Hey WordPress, Stop Treating Commercial Plugin Developers Like Second Class Citizens

I’ve noticed an alarming trend in the WordPress community concerning the treatment of commercial plugin developers and this has prompted me to weigh in on the topic. Keep in mind that this is an opinion piece. I welcome friendly discussion from differing viewpoints.

WordPress: A Prejudiced Commercial Ecosystem

You will find loads of commercially supported themes on WordPress.org but commercially supported plugins don’t receive that same blatant promotion. While theme developers and theme shops are making a substantial income, your average commercial plugin developer often struggles to find a way to cover the time spent on creating and supporting the plugin. Yet, both themes and plugins are subject to the same license. What gives?

Last week I noticed an interesting tweet from Drupal’s Dries Buytaert:

This refers to a comment by Jeff Sayre, a BuddyPress developer and forum moderator, as well as the creator of BuddyPress Privacy. Jeff is seriously considering switching his efforts to Drupal because of his recent experiences with the WordPress community.

Rarely have I ever seen a more courteous and informative exchange in the WordPress world than what I saw in the comments posted by Drupal community members in response to Jeff’s inquiry. In contrast, read some of the comments on Jeff’s update regarding his free plugin: Privacy Comes to BuddyPress.

Jeff makes an excellent point regarding the GPL:

Designers and developers alike should each be afforded the same freedoms granted by the GPL. In my opinion, anyone who does not fully support all rights given by the GPL license does not support its freedoms.

Granted, some plugin developers are better than others at monetizing their efforts, but all must overcome the stigma of creating something related to WordPress that isn’t totally free. The level of entitlement among WordPress users is astronomical, especially when it comes to plugins that are offered for free.

Try creating a WordPress plugin and see if you don’t receive several hateful emails because you haven’t updated your plugin or haven’t answered a support question or provided enough documentation. This is one reason many high quality WordPress plugin developers choose to sell their work, despite being shunned and/or openly mocked by leaders within the community. The WordPress project has a hard and fast “fall in line” approach, and if you disregard community “requests”, your business may be on the line, perhaps even set up for potential ruin.

Newsflash: Selling Free Software is OK!

Unlike the Drupal community, WordPress already has several high quality and fairly well-known sources for acquiring commercial plugins. Yet, commercial plugin developers are still regarded as second class citizens. It also doesn’t help that some commercial plugin developers take a self-righteous approach to their pricing, claiming that their small price tag means that they don’t even wish to make money.

There is nothing wrong with making money, even a large revenue stream, by selling open source software. The GPL means free as in freedom, not free as in beer. You have the freedom to make as much money as you want to. The libertarian, free market aspect of open source software is often unpalatable to scholarly types who are constantly crying out for the redistribution of wealth at the expense of individual freedom. They cannot stand to see someone succeed and make money from open source software.

Commercial plugin sites, such as WP Plugins and WPMU DEV, have been largely regarded as anti-community spirit. However, it’s important to recognize what the GNU GPL actually stands for when it comes to selling free software:

Many people believe that the spirit of the GNU Project is that you should not charge money for distributing copies of software, or that you should charge as little as possible — just enough to cover the cost. This is a misunderstanding.

Actually, we encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can.

If WordPress leaders and community members continue to mitigate the freedoms afforded by the GPL, we’re going to lose excellent developers like Jeff Sayre. The WordPress community needs to make a concerted effort to curb entitlement among its users and stop promoting an emasculated version of the GPL.

There are many high quality developers of the caliber of Jeff Sayre who are capable of producing enterprise-class extensions for any open source CMS. However, due to the present anti-capitalist sentiments in the WordPress community, it’s no surprise that many are finding that they can no longer subject their businesses to an atmosphere that inhibits the freedom and innovation available within the GPL.

Entrepreneurs need freedom in order to establish viable revenue-generating businesses that will support their families. Just because the tools I use for building are open source, doesn’t mean I can work for free, even if I’m producing another open source tool for others to use. It’s simple math. My hope is that the WordPress community will grow into a more thoughtful and respectful discourse that respects different opinions. I would also like to see 2011 be a pivotal year in which commercial plugin developers are not regarded as second class citizens. Your thoughts and ideas for making this happen are welcome in the comments.

51 Responses

  • Great post Siobhan! (Your roll continues).

    What we need is education:
    – about what GPL means (tick)
    – about what developers contribute (tick)
    – that all developers, GPL included, have the right to make money if they want (tick)
    – that this is actually a good thing, not a bad thing! (tick)

    Mark (in London)

  • Hmm, let’s see what happened when I switched my popular comment editing plugin to a paywall.

