Wednesday 16 June 2004

So Dave Winer has pulled all (most?) of the free content. Authors can, at some point, take advantage of a one time offer to get a copy of their content. Nice Dave, good boy. In the mean time, criticism is supposedly muted because people’s content is being ‘held hostage’ for at least the rest of the month. (I don’t actually know about that, all I’ve read is the criticism. I haven’t bothered with the nicey-nice stuff.) [Update in the interests of completeness: there is now a transition plan to 90-day free hosting on Content has been restored.]

A couple of things concern me about this. One is this persistent notion that’s probably been around since the beginning of time and will probably be around until the end that having the right to do something is a justification for doing that thing. (Hint: "but I’m allowed to do that" is a non-defence against criticisms of your failures of courtesy, generosity or general personability. The whole point of that stuff is that it requires you to do more for others than the bare minimum that you’re compelled to do.)

The other is this notion that if you’re getting something for free, you deserve what you get when it all turns sour. As others have noticed, this is the same stuff that was levelled at people who were shocked about Movable Type’s new licencing schemes. Mark Pilgrim re-wrote that debate in his terms in his Freedom 0 essay. What the people who wanted something for free did wrong wasn’t trying to get something for free ("something free", if you don’t like people playing fast-and-loose with the multiple senses of "free"), it was not getting a guarantee of that freedom. Hopefully Shelley Powers can do something similar with her thoughts on The Value of Free:

There’s nothing wrong with not doing the free thing. However, there’s also nothing wrong with the people who accepted the free thing, freely given… Each person who accepted these free things also gave something back in return: whether it was bodies when webloggers were few, or grateful acknowledgement when webloggers were many. Though those who have benefited from these free services in the past should be grateful, they don’t deserve to be called "cheap" or cut loose without warning. Free does not equate to no value.

Shelley Powers

The point of money is to abstract over some notion of value in a way that allows values to be compared. It’s efficient to be able to compare price tags. But the consistent confusion of money and the value it represents in some cases is concerning for all kinds of reasons. Limiting concern to Free Software alone, it would mean that there is no quality without money; that there are no ethical obligations without money; and that nothing of value is exchanged without money.

My personal instincts about this favour social changes that move from a rights based discussion ("I’m allowed to do this, I’m not compelled to do that") to a courtesy and generosity based discussion. What were the nice things Dave Winer could have done if he couldn’t provide free hosting anymore? What’s an ethical way to write software? What’s an appropriately thankful way to use it? I know, oh, I know that people have been talking in these terms for thousands of years too. I still wish they’d do it more often.