On Modded Premium Themes

As someone who quite likes being controversial from time to time,  I thought I’d vent some steam on people releasing “modded” premium themes. This post attempts to take an unbiased view, considering both sides and producing a coherent and acceptable conclusion backed by evidence. Attempts, anyway… Throughout the post I’ll quote two people: Ben Gillbanks who co-founded ProThemeDesign and Foress, the guy behind PremiumMod who kicked this off. Thanks very much both of you.

The state of affairs

It’s pretty much this (as far as I can see). A small number of people are (as they entitled to) re-releasing “premium” WordPress themes for free under the GPL, something the license entitles them to. Before release, these themes are often modded slightly, hence the name.

Introducing PremiumMod

The first people to start this whole thing off (as far as I am aware) were PremiumMod. PremiumMod launched on 5th November, in an attempt to “create a movement” and as far as I can tell, make people aware of the possibility of releasing it to the general public, with or without modification (if they’re licensed GPL). Frankly, they’ve been met with some hostility from some of the community.

The concerns

The main criticism seems to be these modifications aren’t huge which is true and the only problem I have with these mods at the moment. I asked Foress about this:

If you think the mod themes do not offer ‘improvement’ and shouldn’t do it, then take a step back and look at the new free themes release everyday. Are these new, free themes offering any ‘improvement’? Sadly, if you have been in the WP Community for a while, you will realize most of these theme are almost the same. Why they released it anyway? Because they THINK they will contribute to the community.

Which is fair enough and it’s the best argument for these things I’ve heard. Foress continues:

My secondary answer is, because nobody else do it.

Why? May be because nobody dares to challenge authority. Everybody are actively modding the premium themes – but only for their own use or for their client. Nobody dares to release it to the public because the premium themes owner would certainly complain. But why not (releasing it) when their license (GPL) perfectly allows you to do so?

Again, very fair and picks up on the important point of the huge power the premium theme authors are wielding, whether they recognise it or not. But that’s for another day.

The aim of modded themes

So it appears Foress and PremiumMod want to create a movement, encouraging more and more people to release their GPL modded premium themes.

But what affect will this have on the “premium” themes?

Not much, according to Ben Gillbanks who had this to say:

When going GPL I did consider that people would take the theme and modify it and give it away, but I don’t consider it a problem. People will always give away paid software for free – it’s happened for years with pirated applications – and so making the themes GPL just means it’s no longer illegal, however is it unethical?

Ben then goes on as far as to say people downloading his themes for free could even increase sales:

I think that most of the people who download GPL premium themes for free will either not use them or go on to buy them anyway. We won’t support themes that haven’t been purchased from our site unless people purchase a license from us, and we also won’t give out updates (and we release updates quite regularly).

I then asked Ben if he had taken any steps to “prevent damage” to sales. His response, I think, is great:

I haven’t taken any steps to prevent damage. All I do is offer the best service and support I can, with regular product updates, and hopefully that is enough to make people want to purchase a theme from us.


I’m about to launch a theme company, and I’d be seriously annoyed if I found that my theme which I’ve spent a seriously long time making was being distributed for free and I can totally empathise with those who place restrictive licenses on their themes, but if a theme is GPL then you can’t complain when someone redistributes it under the very same license, can you?

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Adam Pieniazek
January 8, 2010 9:56 pm

Here’s a thought…how about offering support for modded themes…at a premium?

Putting myself in the themers’ shoes, if I released a GPL theme, with paid support, and someone released a modded version for free, I’d be willing to provide support, but it’d have to be at a premium as the modded theme would require more time to figure out completely (assuming actual changes are made).

Adam Pieniazek
January 8, 2010 9:24 pm

This effect of GPL themes is something I gave some thought a while back and realized that at some point someone would figure it out and do exactly what Premium Mod is doing now.

Like you I totally feel for any premium themers who devoted time and money into creating a kickass theme only to see someone else release it for free BUT they really can’t complain.

By placing their themes under the GPL, they basically said do whatever you want, and now that people are doing whatever they want it’s not OK…

Does it suck for the theme dev? Yeah.

Is it unethical?

It’s tough to say it is. The rules were spelled out and they’re following the rules.

A bigger question, IMO, is what will happen to support? If someone downloads a modded theme, then looks to get support, AND buys a license, should they receive support for a modded theme? I’d say no but I can see this “movement” leading to a lot of headaches.

John Zemler
January 8, 2010 7:00 pm

You’d have every right to be miffed if you invest your resources into a product and then that product is hijacked and given away (or sold) by others. From your essay it sounds as if GPL makes this a legal practice. But I don’t find it to be ethical. It is very much akin to plagiarizing. Grab a substantial piece of someone else’s work and pass it off as your own hoping for a good grade, no matter how unearned. Usually when people tell me that taking someone else’s property, music, themes, writing, etc. causes no harm, I find they are unwilling to give me the money in their wallet or bank account. But when they do these supposedly innocuous activities, it takes, or deprives, money from a rightful owner. Just because it is on the internet does not make it any less a degree of theft or unethical behavior. I recently paid for a theme for two reasons: the theme’s usability feature fo a low-tech old guy like me, and because of the support behind the theme when I get down to learning how to use it. Those who steal, legally or otherwise, will hopefully find the support barrier… Read more »