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How Can Developers Make A Living From GPL Plugins?

August 3, 2016 1 Comment RSS Feed

GPL PluginsMost WordPress plugins are made available under the GPL — a “copyleft” license originally created by Richard Stallman. The intention of the GPL is to ensure that software can be modified and shared without limitations. Any software published under the GPL license can be copied by anyone who wants to, as long as they are prepared to make the source code of any changes available if they choose to distribute the software.

Let’s say a developer created a new WordPress plugin and released it with a GPL licence. The developer intends to give away a limited version of the plugin for free and charge for premium features — something that’s perfectly compatible with the GPL. However, after releasing and promoting his plugin, he’s dismayed to find another developer has taken the code and is giving it away for free as part of a bundle of “premium” plugins.

While it might seem counterintuitive, according to the GPL, there’s nothing wrong with what the second developer did. There is a strong cultural prohibition not to behave like this in the WordPress world, but that doesn’t stop it happening. A recent question on the Advanced WordPress Facebook group highlights the issue. A developer asks what he can do to stop people copying his GPL WordPress plugin. The nutshell response is this: nothing. There is nothing a developer can do to stop someone copying GPL code. The GPL exists precisely to allow such copying.

Does that mean it’s impossible to make money by developing for the WordPress ecosystem? Not at all. But it won’t look like traditional software distribution.

Premium Plugins

The most obvious model is to simply sell plugins, Sure, they’ll be copied or “pirated” but most users are willing to pay developers for their work. Those who aren’t probably would not have paid in the first place.

Cloud Services

This is considered a somewhat shady means of circumventing open source software by some in the community, but it’s entirely possible to break a plugin’s functionality up so that the bulk of it runs as an application on a server. The WordPress plugin provides an interface and integration between WordPress and the application running on the server. This technique is only going to work for suitable plugins, those that are a natural fit for a Software-as-a-Service model.

Premium Plugins With Support

Many WordPress plugin developers offer a free version of their plugin, alongside a premium version with more features and enhanced support. For some businesses, a WordPress plugin is a crucial part of their website. They’re more than happy to pay for support direct from the developer. Some will also be prepared to pay for additional development work to add a feature that they need or to help integrate a plugin with other components of their site.

This model, releasing software under an open source license and generating revenue from support contracts, is how many of the biggest open source software corporations — including the multi-billion-dollar Red Hat — make their money.

Plugin As Promotion

A WordPress plugin is a great way to establish a reputation as a competent WordPress developer. A smart developer can parlay that reputation into consulting and support contracts that are not directly related to the plugin.

Although GPL software can be copied, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make money in the WordPress ecosystem.

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  • John

    Thanks Corey for sharing your view on the GPL topic and how to make money as developer. A lot of people are obviously confused when it gets to its legal implications. My understanding is that is largely the case because we all grew up in a Copyright-World which makes us believe that all code that was developed by one person only belongs to this person and taking all or parts of it to create something new is “theft” or “unethical”. That is very much short sighted from my point of view. There are so many great software projects (like most parts of Linux) that can just exist because people understand software as a common good that everyone can build upon without the requirement to ask for permission. I am therefore one of the few WordPress enthusiasts who supports websites like that offer Premium WordPress products for free. I do not consider this immoral or harming the WordPress Ecosystem in any way. What we as developers need to learn is that people who buy our products do not just buy code but they buy a “product experience” including support, help in customization etc. that actually creates value for the users. We need to get this right and always allow others to build upon our code, fork it or redistribute it to make it better. Thanks for your attention!