General Public License Keeps You Poor

You can’t make GPL-licensed software for money.

Table of Contents
  1. Display Advertisements
  2. Find Sponsors
  3. Increase the Price
  4. Make Your Product Exclusive/Personal
  5. Make Updates Regularly
  6. Apply Separate Licenses to Certain Parts
  7. Sell Service, Not Product
  8. Be Beneficial
  9. Offer Private Courses
  10. Offer Price to Publish
  11. Multi-Licensing

This is a reminder to all extension and layout makers out there, that, to sell extensions and layouts built for Mecha is possible, but preventing your clients from sharing your paid extensions and layouts for free or for another fee to the public is impossible, even after your client pays for it. This is due to the binding nature of the GPL license. Derivative works and all works that depend on Mecha’s functionality must be licensed under the same terms, which eventually will limit your authority in taking the abundant financial benefits of the extensions and layouts you want to sell.

Even if you had to re-create a new version of Mecha separately in order to make it commercially viable, this will not allow you to change the initial license anyway, because technically you’re only modifying Mecha, not creating something new. And therefore this will still prevent you from restricting people to redistribute the products they have purchased legally.

As written in the preamble of the license, the GNU General Public License is a free, copyleft license for software and other kinds of works. General Public License is designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish), that you receive source code or can get it if you want it, that you can change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs.

Extensions and layouts, even if they have been made separately, will still be considered derivative works as long as they interact directly with the features and functions of Mecha. As seen in this FAQ section about modules:

If I add a module to a GPL-covered program, do I have to use the GPL as the license for my module?

The GPL says that the whole combined program has to be released under the GPL. So your module has to be available for use under the GPL.

But you can give additional permission for the use of your code. You can, if you wish, release your module under a license which is more lax than the GPL but compatible with the GPL.

The GPL license clearly aims for the public benefit. For those of you who want to make money from products that you give a GPL license 1, you may feel less enthusiastic about the selling due to the public’s freedom to modify and redistribute your products. Yes, you can sell them as much as you want, but you can’t stop people from reselling them or giving them away for free. For the GPL license, those activities are still considered legal as long as they keep the license document on the distributed products. The GPL license does not restrict what people do in software, it just stops them from restricting others.

See this FAQ section about whether a paid software makers can restrict their clients from redistributing the purchased software for free or for a fee:

If I distribute GPL-ed software for a fee, am I required to also make it available to the public without a charge?

No. However, if someone pays your fee and gets a copy, the GPL gives them the freedom to release it to the public, with or without a fee. For example, someone could pay your fee, and then put her copy on a web site for the general public.

The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed to take away your freedom to share and change the works. This can usually be done in several ways:

  1. By asking a client to pay for a software to be used at a restricted time and/or scope. For example, a client may use your software on one personal computer only, for a year. To use it on five personal computer and/or to use it for the next five years, he/she has to pay extra.
  2. By limiting the intended use of the software. For example, a client may only use your theme for non-commercial purposes. Or, a client may only use your theme on websites that do not contain advertisements. To remove such restriction, clients must incur extra costs.
  3. By preventing clients from reselling your software. By reselling your software, clients may need to sign a certain agreement. For example, to do a profit sharing on every sale they make.
  4. By forcing the placement of attribution links (or any form of attribution including logos and watermarks) on certain parts of your product that are used by your clients. To remove the attribution, clients must incur extra costs.
  5. By obfuscating the code in your software, so that the software can only be used but cannot be further developed. To be able to develop or modify the software, clients have to pay more to get the source code.

The bad news is, all of the business models above have violated the GPL license, as they have stopped the public’s freedom to share, learn and develop, which is the essence of the GPL license.

It doesn’t mean that the product has become illegal, it’s just that the product has fallen out of the spirit of “Free Software”. It also shows that the makers of these products lack education about the principles of “Free Software”, and of course about the GPL license itself.

Thesis has experienced it through the case between Chris Pearson and Matt Mullenweg, and I hope you don’t repeat it.

“Free Software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech”, not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software”, borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis.

You may have paid money to get copies of a free program, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies 2.

There are several ways to make money from your own products and still contribute to the free software community. This requires you to think out of the box. Some of them explain very clearly that the best way to make money from open-source softwares is to not focus on the products, but to focus on something else.

Display Advertisements

This is the most classic way. You can get income by displaying third party advertisements on the software you distribute. The disadvantage of this method is that your users can modify your software to remove the advertisement code from your software, and this is not illegal.

Ubuntu has done that in the past. By displaying an Amazon application icon on the dash panel, as well as directing topic/application search queries to get search results from the Amazon store.

Ubuntu’s Amazon Application

Technically, you can add some kind of disabled settings for your non-savvy users to remove advertisements on your software via graphical user interface, which can then become active after your users pay extra fees in exchange for the revenue that would otherwise be earned from the advertisers. As long as you don’t sue users who are able to remove its restrictions from the source code, this should not violate the “Free Software” principle.

Find Sponsors

One other way to get money from advertisers is to be affiliated with other companies that are willing to sponsor your software. For example, as a Mecha developer, I might need a sponsor in the form of a virtual private server, and if a company is willing to sponsor me, then I can display their logo and company link on this website, or in the file of the main repository, and recommend people to use their services.

Increase the Price

By charging a high price for your software, your clients are less likely to give it away for free, but they may try to sell it at a lower price many times until their investment returns. You need to find clients who don’t have the potential to resell your software.

Make Your Product Exclusive/Personal

This is still a form of selling services. Let’s say, you develop a layout framework for Mecha with complex features available under the GPL license (it has to be). You provide a paid service to adjust the design of the layout according to client’s requests. Whether by customizing the color pallete and the typography designs, by creating custom website logo, or by filling the contents until the website is ready for production.

