What’s Software Worth?

Peter Sunde (TPB)

Image via Wikipedia

I’m back from a presentation by Peter Sunde, one of the founders of Flattr and The Pirate Bay, in Zurich about his new start up Flattr. The audience was really curious why people would pay money for something that they could get for free. I like Sunde’s answer: We also give to charity even though we don’t have to.

So is the future of Software charity? Peter says: It’s one option among many others. In the future, people will have to use all the channels they can to generate income.

I agree. Let’s ask us a few questions around “What’s a piece of software worth …”

  1. … if you download it from the internet and never user or install it.
  2. … if you download it from the internet, install it, but never use it.
  3. … if you download it from the internet, install it, and use it once.
  4. … if you download it from the internet, install it, and use it several times.
  5. … if you download it from the internet, install it, and use it all the time, making a living or even a fortune from it.

If you try to answer these seriously, you’ll quickly run into missing information: What kind of software are we talking here? An OS? Proprietary or Open source? Is that from the point of view of a user or a producer?

When I’m a user, the answers are: 0, 0, X, Y, Z. X can be 0 for the “I used it once and it didn’t work for me”. Or it could saved my life in which case I’d pay a lot more than asked on the price tag.

Y is more complicated. It can be 0 for open source or public domain software. Or it can be 0 because I love the software, and I’d like to buy it but I can’t afford it.

For Z, it becomes hard to come up with an excuse. Or rather any reason to assign 0 to Z is considered an excuse before we even listen. But how about this: In some third world countries, you can make a living from a few bucks per week. So you would need more than 100 years to earn enough money before you can afford to buy the software that allows you to earn the money to buy it. How just can a price be?

If you produce software, the answers are: X, X, X, X, X where X is the number on the price tag plus the cost for the lawyer and the prosecution plus a hefty sum to make sure you lying scoundrel won’t ever have enough money to pay for an Internet connection in your whole life!

But the numbers can even become negative. If you’re a company and you want to kick-start sales, you might offer a free version. If someone doesn’t like it, you not only lost one customer, you lost all his friends, too. And everyone who reads his blog.

Notice the gap? Why do I have to pay for software before I can give it a try? Yeah, shareware works that way but Maya doesn’t. I can’t return software after I bought it because I might have copied it. So when I return software, I must be a criminal. Apparently, “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t get a lot of love in some parts of the world. Dictatorships, regulars’ tables, software companies, record companies, movie rentals, game sellers.

Now comes Flattr and changes the game. Instead of giving a lot of money to the middle men, it gives money directly to the artist (-10% which is far better than any other offer you can get today).

For some reason, the middle men are upset.

Odd. “Concerned people” were upset when the written letter replaced the face-to-face meetings. And then when the telephone replaced the letter. And when both were replaced by email. And now by mobile phones. Evolution happens. It’s like a glacier: Slow, overwhelming, unstoppable.

So laws are installed. I’m not sure evolution cares much for laws; I hear pupils today don’t have the attention span anymore to read a whole word at once. Good luck suing them. I’m sure after they were found guilty, they will start buying the products as they should have in the first place.

How does Flattr fit into this picture? First of all, Flattr isn’t built on the assumption that there is a God-given right that people have to buy what I produce. Instead, it’s built on love. Love? Doesn’t sound like a very reliable basis.

But answer this: How do you get along with all the people in your street? Do you hate them? Apparently not because then, you’d move. So we do feel for each other, we just stopped the hugging and kissing – it just takes too much time. A nod must suffice.

Do you see teenagers screaming for their idols? While it may look ridiculous, it’s a very basic human emotion: Enthusiasm. If I like something, I’ll go to great lengths.

So teens buy all the CDs, the books, the magazines, the T-shirts, tickets, you name it. They actually pay a lot of money for something (or someone) they love.

It seems the problem is not the money, it’s the “love” part. If you love computer games and you’re ripped off by a company, you stop buying their games. If you love music but the record industry insists on selling songs by album (so you get 5 good songs), you stop buying CDs. If you love books and you just bought #3 of 4 and you go to Amazon just to find that you can by the first and the fourth but the second is out of print, so sorry.

Flattr works differently. You go somewhere on the ‘Net, see something. You don’t like it, you move on. Nothing gained, nothing lost. Specifically, the artist didn’t get your eternal hatred and you didn’t waste your time. If that had been a CD, you’d been angry for your lost money. So it’s a win over the current situation already.

But you like what you saw. One click later, a little bit of money trickled from you to the creator. It’s not much, often not enough to make a living. But it’s also a message: Someone liked this. That can be worth more than any amount of money.

Now people don’t get rich with this. Today. That doesn’t mean they won’t get enough to afford living from it tomorrow. Or even get rich. And there will always be more consumers than producers. And time is on your side.

If you write a book, that book will be on sale for a decade if it’s a huge success. Only how likely is that? A lot of books are already rare after 3 years. It’s just not economical for publishers to have every title in stock. But the Internet doesn’t forget. This blog post will still be available in ten years. Maybe it will still be relevant (although I hope not). The Flattr button to the right will still be there.

I will make money from this post forever. Even if I only make a penny a day from this, it’ll be a fortune one day. And nothing stops me to write another post.

One word of warning, though: Don’t expect the content industry to embrace this change. Why should they? They are already happy and content. For them, change only means less income or less power which means less income. 50-story skyscrapers don’t come for free. In the current game, they have little to win and everything to lose. Keep that in mind when you read another story of some company suing someone for being curious or social.

PS: I’m a professional software developer. I don’t get paid for my knowledge but for my time.

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