Premium Wordpress Themes & Plugins For Free: What is a Wordpress GPL Club? Are They Legit?
Getting Wordpress premium plugins and themes for free? Without paying for them? That’s the promise of the so-called “Wordpress GPL Clubs”. The question is…. are they legal? Is it OK to use them? What are the pros and cons? And, just what is the GPL license?
Recently, I had a new client enroll for ongoing support and some project work on his membership site. And come to find out, this client was hosted on a company that did something pretty interesting…
They were offering a bunch of premium Wordpress plugins as “included for free”. We’re talking plugins like WP Fusion, FluentCRM, CartFlows and many more.
Now, I am familiar with how the GPL license works, but I thought that was particularly bold. Questionable, even.
It is something I wanted to address right out in the open.
These offers do exist. And there are “GPL Clubs” out there where you can get access to paid plugins and themes for Wordpress without paying for them directly.
So, are they legit? Is it even legal? What are the pros and cons?
Let’s tackle it…
In This Post…
What is The GPL Software License?
GPL stands for General Public License. And the most common license out there is called the GNU General Public License.
Not to get all nerdy, but GNU is originally the name for an early operating system based on Unix that was designed to be 100% free to do whatever you want with. While the software license was originally made for GNU software, it has branched out substantially and today has become a licensing standard for all kinds of web-based projects and other software.
It is known as a “copyleft” license (as opposed to “copyright”) in that it is not reserving rights for an owner, but instead means that all derivative works must be published with the same licensing terms. This means that if the original software was published under GNU, then ANY future version that is derived from it must also be done under GNU.
This license has become the standard for the open source community. It means:
- You can run the software for any purpose you wish.
- You are free to modify it any way you wish.
- You can redistribute the original software.
- Any derivative work can also be redistributed, but must remain GPL.
There are other open source licenses such as BSD and MIT, but it just so happens that Wordpress is done under GPL.
Wordpress GPL And The GNU License
Wordpress was developed on the GNU license. This means that all derivative works inherit the same license by default.
The Wordpress community considers all plugins and themes to be derivative works of Wordpress itself. This means that they consider that all plugins and themes are free under the GPL. There is some debate over it (of course), but as they put it on the Wordpress about page:
There is some legal grey area regarding what is considered a derivative work, but we feel strongly that plugins and themes are derivative work and thus inherit the GPL license.
In practice generally, this means that all plugins and themes for Wordpress are technically…. free. More on that in a moment. 🙂
Usage of GPL is considered to be a major strong point for the Wordpress ecosystem. The ability to see the code of themes and plugins makes them much more secure because people can find and patch vulnerabilities. It has also helped create a thriving ecosystem of plugins and themes. Wordpress would be a VERY different platform (and not nearly as popular) if it was closed-source and nobody but a core, centralized group could see the source code.
Obviously, there’s been a lot of debate over it. Matt Mullenweg (the original founding developer of Wordpress) has spent a lot of time vigorously defending the GPL.
If Plugins & Themes Are GPL, What Are You Paying For?
There are a few Wordpress plugins out there that violate the terms of Wordpress GPL and are not distributed under the same license. These plugins contain encrypted code so that nobody can see how they work. I’ve also seen some plugins that contain partially encrypted code so that parts of it are open source and other parts of it are not. It so happens that such plugins are less common… and generally they are not developed very quickly and are more likely to have unsolved security issues.
Most themes and plugins are distributed under the GPL. Which means they are technically free.
So then what are we paying for?
Why are so many plugins out there sold with premium licensing?
And if they are paid plugins, why is it that you can still get them for free on these Wordpress GPL clubs in a lot of cases?
Put simply, you are paying for ongoing maintenance and support.
Do not underestimate the importance of that. Things change all the time with Wordpress. Having an experienced team there that makes it their job to enhance and maintain the software your business depends on is very valuable. It means your software will be more secure. It means you get automatic updates when new bug fixes or feature enhancements are released.
Many Wordpress users think you are paying to access the code. Technically, you are not. The code is free. But, if you were to install that plugin without the support, then you have nobody to turn to for questions, to help you figure something out, or to fix things when something goes awry.
What is a GPL Club? Are They Legal? Ethical?
A GPL club is a site or service that redistributes GPL software. Their selling point is that you will be getting access to premium themes and plugins without all the licensing fees.
Some of the popular ones are:
Usually, these clubs have their own paid licenses to the original software that way they get access to updates. Then, they make those plugins available to their own paid members. For instance, GPL Vault sells monthly and annual subscriptions. In exchange, you can download GPL themes and plugins directly from them. They even have their own plugin that provides access to updates.
Is this legal? Yes. If that theme or plugin is released under the GPL (and they almost all are), then it is perfectly legal to redistribute.
Now, is it ethical? That’s perhaps a different matter.
While it is not a legal or technical violation of the license, it surely is a rather edgy interpretation of the GPL.
It is a fair point to make that people shouldn’t be forced to pay for dozens of plugins for what is essentially open source software. Plus, we want communication and distribution to be free and open and it can be pretty prohibitive to tell people they need to invest thousands of dollars into plugins to make that happen. So, these Wordpress GPL clubs do fulfill a market demand and they’re legally able to do it and…. there you have it.
It is also a fair point, though, to say that this is hurting the very people who created the software to begin with. Good software requires a lot of labor to develop and maintain and, honestly, only a real asshole (pardon my French 😉 ) would have the expectation that they owe that to you for free. (just calling a spade a spade here)
So, this isn’t a black or white issue. These GPL clubs serve a purpose. And, humans being humans, you’re going to have people who abuse it.
