MemberPress made some waves this week when it was discovered that they were completely locking out users who had expired license keys. You see? The WordPress way is you get access to the plugin, which you get to keep because it's open-source, whether or not you keep paying for the license key. Generally, support and updates are the things that you keep paying for.
But why? Why is this the case when virtually every other piece of software we used today is based on a keep paying for access model? That's what we are going to explore today.
Hey, everybody. And welcome to WP Review. A show that provides analysis on what's happening in the WordPress space and what it means for users and business owners in the ecosystem. This podcast is brought to you by GoDaddy. My name is Joe Casabona. And today we're going to take a good hard look at the WordPress way and whether or not that's actually the right way for users, and importantly, for business owners.
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I often like to compare software development to jeans. When you buy a pair of jeans, do you expect to have them forever? Do you expect that when they rip, the company will fix them for you for free? If they don't fit you exactly the way you like, do you expect them to support you in making the adjustments? What if you lose or gain weight? Do you expect the company to update or replace those jeans so that you can keep wearing that same pair of jeans?
The answer is No. You buy jeans that fit on the day you buy them. On the day you try them on. When you can no longer wear those jeans, the expectation is that you donate them or you throw them away and you buy a new pair of jeans.
What about renting an apartment? Do you expect to live there because you paid one month's rent? No. You should expect to get evicted when you stop paying rent.
The same thing goes for a mortgage, a financed car, or anything else you make monthly payments on. When you stop paying, you don't get to use that thing anymore. That is the expectation.
So why when it was discovered that MemberPress locks people out of their plugin when they stopped paying, is everyone up in arms? Well, it's all about expectations.
Let's look at software payment models.
When you sign up for a SaaS, it's super clear. You pay some amount of money per month or year for access to a service that helps you do something more efficiently…maybe even something you can't do on your own.
The subscription model and software are increasingly popular, and for good reason. It allows developers to continuously update and push out new features without the need to save them for a major version they end up charging again for.
In other words, in a subscription model, you get the latest features as they're ready to ship. It also makes for a much more predictable business.
The other increasingly less common model is to charge for each major version of the software, issuing new license keys when you move from version x.o to version y.o.
So why is WordPress different? It has to do with the WordPress way.
Jason Coleman, a friend of mine and owner of MemberPress competitor PaidMembershipsPro or PMPro wrote a piece called “The WordPress Way” where he outlines PM Pro’s mission, and how it aligns with both the GPL and the “WordPress Way”. I won't get deep into the GPL here, but if you're a lawyer who's listening and familiar with the GPL, I'd love to have you on the show.
Basically, if you write code for WordPress, it needs to be open source. It needs to be GPL licensed, full stop. But Jason goes on to explain how the WordPress way is more than just the GPL. From his article:
“There are basically two reasons why we embrace the GPL: one, we think the GPL license will result in the best code or; two, WordPress uses the GPL and Matt Mullenweg and other WordPress leaders encourage and expect plugins to be GPL”
Now in this piece, number one is bolded. And this is obviously what PMPro believes in the subtext. It's not so much subtext is that is what PMPro believes. But the implication is that some companies believe in number two. They're only using the GPL because that's what Matt and other WordPress leaders want.
But then he goes on to say, “Basically, what we mean by the WordPress way is that our code UI and UX should be familiar with other WordPress developers and users interacting with our software.”
It's really hard to argue with that part. If you're working within an ecosystem, you should work to be part of the ecosystem - meaning that you assimilate to its way of doing things because that's what the user base expects.
So if this is the argument, then what's the problem? The problem is that there are other expectations. The problem with the WordPress way, in fact, is the expectation.
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At the beginning of this episode, we talked about expectations. You don't expect to own jeans forever, just like you don't expect to live in an apartment rent-free.
When you buy a house, the house isn't yours until you pay the bank back, then you own it. The same thing goes with a car that you financed.
