WordPress Themes Are Only Partially GPL-Licensed

There has been considerable debate (and more debate) recently about whether or not WordPress themes are or should be GPL-licensed. The official word from WordPress and the Software Freedom Law Center is that WordPress themes are only partially GPL-licensed. That is, the php code falls under a strict GPL license, while the CSS and images do not. Put simply, this is really f*&Ked up!

From my non-legal-background reading, this means that if you intend on selling a WordPress theme, you could be on shaky legal ground unless you package the CSS and image files separately from the core theme files. This would make the brand new Theme Installer utterly useless for out-of-the-box proprietary themes.

Personally, I believe that people should only be in the business of selling services related to WordPress themes or plugins, not the themes and plugins themselves. It is simply outside of the spirit of the GPL to sell add-ons to GPL-licensed products. I realize this leads to some questions about how to make money off of creative themes and plugins.

The main question that persists in my mind is: Should people be able to make money off of the GPL-licensed core WordPress code? That is, should we be able to sell themes and plugins? The verdict is still out on that one.


  1. Matt on July 6, 2009 at 11:47 am

    There’s nothing in the GPL that says you can’t sell things! In fact it’s perfectly fine to sell GPL code, images and PHP and all. It’s just that you can’t take away freedoms from people you distribute code to. (Check out my latest blog post about this.)

  2. Toby on July 6, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Matt! (and great blog post about the issue)

    I am beginning to better understand this WordPress/GPL theme debate. At first, I thought it was about money, but the more I read, the more it seems to be about access. The big issue seems to be that non-GPL theme developers want to get their themes into the WordPress theme repository, and WordPress only allows GPL themes in.

    This seems reasonable to me.

    Based on my reading of the Software Freedom Law Center’s response to your query, WordPress theme developers still maintain licensing control over the design elements of themes (the stuff that makes themes unique), and they can decide to use a GPL license or not on the CSS and images, right?

    But maybe I have it all wrong, and it is about motivation, as Daniel Jalkut profers… 😉

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