Oh dear. Last week I appear to have scared a lot of people :(
I guess a modicum of scaring is a good thing as it makes people aware of the dangers and traps that it is easy to fall into. I was perhaps a little bit hyperbolic when I said “anywhere else.” I should have said “Why you should never search for free WordPress Themes in Google or Any Other Search Engine.”
However, I hope that my post hasn’t had everyone jumping ship to Drupal as tweets like this would have you:
Don’t leave! I promise that you can find lots of lovely, high quality, WordPress 3.0 compliant themes that you can use for your/your client’s/your dog’s WordPress website. As many people have pointed out, the problem isn’t with free WordPress themes, per se. The problem is with themes being used to propagate spammy links, link injections, for malware or whatever else someone who has too much time on their hands can come up with. This problem is compounded by the fact that most of the sites that rank in search engines for the words “free WordPress themes” contain this type of code.
As Mark at Weblog Tools Collection points out there are two possible solutions.
- WordPress automatically checks themes for code like this when they are installed and warns the user
- Google does a better job of filtering out sites like this
I would love it if Google could do better. I did email their press office but as yet have received no response :( I also bugged Matt Cutts on twitter but no luck there either (Matt does say he is having digital downtime though so he may not have received it).
Either way, it would be great to find out what Google’s position on all of this is. Do any of you work for Google? I’d love to hear from you!
In the meantime, I thought it was time for something positive. So instead of telling you where you shouldn’t be looking for your themes, I thought I would write something about where you should (outside the WordPress directory that is).
As someone who teaches WordPress (and who loves to teach WordPress!) I know how important it is to give people starting out the right advice. I’m going to try to do that here.
But first….. what does “free” mean anyway?
In the comments of my last post, Caspar asked what you should expect when you get something free. It’s a good question, but what do we mean when we say “free”?
Many people are now releasing their themes under the GPL, with some sites still releasing themes under a Creative Commons license.
Here’s a lovely quote from the GPL:
“When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price.”
I’m sure that everyone who searches for free WordPress themes is thinking of price, but this definition of freedom is important as well. Under the terms of the GPL users may copy, distribute and modify GPL released software.
The great GPL debate pretty much came to a close when, in 2009, Matt Mullenweg announced that the Software Freedom Law Center had ruled that themes are derivatives of WordPress and, due to the viral nature of the GPL, must be licensed under the GPL as well.
Note: This doesn’t apply to CSS and Images, which is interesting when we think about Child Themes which are often, after all, just CSS. Also, we’ve seen the emergence of split licenses which is what sort of resolved last year‘s rather unpleasant Thesis – WordPress wars.
Anyway, I’m not going to go into the history of it, instead you should read WPCandy’s timeline which provides a great potted history of GPL and WordPress.
What I’m going to do is get to the point… (yes, I know, about time)
One of the themes I downloaded last week was an old version of Michael Oeser’s Branford Magazine theme which had base64 code added to the footer of the theme. While it is legal for someone else to edit the code the GPL states this:
5. Conveying Modified Source Versions.
You may convey a work based on the Program, or the modifications to produce it from the Program, in the form of source code under the terms of section 4, provided that you also meet all of these conditions:
a) The work must carry prominent notices stating that you modified it, and giving a relevant date.
Here’s the info about the GPL in the CSS file from the modified version:
I see neither dates nor information about any modifications (except for some childish scrawling done by some moron).
The same was true of the rip-off of Brian Gardner’s old Dropshadow theme.
These themes are being redistributed without sticking to the terms of the GPL.
2. Creative Commons
Another common feature of these types of sites with free WordPress themes is that they release themes under a Creative Commons License.
However, any derivative work of any GPL licensed work carries with it the GPL license. It’s like catching a cold and passing it on to all your friends – only much nicer!
Let me state, for the record, that (despite my parents’ best attempts to get me to go to Law School) I am not a lawyer. But, having spent lots of time reading and researching the GPL and WordPress, I believe that you are within your rights to remove and edit anything from the template files (i.e. anything followed by .php). I have been put right by Ryan and Chip in my comments :)
The theme developer is not within their rights to distribute a theme without a GPL licence – however, I have been told that you are not within your rights to change a Theme which has been incorrectly licensed. Does that make sense?
The theme developer could release the CSS as Creative Commons and the template files under GPL to get around this issue. However, none of the sites that I looked at were doing that.
ANYWAY, after many divergences this leads me to the main point of this article. Where can you get free WordPress themes?
