I believe it’s time for Matt Mullenweg to seriously reconsider the restrictive, unsuccessful business models (donations, paid support) he currently requires developers adhere to in order to have their plugins and themes hosted at WordPress.org. Theme and plugin developers have helped make WordPress the champion blogging platform that it is today without receiving a single dime of the $29.5 million in funding that Automattic raised last year. Both Matt Mullenweg and his company Automattic benefit financially from the hard work of plugin developers and theme designers. Yet it’s somehow justified in Matt’s mind that it’s not okay for plugin developers and theme designers to directly receive financial compensation for their contributions to WordPress.
Why Doesn’t Automattic Have To Obey The Rules?
There are several instances where Matt’s own company Automattic appears to contradict Matt’s rules for plugin developers. For instance, did you know that the Poll Daddy plugin is hosted in the official WP plugin repository even though they charge for a premium version of Poll Daddy? Perhaps you knew that Automattic charges for commercial licenses of the Akismet plugin which can be found in the official WP plugin repository too? Either I’m misunderstanding it, or it’s indeed possible, as demonstrated by Automattic, to host your free plugin at WordPress.org and also sell keys/licenses for plugins as “services” whether they are GPL compliant or not, or Matt is promoting a double standard here.
Why Matt Doesn’t Want To Clarify The WordPress GPL
Despite all my research, I’m beginning to think that Matt Mullenweg either doesn’t fully understand the meaning of GPL or purposefully doesn’t elaborate on the specifics of it to prevent developers from knowing exactly where the lines are drawn. It would be super easy for him to post at WordPress.org a list of things you can and can’t do with your premium plugins/themes according to the WordPress GPL and what business models are GPL compliant. Why have you not done this Matt? Please tell me I’m wrong about your understanding of the GPL and your intentions. It’s probably no mistake that Matt doesn’t want to acknowledge such issues. For it he did, he would have to acknowledge the fact that Automattic, a commercial entity that owns WordPress, exploits the GPL to promote it’s distribution, uses plugin and theme developers work to build upon WordPress, and then uses the GPL as a barrier to prevent anyone except Automattic from benefiting financially from the work. Regardless of Matt’s intentions, if he doesn’t start embracing plugin and theme developers to find an alternate business model to support them, at some point developers are either going to move on to another platform that does or simply create their own plugin/theme repository.
Developers Should Use Automattic’s Tactics
My current understanding of what is acceptable is that you can develop non-GPL premium themes and premium plugins and sell them but not on WordPress.org. If you want to get your plugins or themes into the official WP repository, you’re going to have to offer a free version and make sure it’s GPL compliant before it (free version only) will be hosted at WordPress.org. If your plugin or theme depends on WordPress code source to operate (which most do) then according to the GPL, customers who buy your premium themes and plugins have the right to distribute them freely. That stipulation by itself acts as a strong deterrent for selling premium themes and plugins and it’s probably why Matt tends to promote a service based model rather than selling the software outright. One solution to this problem is to require a unique encryption or API key (like Akismet uses) in order for your theme or plugin to work correctly which should help prevent people from pirating your work and distributing it freely.
Failure Of Donations, Paid Support-only Business Models
As I pointed out previously, the current WordPress donation based model that’s allowed by Matt and utilized by so many WP plugin developers doesn’t work. Moreover, freely available plugins frequently become a burden for their developer as they require lots of time to maintain and support. As a result, plugins either die off or they’re reassigned to become someone else’s problem.
Matt has been adamant about banishing theme designers from the official WordPress theme repository if they sell premium themes in a way that violates the GPL. On December 10th, 2008 he oversaw the removal of approximately 200 themes from the official WordPress theme repository because he said they did exactly that. He is also opposed to generating revenue from the development of WordPress plugins and themes unless the developer uses the broken donation model or a paid support-only business model to do so. The ugly fact is that, by itself, paid support for themes and plugins isn’t a viable business model either. Most people shouldn’t need support for a well designed plugin or theme. Moreover, if a customer can find a cheaper support rate elsewhere why would they pay the author to provide them with support? The key to this puzzle may lie in the definition of what support and services are. That is, does requiring the customer to buy an API key in order for the plugin to work constitute support?
Brian Gardner himself may be able to provide some insight as to the challenges of a paid support-only model. His Revolution themes were initially proprietary prior to the creation of his Revolution2 brand whereby he announced that they would become open source, GPL compliant, and he would adopt the paid support-only model. Brian received a lot of media coverage with this announcement and Matt Mullenweg rewarded his decision by giving Brian an exclusive opportunity to display his Revolution2 banner ad in the official WordPress theme repository.
