How this WordPress theme was embezzling money earned by its users

Hard blow for hundreds of thousands of WordPress users. The team in charge of managing the catalog of themes to be installed from the CMS chose to ban for a while one of the most downloaded themes named Astra, after discovering that its creators were violating the membership policy rules.

According to statements by the WordPress team, Brainstorm Force, the company behind the theme that had been downloaded more than a million times, was replacing user IDs with its own in affiliate links. The shenanigans were hardly noticeable. The editor did not replace the entire URLs and used plugins that users had to install.

The WordPress Theme Team had decided beforehand to suspend access to the theme download for six weeks. In this case, users could continue to use it and publish the proposed updates. But for a little over a month, Astra will not be able to be installed on new sites. Finally, the team decided to review the punishment, and the WordPress Astra theme was only removed from the list of popular WordPress themes.

All this should still hurt Brainstorm Force very badly. In the past, other publishers have experienced such bans, such as the Zerif Lite theme three years ago. The company in question had seen its revenues drop by 63%. It must be said that the length of the suspension was more severe: for five months, the visibility of the theme had dropped significantly.

As an article on the WordPress Tavern site states, it is not uncommon for theme editors to offer their users to use their affiliate IDs to earn money. This is a kind of indirect donation, which is not unhealthy, as long as users are aware and have the power to choose.

No request for authorization

However, Brainstorm Force seemed to act behind the users’ backs. The editor was using third-party plugins to inject its company ID through automatic updates. No informative messages and no authorization requests were communicated to users. This conduct could be considered a violation of WordPress rules.

Brainstorm Force co-founder Sujay Pawar posted an apology on the theme blog on August 10th. Again, the community was not happy with the way the man updated his letter three times, deleting several paragraphs announcing that the publisher was going to donate 5% of its resources to WordPress. The deletion of the post had come at the same time as WordPress reached its verdict, only removing the theme from the popular theme lists, not removing access to its download.