There has always been confusion among beginners about who owns WordPress? It’s a bit unreal to think something can be 100% free. If you have ever wondered who owns WordPress and how does WordPress make money, then you’re in the right place. In this beginner’s guide, we will answer these common questions along with covering how does that impact the ownership rights of your WordPress site and blog content.
Understanding the Differences between WordPress.com vs WordPress.org
Before we can answer the question about the ownership of WordPress, it’s important that you understand which WordPress you are talking about.
The #1 root cause for confusion is that often people don’t know that WordPress.com and WordPress.org are two fundamentally different products with different owners.
WordPress.org is the popular content management system (CMS) that you always hear about. This is the real WordPress, and it is 100% free. It is often referred as self-hosted WordPress. When you hear things like you can create any type of website in WordPress with plugins and custom themes, this is the WordPress people are talking about.
WordPress.com is a web hosting service that offers a stripped down version of WordPress to make it easy for you to blog. You don’t get all the WordPress goodies like plugins, custom themes, etc.
To keep this article focused, we will not go into the feature comparison of the two. You can learn more about that in our WordPress.com vs WordPress.org chart.
Understanding the difference between the two is essential for understanding the ownership and business models behind the two products.
Who owns WordPress.org and the popular WordPress software?
WordPress is an open-source software. This means that anyone can see the code and contribute to the software to make it better. It’s the contributions by thousands of independent people from across the world that built WordPress to what it is today.
WordPress is licensed under GPL, and it’s important that you understand the benefits of the GPL license because that will help you better understand the ownership.
We will summarize the GPL in three main benefits:
- You can use WordPress in whatever way you like without any restrictions.
- You can customize, add or remove anything in WordPress that you don’t like without any restrictions.
- You can repackage, rebrand, sell and distribute WordPress without any restrictions except that it is also released under the GPL license.
The last part usually blows people’s mind away. Yes, you can indeed take WordPress, change the logo and the name, and start selling it (100% legal).
In other words, the code base of WordPress belongs to the community (you). The thousands of people who contributed to this non-profit project did it without any direct compensation. We will explain this in more details in the business model section of this article.
Summary: Any website you create using the self-hosted WordPress software is 100% owned by you. The content you upload to these sites is also 100% owned by you.
The WordPress trademark and the WordPress.org domain is owned by the WordPress foundation, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, whose sole purpose is to ensure that WordPress is freely available, maintained, and developed.
Who owns WordPress.com
WordPress.com is owned by a privately held company called Automattic.
You have to understand a little bit of history of the open-source WordPress project to understand Automattic’s contributions and the reasons why they get favorable treatment such as the ability to use the WordPress trademark and the coveted WordPress.com domain as part of their paid product.
Automattic was started by the co-founding developer of the open source WordPress software, Matt Mullenweg.
Matt created Automattic in 2005, almost two years after WordPress, with the primary purpose to make WordPress hosting easier and allow people with little technical knowledge to start a blog with WordPress.
Since WordPress.com platform was powered by the open source WordPress software, Automattic had a vested interest in the further development of the free WordPress software.
Several of the early Automattic employees were contributing developers of WordPress prior to the company, so it should go without saying that financial interest wasn’t the only reason why Automattic invested in WordPress.
Because the open-source project didn’t really make any money in the beginning, Matt first registered the WordPress trademark through Automattic.
As WordPress grew in popularity, Automattic donated the WordPress trademark to the WordPress Foundation in 2010 to ensure long-term sustainability of the non-profit project.
It’s important to note that Matt Mullenweg is the CEO of Automattic and also serves in the board of the WordPress foundation.
Now that you are familiar with the history, let’s talk about ownership of content on WordPress.com.
When you build a site using WordPress.com, you have to adhere to their Terms of Service policy. Although it clearly states that it’s designed to give you as much control and ownership of your content, someone can still shut down your site if they believe it’s in violation.
While you have 100% control over your site, you’re limited to the feature-set that’s offered to you which does not include plugins, custom themes, etc.
Hopefully by now you should have the answer to your question about who owns WordPress.
Now let’s take a look at how does WordPress make money.
Business Model of Automattic vs Business Model of WordPress
The business model of Automattic is to sell WordPress related services such as hosting, backup, and others, so we won’t spend too much time on that.
In short, Automattic makes money on WordPress.com by selling advertising on your free sites. If you choose to pay for their hosting plans, then you get additional premium upgrades such as the ability to hide ads, purchase domains, additional disk space, commercial themes, etc.
Our goal in this section is to explain the business model behind the open source WordPress software and answer common questions like how do WordPress developers make money if they’re voluntarily contributing to a free non-profit project.
Let’s start with the question on why do developers contribute to WordPress if they aren’t getting paid?
While there can be altruistic reasons, we’re going to focus on the two primary monetary reasons:
- They sell WordPress products or services (custom plugins, themes, web development, consulting, etc.)
- They work for a company that sell WordPress products or services.
In other words, they are making money, but they are not getting paid by the WordPress foundation.
As WordPress has grown in popularity, there have been an increase in the number of businesses that sell WordPress related products / services. This has increased the commercial interest in the further development of the open-source WordPress software.
Think of what Automattic was able to do in the beginning, except now there are multiple companies hiring dedicated staff who contribute in the development of WordPress because they understand as the WordPress project grows, so will the revenue opportunities.
So where does the WordPress foundation fit in the picture?
WordPress foundation is a non-profit organization, so it’s primary source of revenue is through donations.
These donations are made by individuals like yourself and also corporations who’re using WordPress to make money.
How does this all apply to you as the user?
While you are not directly paying for WordPress, you could be indirectly paying for it.
For example, if you host your website on Bluehost, Siteground, WPEngine, or any other major WordPress hosting company, then you are indirectly paying for WordPress. Because all these companies regularly contribute back to WordPress.
If you are using Yoast SEO, BackupBuddy, Sucuri, or any of WPBeginner family of products (OptinMonster, Envira Gallery, Soliloquy, etc) then you are indirectly paying for WordPress. Because all these companies regularly sponsor WordCamps and/or contribute to WordPress.
Hopefully, this helps you better understand the WordPress business model and clear up all the concerns regarding that matter.
What can we do to improve and clear up some of the confusion?
There is very little that can be done about the domain situation due to the business models involved.
The only real way to solve it is through education which has to be two part.
The first and foremost is the role of media.
Major tech media outlets like TechCrunch, Recode, TheNextWeb, etc need to do a better job at fact-checking to avoid articles that claim Automattic as the parent company of WordPress. It could be as simple as saying the parent company behind WordPress.com.
The second role is enforcement by the WordPress foundation as well as Automattic.
These media outlets are usually pitched these press releases, so if there were some re-enforcement with the top outlets, the rest will follow.
Often at blogging events when you see a WordPress booth, it’s usually an Automattic (WordPress.com) booth. While the marketing verbiage can be improved, having personally seen the employees answering questions at the booth, they are extremely helpful and almost always explain the difference.
At TBEX North America 2015, while we visited their booth, at least two people asked the question in the roam of ownership of WordPress and the Automattic employees did an excellent job clearly explaining the difference.
We hope this article helped you answer the question about who owns WordPress, how does WordPress make money, and what that really means for your website’s control and ownership. You may also want to read our article on 15 most frequently asked questions by WordPress beginners.
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