(Note that I’m talking about themes, but this all applies to commercial plugins as well as any other code you’re selling online.)
It’s All About Redistribution
The main barrier to the GPL that a lot of theme developers have expressed is the right of redistribution. That is to say that if you sell me a GPL’d theme, then I can turn around and give that theme to anybody I want, for free, and you have no recourse.
This viewpoint is entirely correct, however it’s missing the big picture, I feel.
Why Would I Do That?
First off, why would I take something I paid for and then give it away to everybody else for free? I mean, it’s one thing to give a copy of something to a friend of mine for his use, but it’s wholly another to go to the effort of setting up a website to distribute your theme as some kind of “screw you” policy. Did you anger me in some way? What level of maliciousness would be necessary for me to want to do that? Seems a bit overboard, and most people are ultimately reasonable.
However, this ignores the existence of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Which is to say that some people are just trolling bastards who will screw with you just because they can. So let’s say that somebody gets a copy of your themes, posts them online, then refuses to take them down despite your polite requests, and waves the GPL in your face for his right to redistribute them.
Technically, this sort of person is correct, he does have the right of redistribution. But that doesn’t really matter.
What Are You Selling, Anyway?
Let’s say I made a piece of code and sold it. No GPL, no license, just me selling code to people for their own use. They have no rights to the code whatsoever. So, somebody posts that code online, for free, at some pirate site. Somebody else downloads it, and uses it, without paying me. Straightforward software “piracy”.
What have I lost here? Well, I lost the cash that I could have made from an extra sale, true, assuming that said person would have bought the code instead of pirating it. If you know people who habitually pirate code, then you know that that is a rather dubious claim, at best.
More importantly, I’ve lost a contact point between me and the user of the code. When I sell something to somebody, then I now have a relationship with that person. I get their email address. They may contact me for support. Even paid support. I may have forums for purchasers of my software to talk amongst each other in a community support system. They may buy other things I wrote.
This is the real benefit to selling code, that relationship between me as a developer and them as a purchaser of what I develop. And I’m missing that connection, until they want support from me for my product. Then I may say “well, you’re using a pirated copy of my product, if you want to join my support forums and my community and get my help, then you have to buy the product from me”. Take note of the many times that software companies have offered “clemency” sales and such, to turn pirated copies into legitimate ones.
What it comes down to is simple:
You Can’t Stop Piracy, So Don’t Try.
Think about it, you’re selling a digital file here. Files can be copied. If I buy a copy of your software, strip out any identifying marks, then post it to a thousand torrent sites, what exactly can you do to stop me from doing that?
No matter what your terms and conditions are, people still can copy your files, distribute them, edit them, do whatever they want. Unless you’re actually enforcing your terms with (potentially expensive) legal actions, then your terms are really quite meaningless. Technical measures to stop piracy don’t work, as many game companies have found out over the years. DRM doesn’t (and technically cannot) work.
Instead of viewing people redistributing your code as a bad thing, view it as an opportunity. If somebody downloads a “pirated” copy of your code, and uses it, then clearly they have a use for it. And at some point, they’re going to want upgrades. They’re going to want support. They’re going to want modifications. So make sure that you are the person they come to, and then you have an opportunity to convert that pirated download into a real sale.
The GPL doesn’t screw the developer by allowing others to share his work. The GPL enables the developer to get more contacts (and potentially more sales) by allowing others to share his work along with his name, contact information, website, etc.
Don’t fight against the right of redistribution, make it work for you instead.