A WordPress Plugin App Store: Commodify and die!

Well, James Farmer and company are at it again, and the latest business venture is a WordPress Plugin App store a la iPhone apps. Another pay to play solution that is asserts that “the future of WordPress is premium plugins.” This development, like most of Farmer’s moves over the last year or so with wp.mu, blogs.mu, etc. have been rather depressing for me to watch.  What we are witnessing in the WordPress community is both a crisis and a crossroads, a fork in the logic of what this open source community stands for, and in many ways the reality that the GPL license was originally imagined for (operating systems like Linux) is not cutting it for an open source, web-based application like WordPress (thank you, Martha).

The logic of a paid service for re-worked WordPress plugins that are still under GPL is not outside the GPL license, people can still charge for re-coding plugins that others have offered up freely. And, by extension, I could get a paid membership to that service and download all those plugins and distribute them freely to anyone under the conditions of that same license. Fact is, both solutions create real issues. Those people who develop plugins with the idea of making them freely available can have their work appropriated, modified and sold at a profit, and for those who do try and profit from their work can have their own plugins or themes taken and given away freely, at least after someone pays the entry fee.

So given that, why don’t a whole bunch of us pool a dollar or two and gain access to the premium plugins site, and then redistribute everything freely? It’s within the letter of the GPL law, and it would make for a far more affordable and equitable re-distribution of wealth in the community.  Well, we don’t and won’t do it because it’s an abrogation of a bigger contract, a community contract of WordPress users that I believe has formed around the idea of openness and sharing back. What we are seeing now is the attempt to commodify that logic so that themes and plugins begin to represent some form of wealth within the open source community that needs to be traded on the open market.  But in my mind it is exactly this emerging logic of open source entrepreneurs that understand applications and code as commodities that will bring down a community of users, and represent a challenge to any movement towards sharing and openness.

We can not live by the letter of a license, we must think through the implications of our actions for a community that has moved further and further away from the prevailing political logic of the open source movement, which is namely to freely share software, which in turn provides zero cost of entry and public collaboration. Additionally, it allows individuals to re-imagine the software and build on that independently. And it’s with that last point where we see the attempt to commodify a community that can only be as strong as its diversity and openness.  The more a few people try and dominate this space and control “the market” so to speak, the less open the application and the more impoverished the community becomes over time.

I’m a fan of WordPress, and I’ve been in the game for a while now. That said, I’m not a developer, I am a member of a community and a movement that sees the possibility of people openly sharing their ideas and work apart from some kind of monetary compensation of the fruits of their labor as a possibility for something different.  A new model for sharing openly out of a passion and belief in the possibilities rather than professionalizing this development as a career or job. Look what professionalization did for politics in the US, it is the wrong direction, and I think it is time for the WordPress community to take a stand on what they believe and how they will deal with this challenge. Drupal has figured out this model, and the community is tight, despite the letter of the GPL law, and that has everything to do with the people, so we need to stop hiding behind licenses and establish who we are and where we are going before the community implodes. The logic of capital and commodification will tear us apart unless we are vigilant, making money must be subordinated to sharing openly. The more we commodify, the sooner we die!

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29 Responses to A WordPress Plugin App Store: Commodify and die!

  1. Rob Wall says:

    Thank you for articulating the exact same thing I was thinking when I read about the Plugin Store. Taking the collective intellectual property of a community then bundling and shrink-wrapping it is the Disney tactic for building on that intellectual property. I much prefer a service-oriented model for those who need a business model for using that property to generate a revenue. I believe that WordPress and all associated additions – plugins and themes – should be free to use and free to build on. Let the revenue come to people who have the skills to manage and tweak and hack wordpress, not to someone who repackages the work of others.

    Of course, there is a simple solution to this situation which is just not buying plugins. If anyone has the skill, maybe they should reverse engineer the plugins being sold to be released for free. That would be a way of subverting the plugins-for-pay economy without having to participate in it.

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  3. Joe says:

    Thanks, Jim. Well said. Very well said.

  4. Joss Winn says:

    “I’m not a developer, I am a member of a community and a movement that sees the possibility of people openly sharing their ideas and work apart from some kind of monetary compensation of the fruits of their labor as a possibility for something different. A new model for sharing openly out of a passion and belief in the possibilities rather than professionalizing this development as a career or job.”

    I dunno, Jim. I share your ideals, I really do, but it’s easy to say this when we’re receiving a salary from the education industry, as we are. Were we not salaried, I think the amount of sharing we do would take a nose dive.