    1. Got called every name in the book (and some note in it)
    2. Received a nice boycott
    3. Got accused of bait-and-switch marketing (really?)
    4. Lost several translators because they didn’t believe in charging for open source software.

    Keep in mind at this point, the free version was still in the repo and still being actively maintained.

    5. Got removed from the repo
    6. Got threatened with legal action from a user over charging for something under the GPL
    7. And still get e-mails once a week from someone upset over charging for a WordPress plugin.

    That being said, the people who have paid are extremely polite, and have essentially invested in the current and future development of the plugin.

    Not all commercial plugin developers are out for money. If that’s the case, I have failed miserably in that quest. But when there’s a crossroad over killing a plugin because of the tremendous support burden, or charging for it, sometimes one has to make the tough and un-popular choice.

    PS: The tab-index seems a little off on your comment form. Great post BTW.

  • I would happily sit and write Plugins all day long, if I could make this a sustainable activity. Unfortunately whilst people are willing to pay for themes the current mind-set is: ‘Plugins should be free or I ain’t paying for it!’. If it isn’t then they will probably just go and use something else that will ‘sorta’ work instead.

    There are the obvious exceptions to the rule but commercial Plugins certainly have not taken off as yet, and I am sceptical whether they will in 2011. There needs to be a different approach to monetizing Plugins.

    One fundamental problem comes to mind. It’s common for users to have a couple of dozen Plugins installed at any one time, but only ONE (premium) theme? Hmm, can anyone see the obvious flaw here for the Plugin developers?

    From the user point of view, they pay for a theme, but do they want to pay out to lots individual Plugin developers? They may even have half-considered it in the past but it would be time consuming for them to go through their ‘fav’ list of Plugins and give an amount to each one. Seriously, who in all practical likeliness is going to be bothered to do this. I know I wouldn’t (and I am a Plugin developer)!

    Unless there is an EASY way for users to give some (monetary) love to Plugin developers then I don’t see the outlook changing a whole lot any time soon.

    Well, I’ll leave you with a radical thought. How about Automattic, or another other company introducing a system whereby you can purchase Plugin ‘tokens’. Then, assuming the functionality is built into WordPress core(!) a user could easily distribute their credits to any Plugins they wanted to give a donation to. Then, this would somehow go into a developers account so they would get reimbursed. The parent company could take a % commission off the top to make it worth their while.

    I know, that idea is pretty pie-in-the-sky, but the important point to note is that it is an extremely easy way to reward multiple Plugin developers simultaneously, rather than one at a time.

    Someone brave enough to submit a trac ticket for this one..? ;-)

  • @David,

    A premium theme is typically only installed on one site (with the exception of frameworks). A WordPress plugin, per the GPL, can be installed on as many sites as the user wishes.

    For example, I have the developer license to Gravity Forms and Backup Buddy, and I use both on more than 10 sites.

    With multi-support support, the argument gets muddled even further, as someone can have hundreds of sites, but be able to use one commercial plugin for all.

  • @ronald – that is so discouraging! we plugin developers need to address this with more than education
    @david – these are good ideas whether pie in the sky or not. users want plugins and some developers want a way of providing them for money.

    I am a plugin developer and user. I have yet to offer one to the public and would like to do so both because I get a kick out of it and I want to make some money from it. My WordPress work is a business, and I provide value to business. So I’ve been gathering data on this on the ways people offer plugins, ask for money, and asking developers their experiences.

    I’m not encouraged! I may go for bespoke development and not bother offering plugins for commercial gain at all (rather for link juice and publicity).

    On the other side I can offer another thought (as well as some hope). I create WordPress websites commercially and have decided to roll a plugin developer donation/payment into the fees I charge so that when someone buys a website from me, they have no option but to pay a reasonable amount for the plugins that I install and set-up. My aim is to set up relationships with plugin developers where they are interested, but if not, I’ll just make what I deem an appropriate donation on behalf of the client, for every installation I set up.

    Mark (in London)

  • New Recruit

    This conversation keeps cropping up and it’s like beating a dead horse. People have been getting free plugins for too long. I think if you want to make money from a plugin then it’s as simple as putting it behind a paywall. Trust me when I say “those who EXPECT something for free are the most vocal complainers”

    Having only a free theme and plugin install method sends the wrong message to people who are new to WordPress. They are instantly educated that themes and plugins are free simply by clicking add new. Maybe there needs to be a commercial option as well.

