Are nulled WordPress themes and plugins unethical?

Let’s talk about a sometimes controversial topic in the WordPress ecosystem, nulled premium plugins and themes. The emergence of GPL clubs that share nulled versions of premium WordPress products first started about 5-years ago. Some of the sites that began operating are still seemingly going strong today, and some plugin and theme makers have responded by stiffening their licensing and activation processes to make it harder to use the product without a valid license.

This is an interesting topic because of course pirated software and other forms of pirated things including music, has often been defended as some form of fair use or even a “liberation of items” from the clutches of their monetization schemes. Now the word “pirated” does get used in this context with nulled WordPress products, but it’s not a correct term. That’s because WordPress products (at least any theme or plugin) are GPL licensed, in other words they are “copy lefted” rather than copyright protected. Notably files and projects can also be “copyrighted” but that is separate, and does not change the GPL effect of enabling anyone to have automatic rights to distribute and repurpose the work more or less however they see fit.

The question about nulled WordPress products is less about the legality (it is usually legal or at least legally defensible). The question is more one around ethics, morality and the philosophy of using and distributing work this way. There are often very vocal criticisms and outspoken attacks on anyone who talks openly of either using or providing nulled WordPress products. This is interesting because it shows how strong the backing is for commercial distribution of products. In other words developers and other end-users not only are mostly happy buying WordPress products, they also feel a sense of community or a desire to support the makers. Put more bluntly, some WordPress plugin and theme customers get downright angry at the idea that somebody is undermining the viability of the product in a way that might harm the people who worked hard on that product and who continuously support it’s production.

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