In your hunt for quality WordPress themes and plugins you may well have come across the term “GPL” – possibly on sites offering premium plugins and themes for free download or a reduced cost.
So what exactly does GPL mean and are these free WordPress download sites legal? If so, should you be using them?
In this article we’ll take an in-depth look into what GPL is, the ethics and use of GPL-licensed download sites, and how GPL affects the WordPress community as a whole.
What is GPL?
GPL or General Public License is a software license, which gives users complete freedom to use, share, and edit the software. It’s one of the most common licenses used in open-source software, including WordPress.
WordPress chose GPL as its license both to ensure that the software was widely available to all, and to encourage free development of WordPress code. If WordPress had chosen a different, paid type of license, it’s unlikely that the number of themes and plugins and the community would be anywhere near as large as it is today, as each developer would be required to buy a license before creating any kind of WordPress tool.
The choice of GPL for WordPress not only affects the core code, but also all themes and plugins that are developed for it. This is because the license outlines requirements for “derivative works”, namely that they inherit the GPL license.
Essentially this means that most plugins and theme made for WordPress must be published under the GPL license, even if it is a premium plugin or theme that is advertised with a price.
What GPL Means for Premium WordPress Themes and Plugins
Although it is not a complete requirement that all WordPress plugins and themes must be released under GPL, it is strongly encouraged. Themes and plugins must also be 100% GPL-compliant to be listed in the WordPress.org repository.
While there are some themes and plugins released under a different, less free license, this is frowned upon and the fact that they will not be listed in the official repository means that most developers choose to make their themes and plugins compliant with GPL.
So what does this mean for premium paid-for themes and plugins? How can something be free and have a price at the same time?
While developers are free to set whatever price they choose for their software, releasing it under the GPL means that it can be freely distributed.
Essentially, anybody who buys the theme or plugin can then do whatever they like with it, including distributing it for free.
GPL Theme and Plugin Sites – Are They Legal and Should You Use Them?
Because GPL software can be freely distributed, there is nothing to stop anyone who owns it from listing it on a website for free download, which is how sites like GPLDL exist and why nobody is trying to shut them down.
It’s perfectly legal to download a premium plugin or theme from one of these sites and use it without paying a penny.
You may wonder why if this is the case, do more people not know about it? And how come the majority of people are still paying for their themes and plugins?
Most developers deal with this issue by selling their products with a license key that gives access to automatic updates and support. Without this key you can download a copy of the software as it was provided, but you won’t receive any updates or bug fixes. Instead you’ll have to wait for someone to supply you with a free updated copy of the software and update the version on your WordPress installation manually.
Because most premium WordPress products are updated regularly, and keeping them up-to-date is so important for security, most people are happy to pay for the licenses that ensure they always have the most up-to-date version of the software.
Having access to developer support can also be an important consideration, particularly if you run into any problems. Developers are well aware that customer-service is an important part of their product offering and so are usually quick to respond to any issues or comments.
If you’re really short on cash, you still might be tempted to use one of these free download sites, despite the inconveniences, but should you?
The Ethics of WordPress GPL Download Sites
Most GPL theme and plugin sites are not offering free or cheap software for altruistic purposes. In fact, they are running as a business in their own right and making money off “free” software.
While there’s nothing in the GPL license terms to say that software can’t be redistributed for a fee, it’s certainly a grey area for these sites to profit from another developer’s hard work.
Most WordPress GPL sites offer access to leading plugins and themes for a monthly or yearly fee. These sites include:
In exchange for your membership fee, you are normally promised regular updates of software and some sites offer support too. The services and fees vary site from site so it’s definitely worth investigating a few if you’re considering investing in a membership for one of these sites.
Downloading WordPress themes and plugins from one of these membership sites is not the same as downloading pirated software – due to the license it’s perfectly legal to both distribute and download GPL WordPress software for free. However in terms of ethics, the two practices are not so different.
The Problem With GPL Download Sites
Ethics aside, there are several good reasons why it might not be an idea to download cheap WordPress plugins and themes from one of these sites:
1. Potential for Malicious Code
Unless you’re downloading software from a trusted site, there’s every possibility that additional malicious code may have been injected into the source code.
This could potentially do anything from making your site link to another site without your knowledge (a frequent practice in blackhat SEO to attempt to get to the top spots on Google) to opening a back door for hackers to access and attack your site.
While there are ways of comparing the code you download to the original to check there’s nothing suspicious in there, it’s much easier to simply avoid dodgy sites altogether. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
2. Poor Support
While some membership GPL sites do offer support for the plugins and themes they offer, this support will not be anywhere near as good as the support you’d get from the developer who created the software.
This means that if you run into problems, you’re on your own, or left to rely on the advice of others who really know nothing about the software or how it is built.
GPL download sites can also be very confusing for users who don’t really understand what they’re downloading and might naturally try contacting the original developer for support without knowing they’re not eligible to receive this kind of help. This is frustrating for the user and the developer alike.
3. Lack of Updates
While premium themes and plugins release updates automatically through WordPress requiring no extra work from the user, any software downloaded from one of these GPL distribution sites will have to be updated manually and updates are highly likely to be infrequent or delayed.
This means that you’re not only missing out on the latest features and updates but also may be putting your WordPress site at serious risk from unpatched security flaws.
If you’re paying a monthly membership fee to download software, you could even end up paying more than the original one-off license fee from the developer, if you want to ensure you’re always up to date – definitely something to keep in mind.
GPL – The Bottom Line
There’s a good reason the team behind WordPress chose to release under a GPL license and popular plugins and themes would not exist without it. The terms of the license mean that if a plugin is abandoned by the developer, another person can come along and keep it updated, or customize it into a totally new plugin with much less time and effort than it would take to create a plugin from scratch.
One way in which free GPL WordPress download sites can be very helpful and used in an ethical way is by allowing you to fully test out software before you commit to paying it. There’s nothing wrong with downloading the software for free and then paying for a license once you’ve decided it’s worth it. You could also choose to pay the developer directly instead of funding one of the big repository sites, which may not be operating 100% fairly.
When it comes down to it, most big developers and plugin/theme distribution sites are not overly affected or concerned about these free download sites because in reality, they do not have a big impact on sales.
If you do decide to download WordPress themes for a reduced price or for free, do your due diligence and make sure the site you’re downloading is reputable. Also be prepared to keep an eye out for updates and install them as soon as possible to keep your site secure.