  • @ ronald

    I was talking from a ‘practical’ user point of view only. Deciding which Plugins to donate to, and how this works precisely is hard. If they had to buy each one individually before they use it, and go through multiple checkouts then are they going to bother? Instead they are going to simply trawl the Plugin repo. They might not even want to commit to that Plugin long term. This is also another problem. You might well stick with chosen themes longer than some Plugins!

    Unless there is a standardised, easy, way to donate to multiple (free) Plugins at the users discretion then the vast majority of Plugins will never generate any revenue, even though they may have a large user base. A token based contribution system makes sense but would be a big undertaking.

  • I have no problem at all with devs charging for plugins. But what does this have to do with the bp-privacy plugin?
    – It’s not commercial.
    – No commercial plans was ever advertised thus no reactions.
    – There was a plan for commercial support and there has not been any negative comments anywhere on this.
    – There have been some jack-ass comments on the projects inability to release, but that’s a totally different story.

  • Site Builder, Child of Zeus

    I totally support the quality and depth of great paid plugins for WordPress. Developers of these should ignore the pleas from the unwashed masses and continue making the best, most useful, easiest to use, most versatile, best commented, best supported plugins available. We need you.

    It’s good to know that by supporting your efforts with a one-time or subscription payment, I can keep my sites functioning better than those trying to slap everything together from the ranks of the free plugins. This is not to knock those that offer them. Many of you do an outstanding job.

    But, when available, the paid ones represent more professional, more competent solutions. Do I wish there was no or lower cost for them? I’d like to say “yes”, but I know if that is the answer, support will disappear sooner or later. I say thanks to you who are making and supporting your plugins. If you have to make a buck to stay in business providing great solutions, draw the line and ask for the money. You deserve it. Ignore the critiques.

  • This could be a real opportunity for WordPress, though contentious! Perhaps its for .com only, but…

    There’s nothing wrong with people charging for themes or plugins, WordPress.org is fully behind that, so there’s nothing wrong with them providing explicit support for this within WordPress and its repositories. And there’s a big win-win-win here for WordPress.org, theme & plugin developers, and users.

    If it was easy to contribute, some users would I’m sure be happy. Clearly developers would be better off, if not actually rich. WordPress could gain with an admin fee (the dreaded app store I know I know, but this is GPL not Apple and I don’t mean creaming 40% off every sale either).

    There’s also another great win here for WordPress.org, users and developers. It would encourage developers to create more quality and range, it would attract more developers of higher quality, and what WordPress can do would be boosted. If only WP did this, it would have an edge over other CMS.

    I know there is already an outfit trying to be the app store for plugins (but they are unnecessarily greedy as the Apple model – IMO!). WordPress could do a far better job for everyone by building this in, and use it to fund development and boost the platform.


  • Mark – I like your ideas. However I think the term “unnecessarily greedy” in reference to the current WP app store is entirely subjective. Developers have the freedom to charge as much as they wish. They have the freedom to charge even more than the time they spent on their plugin in order to make a profit.

    “Redistributing free software is a good and legitimate activity; if you do it, you might as well make a profit from it.” http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html

  • Sarah – Yea, but that’s a year old post. Your building your post displaying a Dries tweet and states “because of his recent experiences with the WordPress community”, all of which is aiming on the recent decision to stop developing bp-privacy.

  • WPMU DEV Initiate

    Sarah, awesome article and perfect timing.
    I’m guilty of disrespecting premium plugin developer: FV testimonials. I was frustrated that I was told to go to their website for support, as opposed to noting in WordPress.org plugins forum, see: http://wordpress.org/support/topic/fv-testimonials-095-basic-not-working
    I now feel a little more enlightened to my ignorance and will take the time to apologize to FolioVision, but perhaps this type of confusion as to where plugin developers if/how they should provide support could be clarified by healthy dialogue like this?

  • @Sarah – I have been know to be subjective before ;-), all the same, I was referring to the store’s cut rather than plugin pricing, which of course needs to be freely set by the developer.

    Thanks again for sparking this discussion.


  • Flash Drive

    Switching from free to paid is never going to go well. A price increase is a price increase and without boatloads of marketing and fireworks to explain the change, your customers are going to revolt.

    If you need an example of a commercial plugin that is highly successful, look at Gravity Forms. How did they do it? From day one, they had a highly polished product, a beautiful website and support forums all dedicated to ONE PLUGIN. People are willing to pay for quality, but they expect/hope their purchases won’t have leave them disappointed.

    Most smaller plugin developers just don’t market their products well enough, but in the case of WPMUDev.org, the company 1) stretched itself too thin by working on too many projects, 2) sold lots of one month subscriptions to updates which left most users in the lurch and 3) never offered trials of any of its plugins.

