A storm is fast approaching the WordPress community, as a controversy involving the WordPress Foundation and Themeforest creator Envato has left all participating Themeforest merchants banned from attending speaking, organizing, sponsoring or volunteering for WordCamps, the largest “official” gatherings surrounding WordPress.

At the heart of this issue are differing interpretations of GPL licensing, and now many of WordPress’ biggest supporters, like developer Jake Caputo, are stuck in the middle.

Yes, issues like this have happened before.

Your first instinct may be to take a side and stick with it. Unfortunately, the issue isn’t clear-cut, as both parties have logical arguments. Let’s dive into each side and go from there.

The WordPress Foundation

The WordPress Foundation, not to be confused with Automattic (although team members are shared between the two organizations), is a non-profit umbrella organization supporting WordPress.org, along with bbPress and BuddyPress.

It is the WordPress Foundation’s responsibility to manage the WordPress brand and enforce its proper usage. UpThemes creator Chris Wallace details that “one of the ‘improper’ uses is profiting from WordPress in some way without (fully) licensing your WordPress-based product under the same license as the software it is a derivative of.”

WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg believes that Envato is “forcing their authors to break WordPress.org guidelines” as its sole licensing option requires authors to dual-license their themes and plugins. Back to Wallace:

Envato turns a profit selling software that ultimately cannot be redistributed without a lot of extra work. To many GPL supporters, this is evil. To Envato, this is a necessary evil in order to prevent unlicensed redistribution. So you may think – Envato is in the wrong for forcing authors to sell dual-licensed WordPress products.

Envato’s Angle

According to Envato CEO and cofounder Collis Ta’eed, however, he claims that his company has “a license that is both respectful and 100% GPL compliant, while protecting the rights and freedoms of creators.”

By default, all themes and plugins sold on Envato’s marketplace feature a split license, where the author’s PHP component and integrated HTML are covered by the GPL, as WordPress requires, while “the rest of the components created by the author (such as the CSS, images, graphics, design, photos, etc) are covered by the marketplace license,” which is intended to protect the author’s copyright.

As WordPress developer Tom J Nowell explains, the argument here lies in what code is susceptible to WordPress’ GPL licensing requirements. As Nowell details, this isn’t an issue of selling derivatives of open source code without a proper license, so much as it involves linking:

Derivative codebases are clearly subject to GPL as they’re unambiguously described by the license itself, but what if I write a plugin from scratch with no prior work? If I open Sublime and start typing a plugin into a blank document, how can it be derivative? Clearly it is not, and it isn’t. The problem then becomes one of linking/binding.

By referring to and using the WordPress API, your code is linking/binding with the WordPress code. As a result, if the answer to the big question about GPL and linking is yes, then your codebase must be GPL compatible if it’s to be publicly distributed for use with WordPress.

The issue comes down to one question, according to Nowell: can a GPL codebase and a non-GPL compatible codebase be linked? The answer is a resounding maybe.

Some believe that if assets (like JavaScript, CSS and images) do not rely upon WordPress to function, they are not derivative and thus don’t need to be GPL compatible.

Envato’s WordPress Evangelist Japh Thomson sums the company’s beliefs up nicely: “So the idea behind the split license is to protect authors in terms of their designs and things like that. The parts that have to be GPL are GPL, the parts that don’t have to be, we’re happy to provide that license to help you protect them.”

The Result

Envato isn’t budging in its stance, maintaining that a split license is acceptable. The WordPress Foundation, on the other hand, maintains that guidelines have been broken, and Mullenweg doesn’t seem to have a solution for developers caught in-between the two organizations, like Caputo.

As we said, it’s the WordPress Foundation’s responsibility to protect its code and make sure its open source licensing is upheld. Envato believes its responsibility is to protect the work of its members.

Where do you stand on this issue? Should Envato members be blacklisted from participating in WordPress’ largest official gatherings, or could developers have been spared the frustration if WordPress took actions against Envato directly?

Update: Matt Mullenweg has shared his thoughts with TNW:

The WordPress guidelines have been in place for years, before ThemeForest existed, and have served our community well as we’ve grown to power over 17% of the top million websites. Tens of thousands of companies respect the WordPress guidelines and sponsor WordCamps, including Microsoft, Google, and Adobe.

Hundreds of thousands of creators choose to license their work under the GPL, including everyone who has ever contributed to WordPress itself, we wish Envato would give their authors the ability to do the same rather than protecting their commercial interest under the guise of protecting their authors.

Image credit: Emma Weber