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Understanding GPL and Copyright in WordPress Community Podcast

WordPress NewsWith all the traveling I’ve been doing lately and knowing I would be driving through some wide areas without radio or cell phone, I uploaded the last few podcasts from the WordPress Community Podcast with Charles Stricklin and new co-host Aaron Brazell and had a great time catching up on what I’ve been missing.

The most recent episode features an indepth interview with Dennis Kennedy, lawyer and intellectual property expert, covering copyrights, GPL and Creative Commons. It was well done.

Dennis Kennedy discussed the issues of copyright and the various rights and licenses you have for protecting your blog’s content, which includes words, images, and design. He also covered the issues surrounding GPL, General Public License, the license used by WordPress and most of the WordPress Community Themes and Plugins.

If you need a refresher course, or are new to the subject of intellectual property rights, check out this great podcast. It’s worth the time.

I do hope that they bring Dennis back for more as I’d like to see more answers to some of the questions they raised, and more on licensing WordPress Themes and Plugins under GPL and other options for a full understanding of what options these authors have to protect, or not, their code, and how to deal with changing a license on an existing WordPress Plugin or Theme that they change or take over and improve.

I’d also like to see one whole episode that deals exclusively with the issue of responding to a copyright infringement. All bloggers, not just WordPress bloggers, are struggling with how to respond, and if and when they should respond, to someone taking their content and using it on their blog. All bloggers need to learn more about Fair Use, how it works and what’s acceptable as well as how to fight back against splogs and those who steal our content.

While I’m wishing, I’d really love to have them talk to my copyright blogging hero, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today for his perspective on this issue. It is such an important issue and the more we bloggers can learn, and in turn educate our readers and other bloggers, the better.

Good work, Charles and Aaron. Looking forward to more!

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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen, member of the 9Rules Network, and author of Blogging Tips, What Bloggers Won't Tell You About Blogging.


  1. Posted June 28, 2007 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    A year ago my website fell off the face of Google. Having been online since 1998 I was shocked.

    I made some mistakes plus scraper sites were exploiting a hole in Google’s system to make my site appear to be the “duplicate” site. So the combination of my mistakes site was removed from Google Index and my visits dropped to 10% or less.

    I reported the URL of the offending scraper site to Google admitting my errors and the steps I was taking to rectify the situation, and requesting the offending URL be removed due to copyright infringement. A few weeks later I got a generic/template reply to my email from Google without anything specific.

    I also tried to track down the web host and wrote a polite email about my concerns that that URL was using my content without permission.

    About six months later my site was returned to Google’s index. I cannot prove my actions helped the situation but I felt better. I am not 100% sure, but I do not think the 302 error exploit is still a valid exploit.

    It was very disruptive and consumed a good month of fixing my own mistakes and figuring out who stole my content and how they did it.

    Authors we have to protect ourselves and need to exercise caution that we do not indulge in libel.

  2. Posted June 29, 2007 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Great topic Lorelle! I’ll be sure to listen to this one, unfortunately I think the creators of *some* of the themes and plugins are partly responsible for any copyright breach. So many times I find them not including any information under what license is the theme or plugin are released and it is hard to know what you are complying to. Seems a simple thing – add a note to your code to clearly state what license its released under and yet …

  3. Posted June 29, 2007 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    “It has become fashionable to toss copyright, patents, and trademarks — three separate and different entities involving three separate and different sets of laws — into one pot and call it “intellectual property”. The distorting and confusing term did not arise by accident. Companies that gain from the confusion promoted it. The clearest way out of the confusion is to reject the term entirely.”

  4. Posted June 30, 2007 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but to be honest I don’t mind people using content from my blog. It’s not stealing. All that matters to me is that people fairly represent me when they’re quoting me. That’s it. Any other content they’d like to use from my blog is fine by me. They’re more than welcome to share pretty much any design elements, links, images, what-not.

    If you’re putting stuff online, and people are making use of it in a way that doesn’t affect you directly, then what the hell does it matter? Didn’t your mother teach you to share? The GNU General Public License (it’s the GNU GPL, not just the GNU) is was crafted for the purpose of free sharing of software, and creative commons was created for free sharing of information. I think it’s rather disingenuous to use software created with these ideals in mind just to turn around and refuse to share.

    Sure, the law supports these things, but shame on those who actually pursue infringement cases where there has been no harm done.

  5. Posted July 1, 2007 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good idea, Lorelle. Maybe after WordCamp…

  6. Posted July 1, 2007 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    manchicken: This isn’t an issue of whether you care or not. It’s the law. And if you don’t care, tell the world you don’t care if they use your content by telling them so with a clear badge or copyright policy page that explains your permission.

    Content is copyrighted automatically when published, so nothing is to be used without permission automatically. We have to spread that word.

