Price of Freedom

I got asked an interesting question today:

The only thing why (at least) I encode the footer is to prevent people from removing my designer link. I usually spend around 6 hours designing the graphics and coding the theme and some people simply take my link off and some of them even dare to write that the theme was designed and coded by them! How would you feel if someone took your WordPress script (since it’s free) and said they made it? Wouldn’t you like to bite their head off?

The response became too long for a comment, so here it is:

Kate, thousands of people every day remove the WordPress link, or my link, or search and replace the WP logo with their own and redistribute it, use it to spam, distribute hate speech, or any number of awful things you can imagine. So why have hundreds of people spent thousands of hours working on it?

Though the freedom intrinsic in the GPL that has allowed people to abuse WordPress it has allowed even more people to do amazing things and over time the good far, far outweighs the bad. Most importantly I feel like WordPress would have never gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been open from the beginning. (In fact there were several more functional blogging programs started around the same time that have since withered away.)

Ultimately I know our software isn’t going to change anyone’s spots. Good people will do good things with it, and bad people will do bad things with it — regardless of any protections I put in place. Windows Vista, a multi-billion dollar enterprise, was cracked within days. Does any piddling encoding I can do in PHP really matter? If protection like that isn’t broken it’s a statement of popularity, not security. I suppose could harass the bad guys, shut down their host, send them scary letters, but it’s just going to stress me out and like cockroaches they’ll pop up someplace else. I also know that most projects, software, and ideas die from obscurity, not piracy.

If you accept that bad people are going to be bad then the real question becomes how do you maximize the effect of the good instead of treating them just like the bad. (No one likes to be treated like a criminal.) In my brief experience here’s three things that work:

  1. Give people the tools they need to succeed. This can be interpreted on a lot of levels, but personally I’ve found at the most base the freedoms provided by the GPL and other open source licenses are incredibly empowering.
  2. Celebrate the successes. Talk, connect, promote, and embrace the people who are creating things on top of your creation. (The best revenge against someone doing something bad is helping create something awesome.)
  3. Provide a way for people to choose to help you, and try to remove as much friction from that process as possible. Now that you’ve ignored the bad people and delighted the good, by their very nature they’ll want to give something back.

The success stories around this model are numerous and growing every day. People can and do rip-off the entire Wikipedia, but it’s still become one of the top ten sites on the internet and a marvel of what can happen when you let go. (Not to mention it is run entirely on open source software.) WordPress itself was built on top of a pre-existing GPL product called b2/cafelog. Anyone can run the software behind our hosted service and create competitive sites, and many have, but it hasn’t hurt us one bit. Linux, GNU, and the thousands of related desktop projects haven’t taken a bit longer than folks had hoped, but the impact they’re having, especially on emerging economies, is dramatic. The list goes on and on. It’s not hard to join the movement, but first you have to figure out who you’re fighting, who you’re trying to help, and if the price of freedom is something you’re willing to embrace.

65 thoughts on “Price of Freedom

  1. After taking the time to write this I started going through the abuse reports from the theme viewer and realized that Kate had 31 themes on the site, each with 2-3 sponsored spam links in the footer. In hindsight, perhaps credit was not the thing she was so concerned with.

  2. If only there were more people with this attitude and less of those who steal the work of others, imagine what a creative and incredible world we would live in?

    Thanks for your software and your observations, I am sure that there are many more than you know who share your ideals.

  3. Thanks for writing it anyway. Although I cursed them at the time, one of the nicest things my webhost ever did for me was forcing me to replace MT with WordPress because my MT installation was getting hammered with comment spam, and not degrading gracefully at all. This was in May 2004. By the time of the Great MT to WP Migration, I was feeling quite smug. And WordPress has only become better since then.

  4. i’m not terribly surprised about kate, in fact it was the first thing i assumed when i read it. people who are genuinely concerned with the attribution of their designs tend to go the route of explaining what they want (via CC-licenses, or explanations of what they think is appropriate ( has a great example of this)). mechanical means (add_action('wp-footer', ''), or encoding the footer) are usually used to circumvent the legality of a particular license, rather than encouraging compliance.

