There is No Such Thing as a Split License

There’s a term that pops in the WordPress community, “split license”, that we should put to rest. It’s sloppy at best, misleading at worst.

First, some background. WordPress is under a license called the GPL, which basically says you can do whatever you like with the software, but if you distribute changes or create derivative works they also need to be under the GPL. Think of it like a Creative Commons Sharealike license.

In the past people weren’t sure if themes for WordPress were derivative works and needed to be GPL. In 2009 we got an outside legal opinion that cleared up the matter saying that the PHP in themes definitely had to be GPL, and for CSS and images it was optional. Basically everyone in the WP community went fully GPL, sometimes called 100% GPL, for all the files required to run their theme (PHP, JS, CSS, artwork). The predicted theme apocalypse and death of WordPress didn’t happen and in fact both theme shops and WordPress flourished, and best of all users had all the same freedoms from their themes as they got from WordPress. It was controversial at the time, but I think history has reflected well on the approach the WP community took.

As I said the PHP has to be GPL, the other stuff can be something else — many people started to use the term “split license” or “split GPL” to describe this. The problem, especially with the latter, is it leaves out the most important information. “Split GPL” doesn’t say whether the theme is violating WordPress’ license or not (maybe it’s proprietary PHP and GPL CSS), and more importantly doesn’t say what the non-GPL stuff is, which is the part you need to worry about! It also makes it sound like a split license is a thing, when all it really means is there are different licenses for different parts of the work. If something has a “split license” you have no idea what restrictions or freedoms it provides.

If someone decides to have different licenses for different parts of a theme they ship in one package, it’s probably worth taking a few extra words to spell out what the rights and restrictions are, like “GPL PHP, and a restrictive proprietary license for all other elements included with the theme.” This is really important because if you’re a smart WordPress consumer you should avoid proprietary software, there is always a GPL alternative that gives you the rights and freedoms you deserve, and probably is from a nicer person who is more in line with the philosophy of the rest of WordPress. Vote with your pocketbook, buy GPL software!


40 thoughts on “There is No Such Thing as a Split License

  1. Just would like to mention that some folks don’t know the difference between the split and dual license. We definitely need to write more posts like this and educate.

  2. What’s amazing to me about the recent resurrected “conflict” is that there’s a conflict at all: there’s so many companies who are so successful with 100% GPL, why do people care anymore? Just GPL it and move on.

    Pirates will steal, even if you have legal restrictions in place. Forget them, focus on making the best product and support you can offer, and the vast majority of people will gladly pay for easy updates and excellent support. The rest don’t matter, since the actual cost to you is essentially zero. It would be understandable if GPL hadn’t proven to be at least as successful as closed licencing models. But that’s not the case at all…

    1. @Tevya I think most software companies have the non-GPL licenses in place to stop other companies from “forking” the products, not to stop pirates from downloading copies that are 2 years old that also likely have malware. I’m not defending one way or the other, just indicating what they are trying to protect by being split licensed.

      1. I wonder how many cases there have been of a WordPress theme or plugin provider having had their business damaged by a competitor who forked their 100% GPL assets and beat them with it.

      2. I’m sure it’s happened somewhere, somehow, but it’s probably similar (or less) to the number of proprietary businesses who get damaged by piracy.

      3. I wonder how many cases there have been of a WordPress theme or plugin provider having had their business damaged by a competitor who forked their 100% GPL assets and beat them with it.


        I believe in the GPL and have benefitted greatly from WordPress and it’s GPL infectiveness down to it’s themes/plugins. But it can be a scary thing to build a business off of as a developer knowing all your work can be pulled out from under you at any moment. That is unless you are content to self-limit to a service or SaaS based business.

      4. Automattic didn’t fork WooCommerce, and the people who did at Woo were the original developers. It’s tough to compete with the original author, I agree with that.

      5. Sorry should have clarified that last arrow was an aquisition down the road, just to point out the eventual success of that fork.

        What is more worrying is this example that as an entrepreneur I can invest in a developer for more than a year to build a specific product for my business, then they can just run off and fork it into their own business (or another with a big wallet). “It’s tough to compete with the original author.”

  3. I trust Matt’s leadership on this issue. We’ve all made it this far and look how successful WordPress has become! His steady guidance is what’s brought us here today.

    If people want to violate the GPL and take advantage of their users, then they deserve everything that comes to them…including FAILURE.

    And yes, there is always a “nicer person” to buy from. Don’t let the goofy Groucho Marx glasses fool you!

  4. I like open-source licensing, all the JavaScript and CSS I’ve released with WordPress has been under the GPL or compatible licensing. Non-WordPress projects I tend to release under the MIT license because I prefer its less restrictive nature.

    However, this post questioning split licensing brings up a question that has been bothering me for some time, specifically, your conclusion:

    This is really important because if you’re a smart WordPress consumer you should avoid proprietary software, there is always a GPL alternative that gives you the rights and freedoms you deserve

    In keeping with this spirit, premium themes are sold as having GPL License. For anyone wishing to sell a license via, licensing under the GPL is a condition that is stated up front. premium theme support states (my emphasis):

    Premium Themes that are licensed for use only cannot be transferred to self-hosted sites. Some Automattic-developed premium themes can be transferred to a self-hosted site at no charge, as part of a Guided Transfer. Please post in the premium theme forums if you’d like to know whether your theme qualifies.