    We’re not freely sharing anything through the work we do. We get paid for it. We’ve managed to shape our work so that it involves sharing and the advocacy of sharing, but someone’s picking up the bill.

    I’d love to live in a community that was self-sufficient in the production of goods and services, a community that shared the production of goods and services and didn’t rely on the exploitation of labour for the production of capital. Until that utopia of equality is realised, it seems to me that the sharing you speak of is only possible through the exploitation of someone down the line.

    Returning to the specifics of your post, I disagree about your observations on the GPL.

    I think you’re saying that the commodification of services around the production of free code is acceptable (i.e. wordpress.com or umwblogs.org or edublogs.org) but the commodification of the production of code is unacceptable, right? I agree. In fact, I think that’s the only way it *can* be because of the nature of WordPress code (uncompiled php/html/css scripts) and the GPL license that’s enforced.

    If I write a GPL’d WordPress plugin and give it away for free, the company that takes my code and appropriates it into their new WordPress plugin, cannot use an App store to provide exclusive access to their plugin. If they’re distributing a modified version of my code through a store, they’ve got to provide the source code of their product freely, outside the restrictions of the App store. The value of the App store to the customer is the support forum. It’s the service that is offered with the code. GPL’d scripted code has no intrinsic value when distributed because the moment you distribute it, you have to provide a copy of it for free/at reasonable cost to anyone who asks for it.

    I agree with your observation that people who are selling GPL’d WordPress plugins through an App store run the risk of someone re-distributing them freely (which they should be doing anyway), which is why the thing that IncSub’s App Store is selling is a support service rather than code. Whether they realise it or not, it’s the exclusive forum that buyers have access to that’s being sold, not exclusive access to the code. Automattic do something similar with their Support Network (which we’ve just joined and very good it is, too). The difference is that Automattic know that it’s not only wrong, but pointless selling GPL’d scripts through a paid-for service because by law, if you’re distributing it, you’ve got to give the code to anyone that asks anyway. You may as well expose your code to as many people as possible by giving it away and then try and sell them services on top of that exposure.

    The Apple and Android App stores differ because they sell compiled code in most cases where the source is not intrinsic to the product and the licensing doesn’t force the GPL on them. In the case of WordPress plugins, they must be GPL compatible and the source is intrinsic to the product, which is why WordPress software development is always service oriented because the nature of the code/scripts and the GPL license that’s enforced, dictates it.

    So given that the code is free, are you arguing against the commodification of providing a service around WordPress? Isn’t that what we’re doing at our universities. Students, in part, pay us to support their use of WordPress, don’t they? 🙂

  5. Joss Winn says:

    A slight change to my comment above:

    “The difference is that Automattic know that it’s not only wrong, but pointless selling GPL’d scripts through a paid-for service because by law, if you’re distributing it, you’ve got to give the code to anyone that asks anyway.”

    Actually, re-reading this: http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#DoesTheGPLRequireAvailabilityToPublic I see now that the owner of the code is not required to distribute it, but, as you say, anyone else can freely distribute it, so my point still stands that there’s no reason to restrict the availability of your code when, as you say, anyone can just re-distribute it anyway. Exposure to the code and a service built around that exposure seems to me to make more sense.

  6. Ron Wall says:

    “… the thing that IncSub’s App Store is selling is a support service rather than code. Whether they realise it or not, it’s the exclusive forum that buyers have access to that’s being sold, not exclusive access to the code.”

    I dunno about that, Joss. When I took a look at the plugin store it seemed like my money up front for the plugin whether I access the exclusive forum or not.

  7. Joss Winn says:

    Hi Ron, I was referring to the fact that because all plugins can be re-distributed outside the app store once they’ve been bought once, developers and users should realise there’s little point using the App store as a way of *selling code* (because it can so easily be re-distributed for free), but rather look at the app store as a method of advertising premium support.

    So, yes, you have to pay to download the plugin but you can then host the plugin on your own site and give it away for free under the GPL. As Jim said, it only requires one person to pay the entrance fee, making the value of the plugin itself, so low, it’s meaningless. The value of the plugin is in the support that the developer can provide to users and the advertising of their services in general through the widespread use of their plugin.

    If I wanted custom development for my wordpress site in the form of plugins or themes, I’d look at the most popular plugins on wordpress.org/extend/plugins and take my pick from the top five developers that make their living from wordpress. Alternatively, I’d look at the developers who offer the most useful advice on the wordpress.org support forums.

