In part 1 of this series we talked about what a GPL club is and the ethics around what they do. In this article, we will continue the ethical discussion by looking specifically at the arguments against these clubs and offering counter-arguments in support of GPL Clubs. The goal, of course, is to demonstrate how these clubs can benefit the WordPress community and even developers themselves.

I am also going to offer a model for developers that will encourage users to come to them rather than the GPL clubs. A new way of doing things that the open source community at large has repeatedly proven works!

GPL Clubs And The WordPress Community

The WordPress community is highly divided on the topic of GPL Clubs. On one side, we have those who strongly oppose these clubs. They are adamant that these clubs are a danger to the WordPress community and that they pose a threat to the livelihood of the hard-working developers that create the plugins and themes that WordPress relies on.

Without shame, WP Top Hat is on the opposite side of the aisle, in the camp that fully supports these enterprising young companies. We are on the side that believes that these clubs can be a good, nay GREAT thing for the WordPress community and for developers. We hold this belief just as strongly as those on the other side of this issue. That being said, we do pay for full licenses on the themes and plugins that we use regularly. It is our way to support the products that allow us to run our business.

Argument 1: “It may be legal, but its not ethical”

We will not spend a lot of time on this one as we did cover it briefly in part 1 GPL Clubs: An Ethical Viewpoint  But I did want to touch on it again just briefly. The basis of this argument is that just because something is legal, does not mean it is ethical. We admit, in some cases, this is absolutely true. But this argument fails to hold up to scrutiny here. If someone grants you explicit consent to use something they create as you see fit, there can be no violation of ethics when you do just that. This is exactly what the GPL does. So if you release under the GPL, this is exactly what you are doing.

Argument 2: “These Clubs Are Dangerous and untrustworthy.”

The basis for this argument is the misconception that these clubs modify the original work and may insert malware into the code. And let us be honest, it HAS happened. But on the other hand, premium content developers have done the same thing. I recall one recent scandal in which a plugin was purchased by a developer who then inserted spyware and adware into the plugin before releasing an update. But both of these events are anomalies. Neither are common by any stretch of the imagination.

The fact is that the majority of GPL Clubs that exist today are just as trustworthy as the developers themselves. As a general rule, they do not modify the code. In the rare case they do, these GPL Clubs make such modifications clear and the most common modification they make is to connect to their API to check for updates in their own repository.

Argument 3: “GPL Clubs devalue the work of plugin and theme authors”

On the surface, you might think this s=is true. But scratch below the surface a little and you will realize it is quite the opposite. Hint: here is the first argument as to why these clubs are GOOD for developers and the community.

In the first part of this series, I talked about the cost of premium plugins and themes being prohibitive to small business, especially if they are trying to test multiple options. GPL clubs resolve this by making the best of the best affordable. This puts these products into the hands of users that will often create reviews or rate these products online. They are also likely to tire of manual, delayed updates. Or they will eventually need support from the developer.

The result? These users purchase a license from the author in order to get auto-updates and/or support. What’s more, they spread the word about these products by referring others to them. Those referrals then buy licenses. This equates to free marketing for the developer!

Something that is unique to the open source community, which includes WordPress, is the desire to truly support the awesome folks that make these products. How do they do this? Well, beyond just spreading the word, they buy a license to their favorite products solely to support the author. For example, we specialize in Divi here at WP Top Hat. We very rarely need support directly from Elegant Themes. We also do mind manual updates. So technically, we would be just able to function fine without an Elegant Themes membership and getting their products free. But we happily pay the annual licensing fee. Why? Because we LOVE Elegant Themes and we want to support them. It truly is that simple.

Argument 4: “These GPL Clubs undermine the WordPress community”

Ok, honestly, I am not sure what the basis of this argument is. The reality is that GPLP clubs actually help to build the community. They provide access to the best, most highly rated WordPress themes and plugins for an affordable cost. That means that folks who are just starting out in the WordPress community can see not only the great items in the WordPress repository but they can get a taste of the best that WordPress has to offer. I recently had a chat with a lady who said that she chose WordPress because she discovered Easy Digital Downloads through a GPL Club. She liked EDD so much that she was happy to use WordPress in order to use EDD. So what did she do? She moved all of her sites to WordPress. Oh, and she now holds a license for EDD and many of its extensions. That combined with referrals she has made, I dare say Pippin Williamson has made a pretty decent amount of money as a result.

