A WordPress Plugin App Store: Commodify and die!

Well, James Farmer and company are at it again, and the latest business venture is a WordPress Plugin App store a la iPhone apps. Another pay to play solution that is asserts that “the future of WordPress is premium plugins.” This development, like most of Farmer’s moves over the last year or so with wp.mu, blogs.mu, etc. have been rather depressing for me to watch.  What we are witnessing in the WordPress community is both a crisis and a crossroads, a fork in the logic of what this open source community stands for, and in many ways the reality that the GPL license was originally imagined for (operating systems like Linux) is not cutting it for an open source, web-based application like WordPress (thank you, Martha).

The logic of a paid service for re-worked WordPress plugins that are still under GPL is not outside the GPL license, people can still charge for re-coding plugins that others have offered up freely. And, by extension, I could get a paid membership to that service and download all those plugins and distribute them freely to anyone under the conditions of that same license. Fact is, both solutions create real issues. Those people who develop plugins with the idea of making them freely available can have their work appropriated, modified and sold at a profit, and for those who do try and profit from their work can have their own plugins or themes taken and given away freely, at least after someone pays the entry fee.

So given that, why don’t a whole bunch of us pool a dollar or two and gain access to the premium plugins site, and then redistribute everything freely? It’s within the letter of the GPL law, and it would make for a far more affordable and equitable re-distribution of wealth in the community.  Well, we don’t and won’t do it because it’s an abrogation of a bigger contract, a community contract of WordPress users that I believe has formed around the idea of openness and sharing back. What we are seeing now is the attempt to commodify that logic so that themes and plugins begin to represent some form of wealth within the open source community that needs to be traded on the open market.  But in my mind it is exactly this emerging logic of open source entrepreneurs that understand applications and code as commodities that will bring down a community of users, and represent a challenge to any movement towards sharing and openness.

We can not live by the letter of a license, we must think through the implications of our actions for a community that has moved further and further away from the prevailing political logic of the open source movement, which is namely to freely share software, which in turn provides zero cost of entry and public collaboration. Additionally, it allows individuals to re-imagine the software and build on that independently. And it’s with that last point where we see the attempt to commodify a community that can only be as strong as its diversity and openness.  The more a few people try and dominate this space and control “the market” so to speak, the less open the application and the more impoverished the community becomes over time.

I’m a fan of WordPress, and I’ve been in the game for a while now. That said, I’m not a developer, I am a member of a community and a movement that sees the possibility of people openly sharing their ideas and work apart from some kind of monetary compensation of the fruits of their labor as a possibility for something different.  A new model for sharing openly out of a passion and belief in the possibilities rather than professionalizing this development as a career or job. Look what professionalization did for politics in the US, it is the wrong direction, and I think it is time for the WordPress community to take a stand on what they believe and how they will deal with this challenge. Drupal has figured out this model, and the community is tight, despite the letter of the GPL law, and that has everything to do with the people, so we need to stop hiding behind licenses and establish who we are and where we are going before the community implodes. The logic of capital and commodification will tear us apart unless we are vigilant, making money must be subordinated to sharing openly. The more we commodify, the sooner we die!

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