What’s with themes and the GPL?

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You know how a mailbag post works. That’s what this is.

Theme Playground reader Kendra Kellogg wrote in to ask:

I’ve modified a theme from the WordPress theme directory and am now using it, modified, for a client’s site. What do I owe the original creator of the theme? Is the theme GPL? What does that even mean? — Kendra Kellogg

Great question. It’s really best to start off at the end, with the “What is GPL?” question, and then to unfold the rest from there.

What is GPL?

This issue can be a hairy one in this community, so I’ll try and speak in the most generally acceptable and agreeable terms I can, in hopes of avoiding anything too crazy and heated in the comments.

GPL stands for “General Public License”, an open source license used for releasing digital content, like software. WordPress is released under this license, and means you can do pretty much whatever you want with it. While I’m sure it’s greatly appreciated by WordPress developers for users to give credit to the software system they are using (often in the footer), it is not necessary. One of the beautiful parts of the GPL license is how it is free of the licensing requirements of much software.

Visit the GNU site to read the entire GPL explanation.

Visit the GNU site to read the entire GPL explanation.

Without really getting into the issue of what it means to work with non-GPL themes (there are those who would argue that those don’t exist, but we’ll save that for another post…) you should know that any theme you grab from the official WordPress theme repository is most definitely a GPL theme. Let’s restrict this answer to your question to these specific themes.

Working with GPL themes

So, assuming you have developed a new creation from a GPL WordPress theme: because the theme itself is GPL compatible, technically speaking there are no licensing restrictions to hold you to giving the original author credits or payment of any kind (much like the WordPress system itself).

Of course, also like WordPress, I’m sure the theme developer responsible for the theme you are working with would most definitely appreciate recognition and/or monetary compensation for what they did. While it is against our natures to offer up money for what is free, the developer on the receiving end of your offer will be both shocked and grateful for any compensation you offer. Odds are, for many developers, it will be the first they’ve ever received. If money is out of the question, a simple thank you would be appreciated as well, and maybe a link to how you’re using their work.

Followup question: so how can you make money developing with WordPress?

The paragraph above might make it sound like developing WordPress themes won’t net you a comfortable living. Is it really possible to make money creating GPL compatible themes? Is it worth tossing the GPL out the window to profit?

Coming up this week (finally) we’ll be looking at how to make a living with WordPress, with input from the WordPress professionals who themselves have made a living for themselves using various models and methods. Stay tuned.

Have a question for the mailbag?

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Thanks for the great question, Kendra! For the rest of you, consider this an open invitation to send over your questions. They can be simple or complex, and I’ll do my best to offer up an answer, or find someone to get you an answer. The best and most helpful questions will be included in the mailbag feature here on the Theme Playground. Get asking.