I recently received a message on FaceBook that quite literally horrified me. It said that I was using Steve McCurry’s picture of the Afghan Girl in my WordPress design and that since it was a copyright violation the least I could do was to acknowledge who the photographer is. So I immediately responded with the background: I had written a very laudatory post about a year back called Haunting Photos on this very blog, complete with references of who took the photos, where it was originally published etc, and provided links to all the original articles.
I explained that what had happened is when I provided a screenshot of Suffusion to WordPress, there was a screenshot of the original “Haunting Photos” post (which had proper crediting) and unfortunately the credit information did not appear on the screenshot. I immediately apologized and within a day got the screenshot for the theme changed on the official WordPress site. Steve understood that this was an honest mistake and appreciated the fact that I had always had the credit information on the post and gotten the image removed from the screenshot almost immediately when notified of the copyright violation. So I could breathe easy.
When I was introduced to Linux, the GPL and “free software” in 1997 I always wondered how it was possible to make money in such a model. After all wasn’t the software free? Somebody explained to me that the software was free, but you could charge for support. It seemed like a rather foolish business model because a smart guy could always look into the code and figure out what to do, and wouldn’t need to pay for support. But for the lack of a better explanation that is what I went by. A few years later I learnt that the word “free” had an intention that was quite different from the interpretation. To quote from the Free Software Foundation’s definition of the term:
“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”
Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it means that the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission to do so.
And further down it states:
“Free software” does not mean “noncommercial.” A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important. You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.
From the page on Selling Free Software it states:
Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU Project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible — just enough to cover the cost. This is a misunderstanding.
Actually, we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can. If this seems surprising to you, please read on.
The word “free” has two legitimate general meanings; it can refer either to freedom or to price. When we speak of “free software”, we’re talking about freedom, not price. (Think of “free speech”, not “free beer”.) Specifically, it means that a user is free to run the program, change the program, and redistribute the program with or without changes.
So there you are. Mystery solved. I could essentially write my own software, release it as open-source and charge a fee for it if I liked.
Hence it was with more than a hint of amusement that I followed the now beaten to death debate between the founders of the Thesis WordPress theme and the founders of WordPress itself. The amusement came mostly from the fact that people in general felt that if Thesis went GPL it would have to give away the theme free of charge – a ridiculous supposition if you read the definition of “free” and the philosophy of GPL above. What’s more, even the founder of Thesis, Chris Pearson argued passionately in a head-on debate with Matt Mullenweg that if Chris made his theme GPL others could steal his work and severely undercut him. As Matt pointed out, that could happen with or without the GPL license.
Even after the debate settled with Thesis being released with a “split GPL license” (PHP is licensed under GPL, CSS and images are not), several self-appointed aficionados speculated that Thesis would now have to be given away free of charge, which is not what this debate was about at all! As an aside there is actually code comparison done between Thesis and WordPress by Drew Blas to prove that Thesis lifted code from WP and was hence in serious violation of GPL. But that is a story for another day.
While we are on the topic of free software, I recently received a very interesting email. As you probably know, I am the author of Suffusion, a WordPress theme that is both free like “free speech” and free like “free beer”. I sometimes like to gloat about Suffusion, so here is a little snippet: Suffusion has close to 30,000 lines of code. If you do the mental arithmetic you will see that written over a period of 1 year, this amounts to close to a 100 lines of code a day, which is about 15-20 times the industry average for coders!! Of course, I rarely write 100 lines of code a day and I do a good bit of copy-pasting with my own code, but this is a very very impressive figure nonetheless, particularly in the backdrop of the fact that this has mostly been churned out while I am traveling, after completing my regular job each day, as a means to curb ennui. But I digress.
The email was from a theme reviewer at WordPress and the body of the email said:
Your theme was recently submitted by someone else into the wordpress theme directory.
Refused obviously, just thought you might like to know.
Well, I knew that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, but I found this tough to react to. Obviously I was amused that somebody had thoug
ht Suffusion was good enough to be copied. The smart folks of Geek Infos, who actually did the plagiarizing simply replaced the author URL that you define for the theme as something pointing to their site, while leaving everything else intact, including the footer of the theme that says “Suffusion WordPress theme by Sayontan Sinha”! Obviously they found it easier to steal the code but were too incompetent to figure out where to edit the footer! So I would get the support queries, while they would be linked from WP’s official site. Interesting business model
If you have followed the post so far, you might be wondering why they weren’t in their rights to do plagiarize Suffusion. After all my source code is available for change. That is where the difference between copyright and license comes in. You see, I am the distributing the theme under a GPL license, but I still hold the copyright for it. Again, it is best explained in the FAQs about GPL. That is the distinction that most people failed to get in the Thesis vs. WP argument – Chris Pearson still would hold copyright over his creation, charge for his theme and go after people who infringed; none of that would change. Just the license and the terms of redistribution would.
PS: I am a novice when it comes to legalese. What I have written here is based on my understanding of stuff I have read at different places. So it is probable that I have gotten something wrong – feel free to correct me if you spot errors.