Andrew Fielden presented a talk at August’s WordPress Birmingham meetup in which he discussed GPL in the context of WordPress and the WordPress ecosystem of premium themes and plugins.

It was a thought provoking talk and it reminded me of a discussion I’d had that very week. I’ve summed up my thoughts here as I’m not sure I was able to fully articulate the ethical conundrum over Twitter!

I’d like to thank Andrew for again presenting at WordPress Birmingham. It’s always a pleasure.

We’re building a niche music download service, making use of WooCommerce and it’s virtual, downloadable products. However, at the scale we’re working at, local storage of the distributable files is simply not feasible.

Amazon S3 is one of the most popular “cloud” storage solutions. However, it was decided an internal solution would provide us more control and accountability.

I was in a meeting discussing an integration between WooCommerce and our internal distributed storage platform. We looked at the Amazon S3 Storage WooCommerce extension. It’s a plugin which provides the equivalent functionality to what we were trying to achieve.

It was during this meeting where I mentioned WooThemes were GPL, at which point it was implied that we could therefore just skim through the code. That it would be publicly accessible. Looking over the WooThemes page, the licensing was not made clear. We just bought the plugin at $29 and picked through the source to find the right hooks to build our own integration.

In this instance, I can’t be sure how much time was actually saved by making use of the extension. But it illustrates the ethical question I’m interested in. If you’re potentially going to save many hours of research/development, is it right to seek out the source code for free?

Authors are not discouraged from selling access to GPL software and are not required to make source freely available. And for me, I think this is where context is important. There is a difference between someone throwing their code up on GitHub for the world to see and a business selling access and support.

If code has been made available, released on GitHub for example, it’s fair game. That feels fine. If you’re working on a personal project, grabbing source code for educational purposes, I can see the freedoms granted under the GPL are beneficial. I wouldn’t feel bad going out of my way to get hold of open source code from a “premium” plugin/theme.

Where a company has chosen to licence their software under the GPL and has an intended distribution channel, such as their own online store to sell access and support. For me, if you’re going to make use of that code for profit, it feels like the right thing to do is reward the author for their work. Perhaps in the hope they’ll be incentivised to maintain and update their software.

It’s an ethical conundrum. I’ve tried to sum up how I feel, rather than what is legally permissible. Because of course, if an author has chosen the GPL licence and someone does subsequently make their source freely available. At the end of the day, that’s the nature of the licence. The freedom it gives. If the thought never crossed the authors mind, if that wasn’t the authors intention, perhaps they should have chosen a more restrictive licence.