  5. well, not looking at Kate, but the fact that people remove the original link (WordPress or Joomla) and tell to clients that it’s their pure coding/design job, that’s sad 🙁

  6. Matt: thanks for writing this, it’s a great post, a positive and useful perspective on this issue and hopefully will be taken seriously by the folks who are straddling one nuanced or less than nuanced side or the other of it.

  7. Helmut, on one level it’s sad but on a much deeper level it’s just an expression of the rights and freedoms that WordPress must continue to fight for.

  8. 6 hours, lol. I spend days and weeks to create plugins. If I added up all the time, I could say that I spent 2 whole working months with coding WP plugins. (However, this time was not wasted, I got many WP related jobs as well as tons of great feedback and recognition. :-D)

    I must admit that some frontend plugins of mine contain links to my site, but users are allowed to remove them, and the plugins contain instructions how to achieve this. The newer plugins even have options to do that with a function argument or via admin panel. Some people deactivate the backlinks, others leave them (although they certainly would know how to remove them).

  9. Hi Matt. I’m very new to the whole open source movement and the different licensing types. In the begining of your response, you meantion many “remove the WordPress link, or my link, or search and replace the WP logo with their own and redistribute it”. I’m wondering if you feel this is a bad thing. I’m contemplating starting a small business creating custom WordPress solutions, and I thought about “re-branding” the sites to suite the client. This would in fact invlove doing some of the things in the quote above.

    Thanksa and keep up the good work at WordPress headquarters!
    Erich Peterson

  10. Matt, thanks for commenting my reply, but how can you explain this?

    System Recommendations

    * PHP version 4.2 or higher.
    * MySQL version 4.0 or higher.
    * … and a link to on your site.

    That’s from your README file. 😛 You’re the creator and of course you want people to leave your link, so why can’t theme designers require a link back to their site?


  11. Kate, not sure what you hope to gain by attacking WP, but (1) those are recommendations, not requirements (2) later in the page we link to the GPL (3) we don’t encode anything to prevent people from changing any links (4) we don’t sell links in the themes. Asking someone is very different from forcing them.

    I’d be fine with adding “is appreciated” to that sentence, but that that text has been there for four years and it hasn’t come up before.

  12. I had seen a theme with embedded Adsense as well, but it looks like that one didn’t have sponsored links. I’ve updated the text above to say “2-3.” Anyway I hope that is in the past and I will delete any comments that attack you here. I hope the entry gave you some food for thought. Even though we may be on different sides of this issue, thank you for using and developing for WordPress.

  13. Hello Matt
    Kates motives are irrelevant, because this is one of your best articles and statements for open source.

    You know that I do not praise all your articles to the sky 😉



  14. Kate is right why would anyone go through the time to give away a free theme if they don’t make anything from it. Hours to make and Hours to code.

  15. Matt, I read this post with joy. Your full voice has been missed (as much as Kathy’s). The wry addendum only gave me a moment’s pause. There may be fewer ‘innocents’ and less naivete around here every year, but that does not reduce the power and value of your beliefs one iota.


  16. Right on, Matt! This is what free software is about: you can do whatever you like with it, without the author’s blessing. For me, seeing a theme (or any software, for that matter, however minor) that has been consciously released under a free license makes me think the author has really given some thought to his or her product. Generally speaking, that translates to better software, period.

  17. Brett the reason why I would (if I could design themes that is) distribute themes for free:

    1. As a newbie I learned by looking at other free themes so it’s only fair for me to follow suit.
    2. Recognition of the theme designer’s coding/design skills
    3. Satisfaction of sharing knowledge with others
    4. Haven’t you heard about FSF?

  18. “… why would anyone go through the time to give away a free theme if they don’t make anything from it. Hours to make and Hours to code.”

    This comment makes me incredibly sad.

  19. @brett: why? probably for the same reasons i develop plugins for WP. i have a good idea for something and i want to allow other people to share that with me.

  20. I liked the statement on how to deal with the bad eggs when working on Open Source software! 🙂 Definitely something worth reading over again if I ever get a bit peeved about someone stealing off with my work! ^^ Thanks for the helpful tips!

    p/s: No comment with regards to Kate’s work since I know nothing about the background behind all this.

