Jeremy Felt

The four freedoms sandbox

Note: I am not a lawyer or a creator of a WordPress-extending product that I sell for money. I’m just a nerd with opinions. Sometimes I write them down.

The GPL is an activist software license. It is copyleft in that it establishes user freedoms around a work while still assigning that work an author copyright.

These “four essential freedoms” are described by the Free Software Foundation as:

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

These are not shallow freedoms. These are freedoms that put the rights of the user ahead of the developer.

WordPress is distributed with a GPLv2 (or later) license. It is generally understood that plugins created for WordPress and code using WordPress APIs must also be distributed under a GPL compatible license.

Any GPL compatible license establishes these four freedoms for users. Some are less insistent than the GPL about how these freedoms must be passed on in derivative works.

The decision to create and distribute software with a copyleft license comes with an understanding that you are guaranteeing these freedoms for users of that software, whether or not you charge a fee for its original distribution.

It is not illegal, unethical, or piracy for someone to redistribute a copy of software with a copyleft license to others in a modified or unmodified form, for free or for a fee.

It is not illegal, unethical, or piracy for someone to modify a copy of software with a copyleft license so that it runs without an additional authorization check.

These are freedoms explicitly communicated to users by a license chosen by the author.

It is unethical to prevent someone from modifying or redistributing copyleft licensed software. This type of prevention would conflict with the license assigned to it.

That’s the sandbox we’ve chosen to play in. The users always win!

I have an easy time seeing this from the user perspective. I am a big proponent of copyleft and the freedoms it provides. I can also see how it can be discouraging for those who spend loads of time building a business by extending WordPress only to see others redistribute that software for free or for a fee that ends up in someone else’s pocket.

It’s a distraction that’s not worth the focus. You’ve distributed software with freedoms, let those freedoms be.

That said, there are some things that could be done to try and reduce the impact on a business.

A copyleft license coexists with trademark. The GPL includes an option for additional terms in which you can add language to the license that declines “to grant rights under trademark law for use of some trade names, trademarks, or service marks”.

With additional terms like this, someone would need to make reasonable changes to the code to remove the plugin’s original name and branding before redistributing it.

Also—this is all a simplification—derivatives of WordPress code must be distributed with a GPL compatible license. The SFLC left open the possibility that things like images and CSS files could be distributed through an additional license.

You could go above and beyond to apply a restrictive copyright license to some parts of a plugin and a copyleft license to the parts that interact with WordPress. This would make it harder to redistribute without significant work.

And that all said, everything is subject to actual challenges in actual court rooms with actual lawyers that cost actual money. None of this is truly settled.

The best way forward, IMO, is to make and distribute software with a copyleft license, embrace the freedoms that license provides for users, charge for it, and focus on making it better!

The other way: create and distribute software with a restrictive copyright and reinvent everything free and open source software has provided—as a freedom!—to all of us along the way… No thank you!


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