Protecting Your Premium Plugins from Unauthorised Reselling

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.

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.

The GPL

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.

Trademarks

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?

Any Questions?

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.

Helpful Resources

http://www.ipo.gov.uk/
http://www.iprhelpdesk.eu/

Introduction to Intellectual Property [PDF]

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to subscribe to WP Mayor’s RSS feed.

Photo by opensourceway

Jean Galea
Jean Galea
Jean Galea is an investor, entrepreneur, and blogger. He is the founder of WP Mayor, the plugins WP RSS Aggregator and Spotlight, as well as the Mastermind.fm podcast. His personal blog can be found at jeangalea.com.

Consider sharing this post so others can find it:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on telegram
Share on whatsapp
Share on pocket
Share on email

Join thousands of people receiving real-world, genuine evaluations of WordPress products and services just like this one every week.

Our Sponsors
Prevent Direct Access
Contents

8 Responses

  1. In other words, you CAN’T protect yourself against “unauthorized reselling” (or free redistribution) of GPL code because there is no such thing under the GPL. You can only protect your trademark, which may well be infringed on by the more ignorant and ethically murky resellers of software they didn’t create. But if you really want to protect your code as a proprietary product, don’t use the GPL.

    It would be good to emphasize that this is not a fault in the GPL that makes it difficult to monetize software and treat it is essentially proprietary. That is a major goal of the GPL, right? The “correct” way to monetize GPL software is to distribute, support, and improve a superior, trusted, highly regarded product that most customers will recognize as such and prefer.

    On the other hand, there is also the emerging possibility of someone providing simple, reliable, and cheaper (or free) access to copies of others’ plugins with timely upgrades included. That could be done in a trusted, GPL compliant way that rapidly “kills the goose the codes the golden egg.” Is this the Achiles’ heel for commercial GPL? Will it press developers to turn against the spirit of the GPL and build plugins that rely on external services they can control?

  2. While releasing your code under the GPL, as all WordPress plugins must be, means that your code is free to copy and share, not everything included in a plugin is code. Other plugin assets such as images, data, readme files and other text are not covered by the GPL. A reseller that includes your documentation or sample data in the resold plugin is violating your copyright.

    1. Actually that is open to interpretation. In the WP ecosystem, Automattic has very successfully pressed for an interpretation that includes all (or most?) plugin and theme assets. The Joomla ecosystem took the opposite interpretation. Since it has never been tested in court, there is not definitive legal answer to this question. Whether trademarked and copyright material can be spread throughout GPL licensed code to make it effectively impossible to redistribute without authorization (quasi-proprietary GPL code?) is another emerging open question.

      1. I’d be interested to know how they pressed for this and how they were successful. I don’t think any version of the GPL references images or other assets included with the code.

        A lot of things we take as given with respect to the GPL have not really been tested in a court of law. The so-called “viral” nature of the GPL, such that linking to GPL libraries is not permitted unless your code is also GPL, upon which the GPL requirement for all WP plugins rests, has not, to my knowledge, been tried.

        1. Right, so it comes down to what particular communities elect to do on their own, or where the biggest pressures fall. You’re not familiar with the Envato/ThemeForest controversy over their provision for theme authors to distribute their themes under a “mixed” license (GPL+proprietary assets)? A pure GPL option was not available from ThemeForest until Automattic said that anyone using the mixed license was not welcome at WordCamps.

  3. I use a lot of GPL licences from some of the website listed above. I do not have any support (i do get updates usually a day or two later than normal)

    The support I have received from one of the companies you mentioned above was abysmal, really awful, although they have apparently improved, but as i now never use them, I am unsure of the current service levels. Poor service NO SALE. Thats nothing to do with law, trademarks, copyright or ethics or morality, its business.

    There is also no refund policy in place. You never really know if the plugin you want to purchase is right, especially now there seems to be 10 plugin choices for every situation these days. There is no trial offered and no refund. Paying $15 for a plugin is sometime worth a gamble, but not $200+. I would be far more open to spend $200 on a plugin if i could try it out first, on my environment, and if it was not suitable for my needs the ability to get a refund. I think that is very reasonable position for me to take.

    These guys seem to want the best of both.

    I often use a GPL store to try out a plugin to see if it is suitable for my needs, if it works and can be bought for a reasonable fee then I buy it, especially if the money is going to the coder, either direct or via codecanyon.

    be happy

    M

  4. WooThemes really aren’t ‘victims’ then, as their Content Use Terms grant a trademark licence (and furthermore insists that their trademark be used in any redistribution) to anyone obtaining themes/plugins from their website.

    “WooThemes grants users a Content License in respect of WooThemes’ Intellectual Property which forms part of the Services.

    To the extent that any copying, reproduction, distribution, transmission, display, broadcasting or publishing of any Content is expressly permitted (such permission to be interpreted in its most restrictive sense) users may do so, provided that all trademarks, trade names and all copyright, ownership, proprietary and confidentiality notices included on or in relation to the Content are retained and displayed without alteration or modification and not in any manner obscured or removed.

    Users are further required, as a condition of this Content License, to clearly and expressly attribute WooThemes as the Content’s source.”
    http://www.woothemes.com/terms-conditions/#contentuse (effective since 2013–12–01)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Beginner’s Handbook
From an introduction on how WordPress works to our recommendations on products and services.
👋 Hey there! We're Gaby and Mark
Every week we share tutorials and genuine reviews of WordPress products and services in our newsletter.
Thousands of people read it!
We’d love for you to join.
We’d love for you to join. Here’s what you’ll be getting:

A single weekly email directly to your inbox.