    It’s very difficult to build trust when you ship unfinished plugins and no one knows whether they work or not. This is another form of bad marketing, but because it’s so profitable, I doubt that it’s ever been considered as a flawed business plan.

    The goal as a business should be for customers to LOVE you. Anything besides that is going to fail in the long run.

  • New Recruit

    Around 12 months ago, I was hired by some WordPress developers to promote their commercial WordPress plugin. Having come from a commercial software background, but having spent time in the Joomla community (as a dev) and seeing it was a good bit of software that had been around a long time and the guys had a reputation for great support, I thought it would be easy (especially as it was membership/subscription software, so anyone with half decent content would have a very quick return on investment).

    How wrong I was. Firstly, as Sarah points out, it seems to be instilled in WP users that software must be free (as in beer) and won’t even consider commercial plugins, even worse that commercial plugins were against the spirit of WordPress. I felt the animosity first hand when I had to introduce myself at a WordCamp as a former Joomla dev who nows sells commercial Plugins. Secondly there is ambiguity over the licensing (is a plugin a derivative work, if not it doesn’t need to be GPLed at all. Some of our stuff is capable of running stand alone, but hooks in WP if it finds it, so how can it be derivative) and finally there seems to be no central recognise hub for commercial plugin sales (and several of those that purport to be are focused on affiliate revenue rather than fair reviews).

    The silly thing is, as Sarah points out, this only hurts the WordPress community, it’s very hard to build projects beyond a bedroom coder scale without some financial input (and selling support and install services isn’t going to cover it). Sure, there are big open source projects, but they are much much harder to get off the ground than a self supporting project.

    We’re lucky, our company has diversified, we have 4 people working on WordPress stuff (if you include me), an office, telephone support and a proper customer management infrastructure, but we could never dream of doing this from the WordPress projects alone. If it wasn’t for the none-WordPress income they’d still be two guys chatting over Skype with some very upset customers when one is ill whilst the other is on holiday. How would that help the WordPress community ?

    From my view point, WordPress NEEDS commercial plugin developers to grow and thrive, to be taken seriously in industry. It needs companies who have grown enough to offer 24hr support and SLAs, who deal in invoices rather than PayPal, who can take the CTO of a fortune 500 for a round of golf. I’m not saying every plugin should go that why (I keep a lot of my personal projects as none-commercial GPLed stuff as I have neither the time nor the inclination to support them properly), but I think WordPress needs to allow them to if they feel that’s the way they want to go.

    Oh and you’ll notice that despite me spending a lot of time looking around the internet for place I can tell people just how good our membership software is, I’ve chosen not to mention it and linked my personal website rather than the company one. That’s simply because I can already sense the fall out from this post and I’d rather have it directed at me, not the company. Which kinda proves my point.

  • New Recruit


    Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    It is about time that someone stands up to the “I want it free, or not at all” community.

    Website developers would have to charge their clients astronomical fees, if they were to develop (from scratch) all of the features that a few plugins and a premium theme can bring to their clients.


    I feel your pain!

    I have been developing a premium event registration plugin for over two years now, by myself. I have even contacted quite a few WordCamp organizers to offer the plugin to them free of charge. A few have taken advantage the offer and have actually saved quite a bit of money using my plugin over some of the (paid) hosted solutions that are out there.

    When I tried contacting some of the higher echelon WordCamp organizers. I was told that they would not even consider using my plugin because it is not GPL compatible! When in fact it is fully GPL compatible. I state this fact right in the readme.txt and the main plugin file. I charge for a support license so I can try and recoup some of the money and 2500+ hours that has gone into developing, supporting and maintaining the plugin.

    When I stated that the plugin was in fact GPL compatible. I never even heard a word back from these people. One WordCamp organizer stated that they would not use my plugin because I charged for it and that they felt better using a (paid) hosted event management solution. I could care less what solution they used. I was only trying to save the organizers and attendees money that could be used in other aspects or even donated to charity.

    What upset me the most was the level of vitriol that was directed at me and my company and because of the fact that I was charging for (IMO) a high quality alternative to some of these higher priced event solutions.

    Sometimes I feel that if I am not careful. The plugin and the company that has formed from this once a part time (working in my basement until 3AM every night) endeavor, that has turned into a full time job. Will someday be forced to shut down because of a GPL violation.

    I am not saying that everyone who I have had the pleasure of talking to about my plugin has frowned upon me and my company. Most of it has been a really great experience. I truly appreciate all of the HARD work that Matt Mullenweg (and everyone else) has put into the WordPress project. We would not be here, discussing this problem, if it was not for their concerted efforts.