GPL Clubs help to spread the WordPress message. They illustrate quite clearly the open, welcoming and inclusive community that is one of the best things about WordPress! They are the epitome of the open source spirit!

What developers say:

I’ve had the chance to speak with several well-known WordPress developers on this topic. While there are some who are adamantly against GPL Clubs, I find that the majority are either in support of them or indifferent.

“The act of copying my themes, making no changes, and selling them is perfectly fine. I gave you permission to do so by placing it under the GPL license. Just in case that wasn’t enough, I’m giving you or anyone who wants to do so permission right now. It is not unethical for you to do these things so long as you do them within the confines of what’s allowed by the license.” – Justin Tadlock

“The only thing we protect heavily is our brand name. I don’t have a problem with people using the GPL to its full extent. I do have a problem with people piggybacking off our brand building. So if people advertise on our brand, or act like they’re us when they’re reselling our plugins, we come at them, with lawyers when needed.” Joost de Valk (Yoast founder)

“The rules of the GPL are clear and articulated in advance. Getting mad that others play by the rules, and calling it unethical, is always a bit surprising to me. If I put my couch out on my sidewalk, and then people come over and sit on it, would I be mad? Nope. If they came up and took it, would I call it unethical? Nope. Those are the rules of the game. If I don’t want people to sit on my couch or take it away, I don’t put it out on the sidewalk.” Chris Lema

“If you choose to be part of the GPL community, do so with your eyes open, know what it means.” Jeff Cleverley

How developers can compete with GPL Clubs

If you are a plugin or theme developer, I’d like to propose a new model that allows you to remain profitable yet offer an advantage over GPL Clubs. If you follow this model, users will be encouraged to obtain plugins and themes directly from you, and will happily fork over the money for a full license. I call this model new, but its really not. Open source software projects have been using it successfully for almost as long as open source software has been a thing.

Give your premium plugins and themes away for free. But charge a fair price for support, including high-quality tutorials. You could even include auto-updates in the paid license, but consider making those free as well. By following this model, you offer your customers the security that comes with knowing the plugins or theme comes from a trusted source (the developer). Which encourages them to obtain the product from you. Then, when they need support or updates, guess who they are most likely to come to? That’s right, YOU!

An alternative model is to take the WPMUDev approach. This company charges $49 a month for access to their extensive list of plugins and themes. This model works because the variety of plugins they offer means that customers can get most of the plugins they need from a single source. So while the cost adds up to around $600 a year, it is still generally much less than paying multiple developers for individual licenses of plugins and themes.

Making your themes and plugins more affordable and easier to obtain is the key to making sure they purchase from you instead of a GPL Club. This adds value that users will appreciate and that will encourage them to buy from you instead of a third party.


I hope this article has demonstrated the benefits that GPL Clubs offer to developers and the WordPress community as a whole. I also hope that more developers can see how they can leverage GPL Clubs to their advantage. For those who are still against these clubs, I have offered a model, two actually, to combat these clubs. But what it really comes down to is creating awesome products, and then offering amazing support for, and regular updates to those products. If you do that at rates that will not prohibit your customer’s growth, you have a winning deal.

GPL Clubs are indeed a booming business. They are not going away anytime soon. As a developer, you can either learn to use them to your advantage or fight the flow and most likely lose revenue as a result.

As an end-user, GPL Clubs offer you an opportunity to try something new. To explore the WordPress eco-system affordably. To grow your business with the best WordPress plugins and themes on the market. But I sincerely encourage you to support the developers, in whatever way you can. Whether that means buying a license when you can or spreading the word with positive reviews.

In the third and final article of this series, I am going to review some of the best GPL Clubs in existence today. I will also give you a few pointers on how to make sure the GPL clubs you choose are safe and reputable.