While I was at WordCamp Europe, I met Jean behind WP Mayor. While we were at the conference, he posted an interesting article questioning the ethics of redistributing GPL plugins that spurred some thoughts of my own. This is going to be a long post (I warned you!) addressing some of the comments I’ve seen and some thoughts of my own. I reserve the right to change my mind if people give me some compelling insight.
First, I commented on the article that I’d love to see an argument that simply redistributing premium plugins is an ethical practice. I know it’s a perfectly legal practice, but all I ever hear from people is that it’s legal, so therefore it’s ethical. Anyone that’s taken Philosophy 101 knows that’s a terrible argument; the conclusion (the practice is ethical), is in no way supported by the premise (the practice is legal) — it’s a logical leap.
The example I gave that breaks this argument was slavery in the pre-Civil War United States. While slavery was a legal practice, it certainly wasn’t an ethical one. Instead, I’d be curious to hear a well thought-out argument / defense as to why this practice is an ethical one.
Aside from ethics, I don’t think it’s quite legal either, but we’ll get to that later smile
Let’s Build From the Ground Up
So before I get into the ethics of this practice specifically, I’ll try illustrate my argument from the ground up (as briefly as I can). First, what is money? To me, it’s a symbol of trade and of value. I’ll give you money for things I value, and you give me money for things you see value in. Instead of being limited by the physical resources of our geographic location (furs, crops, jewels, etc) for trade, money lets us all trade as equals and provides a standard of conversion for goods and value. But the key concept here is that money represents value.
When I sell a product to you and charge a price for it, you exchange money because you want to trade one standard of value for another. I see something fundamentally wrong with someone thinking that they deserve money for value that they didn’t create in some way. There are a lot of ways to create value (not just making a product), and I’ll explain why I don’t think this practice creates value shortly.
I understand that this is a philosophical difference and you could attack this point. But I believe in living with integrity and earning money from my own ingenuity, and I’d charge that if you disagree with having integrity while earning your keep, you probably won’t agree with anything else I say. That’s okay, you can leave now and we’ll go our separate ways.
So for me, selling a product for which you’ve created absolutely no value is unethical. It’s a sham. Customers give you money/value that you’ve not earned and for something you did not create. It’s bottom-feeding and poaching instead of making value of your own, and sellers like this bring an ecosystem down, not up. They become the lowest common denominator because they can never add value to the community or system; they can only take or recycle value others have created.
Without real developers, the sellers who recycle products can provide nothing to the ecosystem, as they never make anything. However, if you remove these people, the ecosystem will be just fine; developers will generate new products and customers will determine pricing with their decisions to purchase or not purchase.
The other issue for me is that many times people have no idea from whom they’re actually purchasing. I know this will be ridiculous to those of you that are internet literate, but there are people who think that because something says “WooCommerce”, it’s an official WooThemes plugin (we’ll come back to this later).
Some people don’t understand when they’ve left one site and gone to another: I know of people that have sent personal data to companies / sites that provide healthcare comparisons thinking that they’re doctors’ offices or other crazy things. It’s disingenuous to use another’s brand or trademark because you can’t create your own, and again, it doesn’t add value by adding confusion. I know the developers out there will think I’m crazy, but this happens all the time. (Update: Don’t believe me? Check this exchange out. I bet I could find others if I really wanted to look.)
So Back to GPL Plugins
While I haven’t made up my mind on it entirely since I haven’t heard a coherent counter argument (I believe in Socratic dialogue), my current thought is that it’s not an ethical practice to re-sell unchanged GPL plugins. To start, many people point out that WooThemes (who makes WooCommerce, which is the target of much of the GPL ire) forked Jigoshop, which was one of the best eCommerce platforms available at the time when discussions for acquiring Jigoshop were unproductive.
First, I think people need to understand that (1) Jigoshop was a free platform, and WooCommerce continued to be free, and (2) WooThemes actively developed WooCommerce after the fork and took the software in a different direction. The end result was that software was improved and people had access to better software.
However, when WooThemes announced pricing and licensing changes (then later fixed some of them) in order to improve their business model, some customers were outraged. I don’t understand this outrage; if you want to sell products online, you need an eCommerce platform that allows you to do this.