    I just wish that premium (and free) plugin developers were shown a little more respect and love by the WordPress community and its users.

    Seth Shoultes

  • The existence of premium plugins means that some functionality that wouldn’t otherwise exist, does. That’s why I love premium plugin developers. They save us truckloads of time (and money) but offering us great software at what is generally a low price.

    Having said that, I haven’t noticed the hostility you mentioned in the community. Maybe you notice it more as premium plugin developers, but I think people are happy to recommend and use premium plugins that add value.

  • @David Gwyer I like your idea! Mind if I go and implement it into my WP hosting service some time in the future? I would perhaps even go one step further and calculate a fixed donation (off of the hosting fee) for each plugin being activated on a user’s site. Thinking about it…

  • New Recruit

    Some great ideas and thoughts here but I think after reading them all we all still agree that there needs to be some form of change in the way “commercial” plugins are viewed. I personally think those high up in WordPress need to speak from on high about how plugin authors should be helped / rewarded and subsequently the end users will toe the line.

    However even without this basic mind shift from the top I am convinced there is a way to move plugins onto the fermium model that Themes have done over the last few years and am planing to pull together some ideas I have in a blog post about this sometime soon.

    Coincidently after coming across this post today I have also learnt that http://wphelpcenter.com/ is closing down and Alex also makes some great points about the issues he has faced.

  • WPMU DEV Initiate

    Sarah this is an excellent article and it is very, very topical. Coming from an end user perspective I have to say that to transition over to the pay for play model with plugins can be done BUT it’s going to require a lot of work from all parties involved. I can tell you that I have been burned by using (and relying) on pug-ins from developers that were never updated, and never supported. In fact I would say that a lot of plugins are created then disregarded (too many). It’s extremely frustrating and make me (for one) very dubious when weighing which plugins to use and/or pay for.

    I am all for a system where developers can recoup their hard work. However if we go to a systems where everything is “buyer beware” that’s not good either. We would need a curated “app store” like model where plugins have been tested and put through their paces before going up for sale. That way end users can have some sense of trust that the plugin will not only work but stick around and be supported, before they plunk down their money. If a developer is not willing to stand behind their plugin then they should clearly state up front that their plugin was for experimental use and not for production sites. I guess what I am trying to say is that there has to be a way to separate the wheat from the chaff or else the idea of paying for plugs will not only fail but could kill WordPress in the process.

  • Thanks Sarah for bringing this up and thanks to Jeff for all his efforts.
    I think a big part of the problem is the fact that most people that complain about paying for plugins or donating to Developer’s effort or about anything at all are those that do not have the money to spend.
    I believe that 90% of entrepreneurs that have a serious business gladly pay for the best and understand the value of the great work most plugin developers do.
    Those that don’t make anything from their website will complain all day long and will try to find others to blame.

    So what I am saying to Plugin developers is this. “Do great work, Develop great and stable plugins , communicate properly and timely, set expectations clearly and serious people will appreciate. Don’t mind the negative people, they never will pay for your efforts anyway because they are going nowhere with or without your plugin as 90% of them are not serious in the first place; it is a Hobby for them not Business.”
    To Jeff I say this: “Negative people are everywhere whether in the WordPress community or in the Drupal community. New relationships are beautiful and exciting but the flows crop up eventually. You will find negative people there with Drupal as well or anywhere you go as long as there are Human beings there or even Aliens (who knows? maybe they are a bit better). Stay with WordPress and rethink your strategy and you will surely be in a better place. We don’t want to lose you.”

  • We have about 5 premium plugins with daily support. Total donations for several years of support at that level would be lucky to make 3 figures.

    Fortunately we are a high end design and marketing company so we can afford to support our plugins for free.

    What does get in my craw are the vitriol from the freeloaders about our plugins when we don’t customise our plugins for them for free. I’m disappointed to hear that those who have made an earnest effort to provide paid plugins/services have had such a poor experience in the WordPress community. Makes me relieved that we never pursued our own paid WordPress tools projects.

    In fact, we do have one paid plugin with a cost in two figures as an experiment. When we get inquiries about price people don’t buy. Even though the plugin would save you hundreds of dollars of development in cost per site per year and help your clients make many thousands. The poor community reaction to this trial balloon means that this plugin does not get the support and additional polish and documentation that it might in a community more inclined to support commercial ventures.

    Interesting commercial problem.

  • Hi Sarah,

    You’re right – people do complain about not updating plugins/themes etc, even though they are free. WordPress users are not alone in this, however: the web user of 2011 has everything they need for free, including professional level support.

