Many people make a pretty good living designing “pay for” custom premium WordPress themes, but has the bell just tolled for those designers?

It’s a funny thing the Internet, something that’s only an idea one minute can bubble up to the awareness of tens of thousands the next. It’s distribution qualities are unlike any kind of media that has come before it. Many big companies have arisen out of small ideas, like Amazon, eBay, Google, YouTube, Flickr, del.icio.us – you name it. Some of those ideas have spawned multi-million (and billion) dollar companies, and many web entrepreneurs have learned how to make a good living from their services, API’s, and affiliate programs.

WordPress has sprung far ahead in the “blogging” space paradigm, spawning an entire cottage industry of theme designers and plugin developers that grows more every day. I’ve read some recent posts that question whether profiting from products built within, on, and around WordPress itself aren’t “evil” and maybe not even legal.

Let’s back up here a bit and talk about WordPress. WordPress is “open source software” built on the “GPL“, or the “General Public License”. What’s unique about the GPL is that GPL requires released improved versions be free software. Many of those who are very “pro” open source will point out that WordPress has grown like a brushfire in usage largely because of the fact that it’s FREE, and the huge burgeoning base of free themes and free plugins – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of “wordpress how-to” articles and tutorials (like mine).

Then again, everything reaches it’s tipping point of “critical mass” – doesn’t it? WordPress was primarily used in it’s earlier days by those familiar with HTML and some PHP hackery – which is why we used the “my hacks” file for custom features (before plugins). As the usage base for WordPress expanded beyond the typical “Webmaster/designer/hacker” to the tens of thousands of “mommy and make-money-in-your-spare-time-like-me bloggers” the improvements over time have made it where anyone with a mouse and a keyboard can blog for free.

This is great, and it really says a lot about the success and direction of WordPress itself – but it’s had an unforeseen and unintended side affect. Now a great percentage of WordPress bloggers are able to blog with little to no technical knowledge of HTML, CSS, PHP, RSS feeds, web hosting, etc. A need may arise that isn’t (currently) covered by WordPress. A blogger may want to know “How do I add podcasts to my posts”, or “How can I video Blog”, of “Why can’t my theme do X, Y, and Z?”. There may well be a completely free way to do these things, but first the blogger has to find it – and then he/she needs to be able to implement it (copy and paste code, who knows what else…). Enter the “WordPress cottage industry” I spoke of before, to the rescue! For only $29, or $49, or maybe even $99 (or more) you can probably find buy a WordPress theme or plugin to do exactly what you want.

In many circumstances – taking advantage of this kind of opportunity could get you the “Entrepreneur of the Year” award! Except, with WordPress – the software is built on the “GPL”, which states “improved versions must be free software”. Remember that? Guess what – _ALL_ WordPress themes and plugins use WordPress code. If they didn’t, they couldn’t interact with WordPress and work properly. This means that (at least in theory), ALL WordPress themes and plugins for sale must violate the GPL, and maybe aren’t even legal to sell.

I’ve read a lot of posts and comments about this, and some agree and some disagree. Many liken it to an “aftermarket” much like cars – where thousands of accessories are sold by third parties outside of the dealer. But cars are sold for profit (they aren’t open source), and they aren’t “released through the GPL” either. If they were, you would be able to get a car for free, and regardless of the improvements you made to it, you would have to give your revision or enhancement of it away as well – as a condition of getting it in the first place.

Will this stop people from selling WordPress themes and plugins? Hell no. Will Matt Mullenweg prosecute the entire cottage industry profiting off the back of WordPress? Probably not (although I bet he has mixed feelings about it). I think that there will be lively discussions about this, and maybe some changes ahead in the future though. One of the most famous WordPress ‘Premium’ themes, Revolution, is going open source. They are changing their business model to have free open source themes, and purchased packages will be available for support, tutorials, customizations, etc. Very interesting to say the least.

It’s funny – if you read the February 28, 2008 post “The Future of WordPress Premium Themes“, it blatantly predicts this change. In a way, it should have been expected as part of the “cycle of life”. You have an idea, which blossoms into a grassroots effort that only some are privy to and can use, and eventually it becomes the “pet rock” for the masses. Those “in the know” quickly find ways to sell and profit from their expertise (which works for awhile) – and the more the “knowledge” becomes widespread, those jealous of the profiteering going on decide to “release the knowledge for free”. That’s why you see so many “free premium themes” out there right now (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that).

What do you think? What IS acceptable to sell and profit from on and within open source WordPress on a GPL license?

If you want more to think about before commenting here – read these posts and comments:

The Ethics of Premium WordPress Themes
When Premium WordPress Themes and Ethics Collide
Thinking of Selling Premium Themes?