As the WordPress ecosystem continues to mature, it presents new challenges. Everyone from end-users, web designers, and theme/plugin authors is impacted.
While it may seem like the open-source content management system (CMS) and its community are niche, the numbers say differently. When over 40% of the web is using the same app, it’s a big deal. And that means WordPress is also big business.
This has led to some growing pains. Among the most consequential are how the theme and plugin markets adapt. We’ve already seen quite a bit of consolidation in this area.
WordPress has grown to a point where some developers are having trouble keeping up with user demand and an ever-changing landscape. As a result, they’re selling their products to companies with more resources to devote to maintenance and support.
We are also seeing changes concerning how commercial licensing works. One incident, in particular, has the community-at-large debating: what should happen when a WordPress theme or plugin license expires?
Let’s take a look at what happened and examine the deeper issues at hand.
A Popular Membership Plugin Locks Out Expired Licensees
MemberPress, a popular commercial WordPress membership plugin, have taken a tougher stand with customers who have allowed their license to expire. After a “grace period”, website owners will no longer be able to access any of the plugin’s administration screens.
The plugin will continue to work on the front end of the site. However, making changes on the back end is not possible. Instead, administrators will see a deactivation notice explaining the situation.
To be clear, this hasn’t been a common policy within the WordPress ecosystem. In my experience, an expired license means being cut off from support and software updates. This is a long-term risk for site owners due to potential security flaws or incompatibilities.
MemberPress’ actions have sped up the consequences of using an unlicensed plugin. Reaction within the WordPress community has been split. Some are troubled by the tactic, while others think it’s fair game.
Whatever feelings this incident has conjured, it has certainly shaken up the status quo.
Why Did This Action Hit a Nerve?
The act of locking users out of unlicensed software isn’t new. Desktop software has been doing this for years. Some popular apps, such as Photoshop, previously allowed unlimited access for whatever version you purchased – then switched to a subscription model. No subscription, no access.
It’s not a universal practice, however. And there’s an argument to be made that website software is a different use case than apps tied to a specific device – particularly when it’s being utilized on an open-source platform. According to some, it may even go against the spirit of the “WordPress way”.
Those points aside, I have used and enjoyed MemberPress. It’s an effective way to build a membership website. I’m not privy to the details of their decision. But as an observer, this action seems a bit heavy-handed.
I could see, for example, a modal window that pops up every time you try and access a plugin settings page (WordPress is great for that, after all). Even an occasional email nag would be understandable.
The problem (as I see it) is that users are being treated like scofflaws. Yes, some people will intentionally not renew a license and expect to use the software forever (more on that later).
But there are other legitimate situations when a license renewal is simply missed. It could be that the license was in the original web designer’s name and they’re no longer in the picture. Or renewal reminders were sent to an email address that no longer exists. Frustrating for plugin developers, perhaps. But far from criminal.
It also sets a precedent for other theme and plugin authors. Think of a theme with an expired license that places a huge “UNLICENSED” banner across a website. Maybe it’s within their right to do so. But what kind of damage does that do to their relationship with customers? How likely is a renewal in such a case?
There’s a fine line between encouraging customers to continue supporting your product and (intentionally or not) antagonizing them.
Pondering the Future of WordPress Licensing
While I can’t speak as to why MemberPress took this action, I can think of some valid reasons for doing so. There may be a subset of users out there who expect that, because they purchased a one-year license, should be able to have access and support indefinitely. That may be a drain on finite resources.
Appeasing these users isn’t sustainable. It’s a reminder that, if there’s a theme or plugin that is a key component of your website, you’ll need to keep your licenses in good standing. This helps to ensure that the product both survives and continues to improve. That’s in everyone’s best interest.
Is this a sign of things to come? Just as the reaction to the MemberPress policy was split, I would expect that future implementation of similar policies will be as well.
I’d like to believe that there’s room for a middle ground. Software developers should be able to convey the importance of license renewals. But they should also make their intentions crystal clear.
Users should know a developer’s policy before they make a purchase. This won’t resolve everything (some are bound to forget or miss it completely). Still, as with most conflicts, effective communication can make a difference.
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