    IncSub are comparing their app store to the iPhone app store but it’s quite different, I think, for a couple of reasons I mention here: http://wpmu.org/wp-plugins-is-the-wordpress-app-store/comment-page-1/#comment-5305

  8. Ron,

    Yes, as the app store is presented now, you pay for access to the plugin. But what Joss points out is that you are well within your rights to ask them for the plugin. Legally they have to give it to you. At least that is how I read what Joss is saying.

  9. Joss Winn says:

    Actually, I corrected myself above after re-reading the GPL FAQ: http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#DoesTheGPLRequireAvailabilityToPublic

    The developers of the plugin do not have to give the source on demand, but the purchaser of the plugin can re-distribute, which in practice makes the value of the source code next to nothing. Like Jim said, we could pool our cash and subscribe to a premium service, buy the plugins once and then host them for others to download.

    For code that has to be compiled to be run, there is value in having a compiled version of the source code which might only be accessible at the developer’s discretion, but for GPL’d PHP scripts, the source code is the very same code that is run, so there’s no additional value that can be gained from the developer besides the support and other services they can provide around the plugin.

    I don’t have a problem with premium support and value added services like Jim and I provide for students that use WordPress at our universities, I just don’t see why a developer would charge for access to their GPL’d WordPress plugin code when it can be re-distributed for free.

  10. Rob Wall says:

    I don’t understand either, and it feels slightly deceptive to approach it that way. if anyone is not familiar with the GPL, they might not know that it is free to be redistibuted.

    And it’s Rob, not Ron, by the way. Stupid fracking iPod touch keypad! 🙂

  11. Martha says:

    Okay, so here’s my stupid question of the day.

    If wordpress.com or wp.mu (or any WP hosted service) includes a plugin as part of their hosted blog service, but the plugin is not available/distributed anywhere else, where would that code stand in terms of the GPL?

    The code itself is, presumably, required to have a GPL license, but since no one can GET the code (since for users it’s just a plugin that can be activated on a hosted blog), it can’t be redistributed. And since Automattic or IncSub aren’t required to share or distribute the code, it seems to be protected in an odd way.

    It sort of feels like in that situation these companies are providing code as service, even though the GPL applies to that code.

    This is where it seems like GPL’s origins as a license for client-side software run up against the realities of web applications. Hosting companies can make use of code that runs on Web servers and the functionalities of that code become part of their *service* but, really, aren’t we talking about code that should be GPL’d?

    Am I missing something obvious? I’m obviously not a lawyer nor am I qualified to even play one on TV (except maybe on a bad soap opera).

  12. Joss Winn says:

    Martha, unless it’s being distributed in some way, the GPL doesn’t have to be enforced. You can write code for your own service and not have to give it away. The GPL only applies to distributed software.

    http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLRequireSourcePostedPublic

    (the GPL FAQ is very thorough – you can imagine how many questions have been asked over the years!)

  13. Luke says:

    The more I think about this, the more I see the internal tensions here as unreconcilable. This anarchic process of development is the logical landing place of the libertarian worldview that predominates among those with the greatest power to affect change in this community (Mullenweg professed “agnosticism” about all this when asked at WCNYC).

    Jim, you and I are lucky in that we actually DO get to approach this in a socialistic way… our salaries are paid by the state, which recognizes and rewards the “value we add.” That value isn’t intended primarily for the WordPress community, but rather for the institutions we serve; what we give back to the WordPress community is in essenge the state giving back. It’s scholarship, freely distributed. Further, the value we add isn’t bound to the application, but to our ability to work through and lead thinking about the role of technology in the life of the university, so that complicates the rules that we play under a bit.

    All this said, I have zero problem with sharing plugins and themes that I purchase with others in higher education… it’s legal under GPL, it’s ethical, it’s for the public good, and ultimately it shows free marketeers the limitations of their philosophy.

  14. Martha says:

    Joss,

    I’m still wading through that entire FAQ, but in that section you link to the language I have trouble with is this:

    “You are free to make modifications and use them privately, without ever releasing them. This applies to organizations (including companies), too; an organization can make a modified version and use it internally without ever releasing it outside the organization.”

    I would argue that a WordPress hosting service is NOT using these modifications privately. In fact, the modifications are critical to the functionalities they are providing as part of their service.

    If they make modifications (in the form of plugins, hacks to the core, etc.) and want to use them on their own site, that seems different.

    Or am I making an artificial distinction?

