, then pull the “but WordPress is GPL” card in front of the judge when you’re on trial for copyright infringement.

Myth #8: Any publicly released code built on top of WordPress (like plugins and themes) must be “100% GPL” as described on WordPress.org

To have your plugin or theme hosted on WordPress.org, this is true.

For background, you must read Matt Mullenweg’s Themes are GPL, too blog post on WordPress.org, published back in 2009.

Mullenweg condensed the Software Freedom Law Center’s interpretation on WordPress themes and the GPL into the following:

One sentence summary: PHP in WordPress themes must be GPL, artwork and CSS may be but are not required.

Under this interpretation, marketplaces like ThemeForest are allowed to sell themes under a “split license” (GPL for the PHP code, and a proprietary license for artwork and CSS) without being in violation.

A “split license” product would still not be allowed to be hosted on WordPress.org, as that would be incompatible with their “100% GPL” policy.

If you don’t follow the rules of a private website, you should not expect to be promoted on it.

Myth #9: I saw WordPress-related code in a public GitHub repo, but no license was explicitly declared. That means I can assume it’s GPL, right?

That’s a dangerous assumption to make.

If the owner of the repository does not declare a license, that would ultimately be up to a court to decide. Not you, unilaterally.

It would be best if you asked the owner of the repository for clarification. “Open source” does not necessarily equal “software freedom.”

Similar to Myth #7, you cannot make assumptions about the license if it is not explicitly declared. Even if the code has been released to the public.

Myth #10: I bought a GPL product. That means I can resell it and use the original developer’s trademarks to promote it

You can resell it, but using the original developer’s trademarks to promote it would be ill-advised.

At that point, you’ve jumped from copyright law territory to trademark law territory, which is a whole other can of worms.

For background, read this: The GPL License Doesn’t Provide The Freedom To Infringe Registered Trademarks

Myth #11: I bought a GPL product. That means I can’t resell it without risking the original developer suing me for trademark infringement

You can resell a GPL product without infringing on the original developer’s trademarks.

It’s pretty simple, just rebrand it. New names, new logos, new mascots, all that jazz. Leave no stone unturned (except for maintaining the original developer’s copyright notice, can’t remove that).

Although this involved free plugins (not that it matters whether the code has a price tag or not), a notable example in the WordPress community is WooCommerce forking JigoShop.

If WooCommerce decided to call their JigoShop fork something like “JigoShop RELOADED” instead, they’d be inviting a trademark suit. Because they named it something totally different? Smooth sailing as far as trademark law is concerned.

Myth #12: I bundled a third-party commercial plugin in my commercial theme. Now I can funnel all my theme customer’s support requests to the plugin developer and they must answer everything! And they must give automatic updates to all my customers too! Muahahaha.

The GPL only governs the code. The GPL doesn’t say that a third-party developer must support thousands people because one person bought a $99/year support license.

The level of support you receive from a third-party developer would be governed by their terms of service, not the GPL, which contains a very clear “No Warranty” clause.

Unless you’re willing to separately maintain and support the third-party plugin in question, it would probably be best if your customers were directed to the third-party developer to purchase directly.

For background, read this: This is why you don’t bundle plugins in WordPress themes

Myth #13: I found a plugin on WordPress.org that doesn’t do anything until I connect to a third-party service. GPL violation!

It’s not a GPL violation.

Some notable examples include Akismet, VaultPress, and OptinMonster. These are commonly known as “connector” plugins, and as long as the code contained within the plugin is GPL, it’s not a violation.

The fact that the plugin facilitates communication between your site and a third-party service (that is comprised of unreleased, proprietary code) is irrelevant. Whether or not that third-party service is “freemium” or requires payment, is also irrelevant.

Please don’t leave 1-star reviews on WordPress.org just because it’s a connector plugin.

Myth #14: A commercial plugin developer sells a “one site license” that says I’m only permitted to use the plugin on one site. GPL violation!

You might have a point there.

First, let’s take pricing out of the equation. Can you imagine if a free plugin said “you can download this for free, but you can only use it on one site”?

This would very clearly contradict the GPL, as seen in section 0 of the terms and conditions (emphasis mine):

Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not covered by this License; they are outside its scope. The act of running the Program is not restricted, and the output from the Program is covered only if its contents constitute a work based on the Program (independent of having been made by running the Program). Whether that is true depends on what the Program does.

Similar to Myth #12, it’s important to distinguish between the freedoms granted by the GPL and the level of service a business provides.

It’s perfectly acceptable to sell products that restrict support and updates (i.e. a level of service) to a limited number of sites. But restricting usage (i.e. taking away freedoms) is another matter.

Although it’s not necessary for plugin shop owners to make it super apparent that their GPL-licensed products can’t have any usage restrictions, language suggesting otherwise should be avoided.

Myth #15: I don’t reserve the right to rearrange the order of these myths and add new myths

Psych!

I do reserve the right to rearrange the order of these myths and add new myths as I see fit, so if you plan on quoting this piece anywhere, it’s probably not good idea to reference specific myth numbers.

However, anchor links will still work.

Hope this clears up any GPL confusion you might’ve been having. Thanks for reading!

1 comment

  1. Publishing code does not give you any license and does not grant you the right to use it per se. Except perhaps to read it as published.

    If your code or plugin is no derivate of the other work that is licensed under the GPL, your code or plugin is not limited to being licensed under the GPL. For example, your code or plugin running without WordPress (say, using a different product, without using the former) constitutes proof of such independence.

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