Copyright, GPL, Licensing, Plugins
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Comments against Unsplash WordPress plugin are a bit …

Unsplash releases a free GPL-licensed plugin and boom!

Unsplash is an awesome platform. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s an awesome platform. WordPress is an awesome CMS. I’ve always said that and it’s why I write about it. Both have an open access ethos and, for that, both are to be celebrated.

Unsplash releases an official WordPress plugin to the plugins repository, in her usual way Sarah Gooding writes an excellent article on the release, and then what happens? People start complaining in the comments.

People assert that:

  • the Unsplash licence is “against the GPL”; and
  • promoting the plugin and hosting it on “shouldn’t have happened, even if it’s just a service gateway”.

In response, even Matt says he’s “not sure if this should be allowed in the directory”, later adding:

“Maybe if there was a way again to find just the CC0 licensed images, which the Creative Commons also requested, this could be okay to promote.”

Someone else says:

“They can now force user sign ups to inflate their user base even though other plugins just serve images without any sort of authentication”

Sorry, but what?!

This is what the Detailed Plugin Guidelines say about the GPL (the emphasis is mine):

“1. Plugins must be compatible with the GNU General Public License #1.

Although any GPL-compatible license is acceptable, using the same license as WordPress — “GPLv2 or later” — is strongly recommended. All code, data, and images — anything stored in the plugin directory hosted on — must comply with the GPL or a GPL-Compatible license. Included third-party libraries, code, images, or otherwise, must be compatible. For a specific list of compatible licenses, please read the GPL-Compatible license list on”

(Sarah usefully discusses other aspects of the Guidelines here.)

The Unsplash plugin is GPL-licensed. Photos that are imported into a WordPress site when the plugin is installed and used by a site owner are not bundled with the plugin on the repository, and so they don’t need to meet the GPL-compatible licensing guideline (might as well call it a requirement).

The owner/operator of the WordPress site makes the decision to install the plugin and to use it as another/quicker means of accessing a particular kind of third party content (in this case, photos on Unsplash).

What we have here is a useful plugin for the WordPress community developed by Unsplash at its own expense. Sure, there may be a commercial rationale for it (just as there is for the likes of Jetpack and for free versions of plugins on the repository for which paid/pro versions are available elsewhere), but so what? There is no violation of the GPL here and no violation of the Detailed Plugin Guidelines. In my respectful view, in these circumstances, Unsplash should be thanked, not criticised on the tenuous basis that its own image licence is not the same as a licence written for software under which WordPress is licensed.

Now, is the Unsplash licence perfect? As Sarah noted recently, in the past I’ve suggested some tweaks that would make it a bit clearer. There’s also an argument that the first ‘What is not permitted’ statement on the site doesn’t accurately reflect the legal wording that follows. However, the licence that Unsplash decides to use for the photos on its site – with its contributors’ permission – is a matter for Unsplash, and is not relevant to compliance with the GPL or the Detailed Plugin Guidelines. Not only that, but the licence is actually incredibly permissive, and it benefits large numbers of WordPress users (and countless others) around the globe. It’s basically a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) equivalent but without any attribution requirement, and with a carve-out/exclusion for competing photo compilation services.

As for forced sign-ups, the simple answer there is that we are all free to get images from the Unsplash website itself if we prefer.

This is an important issue

I know I’m ranting a bit here, but I think this is an important issue. It’s important for two reasons. First, as I’ve noted above, the plugin is GPL-licensed and its inclusion in the repository is not contrary to the Detailed Plugin Guidelines. Second, if this plugin were not permitted in the repository merely because the plugin inserts content that is licensed under a licence that is slightly more restrictive than the GPL, then many other plugins in the repository shouldn’t be in there either. For example:

  • plugins that enable scraping of third party websites shouldn’t be there;
  • plugins that enable the form-based generation of legal pages that aren’t openly licensed shouldn’t be there; and
  • any other plugin that enables the insertion of third party content or auto-generation of copyright content that isn’t openly licensed shouldn’t be there.

Of course, no one is suggesting that, and for good reason.

In my view, the guardians of the plugin repository were quite right to add the plugin to the repository, and we should thank Unsplash for having it developed. Arguments to the contrary are, with respect, a bit … .

(Thanks to Joanna Kosinska for the ‘Healthy Pistachio Snack’ photo, available under a super-broad permissive licence on

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