Why Should We Have Only GPL-Compatible Images In WordPress Themes?

A very interesting section of the WordPress.org website is dedicated to getting involved with the awesome WordPress community.

There are several ways to support the platform and its ursers – from helping out in the forums to contributing to the documentation.

One of my favorite spots is the Make WordPress Themes Blog, where I’m sure to find some interesting discussion going on among contributors and volunteers.

Here’s the latest fantastic proposal by one of the contributors to this blog: WordPress should start its own free GPL and GPL-Compatible photo blog.

Do You Need GPL/GPL-Compatible Images In WordPress Themes?

The title of the blog post that caught my interest is GPL-Compatible Images.

The discussion mainly turns around the question whether the CC0 license, that photo sites like Unsplash.com or Pixabay.com use to license images on their platform, is GPL-Compatible.

This point seems important in relation to bundling images with WP themes for at least the following reason, that relates directly to the GPL license terms embraced by WordPress.

Here it is. the freedom WP leaves for use, modification and redistribution under the terms of this license, should equally apply to the products built using the WP platform, including themes.

Let’s look into this issue a bit more closely.

I’m not a lawyer or a license expert, therefore don’t take my words as coming from an authority source. Simply take them as my personal views on a very thorny subject.

What Can You Do With A Work Under GPL And CC0 Licenses?

The GPL license gives people freedom to use a product in any way they want: they can modify it, give it away, sell it, make other products with it and give them away to the public for free or for profit, etc.

However, at least one condition applies: if you distribute or sell a GPL product or derivative to an individual or to the public, anyone who comes to possess that product cannot be denied the same freedom to use it in the ways they see fit.

For instance, if you use WordPress (GPL licensed) to build a theme and then redistribute that theme online for free, anyone who downloads your theme will be free to use it as is, to modify it, or even to sell it – either to individual clients or to the public en masse.

Are you under an obligation to do the same with works covered under the CCO license terms? Here’s what this license explicitly states in this regard:

You can copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission.

There follow 3 limitations having to do with privacy rights (NOT covered by this license’s terms), a liability disclaimer to safeguard the author, and the injunction of not implying the work’s author endorsement of whatever the work is being used for.

It doesn’t seem to me that the obligation of leaving others the same freedom in relation to the work enjoined by the GPL license is stated or implied by the CCO license.

In other words, if I download a free CC0-licensed photo from a website, make some color or some other kind of modification to it, and then decide to sell it, I wouldn’t be in breach of the CCO license if I chose to license my derivative work under more restrictive terms than those I enjoyed, for instance, by prohibiting others from using my image in templates for redistribution, or from reselling it to others.

To conclude, it seems to me, both licenses leave freedom to distribute/redistribute, modify and make use of a work licensed under their terms.

However, they differ at least in this crucial way: You would be in breach of the GPL license if your use of the work implied limiting others from exercising the same freedom with respect to it. CC0 licensed works, although they may be subject to other limitations mostly coming from legal sources external to the CC0 license itself, don’t seem to be subject to this fundamental rule.

Does this make the two licenses incompatible? I can’t say. It’s probably a matter of degree. According to the GNU Operating System Website CC0 and GPL are in fact compatible. However, the point that could be of interest to theme developers and web designers is:

GNU Website
GNU Website

What could constitute a concrete case where my use of CC0 licensed images could lead to an infringement on the WordPress GPL license terms and, more importantly in my view, on the philosophy and ideals that drive the choice of this kind of license?

A Case That Could Constitute A Breach Of GPL License

One hypothetical situation that springs to mind is as follows. Let’s say I use a great CC0 licensed image in my free/premium WordPress theme. My theme is downloaded by someone who then extracts the great image and decides to let people use it for a price only on a certain number of websites and only for a certain period of time.

This seems to me a case in point. I’m not sure it’s very likely to occur, and this could be so for various reasons. For one, the image is freely available online, so why would anyone choose to pay to get it somewhere else under limited conditions? However, it’s a possibility, and if it took place, it’d be in clear violation of the GPL license as well as of the philosophy sustaining it.

Should we care? I think we should.

Any Solutions?

I’m aware that concrete cases of actual infringements of the GPL terms, coming from CC0-licensed images bundled with WordPress themes, might be so far and few in-between as to justify a relaxed attitude towards the whole issue.

However, for those of us who are sticklers for the spirit, not only for the letter, of the law, I see these two alternatives.

Excluding non-GPL-licensed images from WordPress themes used for mass redistribution. It’s mass redistribution of the work that increases the risk of a breach in the terms of the GPL license. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the client you’re building a website for using a WordPress theme would go ahead and use some of its images in ways that are in violation of the GPL license.

WordPress theme authors might use non-GPL-licensed images simply for preview purposes while preparing suitable placeholder images for use in the theme download bundle.

This is common practice already, and it works pretty well. After all, those who are going to download the theme for most common purposes will want to customize it by adding their own images.

One problem with this solution crops up when it comes to the use of icons and background patterns, both usually seen as integral parts of the design, therefore not replaceable with placeholders.

This leads me to the second solution, one that ideally involves the community of graphic artists as well as photographers.

WordPress could start its own GPL-licensed/GPL-Compatible photo/illustration/graphics blog.

How cool would it be for WordPress theme authors to be able freely to create awesome themes made beautiful by the amazing work of fine volunteer photographers and graphic artists for the whole world to enjoy!

What’s your take on this? Would you like to see a WordPress.org GPL-licensed photo/graphics blog? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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