Of course this will still allow your clients to distribute your custom designs for free or even for a fee. However, since you have made certain customizations according to the client’s personality, the possibility for your clients to share the customized design to the public will be very low. They don’t want their design to be used by others, aren’t they? Here, you have to be smart enough to bring the client’s emotions into the design.

The GPL license only authorizes people to use, distribute and modify the work without conditions, but does not oblige them to do so.

Make Updates Regularly

This will keep your paid products worth buying. Previous buyers may have distributed your purchased product to many places, but people will not get updates from products that are not officially distributed, except by purchasing it directly to the developer.

Apply Separate Licenses to Certain Parts

You can apply separate licenses on parts that are independent of the core system functionality. These parts are usually in the form of static assets that aim to be presented as-is to the viewer. There are some parts that have the potential to be licensed separately:

  1. Your CSS and JavaScript files. If you make the CSS and JavaScript code from scratch without relying on CSS and JavaScript code from others 3, then you can take the advantage to prevent people from distributing your product as a single entity. Technically, they could actually just distribute the PHP files, but that wouldn’t make the product useful without the CSS and JavaScript files. Yes, people will probably look for a live version of the product and then they will download the CSS and JavaScript files from there. But yeah, don’t think too much about it either. There will be many ways for people to get things off the web anyway.
  2. Your fonts, icons, logos, and all binary files that can be served directly without having to call functions from the core system to make them to work. By including files that you own the copyright into your product, then you can take the advantage to prevent people from distributing your product as a single entity.
  3. Your design system. I’ve never heard of anyone copyrighting the system. But this might be worth a try.

This is the reason why Mecha doesn’t have any base CSS and JavaScript files to be required, just like in any other CMS. I don’t want the GPL “virus” to spread further until you don’t have control over the CSS and JavaScript code (the design) so that there’s no more you can limit your clients from, who can use your product for any purposes, even to resell your product.

Sell Service, Not Product

CKEditor and TinyMCE have done this kind of thing. They focus not on the product, but on the benefits that their product gives to the users. And they use the opportunity to sell online storage and personal support services.

CKEditor’s Pricing
TinyMCE’s Pricing

Another example comes from Red Hat. Red Hat doesn’t sell software. Red Hat sells service/support subscriptions. You can download the software for free.

WordPress runs, providing free web hosting powered by WordPress content management system with various limitation. With the paid version, you can get rid of those limitations such as to remove advertisement from or to allow you to earn revenue from your own advertisement platform.

This restriction applies because you are using the hosting service, not because you are using the WordPress. You can download WordPress software for free and use it on another hosting service to get rid of the limitations. But you will probably need some skills to make it work perfectly.

Be Beneficial

Solve companies problems and give them various benefits through your project. Benefits don’t have to be in the form of money. Sometimes, time and expertise can also be included. They’re already busy with clients. They don’t have time to build and maintain their own softwares.

If the company has been interested in you until it finally depends on your project, then it is not impossible that they will become financial contributor to you to ensure the development of your project. And since you don’t have any employment contract with them and your project is open-source, it’s likely not only one company that will become financial contributor to your project. Any companies that depends on your project can step in and provide support.

CodeMirror is a JavaScript-based software that has been used and sponsored by many companies. This is a real example to show that GPL license does not prevent you from making money out of your free softwares.

CodeMirror’s Sponsors

Vue is MIT licensed, in which is a permissive license that allows others to make modifications even to the point of distributing it as closed-source software, but still able to grow through sponsors.

Vue’s Sponsors

Offer Private Courses

Create online courses that can only be accessed by members. To become a member, people have to pay certain fee. It can be paid once or by subscription, depending on your business model. Please note that software documentation must be free.

Offer Price to Publish

This is the business model that I want to do, and I feel it suits me best. I currently don’t have the resources to be able to securely store client data. I don’t have an office, and currently do all this just for fun, to convey ideas through products. I don’t even know how to communicate with clients the way professionals communicate with clients who spend money on them.

The GPL license only authorizes people to use, distribute and modify the work without conditions, but does not oblige them to do so. This means that I may create an extension or layout privately, not for the public. From there, I can then show some teasers on my store page by providing documentation and some screen captures of the extensions and layouts that require funds to be released to the public, to make potential clients want them available for download.

I will probably set a fixed price on the product page, but with an explanation that the price to be paid is a contribution of funds that will be accumulated. Until the funding target is met, the product will be released as free software.

In return, I will include the link and name of the buyers (financial contributors) in the and files which will last forever, and will follow wherever the product will be distributed.


Multi-licensing is commonly done to support free software business models in a commercial environment. In this scenario, one option is a proprietary software license, which allows the possibility of creating proprietary applications derived from it, while the other license is a copyleft free software/open-source license, thus requiring any derived work to be released under the same license. The copyright holder of the software then typically provides the free version of the software at little or no cost, and profits by selling proprietary licenses to commercial operations looking to incorporate the software into their own business 4.

Metafizzy uses this business model to profit from companies that depend on its products.

Metafizzy’s Licenses

Until Mecha is able and proven to be profitable for companies, I will continue to use the GPL license only, and will continue to use the license if there is no point in granting other licenses to it.

I also need to consider people involved with the development. Changing an open-source project license would require me to get permission from people who have contributed to the code.

  1. Or forced you to give a GPL license because your product relies on GPL licensed products to make it work. 

  2. What is Free Software? on GNU. 

  3. Others code that is GPL licensed. 

  4. Multi-Licensing on Wikipedia. 

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