Renowned WordPress developer, Justin Tadlock of ThemeHybrid fame, has posted a description on his blog of a very interesting project he’s recently launched codenamed “ThemeForest: An Experiment“.

The basic premise is to try and make a difference to the large number of discrepancies in code and development practice that renders some of the WordPress (WP) themes on ThemeForest (TF) sub-standard.

To be sure, there are a lot of high quality themes on TF and a lot of conscientious developers. However, there is also a general sense that quantity before quality or profit before end user is all too often the order of the day. So in the interest of doing something constructive and positive, Justin has set himself the task to release a quality WordPress theme on the marketplace called the Unique Theme and to help other developers (via TF forums) improve their code and knowledge of WP.

One of the responders in the comment section for that blog post is Japh Thompson, Envato’s WordPress evangelist or in his own words:

I contribute code to WordPress core, I do my best to ensure quality content is published on Wptuts+, and I champion the WordPress community within Envato.

In response to a comment he left on Justin’s post in which he praised the experiment and offered to help out, remarking that it was “in everyone’s best interests” that the project should succeed, I asked him two questions:

1. Exactly whose interests was he talking about when he says “everyone”. He makes it sound like a level playing field, when clearly the top tier of the Envato company ultimately reaps the rewards.

2. Why is is not part of Envato’s basic theme evaluation criteria to single out poor code bases and dubious WP hacks – unnecessary plugin code integration and so on?

Japh was kind enough to write a lengthy reply which you can read in full here. What follows is my counter-response to his claims. I’m reposting the comment in full here in the hope that it might help widen the debate and raise awareness to the issues Justin and others raise in that post.

As far as

(a) making conscious efforts to improve the WP code base, be it the WP core or its peripheral properties such as themes and plugins,

and

(b) raising awareness within the WP community to the importance of coding standards and respect for the liberties that WP’s GPL license affords,

I wholeheartedly agree that that is in everyone’s interest. Which is why I say Amen to Justin’s project on both a semantic and cultural level.

I also agree with your point that we all need to eat and have the opportunity to make an “honest living”. Or to put it another way, I’m not simply a cheap anti-capitalist.

I think one of the major issues with regard to Envato – which let’s not forget is widely recognized for running the largest premium theme and plugin marketplace on the Web – concerns the distribution of revenue, or wealth differential, across the marketplace as a whole.

More specifically, what is the proportion of profit minus time generated by the sales of themes and plugins that the top tier of Envato management and stakeholders receives versus the sum total of profit minus time that each individual developer devotes to the production of his/her digital goods?

Access to that sort of data might reveal a good deal about just how equitable the entire operation is. I think for a lot of people (myself included), it’s quite hard to see Envato as anything more than a landlord raising rent on other people’s intellectual property; cornering the market as they say; and as a result forcing more and more independent developers to either join or perish.

Now of course that’s an entirely legal operation and one that’s replicated the world over across myriad marketplaces, but there comes a point when the operation grows so large, so all pervasive, that it begins to undermine the core values of the very platform it derives its profit from. I think it’s only right that we ask ourselves, as WordPress users, developers, designers, educators and so on, whether this is really the sort of WordPress we want. More than that, I propose a critical debate that brings the key people from all areas of WP together to assess the situation, including the top tier of Envato management.

What about products and standards? Well, Envato’s model relies on product volume, and without a large increase in the provision of staff to properly vet each theme for defective code, hacks and other dubious practices, those sorts of sub-standards will remain an integral part of the system. It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into trying to make a difference, if it is not addressed at a systemic level, this sort of degradation will continue to perpetuate itself and will only increase as the scale of the TF marketplace increases.

Now, let me add some thoughts on what Envato does well:

Yes, ThemeForest and CodeCanyon provide a framework that a small group of power sellers benefit handsomely from (you mentioned Orman Clark for example) and that a rather large group of average to low sellers try hard to benefit from.

Yes, it provides users across the world with a wide selection of themes and plugins at competitive rates.

Yes, in some cases competition within the marketplace drives developers to innovate.

Yes, it provides spaces for people like yourself to raise WP standards and kudos to your for doing that.

And yes,, I’m sure that Envato HQ would happily reel off a long list of philanthropic projects that it’s involved in and that open source is part of its core ethos etc. etc.

That’s all brilliant.

But when all said and done, does the capital it generates, the rent it receives, not far outweigh the contributions it makes to the WP platform and community as a whole?

So my question finally repeats itself. What sort of “honesty” are we talking about? And exactly whose “interests” does Envato have at heart?