    It seems to me that this doesn’t align with giving consumers the freedoms they deserve. While the licence is stated as GPL, the supporting documentation takes away those freedoms for all except selected themes by a single author. In effect, it amends the license to become propriety.

    Is this a question that’s been answered in the past? If not, why would the smart consumer purchase from

    1. That’s a very good question — thanks for raising it.

      I’m going to change the wording on that page to no longer say “licensed”, it’s really not the right word to use there.

      What you buy on is hosting and access to a premium theme. Because it’s not distributed (downloadable) the GPL actually isn’t required — that said, we only work with premium theme partners that have 100% GPL code. Some people buy themes for a one-time fee, but more often they’re getting access to a premium theme as part of one of our plans, and we share a portion of the revenue for the time that theme is active with the theme authors.

      What you’re really buying with most premium themes is support, we can’t ask third-party theme authors to support a theme on .org that they sold to a .com user, though some may choose to do so if you write in to them. For themes that Automattic owns and sells we provide the support anyway, because as long as you’re on WordPress you’re part of the family.

      1. No — on one you’re buying support, service, and hosting typically for a yearly recurring fee, on the other you’re buying a download of a file typically for a one-time fee.

      2. On one you (generally) have access to modify the source code and have no restrictions on use (where and how long). On the other you’re at the mercy of the hosting company who dictates the terms of your use and don’t have source access :). Just my perspective, either way I appreciate your response.

  5. Hi Matt. Really interesting post. To me, “split licence” is just a shorthand for two different sets of licensing rights applying to different components of an overall theme when some of it needs to be and is licensed under the GPL (as per the Software Freedom Law Center opinion) with the remainder being licensed under different and usually more restrictive terms. I agree that “split licence” might be misinterpreted by some but, in context, usually people using the term simply mean that an overall theme or plugin – that is not 100% GPL – is fully licensed for use but there is a split in the licensing rights between the rights that apply to, say, the PHP and HTML, versus the licensing rights that apply to the other components such as CSS and images.

    I certainly agree that people shouldn’t be using the term “split GPL”. There’s no such thing. The GPL either applies to some or all components or it doesn’t. And people should certainly not use the term “split licence” without being specific as to what, precisely, they mean, otherwise users/consumers have no idea of their rights. Without an explanation, the term is useless.

    Now, I’m not supporting or defending the use of a “split licence” (as I’ve explained it) versus 100% GPL – and my clear preference is 100% GPL – but I’m not sure the term is all that bad, as long as people are clear in what they mean. To give an example, all PHP, HTML and CSS in a theme might be GPL licensed but, for whatever reason, bundled fonts might licensed under an open source font licence and images might be licensed under, say, a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike (or even Attribution NoDerivatives) licence. In this example, the overall licensing rights are split three ways, or into three bundles of rights. If I say a “Split Licence” applies and I define Split Licence to mean GPL for PHP, HTML and CSS, Open Font Licence for the fonts and CC-BY-SA (say) for the images, I think that’s fine.

    I’ve purchased way too many themes and plugins over the years. I’ve lost count. Interestingly, I have usually voted with my pocket book for 100% GPL because I didn’t want to be restrained in using a theme for, say, multiple sites or a site for a colleague or client. There is one theme shop out there whose themes I love but the licensing is so damn restrictive I won’t touch them with a barge pole. So, short point here is that I agree with you on on this point.

    There is then the issue, of course, of protecting one’s commercial position with licence keys that provide access to updates and support. That’s all entirely consistent with the GPL. In other words, this point buttresses your comment that 100% GPL will not result in theme apocalypse.

    One final point: if one agrees with the SFLC opinion, there is nothing legally wrong with a Split Licence as I’ve defined it. For me, the real point is the one I explained in a post on WP and Legal Stuff:

    “I think the GPL/theme debate has reached the stage where it’s fair to say that a significant proportion of the WordPress community now frowns upon premium theme providers who either don’t GPL-license at all or (probably to a lesser extent) ‘split-license’ their themes. That mightn’t be good for business and that, for some, may be the bottom line. For some people, this frowning may be caused by a particular view of what the GPL requires but for others – and I think this is a particularly important point – it may be caused by a recognition of the enormous opportunities that WordPress makes possible and the open source spirit and generosity that pervades much of the WordPress community. I think we’ve reached the stage where, for some people, this is more about a community norm than it is about a strict reading of the GPL (not to mention the tedium of listening to more and more competing GPL arguments when, ultimately, only a court can decide).”

    All the best.

  6. There’s pro’s and con’s to the GPL as with any other. As for piracy, it really doesn’t matter if you’re 100% GPL, split license, or any other kind of license. If something is going to be pirated, it’ll get pirated.

    With regards to WordPress themes, I make mine 100% GPL, and over the last few years, Its worked for me.It’s an easier license to manage and less headaches overall for both myself and to my customers/users of my themes. It definitely offers more flexibility…or at least I believe so.