  21. I personally don’t use a WP Theme that has ‘sponsored’ links in the footer. If the creator of a theme chooses to put a link in the footer, back to their site, or the page that talks about the theme then I don’t mind leaving it in the footer, but when someone wants to gain money from a theme by selling sponsored links, well I personally think that that is unacceptable.

    This is just my 2cents worth, but that is how I feel.

  22. Bretty said: “why would anyone go through the time to give away a free theme if they don’t make anything from it”

    Brett, here’s why I did just that —

    1. I believe in open source software, non-restrictive licenses, and fair use.

    2. While I do/did spend a lot of time coding, I consider that time valuable in terms other than money. It is experience gained for me. I’m not the kind of person that only does something to get something else back.

    3. Releasing my theme for free with no limitations in a nod to the work that went into the FREE software it is intended to be used with.

    There seems to be a very clear mindset differential on either side of this issue — one group is concerned with fair use, the other is concerned with making money. I know where I stand.

  23. Regardless of what anyone has to say anything about the links or link sales, Matt, this has to be one of the best posts I’ve read on open source.

    Give and you get, good karma always returns and so does bad. I don’t understand why people fail to get the facts of life !!

    Thanks for a great post.

  24. why would anyone go through the time to give away a free theme if they don’t make anything from it…

    Why do people donate to charities?
    Why do people go and volunteer in developing countries?
    Why do people give for the joy of giving?

    Brett, if you don’t have a meaningful answer for the questions above… I really feel sorry for you.

    But if you want a story about “making something from it”, listen to this:
    I started to play with WP more than 3 years ago. I built a template (it was that long time ago!) for my first blog, and a year later when the first WP theme competition has been announced – I made a GPL theme. Of course, it has never won anything, not even a mention: it wasn’t that good. However, many people liked it and it was downloaded several thousands times. It has been used in a few WP MU services, too.
    I clearly stated in the readme file: link back is NOT required, but appreciated. Guess what? I have hundreds and hundreds of incoming links from that single theme.
    And as the time went on… more and more WP users asked me to make for them a custom theme. First I was surprized, then a small business grew out of that single free theme.

    Don’t be shortsightedly greedy 🙂 – give selflessly and you’ll be rewarded!

  25. Not to spoil the party, but I think the same freedom provided by common open source ideals allows Kate to provide whatever links he might want to include in his design, be it sponsored or not. And he may encode it manually in the theme file, or whatever method he finds necessary.

    However, there’s also nothing stopping the users from removing those links.

    More importantly, there is an issue regarding attribution that seems to be taken lightly by some segments of the community. If a theme requires a linkback, and you don’t agree, then please don’t use it.

    I think this leads us to only one conclusion: always respect each others’ works.

  26. “However, there’s also nothing stopping the users from removing those links.”

    There IS something stopping users: the barrier to entry that touching PHP code is, for most of them.

    In the forums, there are threads about users deleting the encrypted links and ending up with a malfunctioning theme. Guess what Joe User would do if he really wanted that theme? He would decide to leave the links, out of apathy or plain pragmatism.

    And frankly, how insulting to intelligence is it, to say that it’s only about attribution?
    Ex-f***ing-cuse me, are those casino websites the authors of those themes? “¦Thought so.

  27. Matt,

    As I stated elsewhere, I have a good idea what you are going through with all this as I’ve been in a similar situation.

    This situation reminds me of a famous quote…

    “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” –Rosalynn Carter

    There are some who may not want to go this direction, but IMHO, it is the direction we should go.

    Encrypting portions of the code, no matter how small, is a fundamental violation of the GPL as the GPL guarantees the freedom to change the code.

    Again, attribution is one thing. Every designer/developer should receive the credit that is due to them. However, designers and developers do not have the right to prevent users from changing the code other than the source code credits. Users don’t even have to retain the link back to the designer’s or developer’s site. They only have to retain the source code credits.

    My hat is off to you for taking a firm stance for what is right. You have my full support.

  28. Not to spoil the party, but I think the same freedom provided by common open source ideals allows Kate to provide whatever links he might want to include in his design, be it sponsored or not. And he may encode it manually in the theme file, or whatever method he finds necessary.

    Sure, why not. But Kate and others should not demand to be promoted via official and semi-official WordPress channels, when even their license isn’t compatible with WordPress.

