There are a number of posts on WordPress blogs (including our own take on the GPL and potential abuse) that deal with WordPress plugin and theme licensing. Many people don’t really understand the concept of open source software, and either view it as a sure way to financial ruin or the best thing ever as there is no protection and everything is free.
It’s not so straightforward. Many websites have sprung up during the past year or two reselling WordPress plugins and themes. One of the biggest ‘victims’ are Woothemes whose add-ons for WooCommerce are now easily available from other websites for a very small fraction of the price that Woo sells them for.
The argument is that Woo are selling their plugins at a price which is too high for many people, so these websites are right in reselling their plugins at a lower price. Kind of a Robin Hood mentality at play here. Lets leave the pricing issue aside for a moment. Pricing should be decided by the seller and in a competitive and free market there are always alternatives that are cheaper, so those with a lower budget can choose such alternatives. I don’t buy into the pricing argument.
So what remains is purely the case of plugins being sold by someone else apart from the original developer. Understandably, many developers are frustrated and worried about the situation.
Leaving the moral implications aside, are these resellers really free to resell other peoples’ plugins since they are available under the GPL license. It appears that this is not the case.
They are forgetting that these popular plugins are trademarked to protect the brand goodwill that they generate by time. Lets take Gravity Forms as an example, as Carl Hancock, the creator of this plugin, has been quite vocal on this issue. So Gravity Forms and Rocket Genius, the company behind that plugin, both enjoy a very good standing in the WordPress community, but not only.
Gravity Forms is super famous as a form solution all around the world. So clearly there is great value in the name ‘Gravity Forms’ and associated logos. This company has protected that value by registering their plugin’s name as a trademark, take a look at their entry at the US Patent and Trademark Office. That means that if someone else sells a plugin with the same name he would be infringing on that trademark, irrespective of whether the code is identical to the original Gravity Forms one or not. To be clearer, if someone wrote a completely new plugin and named it Gravity Forms he would be in trouble.
It would be the same case if someone created a CMS and named it WordPress. The GPL has no bearing here, it is very clear that you cannot misuse someone else’s trademark by selling a plugin/software with their same name.
Conclusion: Reselling plugins of other developers with the same name/branding is not permitted by law. It would be infringing on the original developer’s trademark. Hence, don’t do it, or you could get sued.
Feeling baffled? Lets take a look at where the GPL really enters the scene.
Your code is copyrighted by default (you don’t need to register anything), which means that if it is your original code then you have the right to retain copyright on it. Protection lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. By attaching the GPL licence to your code you are allowing others to copy, distribute and modify the software as long as they track changes/dates of in source files and keep all modifications under GPL. They can distribute the application using a GPL library commercially, but they must also disclose the source code.
Ultimately the GPL always favours the end user and aims to foster collaboration and quicker enhancements and development since people can build on each other’s work, a very noble idea.
Let’s pass on to trade marks now.
A trade mark is a sign which can distinguish your goods and services from those of your competitors (you may refer to your trade mark as your “brand”). It can be for example words, logos or a combination of both. The only way to register your trade mark is to apply to Intellectual Property Office of a particular country. In Europe you can register once and that registration will be valid throughout Europe.
You can use your trade mark as a marketing tool so that customers can recognise your products or services.
Trademarks are renewable every ten years. There are a number of conditions that need to be met before you can be granted a trademark. For example, the name being registered must not be too descriptive.
Registering a European level trademark will cost you around 900 Euro.
Once you own intellectual property it is your responsibility to protect it properly. If someone is using your trademark inappropriately nobody will come to tell you about it, it is your task to keep your eyes open for any infringements and take action about it. You can do that through a letter of demand (first step).
Some More Examples
A recent case involved the premium plugin WP Migrate DB Pro. What happened was that someone forked that plugin on GitHub, essentially offering the same code for free, under the same name. Obviously this was damaging to the original developer as it was piggybacking on the brand and fame of WP Migrate DB Pro. Delicious Brains, the company behind WP Migrate DB Pro, thus filed a DMCA takedown request and was successful in shutting down the forked plugin. This was a clear case of trademark infringement and a precedent that shows that plugin authors can really protect their plugins against unauthorised redistribution.
So how did the case end there? No, the owner of the fork eventually renamed the fork to WP Sync DB and was thus allowed to take the plugin live again on GitHub. The code was the same (or substantially so) as WP Migrate DB Pro, but he wasn’t infringing the trademark as the name is different. The GPL however enabled him to make use of WP Migrate DB Pro’s code and build upon it. See the difference and the way forking should be done?
Hopefully my description and examples have been sufficient to clear things, however please do let me know if I missed anything. Bear in mind that I am not a lawyer, this is only the fruit of a lot of research and also speaking to experts on the subject. So don’t take the above as legal advice.
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Photo by opensourceway