    It’s not sharing. It’s not a wish. It’s not a whim. It’s the law. Mamma probably didn’t teach you to speed in the car but it doesn’t stop most people. 😀

    Without information on a site that defines the author’s copyright policy, nothing is to be used or taken by anyone as the content is still copyrighted. We have to inform our readers if we want it to be freely used. Otherwise, they should assume it’s not free to use.

    GPL doesn’t not necessarily apply to written content. That comes under copyright, a similar but different law.

  7. Posted July 2, 2007 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I understand that it’s the law. It an unjust and incorrect law that should be changed. Just because it is legal, doesn’t make people any less wrong for participating in it. There’s a law on the books requiring women drivers in Ohio to have their husbands with them, too… but any cop enforcing that law would be drawn and quartered by a plethora of civil rights groups.

    As far as laws that are bad for society and inhibit society’s ability to grow and learn, momma told me that those are laws that are best ignored because doing what is right is more important than doing what is legal.

  8. Posted July 2, 2007 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    This is an old argument, sadly. It has measures of validity but it loses when it takes money away from me to pay for my mother’s care, feeding, and medical bills.

    See, if you build a machine and sell it, you get money to live. If you provide a service and sell it, you get money to live. If you write or take photographs in order to make money to live, people seem to think that they are free for the taking, in some “it’s good for the world” thinking, but photographers and writers starve.

    Copyright was designed to help those who create more ephemeral objects to sell to get income from their work, just like a plumber, car builder, doctor, lawyer, ditch digger. Today, this protection and income is complicated by sploggers, and those who don’t understand the laws, who take our hard work and put it on their sites and put ads on which generates income for them from our hard work that we barely got any income from in the first place.

    Again, if you do not care to make income from the use of your content, you are required to inform people. Otherwise, right now, the very right law that protects my ability to feed my mother and family and keep a roof over my head, as small as it is, is in place whether or not I put a copyright notice on my content. If my work is used by others for gain, I want some of the share.

    Now, I have given away my writing for free in the past, when people asked and the justification was there. Again, my choice.

    I’d love to go to my mother’s doctor and say, “Hey, can you give me $75,000 of medical treatment for free just because you can and should and it would make the world a better place and all would benefit if you did? It’s the right thing to do.” Wow! What a world that would be, wouldn’t it?

  9. Posted July 4, 2007 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Wow, that’s strange. I JUST saw this. I listened to the podcast when it came out and everything but just now saw the last paragraph. Like a dope I jumped right into the audio (great for those long drives) and didn’t read the whole post. I’ll take my well-deserved lashings later…

    Anyway, onto the issue at hand. To talk a bit about designers and copyright issues. I’ll go at it like this. Remember that copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. You can only copyright things that can be fixated into a tangible medium of expression and show creativity.

    That being said, you can’t copyright a design. You can, however, copyright the source code that created it as well as the images used to build it and the copy that fills it. If someone comes along and produces an identical design with their own images and their own code, it’s not a copyright infringement. It might be a trademark infringement if applicable, but not copyright.

    As far as the other issue of the GPL and plugins goes, that’s a toughie. My minimal experience with plugins (I’ve edited a few copyright-related ones) doesn’t give me enough to really make a call here. You can run commercial/proprietary code on an open source operating system (several such programs and drivers exist for Linux) but when you base your new work on GPL code, it becomes GPLed. Where that line is drawn, no one, even lawyers, really seems to know.

    Finally, in response to remotecontrol, yes, the 302 exploit is still real. I just now got done helping a site that was victimized by it.

    And one more fine point (since Lorelle did a such a great job answering manchicken that I have nothing more to say), there is a version of the GPL license for text works known as the “Free Document License”. It’s designed for documentation with GPL software but can be used, theoretically, with anything.

  10. Posted July 4, 2007 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Whip * snap * crack! Consider yourself lashed, Jonathan! 😀

    Excellent explanation. While you can’t copyright designs, you can license them, right? The license then gives permission to the types of usage.

    In the podcast, they talk about the Creative Commons versus copyright and that really confused me. I thought I knew the difference, but I’d love to see this topic explored a lot more.

    And I think you are the guy to do it, my friend!

  11. Posted July 5, 2007 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Ouch, ouch, ouch. I’ll avoid my usual joke about starting to like it and move right into things…

    The problem with licensing a design is that, since you can’t copyright it, you don’t “own” it and, without that ownership, there’s nothing to license really.

    You can trademark a design, if it meets the qualifications for one and you apply for it, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

    The good news is that I’ve never seen anyone rip off a design without using at least one copyrightable element from it. Some source code, some images or some copy.

    The things you use to build your layout and express the idea can and are copyrighted. Those you can license and, lucky for us, many people do 🙂

    Hope that helps!

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