The GPL and WordPress businesses

It was a surreal and balmy 4th of July almost 15 years ago. Traffic was getting backed up and you could feel the frustration of the drivers as they sacrificed the comfort of their air conditioned vehicles to roll down their windows. Their necks stretching out to see what might be causing all the fuss.

Unless you were near the front of the line you probably couldn’t see that all the commotion was being caused by a hoveround driving slowly down the middle of the road. This means you also couldn’t see the hoveround’s pilot. She appeared to be about 50 or so years old with streaks of gray intermingled in her long brown hair. She was a heavy set woman who seemed to envelop the hoveround more like it was a part of her rather than a vehicle she was riding. It was her song that was the most haunting though.

Her melodic scream could be heard even if you were the last car in the long line of traffic. In almost a chant like fashion she would cry, “Independence, where are you!?”

We’ll circle back around to her in a moment.

We sell free software

Let me start by offering the obligatory disclaimer than I am not a lawyer and what I’m about to share is my own understanding and not a legal declaration. Even if I speak in absolutes.

When you or I build WordPress products we can only license our code under one license, the General Public License or GPL for short. This is because WordPress is licensed under the GPL and our products, considered derivative, inherit the GPL by default. Many have argued against this point but that’s not our concern right now.

Under the GPL your software is considered free. Over and over you will hear the term “free software” as it pertains to the GPL. “But, James, if it’s free how can you sell it?” That’s a great question. The GNU tries to clear this up.

“Strictly speaking, “selling” means trading goods for money. Selling a copy of a free program is legitimate, and we encourage it.

However, when people think of “selling software”, they usually imagine doing it the way most companies do it: making the software proprietary rather than free.

So unless you’re going to draw distinctions carefully, the way this article does, we suggest it is better to avoid using the term “selling software” and choose some other wording instead. For example, you could say “distributing free software for a fee”—that is unambiguous.”

Now “distributing free software for a fee” may be unambiguous but it sends huge mixed signals. I would go as far as to say that it an attempt to use the term “free software” the GNU is using these two words in a way that is unnatural for many.

Independence, where are you!?

Remember that lady on the hoveround? At first glance you might have thought she was making an indictment on the America. It was the fourth of July after all. It turns out she was looking for her lost dog named Independence.

Freedom NOT Free

The word “free” when used with “software” can be a bit misleading and ultimately distract us from the what makes the GPL truly great.

When you are talking about something living or conceptual it seems very clear. When you hear about free people, nation, speech, etc. you don’t assume anyone is talking about a price tag. You instinctively know that we are talking about liberties and not appraisal.

But what first comes to mind when you say the same about a commodity. When you hear free software, free beer, or free subscription you probably see a dollar sign or the lack thereof. That’s why it’s confusing.

When we speak of the GPL and “free software” we’re not referring to it’s cost or even it’s value, but it’s awarded freedoms. The GPL provides 4 freedoms to be exact.

  • 0. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  • 1. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  • 2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • 3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.

These freedoms are bestowed upon those who posses the software. They are irrevocable.  They have absolutely zero to do with the cost and everything to do with the liberties our code inherits under the GPL.

As long as we are using the term “free software” there is always going to be confusion. Especially as new people are introduced to the GPL for the first time. Perhaps instead of “free software” we could use “unrestricted software” or “software with benefits.”

Communicating the GPL

I’ve seen it said by some that companies that sell WordPress plugins should make it clear that their licenses cover updates and support but don’t limit the number of sites they can be used on. Under the GPL this is a given but the average person may not know this.

This raises some questions. How far should we go in educating our customers about the GPL? Are we responsible for explaining the freedoms a customer has under the GPL beyond providing the license in our software? From our customers perspective, do they care how many sites they can install the software if we’re not going to provide updates and support for those sites?

If you run a WordPress business how do you handle these topics? If you are a customer of such a business, what’s your take on the GPL?