Dear Wordpress'rs, or, What is GPL?

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Not sure if anyone has watched this yet, but Matt's latest video contains important misconceptions about the GPL.

Matt says (5:22):

So a common misconception about the GPL is that, like let's say, I'm hired to make a theme for a client. Does that theme fall under the GPL? And the answer is, no! Because it's not being distributed. Uhm, when something is distributed it's available for download to the public, you're selling it in a store, you know, it's sort of mass-distribution. When you do something for one site, or just for yourself, like for example, the theme on my blog, it's just for one site. It's not being distributed in any way. The GPL doesn't kick in.

But the GPL kicks in.

First off, whenever you base your work on GPL code it becomes GPL. Matt also agrees on that (if you watch the entire video).

The questionable part is:

  • Is distribution really a requirement? Or is it GPL right from the start?
  • How do you define distribution?

First off, I could not figure out the distribution requirement, but if in doubt, I think it is not a requirement for your code to become GPL. This is indeed what a lot of people describe as a loophole in the GPL and this is why the AGPL was invented.

Furthermore, what Matt thinks distribution is ("available for download to the public, you're selling it in a store"), is wrong. It does not matter if the code is distributed given to a friend, client, your grandmother or someone riding the subway with you. It's always GPL.

What I agree on is, that the GPL does not force anyone to distribute their code, or changes to GPL code.

In the end, the bottom line is: When the code is given away, it is GPL — the license applies!


I've previously blogged about the differences of the GPL to AGPL. The fundamental difference is that when GPL code allowed anyone to make changes and they could keep the changes to themselves, the AGPL requires them to contribute those changes to the project. In today's world, and with the nature of most of the software and its environment, it's virtually impossible (or illegal) to not contribute them back.


The GPL really means that whenever Matt decides to give his theme away (for money, or for free), he will have to provide the full sources of it, etc.. So for example, Matt couldn't use an encoder to hide his secret PHP code and then offer it for download.

And that is all.

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