But, on the whole, I think the community benefits from an abundance mindset here. Clearly, developers can and do make a lot of money even when they use the GPL license. They do that by providing solid support and maintenance and they earn it. Most good customers will pay for that. Those who have the mindset to try to get it all for free will usually be so knee-capped by their own mindset that they aren’t likely to amount to much online anyway.
GPL Club Pros And Cons
So, these things exist. And yes, many of the themes and plugins that are offered as premium paid offers can indeed be found on these GPL club sites.
So, the big question here is…. should you use them? And what are the pros and cons?
First, I think these sites can be quite handy as a “try before you buy” setup. Many times, plugins are offered for sale and you just don’t know whether they’re worth the money or not. And if it isn’t, you’re left having to deal with their support people and request a refund and it is a pain. So, yes, in many cases you can access that plugin through a GPL club site and see if it will work for you. If it will suit your needs and be of use to you, I believe you owe it to the team to buy their license.
There are indeed, too, people who just do not have the finances to buy so many plugins. And… I get it. And I think as long as you use these GPL sites with the proper amount of respect for the hard work the developers of those plugins put into them, there is a role for these sites to help you not spend money excessively.
In some cases, I actually DON’T think some premium plugins justify the price tags. For instance, there are a lot of WooCommerce add-ons that are paid, but barely ever come out with any updates and you’re extremely unlikely to ever need their support. I have indeed downloaded and used several WooCommerce add-ons from GPLDL.com without paying for them.
Others earn it in every possible way. For instance, I am a massive advocate for WP Fusion (see my WP Fusion review and why I think it is the best membership site plugin). Love it. WP Fusion is distributed under the GPL. However, I’ve never seen a better supported product. Jack is active in answering questions and he dutifully releases an update to WP Fusion every week. I am happy as a clam to pay for a professional license for WP Fusion and I consider it to be a great deal.
Now, onto the cons…
You will get no support for any theme or plugin that you get from a GPL site. You’re on your own. And frankly, if you try to get support from the developers and actually manage to get it, don’t be a d-bag. You know the right thing to do. 🙂
You will not get any updates automatically. GPL Vault does have some mechanism for that, but many others do not. To update those plugins, you will need to sit around and wait for the GPL club site to update the version and then do a manual upgrade.
Usually, updates are slower. If a developer releases an update and you have a paid license, you will get that update right away and automatically. But, a GPL site can take days or even months to get around to it.
Lastly, there is definitely the higher potential for security issues. For one, sometimes developers push out quick updates to solve a security hole before people even know about it. You won’t know about it nor get the update for a while longer because you’re not a license holder.
Also, these GPL sites sometimes “null” the source code of the plugin in order to remove the licensing restrictions. You are depending on them to be honest that that’s all they hacked. 🙂 If you are downloading these plugins from degen sites that just do this to make a quick buck and are less than honest, there is a chance that they inserted malicious code into that plugin.
The initial spark for this post came when I discovered that “web host” offering up all these premium plugins “for free”. It just struck me as a degen thing to do. Rather rude. I believe the people behind that web host are nothing but middlemen that are trying to enhance the value of their own offer by leeching off the hard work and branding of people who created those plugins. It is just… sketchy.
But, this world of GPL has it’s grey zone. It is a noble philosophy that is great for the world of software. But, like all things, MOST people will use it with respect to the spirit of doing so. There will always be those who skate around the edges.
I’ve known about these GPL club sites for awhile. I knew they were legal, but I didn’t really want to talk about it much out of respect for the creators of the plugins and tools I recommend to my clients and readers. They’ve produced a tool good enough for me to use and recommend to my clients. The last thing I want is for people to go around trying to cheat these developers. And to be clear, I personally pay for every paid plugin I have recommended because I feel they deserve that.
But, there’s no getting around that these GPL sites do exist. They are legal. And, used in the right way, they do play a role.
It really is a grey area ethical debate for sure. I just read something interesting about WooCommerce:
The whole GPL thing reminds me of something I’ve read about software piracy. There is a huge non-GPL software company (that shall go unnamed) that is known for not going after unlicensed products much of the time. The premise is that a lot of young, poor students end up acquiring unlicensed versions of the software…and become familiar with it over competitors’ software. When these students end up in the workforce, it’s now their software of choice, and employers have to adopt it to attract new hires. This feeds back in to the software company’s profits.(in theory). Now don’t get me wrong, that software company WILL go after larger companies for software piracy.
I think the Wordpress plugin GPL license can be abused, or stretched at least. I think the ethics are often up to the consumer. Take a bootstrapped, fairly poor small business owner trying to pull themselves out of the gutter. They use a few GPL plugins and start to make some profits. As they make profits, they can start to pay for the paid licenses with included support one by one. And…if that business grows, they’ll need that support to keep things running.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping WP plugin companies from distributing the plugin freely under GPL themselves without hurting their profits. Take LifterLMS for example. The core plugin is free direct from LifterLMS. From some light research, I don’t see LifterLMS showing up on those free GPL download websites. Perhaps because LifterLMS already distributes it themselves. Beat them at their own game I guess.
Sounds like you’re talking about Microsoft. 😉
But, yeah, in terms of GPL, nobody is breaking any rules or even skating on the edge by USING a GPL product. That’s just the nature of the license. I think the grey area is just with these sites that redistribute it and openly promote it as being free or cheaper than the people who developed it.