  15. Martha says:

    Joss, one other thing I meant to say in my original comment.

    I think your point about the work those of us do with WordPress in the educational industry being essentially subsidized by our institutions is spot on. I think we fall too frequently into the trap of equating the work we do (and our position within the community) with the work of those whose position in the community is not filtered through an institutional “cushion.” Thank you for pointing that out.

  16. Deanna says:

    Excellent post, Jim.

    I, too, work for a university and feel fortunate to be able to share the work I do with the broader WPMU community. In my position there’s an expectation of scholarly work, and I love Lukes comment – “It’s scholarship, freely distributed.” Beautiful.

  17. Zach Davis says:

    Says Luke:

    All this said, I have zero problem with sharing plugins and themes that I purchase with others in higher education… it’s legal under GPL, it’s ethical, it’s for the public good, and ultimately it shows free marketeers the limitations of their philosophy.

    You’ve got to be kidding me. You guys completely miss the point. Open source is much more like free market capitalism than socialism (or any variation of centralized, state-funded production). In fact, the very underlying goal of open source is to remove the secretive and anti-competitive practices that its practitioners see embodied in closed source development. Open source is about destroying the artificial monopolies that go hand in hand with closed source in order to increase efficiency, productivity, and quality. This is not an anti-market idea; rather, it’s a way to promote free markets.

    GPL – free as in freedom, not free as in beer. There is nothing wrong with making money off of open source. Without those of us who profit off of it, you folks in the ed-tech humanities, who in actuality produce very little actual code, would have much less to work with. It may be “ethical” to redistribute non-free, GPL plug-ins, but I doubt it’s pragmatic or even in the best interests of the open source community.

    This capitalist fat-cat is getting back to work. Check you communists later.

    Zach

  18. Kevin says:

    Martha,

    For whether hosting with modified code is internal or public, the distinction is between redistributing the source code vs running the code for your site.

    Just like a “private” business still has the public as their customers. Modifications to the source code for your own use, even if that use is running a blog host, are still private modifications. The customers don’t have access to the actual source code, so the modifications are still internal. Just as closed-source commercial web application code is internal even though it’s used to host public sites. It’s when the modified source code is redistributed for others to use that it is now no longer just for internal use.

  19. Luke says:

    Damn, Zach, four years away from CUNY, and all of a sudden you’re the evil spawn of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul. I thought our indoctrination program would have held a bit longer than that.

    I think you misread my comment, which acknowledged that open source is propelled by a libertarian, free market philosophy and argued that ultimately those approaches are going to come into conflict with the communal aspects of open source development, which are what I personally find appealing. This worldview may lead to good code, but if it were to govern society as a whole it would lead to shitty, fragmented communities with poorly distributed wealth and little concern for the public good. Jim’s arguing that we’re seeing that now in the WPMu community, and I understand where he’s coming from.

    I see nothing unpragmatic about sharing proprietary WP plugins with other educators. And while I can understand the argument that doing so would not be in the best interests of the open source community, one can make a pretty compelling argument that it is in the best interests of society as a whole. And I’m not even sure you need Marx to do it.

  20. Martha says:

    Joss, Kevin,

    Doesn’t this question on the FAQ address the very point I’m making:

    http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#UnreleasedMods

    I’m not familiar with the modified GNU license they are referencing.

  21. Joss Winn says:

    Martha,

    Sorry for the late reply, but yes, that’s what I had in mind when I saw your last comment. I’m not very familiar with it either but as I understand it, the Affero GPL license was specifically developed to meet the ‘problem’ of applying the GPL to a web application. I see Wikipedia does a good job of explaining it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affero_General_Public_License

    I think plugins can be licensed with the Affero license but it’s not compatible with the GPL2, which WordPress core is licensed under. i.e. core WP code cannot be a mixture of both GPL2 and Affero.

  22. Martha says:

    Joss,

    Thanks for helping me wade through this (and on Jim ‘s blog, nonetheless!). So, if under plain vanilla GPL “. . .putting the program on a server machine for the public to talk to is hardly “private” use, so it would be legitimate to require release of the source code in that special case,” then doesn’t it stand to reason that a hosted WP service like Automattic or wp.mu *does* have some obligation to release the code of plugins they’re using? Unless they apply the Affero license, which as you point out would be a violation of the original WP license?