    I get criticised daily for typos, grammatical errors, missing apostrophes, my world view and more. The internet allows people to criticise; a freedom many take to an extreme level, whether they have paid a fee or not.

    For the most part, I find paying users (mainly business users) are more courteous.

    Forget the “stigma” of the community, and earn a living dealing with people you respect!

    Just a thought.

  • New Recruit

    I stumped up cash for WPMUDEV and am glad I did so, because several of their premium plugins have saved me a lot of work. And I’ll buy the premium version of Slidedeck and probably buy Gravity Forms. I also regularly buy premium themes.

    The cost of course gets passed on to my clients. Here’s the thing: my clients are organisations that expect to have to pay for reliable/advanced features on their website, are happy to pay and have budgeted for it.

    When I had a problem with a particular plugin recently, I put a support request on the company’s forums and got a correct answer within 10 minutes. You wouldn’t expect to get that with a free plugin. That’s not to disparage the makers of free plugins, I’m thankful to them for dozens of reasons and inspired enough to write my own first plugin.

  • Sarah,

    I understand and appreciate the sentiments of this post, wanting a quality environment and market for commercial plugins. However, you make some statements and generalizations without backing them up.

    ” being shunned and/or openly mocked by leaders within the community”
    When have WordPress project leaders outright shunned or mocked a plugin solely based on its being commercially available?

    Not providing a “commercial plugins page” on wordpress.org doesn’t mean that they have anything against commercial plugins. Matt Mullenweg even has several: VaultPress, Akismet, VideoPress, etc. I pay for all three and thoroughly enjoy them.

  • I know I’m late to this party, but it took me a few days to think about how I wanted to respond, or if I was going to at all.

    The cliffnotes – I pay for something I need if there is no equal or better free alternative. (Or, I make it myself.)

    To start, the title of this post is confusing because WordPress isn’t a group of people; it’s a piece of software. WordPress isn’t treating anyone like anything, because it can’t. I’m mentioning this because I don’t understand who exactly this post is aimed towards calling out.

    If it’s the WordPress community of users as a collective, I wonder how the majority of that group actually feels about paying for plugins. If I had to guess, I’d wager less than 5% of WordPress users are outraged about the idea of paying for plugins, 55% would gladly pay for services rendered, and 40% had no idea this was ever even an issue.

    The way I see it, there are three things that are happening here:

    1. Why pay for something you can get for free? There are thousands of plugins available for WordPress, many of which are duplicates or iterations of each other. For every paid plugin, the same functionality can probably be had at no cost.

    2. Historically in the WordPress world, selling a plugin en masse has proven to be an unsuccessful business model. More often than not, in Robin Hood like fashion someone usurps the plugin author and distributes the code for free out from underneath them anyways.

    3. Think of other pieces of software that you might use that also have a plugin architecture. For me the ones that come to mind are: Notepad++, Netbeans, Photoshop, Illustrator, Serato, Ableton

    Of those 5, three are free and three are not. The free ones (Notepad++, Netbeans, Serato) have free plugins, and the others (Ableton, Photoshop, Illustrator) have extensions you typically need to pay for. The very nature of WordPress being free sets the expectation that extensions to it should be free as well. Right or wrong, I think that’s just the way the software world kind of works these days.

    With all that being said, I think trying to charge any money for a WordPress plugin without letting them get a taste of it for free is a recipe for failure. Not only that, but it will have been a waste of time and resources much like Jeff experienced with BP-Privacy. Judging by the comments, there’s no doubt Jeff had interest in BP-Privacy. Jeff and I have ping-ponged back and forth but have yet to talk about what happened. I think it’s sad he wasn’t able to turn it into something successful, and it seems a waste to have all that code written never to see the light of day.

    I also think that until you start making consistent income, it isn’t a job; it’s a hobby… and for many of us, developing with WordPress started off as a fun hobby that we eventually decided we wanted to turn into a money making job. My personal experience tells me the best way to make money with a plugin (that does not offer an additional paid service) is to build a brand around that piece and use the exposure to procure future work. The second best way is to sell the plugin as an entrance fee into a dedicated support forum exclusive to paying customers. The third, and probably final way, is to make a plugin that is so bodaciously awesome that money automatically leaps from people’s wallets into yours. Much to my chagrin, I haven’t quite figured out the secret to that last way yet.

    My recommendation to WordPress plugin authors that are trying to sell zipped up work independently, don’t do it. It’s a waste of time and resources that will never pay the rent. Instead, release your work openly to the community and let your awesome code hook prospective clients, and reel them in with your paid support forums. You’ll do less work and make more money in the long term.

