Jan 31

A debate is raging on the ‘net these days as to whether all software, music and digital content should be free.

Wouldn’t it be great if all software was free?  And if cars, homes, sex and big-screen TVs were free too.  And I wish I could stop paying my taxes, fly like a bird, see through solid objects with X-ray vision, and poop out golden eggs by the dozen.

But unfortunately there’s a big difference between fantasy and reality, and in the real world:

If something has value,
we have to pay for it.

Of course we don’t necessarily have to pay with money.  We can pay with our time, by looking at advertisements or agreeing to help a friend with his PC.  In some markets we could pay with chickens. 

eBay is a $60 billion global marketplace.  Should all that stuff be free too?  We have locks on our doors to protect the people we love and things we value.  What if everything we hold dear was simply free for the taking?

If something has value,
we have to pay to keep and protect it.

Software, music and digital content take real effort to produce, and therefore have real value.  In a civilized society and market economy, people trade goods and services for a reasonable fee in order to make a living.  Society benefits because individuals can specialize, raising the value of each individual and the entire economy collectively, resulting in more innovation, personal wealth and chance for a better life for most people.

So software, music and digital content should be worth whatever value the free market decides.  We should pay the market price, or seek a competitor, open source, build it ourselves, or do without.  If somebody steals a digital album, it’s a crime akin to walking out of Wal-Mart with a CD under their coat, but certainly not worth a $220,000 fine.  There needs to be realism on both sides of this debate.  In short:

Let the market decide what digital content is worth,
and treat digital content like its tangible equivalent.

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Article published on January 31, 2008

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16 Responses to “Should All Software Be Free?”

  1. Wing Says:

    Free or not free, that is not the question. But people who think up, embrace, or legitimize DRM are idiots. DRM is a deterrent and cause people to look for alternatives, and when no alternatives exist (e.g., when DRM is legally mandated, or when free (libre) alternatives ceases to exist) people will just give up. That’s the real reason why music piracy is so rampant.

  2. Timm Says:

    Wing, thanks so much for commenting! You are so right that DRM = BAD. It does nothing but punish the honest people. I am glad that iTunes and Amazon and others have come to their senses to give DRM the boot.

    But DRM is not a valid excuse for music piracy. Remember when Radio Shack used to ask customers for their full name and address for every purchase? What a hassle! But did that hassle give me the right to shoplift from the store? Of course not. My recourse was to complain or shop somewhere else. Same with DRM. Don’t like the hassle? Then buy the CD and rip the MP3’s yourself. DRM does not give the right to steal the music instead. If that was the case, then all music piracy would cease immediately since music is now available DRM-free. But of course piracy won’t end today or anytime soon.

  3. Alexander Says:

    I actually do believe all software, music, and media will eventually be free.

    Society as a whole is becoming more and more service based. Anything that is manufactured (or in media’s case, simply a finished product) will be expected to be tailored to suit a particular consumer’s (or particular organization’s) unique and specific needs. This entails both creation and any ongoing maintenance.

    Eventually people will refuse to pay for mass produced, one-size-fits all software, music, and even films. If you want a person’s money, then you had better make something for THAT person, otherwise it will be expected to be free.

    You can either stay frustrated and curse the impending future, or you can simply adapt. I’ll choose the later.

  4. Timm Says:

    If the markets decide it should be free, then I’m OK with that. But it will never be totally free. We’ll pay by having to watch ads, or pay a subscription or tax, or pay for support, or pay through reduced quality and innovation because the profit motive has been eliminated.

    But somebody somewhere will have to pay. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is a universal truth that spans cultures, species and time.

  5. JarZe Says:

    I totally agree with Timm on “Somebody somewhere will have to pay”… I know DRM is a pain right now, but I’ve always tried to put myself in that position… For instance, would it be ok if you just went to work and spend an entire day, week or month working on a project and STILL not get paid??? I don’t think so… And what if your boss said, I cannot pay you because that project you worked for is given out for free, so you’ll just have to wait until someone donates something and you’ll get 10% of that!!! WHAT!!!!
    I think (like Timm says) that someone has to pay, there will always be alternatives (e.g. open source) but you pay in a different way, support, “no warranty” is a huge cost that most of the customers aren’t willing to pay…
    After all this I can just conclude that DRM and Piracy are both wrong, but that’s a VERY personal approach…

  6. Weave Jester Says:

    The question is not whether digital content _should_ be free, but whether there’s anything we can ultimately do to prevent it. Sure, it would be nice to be paid to produce creative works, but no-one’s yet come up with an iron-clad way of enforcing this.

    It may be that there is such a scheme, but on the other hand, it may turn out that it’s just impossible to prevent people from copying mass-produced works. If it’s the latter, we’ll just have to shrug, and look to other markets from which to make a buck. This may be unfair, but lots of things in life are unfair. If it turns out there’s nothing we can do about it, then no amount of complaining will change anything.

  7. Irishman Says:

    Please continue to debate DRM since it is quite interesting to hear how one would solve this fairly large problem.

    But I have a more basic question about Timm’s article: if everything was free why would I need to poop out golden eggs by the dozen?

  8. Mr Speaker Says:

    “The mob does not need a business model”

    We can feel disgruntled and upset that no one wants to pay for our product/tune/movie – but we better get used to it. People have discovered the optimal method for consuming content they are interested in. Measures to hinder the experience (such as DRM and ads) are annoyances that just aren’t necessary to them: “Advertising is a form of censorship which the Internet routes around” (http://blog.futurestreetconsulting.com/?p=39)

    It’s too late to turn back now. If something can’t be freely forwarded then it’s broken and the people don’t want it.

    Like Weave Jester said – shrug and put on your thinking caps!