  7. Hi Matt, very interesting posts. GPL licence is not so easy to understand !

    To be very specific, would you say envato “split license” is acceptable ?

    “This theme or plugin is comprised of two parts.

    (1) the PHP code and integrated HTML are licensed under the General Public
    License (GPL). You will find a copy of the GPL in the same directory as this
    text file.

    (2) All other parts, but not limited to the CSS code, images, and design are
    licensed according to the license purchased from Envato.”

    Thanks for your answer !

  8. It doesn’t have to be GPL, it must be GPL compatible, aka any license that is as free or more so than the GPL. Saying just use GPL is a safe option, but it can put people off, and in a strict sense, it’s completely wrong

    I personally would recommend using the GPL, but there’s no reason someone couldn’t use a Modified BSD license, Intel Open Source license, or Public Domain, they’re all GPL compatible according to the GNU. This is what they have to say on the subject:

    1. Nope. It doesn’t explain much 🙂

      “It means that the other license and the GNU GPL are compatible; you can combine code released under the other license with code released under the GNU GPL in one larger program.”

      But if you are using PHP and WordPress, your code is GPL in the eyes of the court, no matter how you twist and turn. 🙂

      1. Leokoo, trying to “split” licenses around code is one thing, but when it comes to images used, that’s another. Technically theme developers can license their images differently. It’s the PHP, HTML, CSS that needs to be GPL, from my understanding.

      2. I don’t think many people are arguing that licensing the PHP is the issue. It’s aspects like graphics. From my understanding those can definitely be licensed differently. From my understanding, Matt is saying just don’t be misleading or vague in your licensing info. Hence the issue with the vague language of “split licensing”.

  9. Hi Matt. Please feel free to delete my earlier comments that are in the queue. On reflection, and whilst one can clearly define what one means by a split licence so as to avoid any confusion or uncertainty (which is what I usually do), I agree that the term “split licence” is less than desirable. I think references to the act of “split licensing” or “dual licensing” a theme are OK, but they are different to the notion of a “split licence” as a thing. Yes, it’s a shorthand that many understand, but equally it’s a term that’s probably alien to many people. For that reason it alone it should probably be sent to the grave. I’m going to make some tweaks to my posts that refer to “split licence” to mitigate the risk of confusion. I’ll probably refer to “split licensing” or “dual licensing” a theme (meaning different licensing rights apply to different parts of an overall theme) but avoid the free standing term “split licence”. Cheers.

  10. I’m just trying to understand the theme and plugin marketplace a bit better in regards to how GPL works.

    Matt, if you can write a brief paragraph just outlying what you can and can’t do, I’d appreciate it.

    As I understand it, when you release a theme or plugin under the GPL, anyone can fork your product and create their own product with it, if they so chose.

    So, what are premium theme and plugin developers selling? Access to premium features and support? If you have a free version and a paid version and they both generally have the same features, except for example, the paid version has an additional feature not in the free version, is that an issue? How does one distinguish between what they can release free or paid?

  11. BTW, this is what your Facebook sharing looks like without managing your social meta on your blog. With AIOSEO Pack, you can manage a default image for FB OG that can be sent along with your Title and Description, so the share image is not absent. I can hazard a guess that you most likely prefer to keep your plugins to a minimum, but I thought you should see the share with no image, so that you know what others are seeing.

    See the share example of this post here:

  12. We’re talking about respect of copyright here? Hmmm- I guess the US Trademark on isn’t worth respecting?
    People know when they are stealing and no copyright will make a bit of difference.
    What I want to understand from Matt is why Akismet and Jetpack aren’t fully under the GPL as I understand it?

      1. *Typo – Both are GPL – not “GLP”. I wanted to be sure to specify that was a typo lest some crazy new conspiracy theories start flying around.

  13. re’ Jigoshop->WooCommerce->Automattic

    In the beginning, WordPress created an environment where anyone with a modicum of talent could produce something new, distribute it and be rewarded for support and ongoing enhancements. Life was good. Having been in the computer business since 1963, I was well established and had a front row seat to watch Microsoft do the same – provide an environment for the little guy to develop and prosper.

    Fast forward a few years, and some of the little guys grew, made money and/or attracted VC funding, and discovered that while initially, talent is key to success – money is better – and monopoly is best. Why compete with a better product when you can buy and control it?

    In the absence of any limits or meaningful influence (including the U.S. Department of Justice), a free and open market morphed into laissez faire capitalism, which always evolves to the same end-point – total dictatorial control of a major industry. This was not a new sequence of events in this country and ultimately led to the inevitable self-inflicted implosion and fall from grace we are witnessing Microsoft going through today. Microsoft wasn’t even the first example of this phenomenon in our young computer industry – anyone else here old enough to remember someone called IBM?

    Let’s be honest – WordPress has become a BIG business, with increasingly large sums of money to be made (and spent to gain advantage). It is increasingly necessary for Matt and his acolytes to tend it in an ethical and sustainable fashion. History is not on their side.

    As Winston Churchill famously stole from George Santayana:
    “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”