The Ad-Sponsored WordPress Themes Debate

Ad-Sponsored Theme

I’m not a huge proponent of disclaimers; though they certainly serve a purpose and are generally intended to help, I think they pacify our society by deminishing individual responsibility. More on that later.

I’ve followed Small Potato’s blog for over a month now, and read his post from this morning about sponsored WordPress themes - those which have advertisements built into the footer (the very bottom of the webpage, see image above) by the theme’s designer as a way to generate revenue while keeping the theme free. This practice is considered spam, which I am strongly opposed to, by many. However, I’m on an odd proverbial fence about this issue for a few reasons.

On one side, I really hate spam and I wish there was a way to abolish it altogether. It does nothing but get in the way. I’m lucky/smart in that I’m generally able to block out the crap and ignore most spam altogether; unfortunately, some folks aren’t lucky/smart enough to make that distinction and end up getting suckered into phishing scams and more.

On the other side, I don’t feel like ads in the footer of a free theme qualify as spam. While virtually all spam is advertising, the reverse does not hold true; not all advertising is spam. I see an ad in the footer as more of a favor asked by the theme’s designer to the end user than blatant spam; a please help generate some cashola for me, since you didn’t spend any money on this theme, by keeping this ad in the footer type of scenario.

On the third side (I told you it was an odd fence), I feel like it’s ultimately the end-user’s responsibility to make sure a theme works for their site all the way around - including the footer. I don’t feel like an ad in the footer is “sneaky”. I think a footer ad is clever in that the ad still gets placement but generally doesn’t get in the way of the overall layout. Furthermore, anyone who has the know-how to install a WordPress theme should know how to edit the theme’s files and simply remove the ad if they feel so inclined.

Themey, a WP designer who uses ads in the footers of his themes, has proposed to the WordPress Themes community that a disclaimer should be added to ad-sponsored themes: “This theme contains advertising links to external sites.” I think if disclaimers like this are to be made, then there needs to be another disclaimer for designer credits, which should always remain intact as a simple courtesy to the creators of the theme.

The designer credit disclaimer might look something like, “This theme contains a link to the designers’ site as a credit for their work.” My fear is that, should such disclaimers start to become more popular, end-users might have to deal with regulations on the links - “Author and ad links must stay intact” or something to that effect - which seems to be adding an unnecessary layer of complexity to the free-spirited nature of open-source software such as WordPress.

I don’t consider myself a WordPress designer simply because I’ve never designed a WordPress theme, but I like to think that I know a thing or two about a thing or two. That said, if I made a theme I wouldn’t put ads in it and I would generally encourage other designers not to for two reasons: 1) it’s somewhat tacky; and 2) it’s so easy to remove the ads from the template, you might as well not put them there at all.

Ultimately, each designer will do what they want to do and it’s up to the end-user to ensure that the theme is up to snuff for use on their site. Whether or not they choose to keep the ads intact is up to them; and if they choose not to decide, they still have made a choice.

7 Comments on “The Ad-Sponsored WordPress Themes Debate”

  1. First - the sponsored themes did not have disclaimers. Uninformed bloggers assumed they’re the same as every other theme. Sponsor free. That’s the problem.

    Second - I read the comments and not all sides are telling the whole truth. That’s why the debate is still going on.

    I think the CC license to credit the theme author should be the default disclaimer. Any theme with an extra sponsor link should come with an EXTRA disclaimer.

    If we start slapping warning messages on every theme, whether it’s about author or sponsor linking, of course it’s going to discourage people from downloading the themes. And that’s a bad thing.

    I chose not to get into the debate because my horoscope warned me about it.

  2. I should’ve mentioned the fact that the sponsored themes were mingling with the free themes, but since I linked to your post and you already covered it I thought it was unnecessary. Coulda woulda shoulda. :)

    So do you think that saying a sponsored theme is free is being dishonest? I disagree. Unlike the freeware/adware debate of yore, ad-sponsored themes (at least, the ones I’ve seen) don’t require you to keep the ad in the theme, so it’s not like you’ll get a crippled theme if you remove the ad.

    My beef is that I don’t think we really need disclaimers for any of this. As you know, the themes are free and are generally published under CC licenses, allowing users to do whatever they want with the themes; as such, the end-users need to take responsibility for themselves and take care to remove ads if that’s what they’d like to do with the theme. I just don’t think it’s fair to the theme designer to preface their work with a warning label, which can only have negative effects.

