Exploring the GPL, Viable Models and Business Risk

February 14th, 2010
WordPress Discussions

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?




  1. Milan Petrovic (31 comments.) says:

    While GPL is somewhat limiting in commercial sense, it’s something that we have to live with. I am WordPress only devloper for more than 2 years now, and I have managed to make a living with 2 different approaches. One is to work for clients on WordPress related projects: building specific plugins or themes and (from recently) premium plugins and soon themes.

    First method is good, but you need a lot of experience and knowledge about WP/PHP/mySQL and even HTML/CSS to be able to work on wide range of projects clients may demand. This is something you can do regardless of the GPL license, and there will always be many projects for clients that decide to work with WP. And for the past two years I had to turn down many such projects because I was overwhelmed with projects offers, and I always had plenty to choose from, and I managed to work on very interesting projects.

    Premium plugins are still not fully accepted by WordPress community, and most users still prefer free plugins over premium. But, real advantage of premium plugins over time will be payed support. Lester Chan is one of the most important WordPress developers, and his decision to stop supporting his plugins is proving the point that free support for popular plugins is not going to last, and most authors will either release premium versions of plugins, or starts some sort of payed support service. I think that once the users accept that paying for support is a good think, we will see more great plugins. Paying plugin author for support of premium features will enable said author to make plugin(s) even better, and will ensure that less experienced users get help with the plugin.

    In 2009, theme developers embraced GPL model, and with themes that are much better than free alternatives, premium themes market expanded. Support was major reason for this, and themes grew more complex and provided much wider choice to users, while they had support to fall back to if the problem was found. Supported free themes are very, very rare and if you are building website from scratch you need reliable theme. Big theme developers like WooThemes and StudioPress have pushed themes much further than free themes were able to.

    My current business model is that I work for few clients on different WP related projects, and I also dedicate about 50% of my time to premium plugins and soon premium themes. I am patient with premium plugins, and over the past two months I am satisfied with sales I had, and I expect numbers to go up. Until that happens, balancing with clients projects is great source of income.

  2. Michael Moore (2 comments.) says:

    Let start by saying that I am not a developer… I am a content producer morphing into a web publisher… without WordPress and the free themes and plug-ins, my path would have been even more difficult than it has been.

    My suggestion is that WordPress should start some kind of general contribution bank so that users like myself can easily deposit $10, $20 or $50 to our “accounts” that we can use to reward or tip plug-in developers whose work proves to be truly valuable in our adaptation of WordPress to our individual publishing needs…

    The idea of paying upfront for plug-ins that we are not sure will work the way we want with our chosen themes, etc. is not appealing.

    The adoption of the premium or subscription model will slow the critical mass growth that WordPress is currently experiencing…. and end up being counterproducitve in the long run…

    I also create websites for clients and a big selling point is the WP price… FREE… plus the knowledge that the platform has proven reliable for millions of users…

    If I can download many plug-ins from the repository without having to worry about paying for every single one, or subscribing to various “Clubs” or Premium Plans, then it is easier for me and my clients to try them out and use the ones we know work and continue to use WordPress…

    I have tried a Theme Forest theme.. I paid $25 for it and it did not work out for the use as I had hoped… adios dinero for that one

    If I could put that same $25 or more into a WP account and use it to “tip” theme and plug-in authors whose work I find useable and reliable, then I would happily send a few bucks their way… the guy who developed the WP Auto Update plug-in would be first on that list… as well as a couple of theme authors

    multiply that by tens of thousands of users like myself and the developers (like Lester Chan) who turn out consistently great product would find themselves with a nice cash stream coming their way…

    I am not talking about charging, I am talking about having a one stop money pot so I can tip my favorite theme and plug-in authors…

    without having to go thru the hassle of making PayPal payments to each and every one…

    that’s my two centavos’worth on this subject…

    • John Havlik (2 comments.) says:

      From what I’ve seen (though the experience of others), almost no one donates to plugins, even ones with a “donate” link on the plugin page. I don’t know if it is possible to make it easier to donate (pressing a link and going to a PayPal page is about as simple as it gets), and making it more difficult won’t increase the amount of donations/tips.

      Really, charging for support (or in some rare cases, chartered features) is the only way I see as feasible for generating income off of a plugin.

      • Michael Moore (2 comments.) says:

        The difference in my proposal is that I don’t have to donate with a separate payPal transaction to each plug-in or theme… I am proposing that WordPress set up a “donation bank” where i can make “deposits” that I can use to “credit” developers whose themes and plug-ins I find truly useful and that actually work.

        It seems to me that if WP and Matt make itg clear that this is the way forward to ensuring we have an ongoing developer community working on free plug-ins and themes, that many more people will be inclined to make “deposits” to the “bank” that they can assign to their favorite developers…

        One transaction on an occasional basis as opposed to numerous small transactions (in terms of using PayPal) and the easy ability to assign credits where credits are desired to go…

  3. Miguel says:

    Back to blogger and google… after themes, plugins how can we milk the cow? Most plugins function can be done by adding a few lines in the functions.php, that can be done using the wordpress editor, so next move will be charging users for that info? what a joke…

    Lester Chan like most people sooner or later will have to move on… better job…family… donating or paying wont assure us he will continue.

    Everyone wants to mik the cow…thats how i see it.

    If this movement carries on ill be moving back to blogger.

    • George Burley says:

      If you can do what a plugin like Shopp or Gravity Forms does simply by adding a few lines of code to your function.php file… you my friend would be rich!

      Nobody is saying ALL plugins should be sold or monetized and I think people are missing the point.

      The plugins that make sense to monetize are the plugins that add extensive functionality to WordPress and AREN’T TARGETED AT BLOGGERS because WordPress is used for far more than just blogging.

      Businesses use plugins like Shopp and Gravity Forms to help run their businesses so why is it wrong for those plugins to be monetized and turned into products that businesses can rely on?

  4. Forrest (2 comments.) says:

    A lot of software ( on and off the web ) is going the NPR model: being freely distributable and usable, but asking for donations. I’m curious how well that’s worked out for different applications, plugins, and the like? It is certainly another way a person could approach the thorny GPL issue, however.

    • George Burley says:

      WordPress Plugin developers have been asking for donations for a long time now and some of the most popular plugins, which have been downloaded millions of times, garner next to nothing in donations. The Plugin Repository has donation capabilities built in.

      The donation model doesn’t work. Not enough people donate. That has already been proven in the WordPress community.

  5. Andrew@BloggingGuide (63 comments.) says:

    I don’t mind paying for a great plug-in. These plug-in developers are great in this kind of work, so it is just right that their efforts be compensated. How many more Lester Chan’s do we have to lose before we see this?

  6. Simon Byholm (1 comments.) says:

    There’s a lot of businesses running WordPress and they don’t mind paying for themes and plugins if it saves them time or improves business.

    I just bought a theme from Woo for my blog. Why? It looks great, someone recommended it and I like the fact that they do regular bugfixes and will upgrade it to work with future versions of WordPress.

  7. Tony Hsieh (1 comments.) says:

    When anyone thinks about having his business online, he thinks about the online store or website he can make use of. Now many of the small businessmen don’t have luxury to get the premium websites and they incline towards the free software and plug-ins like WordPress, Joomla, etc. But the free plug-ins & themes are not so impressive to catch the impression and this is the time for smaller developers to sale their themes, templates, etc. to get money….actually whole of this is dependent on each other..:)


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