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by Michael P. Hill

A growing problem in the Shopify world is Shopify theme piracy — but what exactly is it, why is it bad for the entire Shopify ecosystem and how can you be sure you’re not inadvertently part of the problem?

A quick word

Love

It’s important to understand that the purpose of this article is not to point fingers or blame anyone — but rather to educate store owners on the confusing world of theme licensing and how to ensure they are in compliance with the terms of use. And, to everyone who’s properly licensed a theme, your theme developer thanks you — and loves you for being ethical, thorough and honest.

What is it?

The first point to understand about Shopify theme piracy is what it is.

In short, Shopify theme piracy is a rather broad term that refers to using a paid or premium Shopify theme, or part of one, without paying the proper license fee directly to the theme developer. The key point here is that premium themes are licensed to use for a single store only.

On a more nuanced level, this can include any of the following:

  • Reusing a Shopify theme on another Shopify store without paying the license fee again
  • Selling, transferring or trading Shopify themes with other store owners, even if you are not using it on another store
  • Paying a freelancer or agency to develop your store using a particular Shopify theme but they did not pay the proper license fees to the theme developer
  • Buying, trading or accepting Shopify themes from unauthorized third parties or online listings
  • Reusing, even heavily modified, code or other theme files, that are based on another theme without paying an additional fee
  • Making modifications, no matter how many, to a premium theme and then selling it as your own theme

Why is this a problem?

Well, first of all, in most cases using a theme you haven’t properly licensed is illegal. Most countries have laws in place to cover Shopify themes under copyright law — and those laws typically apply even if you’re based in another country.

Shopify theme

Every year, Shopify theme developers spend thousands of combined hours designing, coding, testing, troubleshooting, supporting and updating their themes. And, as you would expect, the people who do all of that don’t work for free.

So, in the end, it can take thousands of work hours to develop a single theme — and many theme developers choose a business model that involves charging a one time fee to use the theme.

Keep in mind that developers who create paid Shopify themes are a business just like yours — they have bills to pay and other costs of doing business. They are merchants in their own right whose livelihood depends on their product sales, which in their case are digital goods.

Shopify theme

Reusing a theme without properly paying for it is also detrimental to the entire Shopify ecosystem as well.

By not paying the proper fee for your theme, you’re reducing the amount of resources that Shopify theme developers have to improve and update themes, but also to create valuable content such as documentation, provide support and be active members of the Shopify developer community.

Besides being just plain old bad karma, you’re also setting a bad precedent for yourself as a business person and entrepreneur. Using an illegally-obtained premium theme as the foundation of your online shop is not unlike building a brick and mortar shop on stolen property.

Every business has expenses and often relies on other businesses to operate, so paying for a theme license is a legitimate (and necessary) part of launching an online store.

How can you avoid this?

The best, and most straightforward way, to ensure you’re paying the proper licensing fees for your theme is to buy it directly from the Shopify theme store or the developer’s official website.

Outside of this, keep these points in mind:

  • Don’t purchase or trade a theme from any third party stores or social media sites. If you’re in doubt whether a listing is legitimate, contact the theme developer to verify.

Fraudulent Shopify theme listing

  • Use your best judgment. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you see someone selling a $350 Shopify theme for $50, like shown above in the Facebook post we caught, it’s probably not authorized or legitimate.
  • If you work with a freelancer, developer or agency, double check with them to ensure they have paid the proper licensing fees. Better yet, get it in writing and request a copy of the receipt in case there’s ever a question; because if it turns out that your shop doesn’t have a legitimate copy of the theme, you won’t be eligible for support from the theme developer
  • If you’re developing Shopify stores for clients, be sure you’ve paid the proper license fee for every shop. For a way to make some extra money from referring clients to use Out of the Sandbox themes, consider our affiliate program.

'But Shopify themes are so expensive…'

Shopify theme store

For someone new to Shopify and ecommerce, it can seem quite expensive to pay anywhere from $100 to $500 or more for a Shopify theme. However, this cost is actually quite low when you consider a variety of points:

  • Most Shopify themes, including Out of the Sandbox’s, come with free updates for life. This not only means new features that can reduce your reliance on apps, especially with full featured Shopify themes such as Turbo, which can be a big moneysaver, but also prevents you from having to hire a developer to fix any bugs, because the theme developer addresses them as they arise and releases an update.
  • The cost to create a Shopify theme from scratch can easily run into the thousands — or tens of thousands of dollars.
  • There are numerous free themes available that are perfect for stores that are just starting out. As your business grows, you can consider investing in a paid Shopify theme when the time is right. It may also be something you can expense as part of your shop’s cost of doing business.

Checking your compliance

Verify your theme

Want to be a super awesome Shopify store owner and verify that your theme license is valid? Here are some tips:

  • If you bought your theme from the official Shopify theme store, look in your Shopify account “receipts” section to locate your receipt for your theme purchase. If it’s there, you’re likely set.
  • If you purchased from the developer directly, check your email archives for a copy of your receipt or request a new copy. When requesting, be sure to include the original email you purchased the theme under and your store address. 
  • If someone else developed your store for you, ask them to verify and prove that they paid the proper license fees for your shop in particular. If they didn’t, but still charged you for it, insist that they pay the proper license cost to the developer.
  • If you aren’t the original owner of your Shopify store, some theme developers, including Out of the Sandbox, require that you pay the theme license fee again. Double check with your theme developer’s support team to see if you need to pay again.
Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn.

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