WordPress Licensing Issues – Plugins are GPL, Right?

If you thought that the wordpress package you can download from wordpress.org is re-distributable under GPL, then you’re thinking wrong. Why do I say so?

Thanks to a ticket opened by novasource, it came to my attention, that the Hello Dolly (WordPress Plugin) contains copyrighted material which is highly likely not available under nor compatible with the GPL. The Ticket is #15769. And that’s causing real headaches, because it is a very special plugin: It is always bundled with wordpress.

GPL has Protection Against Incompatible Code Built-In

So what is the problem if some plugin contains code that is not available under or compatible with the GPL?

To get a software conform with the GPL, add-ons (e.g. plugins) not written by the user need to be distributed under the GNU General Public License as well. Otherwise, and that’s by nature of the GPL, the rights of the GPL license of the main code automatically terminate for the whole work. Users who have already copied the software package under the terms of the GPL, can make use of the rights of the GPL only, if they are in full compliance (refer to §4 in GPL v2).

To give a practical example: You have downloaded a wordpress package from wordpress.org over the last years. Either manually the zip file or by using the auto-update. You didn’t know that what you downloaded was restricted and violating the GPL because it was announced as being GPL licensed and you had trust in that statement on the homepage. If the hello dolly plugin is actually restricted and therefore not GNU GPL compliant, this would destroy the GPL compliance of the whole wordpress package.

As the usage-rights under the GPL terminated, you most probably made a download without having the legal rights to do so. That’s possible because wordpress itself is a fork of b2cafelog which was released under GPL and because it contains copyrighted work from hundreds of developers that license their code to wordpress.org under the terms of the GPL.

Thanks to novasource it is now more publicly known that the Hello Dolly Plugin probably violates the GPL.

hakre’s tip: If you care about your rights with the wordpress software, remove the Hello Dolly plugin. Or remove only the Hello Dolly lyrics in there if you want to keep the plugin.


(This might not be the full truth. While removing the problematic part seems to be a good idea, you might as well need to contact the original copyright holders of the software and negotiate with them what you must do to be able to license and re-distribute the software under GPL. See 5.2 Termination in [1])

Enter Meta

So far for the legal licensing implications this can have. IANAL, but that are merely the bare facts and any lawyer you can consult should be able to give you proper legal directions about downloading software from wordpress.org. Ask for one that actually knows a bit about the GPL (next to copyright).

Next to this basic stuff, there is the meta-level.

Can you imagine a project in which such an obvious potential license violation and copyright implication got unnoticed and undiscussed for such a long time? We’re talking about more than 7 years that have passed since the problematic code is part of the wordpress package. In publicly view- and available source code.

This fact just speaks for it’s own.

Licensing issues are not really taken care of as long as it’s the wordpress core. Core developers often defend themselfes against such a statement to prevent correcting changes as they write “everything” is already in order. I can only tell from my own experiences that each time something license related pops up, you needed to push a lot to get things starting with an unknown end. This Hello Dolly case seems to be no exception.

But different is, that it has the best ingredients: It’s a plugin and the author is Matt Mullenweg himself. Which is the owner of the wordpress.org domain. The plugin is exceptionally distributed with the worpdress software package from that domain. So the author is offering the package (incl. the plugin). And next to that the Hello Dolly plugin is a single plugin available in the wordpress.org plugin repository with a set of rules on their own. For example plugins must be compatible to the GPL.

Matt Mullenweg licensing wise was more concentrating on plugins and themes in the past then with the core code. So great to have a plugin of his own as an example now. In the best sense, a “Eat your own dog-food” situation.

It’s great to see how such a possibly best imaginable licensing case just turned up.


So for me the most interesting rhetoric question is: Is the project dealing with the same strictness regarding the GPL and plugins when subject is a plugin of a former core developer?

And the most interesting legal question for me is: Did Matt Mullenweg as the author of the plugin acquired rights to redistribute those Hello Dolly Lyrics under the terms of the GPL seven years ago?

[1] A Practical Guide to GPL Compliance Bradley M. Kuhn; Aaron Williamson; Karen M. Sandler; August 26, 2008


Previous: WordPress Licensing Issues – On Showing License
Next: WordPress, Copyright, Hello Dolly Lyrics, the GNU GPL and I
Series: WordPress Licensing Issues

Image Credits: Jüngling von einer Eidechse gebissen ca. 1593 by Caravaggio

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5 Responses to WordPress Licensing Issues – Plugins are GPL, Right?

  1. mtekk says:

    Hello Dolly was supposed to be removed from the core http://core.trac.wordpress.org/ticket/11538 but, well, um, matt closed it due to someone calling the plugin stupid in one of the ticket comments.

    • hakre says:

      Good point. The copyright issue has been raised with that ticket as well. 11 months ago. It’s scary to see how it’s dealt with it.

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  4. It is very odd to see so many people claiming the lyrics to be “fair use” when there are so many lyrics websites that have been closed down due to copyright infringement and that includes tab sites too, yet that can definately be argued as being “fair use”. With Hello Dolly, it is most certainly not “fair use”. At the very least it is an IP violation and the worst part is that they have been aware of this for over 21 months.
    It was announced that they would take action after v3.1 was released. Here we are on v3.4.1 and I do not see the changes! Have they simply pushed it under the rug like they seemed to be trying to do all along?
    If wordpress can take copyrighted work and license it as GPL then I can take wordpress and license it however I like. After all, it would be “fair use” for “educational purposes”!

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