I’ll cut right to the chase… I have a love/hate relationship with the GPL model. Ok, perhaps “love/hate” is a bit strong, but I do choose to look at the GPL as objectively as I can. In doing so I see the tremendous benefit the WordPress community has derived because of the GPL. But I also recognize the risk to traditional business models that lie within. The goal of this is not to dissect the GPL or to call it as “good” or “bad”, but rather to have a discussion which uncovers business models that are able to thrive within the legal framework the GPL provides. And you can’t have a thoughtful business discussion without also addressing risk.
First and foremost, the GPL is the reason we are here, that you are reading this and that so many of us have had an opportunity to make a living doing things we love. At its essence the GPL states that software should be free. Not necessarily “free of charge” but rather distributed without restriction, and anyone who re-distributes that software must also do so without restriction, including any changes they have made to that software. Read more about the GPL if you want to get into the nuts and bolts.
The freedom that has been given to the WordPress community through the GPL is difficult to measure, monetarily or otherwise. The GPL also ensures that we will continue to enjoy the freedoms related to that software for as long as we wish. It enables developers to come together to collaborate and expand on their work, and the work of others, without limitation, often providing a superior product thanks to the efforts and insights of the numerous individuals contributing to it.
Over the last several years the result of that freedom has been the explosion of WordPress as a platform and of the evolution of the WordPress community, through which many friends, business partners and associates have been made. It has also enabled a lot of people to make a living.
So what are the risks? We’ll get there… but to begin with, we have to recognize that for all of the things WordPress does well, users will always want it to do more, and do so according to their specific needs. One of my favorite aspects of WordPress is that the core is kept light. Enter the world of WordPress plugins, themes and service providers.
The next step is where the risk comes in and issues begin to arise. We’ve see over the last few years how themes and plugins have advanced in their capabilities and complexity. As those systems continue to evolve along with our consumption of them and demand for them grows, increasing amounts of time and talent are required to build, maintain and support them. Ultimately, some cost is associated with that effort, and in order for those systems to continue to evolve (and for support not to disappear) money will have to change hands or that evolutionary cycle will come to a halt. (Disclaimer: all of this assuming that we are not “branching” the core system off in a different direction but rather looking forward to the growth of the current platform).
So while I generally agree that the GPL is a good thing, I’ve felt from the beginning of my WordPress days that there is an inherent flaw in the GPL model that may also be its weakness. Specifically, the difficulty is in monetizing products which run on platforms licensed under the GPL. Remember the real interest lies in exploring business models which can operate under the GPL while continuing to thrive while generating the revenue and profits required to sustain the people producing the products.
The risk is that as the need for time and talent increases to keep up with our expanding requirements of themes and plugins, the need for monetization of some sort also increases inside of a model where anything you develop and distribute (whether you charge for it or not) can be redistributed by the next guy for free; representing a significant business risk for anyone whose revenues are derived from charging for products or licenses. My concern is that while all businesses have plateaus, the lack of multiple sustainable business models becomes an artificial plateau when the amount of time required to build and support add-on systems outweighs the benefits that the developers perceive in the work they are doing, particularly when weighed against their well being or that of their families.
While passion, the quest for notoriety, or just the sense of making a contribution will go far, they don’t scale forever. That is where the need for people to be able to support themselves from their efforts kicks in. Like it or not, somewhere along the way, money will enter the picture. The ultimate result of this is that much of the best talent, themes and applications may be lost to a community when the individuals who produce them are unable to make a living from what they develop. Further, a lack of defined viable business models may also serve as a deterrent to attracting talented individuals who are not already a part of the WordPress community.
Simply put, if you are a plugin or theme developer and writing code on nights and weekends, ask yourself how much further could you go if you were able to work on your themes or plugins full time? Without the means to make a (comfortable) living from your “hobby”, you’re not going to quite your day job. The result is a limited amount of time and energy put into plugins and themes.
While I don’t know Lester Chan personally, the recent announcement that he was ending direct support for his plugins in lieu of taking a day job illustrates the point. Mr. Chan’s change in direction will be a great loss for a community that uses a LOT of his code.
So what is the solution? I think that is still being worked out by the community. We have seen some models such as charging for support (much like the Red Hat model) take hold which appear to be sustainable, though the support model is very close to a “services” model and not purely a product centric one.
The further we go down this path the more it will be necessary to have talented and dedicated developers to drive those efforts, and that means people making a living from it, one way or another.
What are a few of the Options?
- Doing services work is an option, and the obvious one at that. However this article was more focused on product centric revenue as opposed to services work which becomes a distraction from product development, so having a “services business” to generate the income isn’t the best answer (for the product developers).
- Charging for support, though labor intensive and only one step removed from services seems a likely and viable model, particularly as the support feedback may enable product enhancement based on what the market actually want or needs. The key to making it here is… you better provide killer support!
- Charging for the plugin, the main danger being someone else decides to distribute it for free so not likely to be sustainable.
- Charging on a subscription basis for upgrades, add on’s, etc…same risk as having others redistribute.
What other models can you think of? Ronald has a few suggestions.
The point here is not to spark a philosophical discussion of whether the GPL is good or bad, but to objectively recognize and discuss the risks inherent to traditional business models when the GPL is in place and figure out what viable alternate business models may emerge to support the WordPress community. We love WordPress, and enabling developers to make a living from their efforts is one of the surest ways to ensure its viability and growth well into the future.
So where do we go from here? How do you see this evolving? How do we ensure that developers are able to make a living from the software and support they provide us without restricting the software?
What do you think?