Unlike many theme repositories, I’m going to go all out and define my terms (which is why I did all of that blah)
- Free: To be free it must have no cost attached to it and the user must have the freedom to distribute and modify all of it. So:
- Cost $0000
- Be released 100% under GPL
- WordPress: Run on WordPress
- Theme: errrmmm… be a theme…
I guess “free” was the only one that really mattered there
Just one more thing…
I am going to put together a clickable, printable, shareable, downloadable, lickable, edible, infographic/cheat sheet mash-up thingy containing links and URLs of sites where you can download free and low-cost WordPress themes. This will hopefully be useful to any of you beginners or people with clients who are .
If you have any sites that you would like to recommend let me know either here or at my twitter account. I’ll check out the site and if it’s all good I’ll include it.
In general these sites have fewer themes than you find in the huge repositories but if it is quality that you want, instead of garbage code, they are definitely a good place to start.
A great starting point for your Theme Hunt is Weblog Tools Collection. The guys there post daily with the latest theme releases. And they aren’t lax about checking themes for suspicious code, as this page shows. If you want to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world of themes – both in and out of the WordPress directory – it’s a great place to start.
You could also check out their post on finding free WordPress themes, which has some great advice.
WooThemes has been producing great quality WordPress themes for a number of years. However, you don’t have to join their WooTHemes WordPress Theme Club to reap the benefits of their work. They’ve released a number of free themes that can be downloaded directly from their website.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 10
ThemeLab is run by Leland Fiegel who runs it one-handed and still has time to produce a large collection of free WordPress Themes. I reviewed his Green Tea theme recently and it’s been one of those themes that really stuck in my head.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 118
Dynamic WP are a group of developers based in Indonesia who have produced some really striking WordPress themes. Their latest offering is a super-charged version of TwentyTen, called TwentyEleven. These guys have got some great free themes in their portfolio and it’s definitely worth taking a look.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 34
If you want somewhere to get some of the most stylish photoblogging and vlogging themes then the first place you should look is Graph Paper Press. I’m sure I’ve said before that I’m a fangirl, but I probably can’t say that quite enough. Among their portfolio they have a number of free themes which are as good as any commercial ones.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 9
WP Shower… *drool.* They make some really beautiful minimalist WordPress themes – all for free! They are a way for you to clean your blog (geddit?) The portfolio at WP Shower is small but this is the type of place where you get quality over quantity. It’s a must-see for any free WordPress theme hunters.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 7
If you’re not familiar with Smashing Magazine, where have you been? It’s one of my favorite places for design news, tips and releases. They regularly commission guest designers to produce beautiful, top quality WordPress themes.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 24
Theme Hybrid is the home of the Hybrid and Prototype WordPress themes, and all of their lovely children. Parent Themes (or theme frameworks) are great to use, especially if you are learning about theme development. You can build your own CSS files to to flex your creative muscles.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 17
ThemeShaper is another site that has a comprehensive theme framework as well as a playground full of child themes. I often builder sites on top of Thematic – it’s easy to use and to customize and there are loads of great child themes out there.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 20 child themes + 1 Thematic
Templatic only just made it on to this list, after announcing on 1st January 2011 that they were going GPL. This is great news for the WordPress community. Only launched in 2008, they have a portfolio packed full of themes with some great free ones that anyone can download.
Number of free WordPress Themes: 9
There were quite a lot of free sites out there that looked pretty good, and had nice themes, but that had released their themes under Creative Commons, rather than GPL. Since my criteria was to include themes which are free from cost and free to distribute I thought that I had better not include them.
There are also loads of small design companies which release the occasional free theme. You should be able to pick up on them by checking out Weblog Tools Collection.
But what about Theme Forest?
A lot of people mentioned Theme Forest as a good (not free, but cheap) place to get themes. Although their themes aren’t 100% GPL (the PHP is, the rest of it isn’t) I thought it worth looking at Theme Forest as there were so many questions.
I contacted Envato (who own Theme Forest – and also the lovely NetTuts!) and asked them about their submission policy. Mark, who got back to me, was very helpful. Here’s what he said in relation to base64 and other codes:
While we do allow it [base64] for non-malicious purposes, we don’t allow any sort of malware or link hiding within themes. We do a strict manual review of each file that comes in, and if for some reason a file we’re to slip through the cracks with something like your article details, once we’ve been made aware of it, we’d immediately remove the item and warn the author. If we catch an author repeating the issue after being warned it could result in a disablement of their account.
We take the quality of our themes very seriously and work vigorously to ensure our themes meet the highest standard. While one may accept small issues like these within free themes, it would be unacceptable to sell a file that was abusing our users in malicious ways.
So there you go, that’s Theme Forest’s view on it. As I said in my previous article – base64 may not be hiding malicious/spammy code. A thorough review process such as the one at Theme Forest then you can mitigate against this sort of activity. The minimal cost involved in these themes must be worth the piece of mind. But remember! You can distribute the PHP under the terms of the GPL but not the rest of the theme!
Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments and I’ll update the post :)