    I’d like to point out that I actually am not sure I support the idea that they *should* have to release the code. I’m more intrigued by the way in which the license seems to challenge the current practice. It seems to me it would be in everyone’s best interest for the issue of private vs. non-private use to be ironed out so that it’s clear what practice the license supports — presuming of course that the practice is in the spirit of the GPL.

  23. Joss Winn says:

    I see this question has been asked quite a few times elsewhere 🙂 i.e. http://drupal.org/node/173294

    I’m in no way an expert on the GPL, but it looks like the Affero license allows developers to explicitly require that the source code of their web applications be made available on request.

    The GPL2, which is what most of WordPress core and plugins is licensed under, doesn’t view the serving of a web application over a network as distribution of that code.

    The Affero license was created to clear up the ‘problem’ of web applications (which weren’t around when the GPL was first created).

    Automattic have a pretty good history of releasing the plugins they use on wordpress.com as plugins for the community. Under the GPL, I don’t think they are *required* to do that.

    I don’t think IncSub are violating the GPL, either. They are selling their plugins via a subscription service and the source code for those plugins is being distributed too. The GPL allows other people to distribute IncSub plugins as we discussed and linked to above.

    It looks like the FSF think it’s legitimate to request the source code of WordPress plugins that are based on modified code of others. If the plugin code is not a derivative of someone elses’ work, then it’s not a legitimate request.

    (I fear we’re slipping into the bottomless hole that is open source licensing!)

  24. dave cormier says:

    mmm…

    I can’t speak directly to the legal implications, but agree with jimbo that the spirit is the issue.

    I don’t particularly mind there being money exchanged over an open source project. I’ve spent a fair amount and received some over projects done around open source projects but always for MY TIME. I’ve always seen this as the difference. Any open source contractor with skills related to the web can make money, and very reasonable money, through charging people for their time. I don’t have a problem with that at all. Where i get bogged down is where there is no connection between the work itself and the money spent. (see… now we have some real marxism coming around, but, kind of an inverted form)

    I see many situations every year where the lack of a good consultant(yes i happen to think they exist) a skilled developer, a realistic project manager, a reasonable designer or whatever otherwise good projects go down the tube. I have not the slightest problem with charging people for the time that i use to work on their projects, whether it is in directing coding projects (the actual coding is not exactly my department, although i’d recognize it in a dark alley) or simply giving advice drawn on the vast quantity of mistakes i’ve made in the past.

    What i don’t like is charging for content. Pay $1500 a day for a good coder, they are very, very worth the money if you can get it… just don’t charge for the code. it’s free… like all good ideas should be. (you can keep it and charge for it if it sucks)

    d.

  25. Martha says:

    I still think there’s a contradiction between the answer to that particular FAQ and other information on that page. It kinda sounds like the Affero license is an attempt to clarify this issue because it isn’t too clear how web applications are handled under vanilla GPL.

    To be honest, I’m not critiquing either Automattic’s track record on releasing plugins or themes (can’t speak to wp.mu — I haven’t looked at their service in years and never really kept track of what features they provided that might not have been more widely available). I gather that Automattic does contribute a lot back, although there have been times when I’ve seen features on wordpress.com that I’ve *really* wanted to play with, and it seems to take a while for something similar to emerge in the lager community.

    Again, I’m not really criticizing Automattic over this. Given that more of my “contributions” to the WP community are in the form of hackity hack hacks and frantic requests for assistance with said bad hacks, that would be kind of s****y of me. 🙂

    Rather, I’m just really fascinated with the issue of whether or not code that is provided as part of a service is considered private or distributed.

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  27. Matt says:

    Jim, I thought you’d be interested in “The Death of the URL,” a blog post that uses the development of new interfaces (such as those on WebTVs) and app stores to chart increasing constraints on our freedom to browse the web. The post is a little broad, but it does bring together several trends that have some resonances with your own post.

  28. I’m late to this conversation, but, just want to note that a key PURPOSE of higher education, aside from teaching and learning, is to be the incubator of ideas, and that can extend beyond the classroom. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole “aren’t we priviledged so we should keep our mouths shut and be grateful” argument. Every developer with clients gets paid to customize code, but code is just a tool, not the end-product. “Here, client! I know you hired me to build an online community, but, here’s some awesome code instead!”

    The commodity of great Web development is on a more sophisticated level: The communities and functionality and all kinds of cool things we build are what we are paid for. The way we build them, heck, that should continue to be for free. Any other approach simply shows a lack of imagination, and will truly gum up the works in terms of moving this ahead. If this is the future we are facing, let’s all quit and use Sharepoint!

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