How WordPress Licensing Works (And Its Role In the Platform’s Success)

Most people with an interest in WordPress know about the GNU Public License (GPL). However, few understand exactly what it means and why it matters. While this knowledge isn’t pertinent to your day-to-day work in most cases, it can help to shape your overall mindset and approach to WordPress development.

What’s more, the GPL is more central to WordPress’ (and by extension your) success than you may realize. The built-in freedom it provides lets users, site owners, and developers all work towards a better and stronger platform, one that’s suitable for many types of applications and projects.

In this article, we’ll look at the GPL in more detail, and compare it to similar licenses. We’ll also touch on Creative Commons licensing – a big part of many site owner’s workflows – and explain how it relates to the GPL. Let’s get started!

The Basics of the GPL

We’ve used the word “basics” in this section’s heading, but some aspects of the GPL are admittedly complex. At its foundation, the GNU Public License (GPL) was created specifically for distributing assets and apps from the GNU Operating System. However, it’s now become a robust licensing format for all manner of web-related elements.

The GPL is known as a ‘copyleft’ license (as opposed to ‘copyright’), which means that derivative works must be published under the same original licensing terms. We’ll talk about how this impacts WordPress a little later on.

The WordPress Developer Handbook describes the GPL as a software ‘Bill of Rights’, and this is a useful way of looking at it. There are four basic freedoms the license provides:

  • You can run the specific program for any purpose.
  • You have the freedom to study the software (i.e., view the source code), and modify it as necessary.
  • The original software can be redistributed, to better serve the community.
  • Your modified software can also be distributed, although it must be done under the same GPL license.

The GPL is a very popular license in free and open-source communities. This is because it’s flexible enough for non- and fully-commercial ventures.

One phrase that’s often used to describe this type of license is: “free as in speech, not as in beer”. This means you can adhere to the GPL, and also profit from your work.

How the GPL Compares to Other Licensing Approaches

Before we talk about how the GPL and WordPress interact, let’s take a minute to compare this license with a few popular alternatives, namely the BSD and MIT licenses.

Much like the GPL, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license was created to distribute a particular Operating System (OS). It also offers minimal restrictions, although on a different scale from the GPL. For example, the BSD is ‘permissive’, which makes it similar to a ‘share-alike’ license (which we’ll talk more about in a moment).

Also, while the GPL requires that you also release the source code for your projects, the BSD doesn’t have this stipulation. On a general level, the BSD is sometimes considered a more ‘relaxed’ license, based on its inherent terms and freedoms.

Meanwhile, the MIT license was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is also a permissive license for distributing your work. However, the terms are incredibly simple, and let anyone do practically anything with your project – with one distinction.

Unlike the GPL, The MIT license lets you redistribute projects as closed-source. In other words, you can take open-source work, incorporate it into your closed-source project, and distribute it freely. While we won’t get into the debate over whether this is beneficial, it’s certainly doesn’t reflect the open-source nature of WordPress.

In any case, the GPL has turned out to be the best solution for licensing projects within the WordPress community. Let’s talk a little more about why that is.

How the GPL Has Helped WordPress Dominate the Website Publishing Space

Practically everyone knows that WordPress has a majority market share when it comes to website publishing platforms. As it turns out, the GPL has a lot to do with that.

In fact, WordPress wouldn’t even exist without the GPL, since the predecessor to the platform – b2/cafelog – was also GPL-licensed. There’s currently an alternative universe where we’re all bowing down to our Yahoo Geocities overlords. In our reality, the GPL has been the rudder guiding WordPress along through the intervening years.

Thanks to the GPL licensing, the platform’s initial development team was able to take an abandoned (or nearly-abandoned) Content Management System (CMS), understand how it worked, and build upon it.

What’s more, because the source code for WordPress and all associated projects can be viewed in its entirety, plugin and theme developers can see exactly what makes the best solutions tick, and work from there. This helps keep the development community competitive (which always brings out creativity). More importantly, it provides the end user with high-quality solutions, for absolutely no cost.

Since WordPress is so developer-friendly and has a wealth of stellar themes and plugins, the user base has rapidly expanded over time. In our opinion, this is the true impact of the GPL.

Creative Commons Licensing: A Quick Primer

Before we wrap up, it’s worth delving briefly into Creative Commons (CC) licensing as well. While this license is not directly related to the GPL, by association it is part of the fabric of WordPress itself.

In a nutshell, CC is a collection of free copyright licenses that let users dictate how their content can be used by others. Here are some of the more popular types of CC licenses:

  • Public Domain. Otherwise known as ‘Creative Commons Zero (CC0)’ or ‘No Rights Reserved’, this license means that any work published under it is free to use by anyone, both for commercial and non-commercial projects.
  • Attribution. This license lets you share and adapt licensed work, and even profit from it. You just need to include credit, indicate if changes were made, and also link to the original license.
  • ShareAlike. This is very similar to the Attribution license. However, as with WordPress and the GPL, if you adapt the original work you must redistribute it under the same license.

In all honesty, you’ll likely come across CC0 works more often than the other types of licenses, usually in the form of stock images. Sites such as Pixabay deal in this kind of media exclusively, and the high-quality work on offer makes creating your own content easier than it’s ever been. In fact, many WordPress (and off-platform) blogs use CC0 images – including us!

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that a CC0 license doesn’t require you to credit authors when you’ve used their work. However, we include a credit anyway, and we think you should too. For example, you’ll find the credit for this post’s featured image following the conclusion. After all, the author is helping you out with little expectation of a return, so giving them a clear credit is the least you can do.


WordPress and the GPL are intrinsically linked – the platform couldn’t exist without the license. As such, if you’re using or developing for WordPress, you need to know about the GPL. This will not only let you appreciate the benefits you get but help you leverage them to grow and succeed.

The GPL can get a little complex, but in a nutshell, it lets you publish your work (whether that’s themes, plugins, or content), either for free or for profit. All you have to do is place your work under the same license. This approach gives developers a huge library of real-world projects to learn from and also lets them improve on other people’s work. Of course, the real winner is the end user, as they get access to the very best tools and solutions – quite often for free.

Do you have any other questions about the GPL? Ask away in the comments section below!

Image credit: Free-Photos.

Tom Rankin is a key member of WordCandy, a musician, photographer, vegan, beard owner, and (very) amateur coder. When he’s not doing any of these things, he’s likely sleeping.

The post How WordPress Licensing Works (And Its Role In the Platform’s Success) appeared first on Torque.

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