WooCommerce is one of the best plugins to use (and it’s still free), but the paid extensions are spectacular and are really valuable pieces of software. You can power a WooCommerce store for less than $1000 in the first year, and for half of that price each subsequent year (try finding commercial rent less than that per month!). To think that the support structure that allows you to run your business should be super cheap, or even free, is incomprehensible to me. Want to run a business instead of play store? Invest in solid foundations.
Also, WooCommerce is among the best; if you want the best, you should expect to pay for value. If you can’t afford the best, well that sucks, but that doesn’t mean they should change their price to meet your needs. Make more money to invest in the best, or purchase the best that you can.
I’d love to own a Tesla or Porsche since they’re marvelous pieces of engineering and efficiency; does that mean Tesla should sell me a Model S for $5,000? Sounds kind of stupid, right? I’ll own a used Acura until I can afford the best since that’s the best I can get now. But yet we claim that software companies should do just that and practically give away software, regardless of the man-hours or quality of developers that go into the final product, because “WordPress should be cheap or free”.
So anyway, aside from the reasoning that spurred on so many conversations about re-selling GPL plugins, this caused some sites to pop up that try to sell premium WooCommerce extensions, and they say that WooThemes’ pricing / licensing changes are the reason for this, as well as the fact that WooThemes forked Jigoshop themselves, so others should fork WooCommerce extensions.
The heart of the matter
Now this is where things get interesting. As I said, I’d really love to see an actual argument for why this practice is okay. Many people say, “Oh, WooThemes did this horrible thing by forking Jigoshop, so they deserve to have their extensions forked.” Wait, what? You’re seriously admitting that you think someone did something wrong, so you should be justified in doing that same wrong thing that you condemn? But when you do it now it becomes right? Not buying it. Not to mention that most extensions belong to third party developers instead of WooThemes, so you’re not really hurting WooThemes — you’re hurting developers.
Okay, so let’s ignore that bit of idiocy. I really support forking if it’s intent is to improve the software as a whole, which is what WooThemes did. I also think that if you fork something free, your fork should be free (which WooThemes did).
If you fork something premium and intend to make money, I think you should improve the product or take it in a different direction in order to do so. I will gladly compete if you think you can do something better than me, especially since I’ve already got a leg up because I wrote the software that you think is great and are forking. The forking of software should be intended to make things better as a whole.
Does Re-Selling GPL Plugins Add Value?
So what about the ethics of reselling unchanged premium plugins/extensions? Many people say it’s making things better for consumers (more affordable), and people deserve to be able to use the best software for a “reasonable” price, which adds value to the exchange. If that’s the case, then my challenge to you is: Why not just offer it for free then? If you want to be Robin Hood, then be Robin Hood.
Why don’t you do this? Because I think your real motivation is to make really easy money, not save the eCommerce masses from unreasonable prices. Don’t try to feign altruism and call it honesty and fairness. If WooCommerce is too expensive, people won’t buy extensions for it. Problem solved without you.
In reality, the practice of reselling plugins doesn’t improve software. It doesn’t help people by making it “more affordable” (again, why not just put it out there for free if that’s your goal?). Why doesn’t it help people? You’re creating a race to the bottom. First, you can’t support something as effectively as the original developer, who has hours of testing, being asked different questions, and encountering different problems under his/her belt. If you’re reselling software and can’t make a better product, I know you’re not as good as the original developer. If you were, you’d have the ability to make something new and compete.
So already, if you offer the same product with worse support, you’ve established that you’re not improving the software. But wait, the price is lower? Who cares if you’re not improving anything. All you’ve shown is that you think diminishing the value of software is a beneficial practice.
A lower price does not equate to value, as (1) it can cause confusion among customers (as I discussed earlier) and (2) the software itself provides a measure of value, and the value one derives from it should determine price; not some arbitrary standard of what people can afford (again, why not just make it free then if this is your crusade?).
Some shops also don’t make it clear that they haven’t developed the plugin, so it causes confusion among clients and they may (incorrectly) assume that the software is the problem, when in reality it’s probably the inexperience of whoever is trying to support the software (see the above comment that some people don’t even realize they’re purchasing unofficial software). If you’ve ever seen how many issues are created by themes rather than plugins, you know exactly what I mean.
People get frustrated because things don’t work the way they expect and many of these issues are solved with good support and documentation to teach people how to use the software. These people that get frustrated without help leave the WordPress space as a result. Great job Robin Hood, they no longer care about your crusade because they’re using Shopify.
