This post is the second in a series looking at the business of theme design using WordPress based on a discussion that Automattic lead Matt Mullenweg gave on a recent episode of WordPress Weekly surrounding the topic. I would recommend reading the first article, Premium or Proprietary? to gain more context to the conversation.

I first heard about the WordPress theme repository submission guideline changes through a post on the topic at XFEP.com in which David Peralty pontificates that:

Matt blames theme creators for not thinking creatively when it comes to building a business around theme development, but if he keeps cutting off their arms when they try to find ways to build a business, eventually, they will give up and move on to something that gives them a better return on investment regarding their time.

As I summarized in my last post, the actions Matt has taken only affect the WordPress.org site – one destination amongst the vastness of the Internet. The actions are based on their open source roots and approach to the GPL which it is licensed under. Giving away free themes that are primarily created to be an upsell engagement is completely fine, but it won’t be something that gets promoted on WordPress.org. In the same way that they won’t support those businesses / business models which prevent you from redistributing or using their product on multiple sites.

WordPress is something that is going to be around for decades – 5, 10, 20 years from now. So the decisions that we make now are going to influence which direction it goes. You can look to other open source projects to how this happens. What is going to keep WordPress from becoming a post-nuke, or even like a Joomla? Where you go to it and it seems like most of the stuff is paid and there aren’t that many free resources. Ultimately this is going to hurt the viability of the underlying platform. I think it’s really a commitment to what got us to where we are today…..I think that would ultimately kill the project. We need to be true to what got us to this point in order to stay around and stay relevant.

The business of open source

So really, theme developers need only ask themselves whether they believe in open source and wish to support and benefit from it or work with a closed source / proprietary operation. Matt touched on this during the WordPress Weekly discussion in context of proprietary themes with Joomla, “Joomla has said anything goes and it seems to be the situation that premium themes are really crowding out the free resources. Which kind of makes sense if you align the economic incentives where you’re actually disincentivizing anyone to make open source stuff, eventually what’s going to happen is over-time the community will be more and more commercial.”

Over the long-term proprietary business models that seek to create demand by exclusivity are doomed to failure when competing against the shared resource model of open source. If you look at the largest and most influential software companies of the world you see integration with open source on some level. Early adopters like Unix and IBM gave heaps of foundation code to Linux and Eclipse respectively. Other companies have seen this shift and are adapting their existing business models to the new reality.  Adobe has released parts or all of their development frameworks to the community, although I don’t see them doing this for Photoshop to Gimp any time soon. Even Microsoft is slowly shifting towards a software-as-a-service  business model which can contribute and benefit from open source. They all realize that with the development technologies available to the world today, anyone can build a competitive product that offers 80 – 90% of the functionality. Each in their own way have wisely chosen to be a part of the solution rather than a competitor.

Why do you believe in open source?

David also made a bold statement that “Theme developers and plugin developers only believe in open source when they can make a business from it.” while true, is a highly flawed argument. I have made a successful business using open source products but my prices are based on the services I provide, not the products I use. Any overhead of product licenses incurred would be passed directly on to the customer. I believe in open source because it is the right thing to do:

  • The majority of websites developed by Idealien Studios are built using open source software such as WordPress, PHP and mySQL. In each of these cases I can justify how a particular open-source tool is as good or better than a proprietary alternative.
  • I am fully knowledgeable / capable of working with other closed source platforms. Yet in the absense of a direct requirement by a client to use a closed source technologies, my preference is open source.
  • I believe in open source for the same reasons that I believe in the value of a public education system. Sharing knowledge, information and opportunity with anyone who wants it is the right thing to do.
  • As much as I build websites for people, I strive to build tools and technologies that enable my clients to be self-sufficient. This probably has something to do with my upbringing with two parents for teachers and a desire interact with people who can get more from working with me than just the end product. After all, life is not about the destination but the journey.

Why is WordPress wonderful?

I think WordPress has built a perfect balance between capitalistic goals and social obligations. The .com site is an implementation of the open source tools that the .org provides for free to the world. There are other tools starting to come to market (DimDim, Screencast.com / Jing) emulating this model.

WordPress has shown – both in the past with the plugin repository and now again with this new theme repository – what their stance is on open source and that they are willing to reward those who share their vision by prominant placement on WP.org which can result in a significant amount of traffic. The best analogy that Matt made during the conversation on WordPress Weekly was to compare this situation to ones that Google encounters with people getting bent out of shape about changes their algorithms (in response to the very same people trying to “game” the system). Neither Google nor WordPress is stopping you from doing anything you want with your own site or sites you build or maintain for clients. Both of them are saying that if you want to be supported by them or get a share of the significant amount of eyeballs that can come from their respective sites, you’ll have to agree to play by their rules.