If you have been around WordPress for very long you have likely heard of the controversial GPL Clubs that provide premium WordPress plugins and themes for free, or for a drastically discounted price. In this first article of a three-part series, we will take a look at what a GPL Club is and the ethical controversy surrounding them.
What is a GPL Club?
Most of us in the world of WordPress know that the majority of WordPress plugins and themes are released under an opensource license known as the GPL (General Public License). In fact, this is a requirement to be included in the official WordPress repository. Even most premium versions are still released under the GPL. Under the terms of the GPL, anyone is free to re-distribute or modify GPL licensed projects, either for profit or free. You can see the full text of the GPL HERE.
As a result of the four freedoms outlined in the GPL, some enterprising folks have created a new business model we know as GPL Clubs. These “clubs” give away or resell premium, but GPL’d products, typically for a monthly fee. The typical cost is around $15-30 USD per month. One club, GPLDL distributes these products for free.
Why are GPL Clubs so controversial?
In the WordPress community, there are two primary opinions about GPL Clubs. The first is that these clubs are unethical and are stealing the work of hard-working plugin and theme developers. People in this school of thought often acknowledge that these clubs may be legal, but argue they are still unethical. The justification for this belief is that they do not have the consent or even knowledge of the original developer to do so. We will debunk that in just a moment.
“What is legal is not always ethical.”
This is probably one of the most common arguments we hear from the anti-GPL club side. But to us, it does not really apply in these types of cases. When you are given permission to use something as you see fit by its rightful owner, how is it then unethical for you to use it?
The Argument For GPL Clubs:
The opposing opinion of GPL Clubs and the one that WP Top Hat fully agrees with is that GPL Clubs are simply following the spirit of the GPL. The terms are very clear that if you choose to release your work under the terms of this license, you give users permission both legally and ethically to modify, give away, or sell your projects. As long as these clubs adhere to all terms of the GPL, and most do, there is no breach of ethics or law. The few clubs that do violate the GPL do not last long before they are discovered and weeded out by the community.
The idea that these clubs do not have the developers permission to do what they are doing is technically incorrect:
“When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price. Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs, and that you know you can do these things.”
As this quote tells us, by releasing under the GPL, you are indeed granting permission to anyone the right to redistribute your work. And to charge for it if they so choose. Of course, in so doing the entity redistributing the work must also follow the terms of the GPL. For example, if they modify the original project, they must state the modifications to the code, along with full credit to the original source.
Pros and cons of using a GPL Club
Using a GPL Club has both benefits and drawbacks. The most obvious benefit, of course, is cost savings. A premium license for a plugin or theme can range drastically in price from a few bucks to several hundred dollars. And most of these need to be renewed on an annual basis. For example, Yoast SEO licensing will run you $89 a year. If you need any of their add-ons, you will have to fork over even more cash.
If you have more than one premium plugin, these costs can add up very quickly. For example, the annual cost for all of the premium plugins and themes that WP Top Hat uses is just under $2,300. For a large or highly profitable business, this may not be a big deal. A drop in the bucket of your operating costs. For a smaller operation, this high cost could mean the difference between your success or failure. Plus, using a GPL Club allows you to test multiple plugins to see which one best suits you before you fork over the money for a premium license.
As I said, there are some potential drawbacks to using a GPL Club. The biggest of these is a lack of support. When you use a premium plugin without a premium license, you are not entitled to official support for that plugin. So if something goes wrong, you must resolve it on your own. For many, this is not a problem. Answers to common problems can often be found on Google, the WordPress forums, in WordPress facebook groups, or several other online resources. Of course, if you are a WP Top Hat customer, we provide the support for any plugin or theme you have on your site.
Updates is another drawback to GPL Clubs because as with support, you are not eligible for automatic updates if you have not purchased a license. This means that whenever there is an update, you must go to the GPL Club, download the latest version, and manually update it. Besides being a bit inconvenient, a secondary drawback is that it may take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks for the new version to be available on the GPL Clubs site. Thankfully, however, most GPL clubs are pretty quick to update things.
One GPL club is working to resolve this second drawback on their own. Nobuna.com has created a plugin that allows you to quickly and easily check for and implement updates to plugins you get from them. The updates are of course obtained from the Nobuna repository, so you do still need to wait for them to have the new version.
Are GPL Clubs Safe?
Another primary argument that most GPL club opponents give to justify their side is that GPL clubs are dangerous. They warn that you are highly likely to get modified files that likely include malware. And to be fair, there have been a few times when that has happened. But firstly, this is very rare. Secondly, as I stated earlier, these bad actors are quickly discovered and rooted out.
The fact is that the majority of these clubs are honest businesses and are highly reputable and reliable. Like anything else in the online world, you should do your homework. Before you download anything from a GPL club, do a Google search. Here are a few basic questions to ask when searching for a good GPL Club:
- How long have they been in business?
- How many plugins/themes do they offer?
- Does their site make claims of ownership of the products they offer?
- Do they claim partnership with the developer? If so, do they offer verifiable proof?
- What is their online reputation?
Make sure to check for independent reviews. But of course, actually read the reviews instead of just looking at the ratings. Take ratings with a grain of salt and use common sense in deciding for yourself
In the next article in this series, I am going to lend a hand to developers who believe that GPL Clubs are bad for business. I will put myself in their shoes and look at what they feel is wrong with these clubs. Then I will offer a solution that I believe will help resolve those problems. I am going to cover why I believe GPL Clubs are actually a GOOD thing for the WordPress community.
For those using GPL Clubs,I encourage you to feel free to do so without guilt. You are not doing anything wrong and the majority of the WordPress community will back you up. In this open community, we all must do our part to help each other.
Make sure to subscribe to our mailing list so you do not miss the next installment in this series: GPL Clubs: How They Benefit Developers And The Community