Second, some people offer the software without support. Except that this really isn’t plausible; ever look at the crazy people who think all free plugins on WordPress.org MUST be supported? Really? Because a piece of valuable software isn’t enough for free, you think you shouldn’t pay for any help with the problem you probably created by using a sub-par theme, not checking all settings, or not reading some documentation? But of course somehow these people will magically understand that even though they only paid $5 for this plugin, it would be unreasonable to expect that Robin Hood answer their one teeny tiny question.
Because of this, people think the problem is the software and eventually leave WooCommerce or WordPress because “it doesn’t work”. Again, the ecosystem is hurt rather than helped by the lack of value created here.
Okay, so what about the shop that clarifies they haven’t developed the plugin and that they don’t offer support? We’re back to the idea of value. Do these shops add anything at all to the ecosystem? No. I know that they claim they’re making things more affordable, but again, if that’s the case, offer things for free. And if things are really that unaffordable, won’t WooThemes (or similar companies) just go under due to the weight of their own deficiencies? Of course; but again, I’d ask you to question the real motivation behind this practice. It’s not to help others; it’s to make easy money without being up-standing and innovative.
How else does this hurt the ecosystem? What about the developers here? Regardless of whatever crazy notions you have about how much money people “deserve” to make, if developers constantly make great products that are redistributed for free or super cheap, why would they stay in the ecosystem? You’re already admitting that the products are the best and that they’re useful; how in the world can you then say that companies/developers don’t deserve to make money from them? They’ve given tremendous value to stores, yet they deserve none in return?
I give exactly zero f#$%s how much money a developer makes, because if they make a ton of money from a useful product, they deserve every penny. If people are willing to pay money for software and trade value for value, then all of that value is earned, regardless of whether you would have paid the price or not. Your own concept of the value something provides is not all-encompassing and shouldn’t be imposed on everyone.
Aside from the ethical argument, there’s also the consideration that most of these companies distribute software using trademarked names. For me, this may be the biggest part of the argument. For example, if “BekaRice” is trademarked, and I build “BekaRice Plugin”, I can release and sell the software under that name. Now what if you decide to redistribute this and your website says, “BekaRice Plugin available here!”
This is completely illegal. You’re using another trademark and brand name to power your own, and that kind of brand confusion is exactly why trademarks are invented. You could say your plugin is “based on BekaRice Plugin”, “originated from BekaRice Plugin”, or “works just like BekaRice Plugin”. You cannot say it’s “BekaRice Plugin”. In actuality it’s not, as part of software purchases are ensuring that you’re acquiring the source code from the source itself — the developer.
So if you want to be ethical and legal in redistributing software, you have to make sure you distance yourself from the original brand appropriately, and here’s really where we see the original motivation for re-sellers: they can’t stand on their own brand. Go ahead and sell the exact same source code under your own name — people won’t want it. The biggest problem with these sites is piggy-backing, and subsequently diminishing, the trust that brands have built around their software products.
Money is earned by presenting value, and represents trading one value for another. From an ethical standpoint, since developers and companies that support/market their work are the ones creating the value, I believe they deserve to be paid whatever money people are willing to give them for that value. When you sell a product that’s been copied with no value added, this does not intrinsically add value to an ecosystem because it ultimately doesn’t benefit customers. Offering the same product with worse support doesn’t add value, so you don’t deserve to make money from it.
What actually benefits customers is improved products — create them and make all the money you want. Again, I come back to the challenge: if you want to make things affordable, why not just make them free?
From a legal perspective, brand confusion occurs when knock-off products are sold, and leveraging another company’s brand, even when redistributing software, is not a legal practice, and in many cases, constitutes trademark infringement.
Not only does this pose legal and ethical problems, but it also hurts the ecosystem. When out of date or unsupported software becomes common, customers get frustrated and then ultimately leave the ecosystem. Not only this, but by assuming reseller plugin shops are necessary to regulate price, we insult people’s intelligence by thinking they can’t make purchasing decisions and dollar-votes for themselves. I assure you I have a lot more faith in humanity than that.
Again, I know forking is legal. When it’s done right, I unequivocally support it. If you want to fork my software, do something entirely different with it, and sell it under your own name, cool. Leave attribution / copyright in it and have at it. That’s forking done right and ethically. I believe in earning money for value, and I believe in ethical and up-front business practices. I don’t think re-selling unchanged GPL software adds value, and I’d love to hear a cogent argument that could convince me otherwise smile