As the WordPress ecosystem continues to mature, it creates new challenges. It influences everyone from end users, web designers, and theme / plugin authors.
While the content management system (CMS) and its niche community seem to be open source, the numbers say differently. When more than 40% of the web is using the same app, it’s a big deal. And that means WordPress is big business too.
This results in some growth pains. Among the most consequential are how the markets adapt theme and plugin. We have already seen many consolidations in this area.
WordPress has grown to a point where some developers are having difficulty keeping up with user demand and an ever-changing landscape. As a result, they are selling their products to companies that have more resources to spend on maintenance and support.
We have also seen changes in how commercial licensing works. One incident, in particular, that is the general public debate: what should happen when a WordPress theme or plugin license expires?
Let’s look at what happened and examine the deepest questions at hand.
Expires Licensed Common Membership Plugin that expires
MemberPress, a popular commercial WordPress membership plugin, has taken a tougher stance 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 of the site. However, changes cannot be made backwards. Instead, administrators will see a deactivation notice explaining the situation.
To be clear, this is not a common policy within the WordPress ecosystem. In my experience, an expired license means being isolated from software support and updates. This is a long-term risk for site owners due to potential security flaws or incompatibilities.
The actions of MemberPress have accelerated the consequences of using an unlicensed plugin. There was a reaction within the WordPress community split. Some are worried about the tactic, while others think it’s a fair game.
Whatever emotions arose with this incident, it certainly shook the status quo.
Why Did This Action Hit Nerves?
The act of locking users out of unlicensed software is nothing new. Desktop software has been doing this for years. Some popular apps, such as Photoshop, previously allowed unlimited access to whatever version you purchased – they then switched to a subscription model. No subscription, no access.
However, it is not a universal practice. And there is an argument that website software is a different use case than apps attached to a particular device – especially when used on an open source platform. According to some, it may go against the spirit of the “WordPress Way”.
Aside from those points, I used MemberPress and enjoyed it. It is an effective way to build a membership website. Details of their decision have not been communicated to me. But as an observer, this action seems a bit heavy.
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 occasional emails would be understandable.
The problem (as I see it) is that users are being treated like scofflaws. Yes, some people will not intentionally renew a license and will expect to use the software forever (more on that later).
But there are other legitimate cases where only license renewal is lost. The license may have been in the name of the original web designer and are no longer in the picture. Or send reminder reminders to an email address that no longer exists. Frustration for plugin developers, perhaps. But far from criminal.
It also sets a precedent for themed authors and other plugins. Think of a theme with an expired license that puts a huge “NO LICENSING” flag on a website. Perhaps it is within their right to do so. But what kind of damage does that do to their customer relationships? How likely is renewal in such a case?
There is a fine line between encouraging customers to continue supporting your product and (intentionally or unintentionally) opposing them.
Looking to the Future of WordPress Licensing
While I cannot say why MemberPress took this measure, I can think of some valid reasons for doing so. There may be a subset of users out there who expect, having purchased a one-year license, to have access and support indefinitely. That could be a strain on finite resources.
It is not sustainable to meet these users. It’s a reminder that if you have a theme or plugin that is a key part of your website, you will need to keep your licenses in good condition. This helps to ensure that both the product lasts and continues to improve. That is in everyone ‘s interests.
Is this a sign of things to come? Just as the response to the MemberPress policy has split, I would expect similar policies to be implemented in the future as well.
I would like to believe that there is room for middle ground. Software developers should be able to communicate the importance of license renewal. But they should also make their minds crystal clear.
Users should be aware of developer policy before they make a purchase. This will not solve everything (some will have to forget or miss it altogether). Still, as with most conflicts, effective communication can make a difference.