This post is about the freedoms and responsibilities of Open Source Software licensing. Changes that WooThemes made to their support contracts recently, why I objected to those changes, and why I think a different support model would work much better for everyone. It’s a little long – please accept my apologies.

GPL = Free (as in speech)

A while back I accidentally became a bit of a sounding board for a product that had had some of its GPL’ed code ripped off to create a competing product.  It bugged me.

GPL’ed code is intended to be “free” and “open”.  It should be OK to build a product or service on top of it.  I’ve been providing WordPress development services for several years now.  I stick my hand up: I make money on the back of an open source platform!  I take other people’s open source code and I build other things from it.  I’m not sorry.  That’s what open source is for.

A little while later I read another article – I’ve lost the link, but I think it was about the ethics of redistributing premium themes for free.  That confused me a bit.  I could see the point, but couldn’t get past the issue of the themes being GPL-licensed.  You give people permission to re-distribute them by adopting that license.

I also confess that I was wary of sticking my head above the parapet and expressing my thoughts. Some people are really quite passionate about this – and understandably so.  The freedom-fighters are concerned with the very nature of “open source”, and the theme/plugin shops are concerned with making a living and running a profitable business.

So I was interested to read Justin Tadlock’s ‘It’s Legal but Unethical‘ – a well-known WordPress person making a very good case for freedom.  I totally agree with him.  If you write code under the GPL, you give other people permission to use your code – potentially in a way which makes them money, and potentially in a way which creates a competing service and loses you customers.  If you don’t like that, don’t publish code under the GPL (and yes, that means don’t write plugins and themes for WordPress).

But yes, I also agree that there is a certain sense of spirit about Open Source communities. People spend time and money building GPL products, and they should be rewarded for that. Ripping off those products hurts their creators and, ultimately, the communities that form around those products.

What Woo Did

This comes just after WooThemes – a very good premium theme shop that I’ve become a user of – altered their licensing model, removing “unlimited” (as in “for-life”) support for products, even where people had paid a premium specifically for that level of support.

This change sparked a big debate.  Many people understood the move, but many other people felt that they had been deceived, and even had contracts broken.  To their credit, WooThemes listened, and offered people a choice: you could opt to keep your unlimited support, or you could choose to support the WooThemes business by paying annual renewals.

I opted to keep unlimited support, and I want to explain why.


I objected to this change for several reasons.

  1. I paid extra for unlimited (as in not-ending) support. And I had that removed. I understand the unsustainable business thing, but it shouldn’t have been offered in the first place if it was unsustainable. I may not have paid the extra. I may not even have purchased at all.
  2. I don’t raise many support tickets. I don’t feel like I’m a big burden on WooThemes, or taking advantage of them.
  3. I mostly pay for support in order to get product updates. While fixing and tweaking software costs time and money, WooThemes do put a lifespan on their products, and I feel like they should know what the burden of doing this is and build it into the original product cost.
  4. I mostly use WooThemes in order to get great value for my clients. They have a package that includes hosting, domain, personal support, and access to my library of premium plugins and themes. The cost of my services is, to a large extent, based on the costs of the products I use. This change didn’t just affect me. I’d have to pass those costs on. And many of my clients are small charities or small local business, who need that great value from me.

So, as you can see there were lots of good reasons why I opted for WooTheme’s continued, unlimited support, even if it may have cost them.

(Note: I actually offered to pay some extra, because I do value their support and updates, but the full amounts that they were asking were not acceptable to me).

The Spectrum of User Ability

I do also feel a little taken advantage of. Not by WooThemes, but by other users of WooThemes who I feel may be contributing to this unsustainability.

There is a spectrum of user ability. Even amongst WordPress users and developers. You will experience this if you look for solutions in the WordPress support forums or hang on WordPress IRC channels.

I’m an experienced developer and the kind of person who will persevere, debug, push things, change things, and generally try to fix something myself rather than use support forums. Usually because I can find a way, or a workaround, myself in less time that it would take to get a response from someone else (that’s not to say that support is slow, I’m just impatient!). This means that I only really use product support if I’m totally stuck or if there is actually a problem with the thing I’m using that needs to be fixed.

Other people seem to jump straight to the forums or “Contact Us” form before even Googling for answers. And why not? They’ve paid for that support, why shouldn’t they? And – playing devil’s advocate with myself – why shouldn’t I? After all I can raise as many support cases/tickets as I want. 10 a day if I want to!

I may be wrong, but I feel like often, people could find the answer with 10 minutes of Google and support forums, looking up the answers previously given to others who had the same problem.

People who go straight to support with simple questions, and without attempting to find their own answers first, and who raise lots of tickets, push up the support costs. I don’t have statistics: this is all conjecture. But I suspect that there’s a significant percentage of support requests that need not be raised at all.

And there is, I believe, a supply-and-demand thing going on. People with support have an unlimited supply of support. Support to them seems cheap. So they use it. This creates high demand. BUT…unlike a normal supply and demand equation, the supply is unlimited, so the cost doesn’t go up.

I think we WooThemes could help themselves by restricting the supply of support, and increasing its cost as a result, in order to lower demand, and, ultimately, the cost of running their business.

A different model

What I found interesting with WooThemes was that they wanted to remove the “unlimited” – as in “forever” – from their support service because unlimited and forever was unsustainable. Yet, in their new model, one thing remains unlimited: the number of support cases you could raise if you had a valid support contract.

What I would like to buy from WooThemes is a set number of support tickets. Maybe a pack of 10. These would cost me on a per-ticket basis and I’m sure WooThemes have data that they could use to price them appropriately.

If I had limited budget, and could only buy 10, then I’d be pretty careful about how I used them up. If I had a big budget, I could buy more, and have the freedom of raising cases for trivial things without looking for answers first. That seems pretty fair to me. People who use lots of support, pay for lots of support.

I’d also try and put in place a scheme where if the support case ended up being a problem with the product that needed fixing, that support ticket would be credited back to me, as it would be unfair for me to pay for something that is, ultimately, an issue with the product. I appreciate that this MAY be tricky to achieve and there could be debate with customers about whether a ticket should be credited back or not. You’d need a good rule. And I’m just chucking the idea out there.

I love this model. It makes lots of sense to me. It’s how many agencies run support contracts (they get clients to buy time, not as-much-support-as-you-want-in-a-year). I’m sure it has issues. I’m happy for people to suggest what they might be and for us to have a discussion about it.

Closing thoughts

I love the GPL and open source software. I don’t like seeing it being taken advantage of unethically.

I love my WooThemes Products, and I sympathise with them. I feel slightly bad for taking their unlimited support option. I promise not to abuse the trust that they’ve put in me not to ruin their business. I will continue to support them by using and buying and recommending their products.

But…I feel like there’s a better way. One that doesn’t seem to have been explored by any of the premium theme or plugin providers. One that, selfishly, suits me much better, but that would seem to lead to more sustainable businesses too. One that makes support fair for all.

This seems so simple. I wonder what I’m missing?