  29. This is one of the better blogs I’ve read about how the GPL is about more than just programmers. All too often people have a narrow view of how many things are affected by the GPL. Good post Matt.

  30. Matt, there’s no such thing as “good” guys and “bad” guys unless you’re 5 years old and your father is a priest. There are clever guys and stupid guys. Stupid guys, sometimes try to look clever. Even if they succeed this one time, it’s certain that it can’t be for long. Clever people are too hard to follow. 😀

    As for maximizing the effect of the “good” guys, I “˜d suggest you throw a bunch of “bad’ guys in their way. You’ll fill their lifes with creativity, lots of laughs and tons of inspiration. 😉

  31. Bravo!

    Despite reading here on a very regular basis, I think this is the first time I’ve left a comment here, but felt I needed to on this occasion.

    Matt – This post, you comment back to Kate, is quite probably the best example of the attitude which makes WordPress the best ‘community’ around at the moment.

    I, like Becca and others, found Bretts comment deeply saddening – a perfect example of the exact opposite of what I see the WordPress community being.

    All too often now, everyone wants something for nothing, something made by someone else, something countell others have spent countless hours, day, weeks, months and even years perfecting – then to rip it off as their own, or exploit it in a way which was never intended.

    That sort rarely, if ever, give back FREELY.

    Anyway, I’m really pleased to see that you’re getting a lot of support for whats happening right now (I add my support too).

    I hope the WordPress community manages to reclaim the high ‘moral’ ground here – A free distribution of free software, with freely contributed and distributed plugins and themes WITHOUT the nasty requirements of retaining invariably dubious links or shady and sneaky coded inclusions.

  32. Regarding the idea that the themes with sponsored links are “better:”

    All I can say is no way. I have one that had a sponsored link on my site, as that was the only one I could make look compatible with the static pages. I removed the sponsored link (it wasn’t embedded) and left the designer’s name in the footer (minus the link).

    I have had more problems with that theme not being compatible with a lot of plugins, there was no widget support, it seems more things were “broken” in there than not, and the only good thing about it is that I was forced to learn a little wordpress (php) coding to fix the problems. It’s almost to the point where I can take off his name and just use mine, there had to be so much to change, it’s virtually a different theme.

    The other three themes I am using did not have any sponsored links. Two are CC licensed and one is PD licensed, and they have been a dream to work with. Things don’t break if I add a plugin, the XHTML is perfect, so I can tell you for certain: Sponsored does not mean quality.

  33. I totally agree with Sue, and of course, Matt. Freedom is never without a price. Free software doesn’t mean it’s completely free either. Free software is made of the most precious commodity we have: time. Time is NEVER gold. It is priceless. If you can equate the time you spent creating a theme to a couple of greenbacks, then it’s just plainly sad that you don’t know how much your time is really worth.

  34. Why I created WP themes and distributed for free? I’m quite new to WP, so creating WP themes can promote me well to gain more people know you as a “Good” designer. My recent client, knows me from a theme I was posted in

    So, I don’t mind at all with new policy on Good luck Matt…

  35. Thanks, Matt – excellent post.

    Kate? Err, that would be the Kate with the pirated fonts on her site for download …

  36. Kate? Err, that would be the Kate with the pirated fonts on her site for download “¦

    Ahhh, so you’re that jim who posted those rude messages on my site? I will not fight with you on someone else’s blog, just want to let you know that I do give credit to Sanrio for using hello kitty’s image and I do give credit to for using the fonts. ALWAYS look at the credits page before calling someone a thief!

  37. The only comment I have about people who download themes and then proceed to delete any and all traces of the theme author therefrom is that those are usually the people who claim not to be able to code a lick of HTML or CSS but they have no problem deleting that bit of code in the footer. Sure, it’s not mandatory, and nothing bad will happen to you if you delete it, but since a free downloaded theme didn’t cost you anything but a bit of bandwidth and some time, why not leave it there?

    And the thing to take away from all this? Usually, you can have whatever you want if you just ASK NICELY. 😛

  38. Great post, Matt. Very inspiring! It’s the attitude that counts. No wonder WP is by far the most popular blogging software out there on the net.

    Keep it going!