  • New Recruit

    People mis-using (or being forced into) the GPL is another bug bear of mine, we’ve seen it kick-off regarding themes, but is a plugin derivative (and therefore has to be GPLed)? What about a stand alone app that can hook WordPress if it’s present, that’d CAN’T be derivative, surely ?

    The problem with the GPL from a commercial stand point, is it allows you the take somebody else’s work that they have chosen to release commercially and resell it, entirely unmodified, for less than the developers and pass on zero of the money taken. You’d obviously be a complete douche for doing so, but entirely within your rights. When had this happen to us twice, one even had the cheek to send his customers to us for support!

    I’m not saying the GPL isn’t great and doesn’t have it’s place (it does and I’ve released several of my own projects happily under the GPL), only that it’s often not best suited to commercial software. I’m also not saying that source should be closed. All our products give the purchasers full access to the source and a license to modify it (and even distribute those modifications to their clients for money) but it intentionally falls a long way short of GPL.

    I’m not advocating a world of ioncubed, shrink wrapped software with a EULA only a lawyer would understand. I just feel the developers should be free to choose the license they use.

  • New Recruit


    being a full time comical developer it’s great to be tapped on the shoulder, I was taken by surprise! I’d like to see the word press pluton database support my updates and possibly even supply me with a state of the art licensing and purchasing center/API. that would be incredible!

    Also I,ve found a lot of support on the online communities, and surprisingly the word press.org community is a fairly weak one, so there’s never been much incentive to hang out and advertise or provide support.

    For me, luckily the plugins I’ve created have been pretty complex and I’ve always found support for placing a dollar entry barrier to owning a license and nerve once made to feel like a second class citizen. I bet joomla would love to have a handful of us leave word press for a little while and bring our craft to their platform. On the forums it’s easy to run into users that express interest in a Joomla version. It’s the time barrier of RnD that keeps me from making the switch… Today.

    Hudson Atwell
    Hatnohat Development

  • Paid plugins should not be submitted to wordpress.org . Period.
    Many free plugins has a Donate button, which is a better approach. People will donate at their own will, not obliged.
    Paid plugins for free platform can be sold on Developers personal shop sites – hell, if they want to sell something, make an effort to do it and promote your product on your own – don’t take advantage of promoting yourself in a community which is based on sharing (not selling).

  • Tim
    WPMU DEV Initiate

    This isn’t a new thing, this ball has been kicked around since the dawn of CMS’s and blogging.

    People love free stuff and people love to moan!

    I see absolutely no reason why people can’t make a living and feed their families from what they do, open source or not!

    And I do believe WordPress as a project should display commercial products within some kind of repository and here is why:

    + Central repository makes it easier for end users (ME and YOU!)
    + Central repository allows for community feed back which benefits the end use (ME and YOU again!
    + Central repository allows the end user a chance to see when a product was really last updated. (Guess who that benefits? ME and YOU!)

    It gives us many huge benefits, saves time and effort in finding those niches and allows for a good overview of which might be the best for a given project.

    Heck Matt and the gang could earn a little bit from charging a nominal yearly listing fee, perhaps even like affiliate. In fact, they could get MarketPress or their own equivalent installed and take a cut of the money (Do Apple do this with the App stores for Mac and iBone?). Developer could upload his code to this market place and the end user could install and pay through his admin area, and upgrade too!

    All these I see benefit everyone and to help the complainers out and those who don’t have the budget then a simple filter could be used in the repository to allow people to search for free or/and commercial.

    So I’m pro for companies and individuals to make money, feed their families whilst creating job opportunities in these hard economic times!

    To end on one last point, if someone builds something, puts a price on it and someone else needs and has a use for that, it fulfils their requirements and are willing to pay for it, then its worth it to them, if not they won’t use it or pay for it.

    The point, if you don’t like paying for things then don’t pay, if it has no value to you then don’t pay, make it yourself or find an alternative! :-)

  • New Recruit

    To add to our woes as a commercial developers in an amateur environment, we actually made a proposal to Automattic that would see our plugins move to a GPL license and see us able to sponsor a WordCamp event. Something we felt would help the WordPress community and was more in fitting with Automattic’s wishes.

    Sadly after a month neither their community or business development managers have bothered even replying. It’s yet another nail in the coffin of WordPress for us, most of our clients don’t care which framework they work on so it’s very tempting to switch to something else. The problem is we don’t want to punish our customers who are happy WordPress users for something out of their control.

  • New Recruit

    @Lance. I’d never realised that WordPress’ rules for inclusion in /extend DIDN’T exclude commercial software (I’d just assumed they did) but reading http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/about/ I see nothing that would stop a commercial product (if GPL licensed) being included.