    Perhaps instead of adding disclaimers to themes, there needs to be a specific WP license established, one that goes beyond the protections of the CC license and says that the author linkback and/or the ad link need to remain intact?

  3. I don’t fully understand CC. If the author requires you to keep both links in tact. Is it illegal to remove the sponsored link?

    I can’t decide whether labeling a sponsored theme as free is dishonest because it is free…but it isn’t. :)

    Obviously, there has to be compromise. It’s unfair to theme users that don’t know what PR, backlink, and Google’s webmaster guidelines are.

    I think the disclaimer is a necessary cost that sponsored themes has to pay, especially when they’re “mingling” with non-sponsored themes.

  4. I’m not all that familiar with Creative Commons either, honestly. I have it, but what does it really do? I’m not sure. When I picked my CC license, I told CC what I wanted it to do, but I don’t really know how those rights are enforced.

    To have an uneditable theme, you’d have to release it under the No Derivitive Works license - but again, I don’t know exactly how that would be enforced. From what I gather, Creative Commons is a copyright license, meaning that if you alter work under a No Derivitive Works license then you could technically get sued. That’s my understanding, anyway.

    I still feel that it’s the end-user’s responsibility to thoroughly check the theme before using it, but I suppose it’s not a bad idea to have some sort of disclaimer. Still, I think that perhaps WordPress themes might be better off with their own license rather than simple disclaimers.

  5. As far as I know, the CC ShareALike Attribution requires you to credit the author. Whether a linkback is required, is up to the author.

    ShareALike Attribution left room for custom requirements, which to me means you can make it a requirement to keep both author and sponsor links in tact.

    In the end, it’s up to us to decide whether to use a theme, but not all of us are aware of Google’s policy and how the sponsor is benefiting from the link.

    So even when people know the sponsor link is there, they might not know what they’re getting into.

  6. I thought about it some more. When you slap a disclaimer on to say everything that the user needs to know, people will not download it because when you don’t know about something, you’d rather stay away from it.

    I’m not so sure of my point about necessary cost now.

  7. Very nice article. I agree with most of your points, but allow me to do the obligatory “blogger thing” and give my opnion point out where my opinions differ from yours anyway =).

    I don’t mind there being links in the themes, and if they have to remain intact because of a license then I probably won’t use the theme.

    Also, for Themey’s case in particular, in his defense, on his site he does note that themes are sponsored. I noticed it the first time I went and looked at one of his themes linked from Blogging Tools. It even says it in his blog header. And I really think people are coming down on him too hard and spamming (ironic?) every one of his posts to the themeviewer etc. with sensationalist “THIS IS SPAM” comments is too much and unfair.

    That being said, whereas I did see the “sponsored themes” bit on his, I didn’t realize that equated to links in the theme’s footer. Honestly, this is my fault, because I just didn’t bother trying to find out what that meant. But on some of the other sites linking to themes (the theme viewer, etc.) there is no mention of sponsorship etc.

    I personally have never used or downloaded any of his themes (personal preference, nothing against him personally or his designs, I just like playing with sandbox more than actually posting anything on my site), but I don’t blame him for what he is doing, and in the end it really is up to the end user to be aware of what they are putting on their site. If I did use one of his themes I am confident I would have caught the links, because I never use a theme without tweaking/rearranging things a bit.

    Up to this point I think we’re basically on the same page.

    However, I do think it would be nice if the themes explicitly stated that they have those links and whether those links must remain intact because of a license. Disclaimer, simple note, license whatever.

    I probably wouldn’t download or use themes that have these types of links in them if they are mandatory (it’s possible I’d make exceptions for links to sites I actually use and felt okay about tacitly recommending) and I would like to know they exist before spending my time downloading and messing with the theme.

    I also think that sites that provide links to the themes do have a responsibility to let us know what they are linking to (the same goes for plugins, I hate going to look at an interesting plugin just to find out it is commercial and will cost me $50) because if they don’t then they really end up being of much less use to me and I end up not using them anymore.

    This really is just an extension of my belief that theme (and plugin for that matter) authors should provide users with as much information about their creations beforehand, as is possible.

    That all being said, I would like to stress the fact that I have no problems with the themes being sponsored if they are clearly labeled as such (whether I personally choose to use them or not).

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