Brand Your Free Web Software

Feb 11, 2010   //   by Hackadelic   //   Blog  //  5 Comments

Unbrand AmericaBrands. They are everywhere. Cars, electronics, sportswear… Even food. In every-day life, wherever a product is publicly visible, the manufacturers take care their brand is visible, too. When we drive our car, we showcase their brand. When we carry a newly bought computer home, we showcase their brand on the package. Heck, where I live, even the supermarket plastic bag is showcasing the supermarket’s brand. In our every-day “off-line” life, we don’t really expect a product – any product – to come unbranded.1 What about our on-line life?

Importance And Context Of Branding

Why is visible branding so important for the product originator? In short, it’s Marketing and PR. That is, things like

  • Increased visibility: People get interested in your brand, and may want to try/buy your product.
  • Identification: People get used to your brand. When you see the BMW sign often enough in your neighborhood, you are likely to be motivated to buy a BMW yourself.

With desktop software, things are (or used to be) a bit different – at least in part. Most desktop applications come along unbranded, or branded in a very undemonstrative way – “hidden” behind an “About dialog”. More prominent branding would be of little use here, because desktop software is commonly used by the buyer (and perhaps his family) exclusively.

On the web, however, using software ultimately implies showcasing it. Hence, prominent branding makes perfect sense with web applications. Manufacturer’s showcase their brand, and get links to their website at that.

For a long time, the prevalent type of web product seemed to be website themes. And like car manufacturers who place their brand on the grille, website theme designers place their “Powered by” links in their theme footers.

A couple of years ago though, a new type of product started to penetrate the market: Website plugins. Contrast to theme designers though, plugin developers seem to not have grasped the importance of branding, and seem to leave most their plugins unbranded.

Branding, Credits, And Revenue

In a way, branding on-line products is even more important than branding off-line products. Where open source is the rule rather than the exception (and that’s the case on the web), branding, and the credits it implies, is the only way for web developers and designers to get something in return for their hard work.

I mean, let’s face it: For most people, the donation model does not work. People just don’t pay “after the fact”.

Selling free and open source software does not really work out either. The most widely spread license on the web, the GPL, makes it virtually impossible to sell GPL’ed web software, or combine products under a more restrictive license with a GPL’ed web platform like WordPress.2

The only revenue option left (selling services set aside) is ads. And ad income rises and falls with visitors. That is – with visibility.

My Own Branding Move

Not long ago, I started “branding” two of my free WordPress plugins: Sliding Notes and SEO Table Of Contents. I introduced a kind of signature – a “Powered by” brand similar to that found in themes. This move of mine provoked a lot of controversy.3

I need to say that branding my free WordPress plugins was not a frivolous move. I spent a lot of thought on it, especially because I felt very uncomfortable with the perspective of loosing users. But in the end, I concluded that the users I would lose are the users I don’t need4. So I did it. And I don’t regret it.


Branding free web software is a naturally controversial topic – especially from the viewpoint of the users of that software, and especially after much of it has been “traditionally” unbranded on the web. But if the software is valuable enough to use it, it should be worth some credits in return. Perhaps it’s time for a change, and time for publicly branded free web software to become the rule rather then the exception.

Of course, the last word has not bees spoken yet on this topic. Personally, I am still working on ways to improve my approach, and smoothen the controversy if possible. Let’s see what I come up with next… 🙂

  1. There are exceptions, of course. The branding needs to be adequate. Nobody would buy an Armani smoking with a fat shiny Armani sign on the back, even if Armani may like the idea of a dinner banquet full of Armani logos. []
  2. I have a different view on combining GPL and non-GPL software, but most people seem to believe combining them is taboo. []
  3. Some of my users even made some enraged threats that they will “drop me”. []
  4. the type of folks who are not willing to give the slightest bit back []


  • They don’t prohibit the insertion of links in themes

    No, but most (most) themes are kind enough to allow a credit removal if you ‘click here.’

    In WP’s defense (and I think they have a lot of problems), this all grew organically from people who felt ‘common sense’ was good enough. Like they shouldn’t HAVE to say ‘Don’t put in encoded links!’ and ‘No viruses.’ And yet. They’re at the point where they have to put more and more rules in. In my mind, the more rules, the more people find wiggle room to be assholes, which causes the ‘good’ people (i.e. you and me) to get screwed.


    I removed the link-backs to WordPress from my site, NOT because of anything other than it doesn’t look ‘right’ on my theme. That’s it.

    Be that as it may, my personal view is that users, if they are informed about the fact, are declaring their permission by installing and using the plugin. So I might just clarify that point instead.

    I happen to agree there, but I can see someone being an absolute git about it and arguing semantics. I would probably put a bit on the settings page ‘SEO TOC puts a link back to the plugin site. Blah blah suck it up.’

    All that said … if I was running a ‘I need to look 100% professional’ site and the person for whom I was designing said ‘And no link backs!’ I would probably write my own plugin. But thankfully I don’t 🙂 I DO run a list of every plugin I have on my WP site on the about page, because I feel it’s important. It also lists all the plugins for every app on the site, from MediaWiki to ZenPhoto and bbPress.

    Wish you could trust everyone to be a good steward :/

    • Ipstenu,

      most (most) themes are kind enough to allow a credit removal if you ‘click here.’

      That’s not my impression. Most themes don’t even have an option page, let alone a “show credits” option.

      All that said … if I was running a ‘I need to look 100% professional’ site and the person for whom I was designing said ‘And no link backs!’ I would probably write my own plugin.

      … or pay me to make you a custom version 😉

      But seriously, there is so many commercial projects that benefit from free software and don’t give a damn to ever donate or do anything else in return. I know my plugins are used in a vast number of commercial projects, but I never saw any benefit from it, monetary or else. :/

      Indeed, it’s hard times for the ‘good stewards’.

  • Meant to add – I’m not dropping your product 🙂 I quite like it and don’t mind the branding.

  • You may find the recent posts at of inetrest then.

    Out of the discussion of various WP plugins that were pulled from the repository, one of the points made was that there’s an expectation that all forward facing links (that is, the branding you have on, say, SEO TOC, which I love) should all come with a disable option, so sites don’t HAVE to brand. This is the comment that caught my attention.

    As it happens, that’s actually right here:

    4) The plugin must not embed external links on the public site (like a “powered by” link) without explicitly asking the user’s permission.

    It doesn’t say you have to have a disable option, but I think it’s fairly clear that was the intention.

    • Ipstenu, thanks for the hint.

      That’s sad. It clearly reflects that WP is further selectively repressing plugin developper’s branding in favor of their own. They don’t prohibit the insertion of links in themes, and they don’t mention they intend to require theme authors to remove their links, or provide an adequate option, especially because most themes include a link to the WP site. This is the more hypocritical given WP’s own history of hidden agendas and black-hat malpractices.

      The sad thing is they have gained their popularity and pagerank exactly because of such backlinks, and because of the myriads of plugins. (WP by itself would have been almost useless for most sites – that’s why there is virtually no WP blog without at least a dozen of plugins installed.)

      Be that as it may, my personal view is that users, if they are informed about the fact, are declaring their permission by installing and using the plugin. So I might just clarify that point instead.

      Again, thanks for pointing these things out to me, and for sticking to the plugin.

      Cheers 🙂

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