On WordPress Sponsored Themes

WordPress Last week, Mark from Weblog Tool Collection posted his stand on sponsored themes, and asked all sponsored themes to disclose their sponsorship. A few days later Matthew Mullenweg also outlined the social and ethical issues with sponsored themes, and vote for removing sponsored themes from WordPress.org. These are the WordPress themes developed by web designers, and are sponsored by third parties to add external links into the template for SEO purposes. When users download and deploy those sponsored themes, they effectively create a site-wide link to sponsor's sites. Moreover, some of these themes are guarded by end user licenses that prevent links from being removed from live sites. The open source community basically gives a big No to this kind of activities.

When you cross people's money making business, expect back fires. So the designers strike back with their own perspective. After all, there are many starving artists that need the dole, and what right does Matt/WordPress.org have preventing them getting wages from their work?

Then Matt posted a new article Plugin Authors Get No Love, arguing WordPress plugins are no less useful, equally sophisticated to create, but rarely have sponsored links bundled. The title was a bit misleading I think, as many interpreted "love" as getting monetary rewards.

But anyway. One week later, I think I am going to write a bit of my point of view on this matter.

I Have Been On Both Sides

I just need to declare that I have actually been on both sides of the fence. I am a coder at heart, and I have developed and released a few WordPress plugins, including the popular Permalink Redirect plugin, which frequent many people's top 10 WP plugin lists, especially amongst the SEOs. All my WP plugins are released under GNU General Public License. Some of my other work are released under even more liberal Public Domain, i.e. no license term at all!

However back in 2003 I actually started a theme/style site for Movable Type, when free themes/styles were not readily available. Due to other commitments I asked someone to take over the site -- I literally just gave that site away with more than one year of domain rego left! Come to think of it, what was I thinking that I gave away a PR6 site with 160+ inbound links for FREE! I must have been crazy! The same guy who took over the domain have done nothing over the last two years, and yet it is still a PR6 site.

Crap. Am I stupid or not?

After all I am more than just a coder at heart. I am an open source coder deep down who believe artistic creation (code is poetry, remember?) should be shared to make collaborative improvement a reality. Ultimately I would like to see more Movable Type themes developed and added into the repository, although I did not have any time developing it. So I was thinking, "hey if I pass it onto someone else, he can continue all the work!" Places like Sitepoint Marketplace has never entered into my mind.

I guess it is what sets many plugin developers and theme developers apart. As I replied Matt's post:

Plugin developers are programmers who understand the benefit and reason behind open source/free software. Theme developers are designers who do not necessary understand FOSS.

Not saying one is superior than the other, but just two different groups of people coming from two different backgrounds.

Okay. With that background in mind, let us look at some implications.

Designers Making Money From Themes? By All Means!

As much as I believe in open source, I also believe that credit should be given where credit is due. If you are a graphics designer who love to make beautiful themes for popular content management systems, and are making money from doing so -- congratulation!

I have seen people argue that since WordPress is free, people should not ride on the bandwagon, create an economy around it and make some money from it. He/she has obviously misunderstood the definition of free in Free Software. There is no license restriction on making money from open source/free software product.

So the GNU guys do not mind people making money on free software, but the next question is, whether making money off free software is ethical? In my own opinion, there is no two different ethics between free and proprietary software. Instead, ethical or not should totally base on how the money is made.

Ethics in Monetising the Themes

There are several ways for designers to monetising themes that I can think of.

  • Pay per design -- many companies monetising in FOSS world by providing value-add services. There are also many high profile bloggers or company blogs out there that need more than just the default Kubrick theme. Many are willing to pay for high quality designs.

  • Pay per download -- you have created the most coveted and versatile WordPress theme in the world. Charge 10 bucks per download.

  • Ask for donation -- it is not too hard to put a PayPal donation button on the sidebar, is it?

  • Sponsored link -- now we are getting into the gray area! Google does not like it as it pollutes SERP. Personally I think taking sponsors and add a link into footer of your theme template is okay, as long as you make full disclosure, including appropriate license terms.

    For example on the download page, theme developer needs to say "This theme is sponsored by such and such, and a link is included in the footer of the page. As it is released under Creative Common Attribution license, please leave the copyright notice."

    Then the person who is downloading and using theme is fully acknowledged the existence of the sponsored links, and what he/she can/cannot do with the template.

Again in my opinion a theme with sponsored links without disclosure is considered spammy and unethical, especially the ones with blackhat tricks like cloaking and invisible DIVs. If you can only get people downloading your themes without the disclosure, then maybe your theme is not good enough. Go back to your PhotoShop! :)

GNU GPL or Creative Commons?

One issue (or advantage from a different perspective) with Creative Commons (CC) licenses is -- they are essentially copyright lite. Attribution is always required in CC, so there is no way to remove the usual copyright notice at the bottom of each theme, usually with a complimentary link back to the theme developer. Worse, there are themes with Attribution + NoDerivs license that forbids any derivative work based on licensed product. That simply means, if there are hard coded sponsored links in the template, you cannot touch them!

If it is how many themes are licensed, no wonder they are in deep conflict with WordPress, which is licensed under GNU General Public License (GPL). GPL gives the receiver of the end product every freedom except imposing restriction on others. From legal point of view, I can grab WordPress, rename it to something else, change source code here and there, shrink wrap it, and sell it for $5,000 a copy without acknowledging Matt and co, as long the source code is provided to my buyer, and they can do whatever they want with it (including selling it for $10,000). Maybe it is not ethical, as in a case I have looked at previously. But it does tell you what really matters to the open source/free software people -- freedom for the developers to do whatever you want.

And I consider it was this freedom that made WordPress a more preferred blogging platform than its closest competitor back in May 2004, when Movable Type stopped being "free". Mark Pilgrim's post is the one article that I constantly referred back to.

Therefore licensing plugins or themes under any more restrictive licenses is against the central philosophy of WordPress, or any other free software. Duncan Riley didn't get it -- the fall of SixAprt started when the community were upset, but they were upset because people realised that this software is not really free.

(Just a side note -- I have been looking for forum software to kick start a community site. However I am not touching SMF nor MyBB, as those so-called "free" forum software are not really free if you check their license terms. Still waiting for phpBB 3 to release...)

Removing Themes from Theme Gallery

Not only because sponsored theme confuses visitors, but also because of this philosophy difference, I completely agree with Matt that they should be removed from WordPress official sites.

Another reason, which I believe Matt would also agree, is that how difficult it was to come clean after being accused of spamming. For some they are tainted for life, and I am sure Matt would not put the WordPress brand in jeopardy again.

That does not mean sponsored themes will not continue. Designers from everywhere are still free to take sponsorships for themes they made. They just will not be listed under the WordPress brand, that's all. Weblog Tools Collection is still happy to list them, as long as sponsorships are made known.

Other Thoughts?

Other random thought pieces on this matter that cannot be put logically anywhere, so I shall just append them here.

  • Plugins IMO are actually easier to write because:

    1. I am a coder, not a graphics designer. I don't even own a copy of PhotoShop.
    2. I write plugins because I have an itch to scratch, and somehow made it distributable along the way. Not true when you are developing a theme.
    3. Plugins can be short (less than 10 lines). No one will use a theme that contains less than 10 lines of CSS.
    4. Browser compatibility is rarely an issue with plugins.

    Then again theme developers rarely have to suffer answering support questions, make sure it works in a few popular versions of WP, different hosting platform, etc. Support question is a killer -- I probably spent 5x more time answering emails and forum posts on my plugins, then actually writing the code.

  • If your lively hood solely depends on making sponsored WordPress themes, then please go and find a real job.

That's all folks!