  9. cranium1200 Says:

    Not all the softwares are free. If it has quality we have to pay a good sum for it. Pirated software can also result in Sarbanes-Oxley violations, which leads to fines and even more problems.

  10. Patrick Says:

    “And if cars, homes, sex and big-screen TVs were free too. ”

    uh…are you saying you pay for it?

    More to the point, you need to define “value”. The value of anything is closely related to its scarcity: given that digital assets can be reproduce with almost no cost, any scarcity is artificial. The other things you list all have a cost of marginal unit production associated with them (even sex).

    I’m not saying all digital assets should be free, just that your analysis misses the point about what makes software, and all digital content, different.

  11. timm Says:

    Patrick, you are correct that digital content is different than tangible items because once digital content is created, the cost to replicate/distribute it is nearly zero. But the cost to create, maintain, support and update digital content is definitely not zero. That cost must be recovered somehow. Also, by using your logic, a music CD should cost only 10 cents–the cost to manufacture the plastic disc. But of course there are many more costs that go into making music.

    In reality, the total lifecycle cost must be considered, along with supply/demand to determine the final price. If people stop paying for software/music/movies, then people will eventually get what they pay for. I appreciate my local bar band, but they are definitely not U2, for which I’m willing to pay money to see and listen to.

    This goes back to my core point: let the free market decide each product’s value and cost.

  12. Patrick Says:

    “But the cost to create, maintain, support and update digital content is definitely not zero.”

    Sure – I don’t think anyone is suggesting that software should be maintained, supported or updated for free. All those things have a marginal cost and there are business thriving today in supplying them against free/gratis software. As for the cost of creation – it is surely there, software does not write itself. But access to the software is increasingly a loss leader (especially given open source development), and it is surely hard to maintain and update software if you are not developing it.

    I don’t think “my logic” leads to the conclusion that a music CD should cost 10 cents, at the same time, the price of music on media today is greatly inflated. As a music lover, I strongly believe that musicians should be afforded a very good living. But that does not mean that I believe that we only have great musicians because they are paid a great amount. Mozart was not a rich man. It did not prevent him from composing. I would separate industrial goods from the arts for the purpose of this conversation.

    When you say, “let the free market decide each products’ value and cost”, do you mean the price? If so I agree: and this is what the market is doing, and prices are going down as free alternatives increase the pressure on proprietary providers to reign in the marginal profit on each copy of their software.

  13. Tr.im is Back Up for Now… But Can You Trust It to Last? Says:

    […] when something touches the World Wide Web, we all expect it to be free.  We’ve been spoiled by the likes of Google, which makes billions of dollars from its search […]

  14. Apple iTunes Rewards its Honest Customers with a Big Fat Bill Says:

    […] has value, we should pay for it.  Unlike many socialists, miscreants and criminals on the Web, I’ve always been a proponent for paying a reasonable fee for music, movies and software. “Software, music and digital content […]

  15. DarkSneaselFP Says:

    “And if cars, homes, sex and big-screen TVs were free too. ”
    if you pay for sex, the woman is a bi*** ¬¬
    if you don’t pay, it is your woman, she is a cow, or you’re raping her (in that case you should be arrest, but have sex with a woman who was victmin of international trafic is a rape too)

    when you say Free Software, do you mean Freeware or Free (fredom) software?
    for me, all software should be free (freedom/open source) but not all free (no cost)

    “I’ve always been a proponent for paying a reasonable fee for music, movies and software. “Software, music and digital content.”

    I watched anime PAYING FOR IT during 10+ years in cable tv, and what i got? censorship on the content, scripts and musics replaced, i was cheated, they sell me fake content legally!
    so now that i know that, i dont have money to pay for watch every single episode/music importing from japan+taxes+price, so by now i’m dowloading, but whenever i have money for this i will pay for it right now, but whenever i have, i will pay!

    so, what you sugest me to do? keep being conned watching fake anime? whatever they want me to like, but not anime, because they assume that no one will like it and refuse to provide?

    the internet allow me to know more culture than the standard method allow, thanks to the internet i’m know new artists who i may never discover in the traditional way, and if i donate money for some one who is providing he/she music for free, 90-99% of the money goes to the artist (instead of 10% in the traditional way)

    nowadays anyone can produce music with a semi-professional audio quality, so why they keep selling CD’s of “Avatar” for a price higher than the DVD? the cost of production is higher? no.
    sorry for my english.

  16. DarkSneaselFP Says:

    about the drm

    we live in a society, so we’re partners, then we have the right to vote, if we do not agree with the rules we shouldn’t follow them.

    the rules aren’t fair, they never was, historicaly we had a lot of wars, cheat, slavery, dictatorship on the past who give power to an elite, who did everything to keep the power, and that power was passed ahead along the generations, through particular schools and others legal forms (and the people agree that this is fair)

    its not my fault what my ancestry did, i don’t have to pay for this, but its not fault of the descendants of slaves too, and they are paying for what hapened in the past until nowadays.

    in my country, the price of cd’s is an absurd, completely out of the reality of the power of consumption of the ordinary people, they argue that they have prejudice due the piracy, and had to overcharge who pay to recover the prejudice, but that is not what i see.
    in normal circunstances, if you want e.g. a software for editing images, and cant pay for a photoshop, you look for alternatives.
    the competition grows, and adobe has to keep improving photoshop, or drop the price, but thanks to the piracy no! they can keep selling it for the price who they want, and those who can pay (and really need this software, work with this) pay for it, and those who cant, piracy it, the competition dont grow, adobe has nothing to worry about.
    so, as you may see, the piracy is helping, now they can sell for the price who they want without carry about the competition, they pretend that they care about piracy so the people who can pay, continue paying for it.
    the piracy dont affect the the big industry, affect the small. that is what they dont want the people to see.
    that is just my thought, but i had good reasons to conclude that.

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