    Being GPL licensed doesn’t stop you charging for it, in fact it explicitly protects that right (it does however mean somebody can redistribute your source for free, without passing anything onto you).

    Sadly your blog doesn’t seem to be up at the moment, so I can’t check if you were given any other reason.

  • Great article. Great discussion too. I’ve been considering putting out a commercial plugin for integration with a 3rd party SaaS and unlike most of the free plugins I use on client sites, this one is very highly specialized and already only useful to those that pay for their services as it is. The plugins for other CMSs and CRMs are all commercial, so I don’t see why I can’t charge for my efforts writing it. With that said, I will also provide a free version that does some basic functionality that others can use and hopefully sway potential customers in the process.

  • New Recruit

    I think that with everything, all this issue needs is time. Time to be accepted. Time for others to realize how important it is to keep top-notch plugin developers in the WP community. Without a way to make a living off their work, we’ll see a lot of more developers jump ship to other platforms.

    I think someone should create a sort of GPL Awareness website especially built to the WordPress community of what plugin and theme developers can exactly do.

    Should anyone be interested, here is what the GNU project have to say about selling “Free” software. Basically, it says that GPL doesn’t care whether or not you charge a monetary fee on “free” software. In fact, it not only explicitly protects that right as Glenn has pointed out, it sort of encourages it:

    Distributing free software is an opportunity to raise funds for development. Don’t waste it!

    Nice eh?

    Users just have to understand that one of the things that the GPL license protects is having a “free” software modified into a proprietary version. GPL won’t care how much you charge for distributing “free” software, but it will care if you modify something “free”, then distribute your modified version but not allow people to peek under the hood or modify your software (by leaving the source code out perhaps), even if you distribute it at no monetary cost.

    Of course we don’t usually have this problem in the web world since we don’t usually distribute binaries.

  • New Recruit

    Initial sludge, I call this. It all starts out as a cool project, with everyone freely helping out with free plugins to a point where it becomes the expected norm from a mass group of people. Then when you start to charge, and change the game plan you will obviously have this kind of outcry, and treatment. I think some of the problems lie with the approach itself. If initially it is prominently bannered or branded with options, special features, and good support offered by the non free versions. Then all is good for everyone, the choices are there which is what this is really about. Not whether one should make money or not! One key aspect of someone charging will be with the level of support they are willing to give up for their non free version, IMO. I bought a plugin one time, and a certain feature stopped working after an update, and it took over a month for the developer to reply back to me with help. With free plugins that kind of support is just a matter of easter egg hunting at the cost of just the time put in for the hunt. Sometimes elegant solutions are acquired in this fashion or settled alternatives to the original needs are found. So support is crucial with non free versions of plugins. The second problem is with the laymans unfamiliarity of this turf, he/she knows what they are needing, but have no idea what they should pay for something that might be trivial, or accomplished with a few free plugins with a little twist. An example with my site is, I’ve been trying out different plugins to be able to direct the users visiting, or logging into my site, to be able to tick little boxes that determine what categories they will be allowed to see for all posts, and user roles associated to those categories. So far I have struck out with the easter egg hunting approach, and now after six months, I realize I might have to pay someone to create this for me. However, I have a very limited budget, and my site has not yet monetized itself. So I am stuck with not knowing how much this should cost me, or if there already exists a solution. I have no problem paying for this but I truly hesitate, because what I might get is something half baked, full of bugs, and most importantly backed by horrible untimely support. Instead, a better solution would be to build a queried database of known solutions, and a wish lists that is connected to a bank of developers both free, and non free. With this database it should also show the level of solutions provided, who’s using them, and what developers, or combination of developers are connected to these solutions in graphical representation. This representation should also show available, drafted, and future additions that could be shown with their price rates to be charged for the solutions wanted. This would be a great starting place for both sides on this issue. If everyone joined in on this project, there could be a development fund organized to support all parties involved collaboratively. New models for new times are in demand here, and developers need to start thinking in new collaborative ways. If you have three basically identical solution plugins, and only one of them charges for theirs. What makes the non free plugin superior and different. This is how you differentiate between your competitors, and when your only competitors offer free of charge solutions. Your need to become different or special is significant to your success.

  • Sarah, this is an excellent article! You are absolutely right. Commercial developers are regarded as irrelevant. They get no publicity, and they are banned from discussing their plugins on the forums and blogs of WP.
    Yet, WP thrives thanks to loads of very useful commercial plugins. Without them, it would not be the top system it is today.

    Eric, support is indeed all and you can expect good support with commercial plugins.

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