As far as I know Brian’s Revolution2 brand no longer exists and while his new StudioPress premium themes brand is GPL-ish, his company no longer depends solely on a support-only business model to generate revenue. Currently, you must pay to obtain a StudioPress theme and you must pay to receive support for it as well. I’m not at all knocking Brian’s decisions; I applaud him for doing this as it’s a smart business move that not only benefits him and his staff but the WordPress community as a whole. Getting paid to deliver excellent themes that enhance the overall experience and public image of WordPress is a good thing. Support and great looking, compliant themes require a lot of development time and that’s why you don’t see the same quality of work reflected in the free themes that reside in the repository.
A Better Solution For Theme And Plugin Devlopers
It seems that the best solution for most plugin and theme developers would be for Matt Mullenweg to create a premium plugin marketplace and a premium themes marketplace. He indeed appeared to be interested in establishing a WordPress.com premium themes marketplace in which Automattic would share 50% of the revenue with the theme designers but that idea for some unknown reason never gained any real traction. Perhaps the theme designers realized they could sell their themes themselves and keep 100% of the profits? Regardless, creating such a premium themes/plugin marketplace would put an end to much of the controversy that surrounds this issue. Then it just becomes a matter what level of control WordPress wants to assert, if any, with respect to the licensing and pricing of such premium plugins and themes. One of the most interesting solutions discussed in our previous article was an app store-like model where the cost for any given plugin was kept at a minimum (e.g. $1 per download). Such low prices would offer less incentive for piracy, it would keep costs low for WP bloggers, and it would enable developers to provide better support as well as afford them the opportunity to create new innovative WP plugins.
How WordPress Benefits From A Premium Marketplace
I understand many in the WP community fear that such a premium repository would destroy WordPress, but the fact remains that premium themes and premium WordPress plugins already exist. It’s actually in WP’s best interest to embrace such premium themes and plugins. Doing so may allow them to maintain some level of quality control and protect WP’s public image. Currently there’s no assurance to a customer that he/she is getting a quality product when they purchase a premium theme or plugin nor is there any reassurance that may be compatible with WP. It’s not at all unheard of for a new WordPress user to be duped into purchasing some garbage plugin or theme that’s not hosted at WordPress and completely abandon WP for a competing CMS or blogging platform (Concrete5, TypePad, MovableType). It’s especially tempting for the user to do something like that if 1) that competitor can ensure some type of community based quality control for premium themes/plugins, 2) offer a centralized location where all premium plugins and themes are conveniently hosted, 3) provide a better user experience, and 4) offer better looking free themes.
Free Plugins And Themes Will Continue To Thrive
I’m confident that implementing a premium marketplace would not eliminate the free themes and plugins repository as there are plenty of advantages to offering free versions. The developer could employ any of the following strategies below to help him cover his support and maintenance costs while still offering a free plugin or theme to all WordPress users.
- Trial versions – Lets the user test the plugin/theme for free over a certain time period (i.e. 30-day free trial).
- Paid upgrades – The user gets the free version which doesn’t include features offer in the premium version
- Paid support – Developer only gets paid when the user requires support
- Paid commercial licenses – Allows full access to the theme or plugin for personal use, but businesses must pay a licensing fee
- Advertisements – Includes permanent ad/link displayed in the plugin or theme
- Donations – While not very successful as a sole business model, it’s still an option and could be used in combination with strategies outlined above
Matt Admits Developers Driving Force Behind WordPress
There’s plenty of room for the negotiation of a premium marketplace at WordPress.org. By ignoring the discussion and not engaging the developer community to help them maintain and support their efforts, however, Matt is not sticking to his own mantra of openness and community. Matt may have founded WordPress, and we are all very very grateful that he did, but the plugin and theme developer community is now the primary driving force behind WP. Matt himself pointed out this fact in a recent episode of Techzilla (see video below @ 08:18).
Why Developers Shouldn’t Submit Work To WordPress
As Matt explained in the video, plugins are regularly integrated into the core functionality of WordPress and they now constitute nearly all of the development for recent and future versions of WP. But what becomes of the developer whose plugin is consumed by a new version of WP? Any traffic or donations his plugin may have generated while hosted at the WordPress plugin repository are now gone. And while donations are clearly not a sustainable business model, that developer may have depended on the paid support and/or the WP related work that originated from his plugin that was hosted in the WordPress repository. Incredibly, the current system that integrates popular plugins into new versions of WordPress eliminates the only revenue models (i.e. donations, paid support) that Matt permits developers to utilize in order to have their plugins hosted at WP. In the end, developers are better off not submitting their themes and plugins for inclusion into the WP repository and hosting them elsewhere.
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