This post is more personal opinion than any tip.
On this blog I’m using a free template. It’s one that I found using the theme installer. It’s GPL, meaning I’m certainly free to remove the link in the footer. The author of this template (Simone) actually put two links in in addition to the link to WordPress.
I don’t mind that one bit. And that’s also why I linked again in this post. For me to develop a theme of my own of this quality would take in the area of 10-20 hours. Alternately, I could buy a theme or a framework like Genesis and a child theme for that framework. I’d be looking at $50-$100 minimum to get something decent.
I’ll probably change the theme at some point, and if I do I’ll likely use Genesis. It’s a nice framework, easy to work with, and there are a lot of themes out there to choose from built on it.
In the mean time, I’m use a free template that someone spent their time building just to contribute to the community. I’ve released a couple of my own plugins to do the same. This author has limited time so leaving the links in place are our collective form of payment.
Links make the web go round and it’s really the least we can do.