WordPress “lite” themes continue to play a key role in “premium” theme marketing strategy, but should they be part of the WordPress.org theme directory – the web's largest collection of free and open source themes?

But what is a “lite” theme?

The term “lite” is a euphemism for a limited or restricted version of a “premium” theme, which in turn is a euphemism for a paid theme. Theme developers release their “lite” themes for “free,” but disable many of the key options in the hope that it will coax users into buying the full version later on.

It's a clever sales strategy. You attract the customer with a freebie, but you bank on the probability that after investing time and effort in setting up the theme, the customer will likely pay for the upgrade.

Some developers will argue that lite themes give prospective buyers the opportunity to test the product before making their purchase. But to me, that makes no sense. How can you test a theme that has two thirds of its functionality turned off?

At the same time, some theme users will argue that it's better to have lite themes than no free themes at all. That may be true of a theme like Zelle Lite, for example, which is a one-page portfolio theme with over 100,000 active installs and is actually usable as a standalone theme.

Zelle lite wordpress theme

But Zelle Lite is the exception and not the rule. Many “lite” themes are purposefully restrictive and amount to little more than glorified advertisements.

Lite themes and the WordPress theme directory

The WordPress.org theme repository is the largest collection of free GPL licensed themes on the Web. It is the main gateway into the world of WordPress themes and it performs an “ambassadorial” role in showcasing what WordPress can do.

The directory makes a clear distinction between paid and non-paid themes. There is a separate page on the site for “commercially supported GPL themes” which suggests that all other themes in the repository are by contrast non-commercial (aka free GPL themes).

The problem is that despite being free and GPL licensed, lite themes are technically extensions of their commercial cousins masquerading as free themes. This ambiguity sends the wrong message to new WordPress users about the ethos and core aims of the WordPress platform, which are summed up on the site’s About page as follows:

We believe in democratizing publishing and the freedoms that come with open source. Supporting this idea is a large community of people collaborating on and contributing to this project. The WordPress community is welcoming and inclusive. Our contributors’ passion drives the success of WordPress which, in turn, helps you reach your goals.


My question to the WordPress community, and particularly to the folks at Automattic who manage the theme directory, is why is there no distinction made in the directory between 100% free and GPL licensed themes and “lite” themes?

I think there's room for much clearer labelling in the directory. Users need to know up front what they're getting into when installing a “lite” theme.

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