The problem with GPL software and the WordPress way is we're stuck between renting and owning. Plugin developers, approach this from a “renting” perspective. I'm letting you use my software. I will continue to add features, update, maintain, and support them. And for that, you will continue to pay me.
But users, especially users deeply embedded in the WordPress space expect that they are renting to own. I've paid you once for the code base and I will continue to pay you if I need updates and support. Otherwise, the code is mine and I can do what I want.
This is a terrible business model. And maybe MemberPress determined too many people churn while expecting to keep using the plugin. Maybe they noticed that people buy the plugin, download the code, and then ask for a refund.
Maybe too many of those scam sites who sell a bunch of plugins for $5 distribute MemberPress. MemberPress is not getting any money in that case and all of the strife, and they are too common and technically legal because of the GPL.
The open-source world is nice, but it's not always kind to small business owners. So I understand why MemberPress would want to try to mitigate the problem of people downloading their code and then never paying them again for it. And by the way, most of these plugins are priced between $49 and $299. It's not like they're charging thousands of dollars per month to use this plugin.
So how do we fix it? We need to change expectations. I obviously don't have all the answers. Is MemberPress right in their action to lock down the admin? Perhaps not. Perhaps they should have done what the OptinMonster did and moved completely to a SaaS if they want to charge directly for access. That's what Memberful does, after all. And they have a WordPress plugin for integrating. Or maybe they should do what Elementor is doing and keep the plugin, but offer a SaaS as well.
Maybe the fact that the admin is going to get locked down if you stop paying, should be completely clear upfront when you buy the plugin that you'll lose access to it if you stop paying.
But ultimately, we as users need to change expectations in the WordPress space. In order to get something good, you need to pay for it. We need to tell ourselves, “I am buying this because there is value. As long as it continues to deliver value, I need to keep paying for it.” It's an ethos that exists nearly everywhere else, so why not here?
Well, open-source has a bit to do with it. Most people associate open source with free. It's the same reason Android apps don't make as much money as iOS apps. But the hours to develop something are the same amount of hours, whether it's open-source code or not.
So is there another problem? I think there is. I think it's the mindset put forth by leaders and longtime members of the WordPress community. It's the people who are deeply engrossed in “The WordPress Way”
When the ethos of the WordPress space is that we should give away our time to contribute to this massive project and that the ethos is people should make free quality learning experiences. And when Matt Mullenweg asks Elon Musk on Twitter to make SpaceX and Tesla source code open source, we have a problem. Because all of these things devalue the work.
When you have speakers speaking for free at WordCamps and basically any event associated with WordPress, it devalues the work.
Giving away time for free is a cyanide pill for small business owners. And the expectations in the WordPress space can dictate that time doesn't matter. If you do something, everyone should be privy to it.
This change in mindset should start at the top. Leaders and longtime community members should encourage us to continuously charge for continuously delivering value. Moves like MemberPress seem crappy now. But nearly 20 years into WordPress, there are going to be some growing pains.
I like Jason's definition of “The WordPress Way”. As I said, it's hard to argue with the fact that if you're going to do something in WordPress UI, and UX should align with the expectations of users. But I think there's another darker avenue to the WordPress way. This is the WordPress way that is sparking outrage against MemberPress. This is the WordPress way that sparked outrage against Delicious Brains for asking people to pay for support.
It's the, “How dare you charge us when we want it for free?” MemberPress and Delicious Brains are big enough to weather the storm. But I fear we may lose the next great WordPress business because they won't have a chance to weather the storm. They'll be expected to deliver labor for free. And that, as I said, is a small business cyanide pill.
As always, I'd love to know what you think. You can head over to [wpreview.io] to subscribe and to get all of the show notes. And you can find me on Twitter @jcasabona.
Thanks so much for listening.
To get even more WordPress insights and subscribe to this show, head over to [wpreview.io]. You can find all of the show notes there as well.
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Until next time. I'm Joe Casabona, and I'll see you out there.