License Zero

gainful open software development

August 3, 2020

The Truth is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free note from a kindred spirit

On the off chance there’s anyone out there who still believes open software’s “funding” problems reflect something special about software, have a read through Nathan Robinson’s recent editor’s note, “The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free”. Perhaps we can see in another what’s so hard to see in ourselves.

In my reading, the problem here is evident: black-and-white, either-or thinking. Nathan begins his essay:

Paywalls are justified, even though they are annoying. … I try not to grumble about having to pay for content online, because I run a magazine and I know how difficult it is to pay writers what they deserve.

But by the end, he’s regressed to an insoluble-sounding conflict-of-goals again:

Creators must be compensated well. But at the same time we have to try to keep things that are important and profound from getting locked away where few people will see them. The truth needs to be free and universal.

To this I would respond, not just to Nathan, but to everyone stuck at this impasse: Don’t worry. You’re not stuck. None of the above is true.

Creators needn’t be compensated well just because they are creators. Creators of valuable works—works valued by others—ought to be compensated. Creators of highly and broadly valued works ought to be compensated well. I deserve, and shall assuredly receive, no compensation whatever for the bad musical improvizations, repetitive doodles, or unfunny, dead-end software libraries I churn out from time to time. Everyone, including me, should be fine with this.

Neither must useful works of every kind cost nothing to everyone. Even the greatest works remain manifestly irrelevant to the vast majority of people. And there are myriad, happier mediums between $0, expensive, and exclusive, in one dimension, and effortless, inconvenient, and inaccessible, in the other.

I happen to believe that in most areas of creative work, and in most adjacent industries, giving more away for $0 online would improve outcomes for most players, overall. Our business instincts and well-worn patterns haven’t quite kept up with the times, and never do. But there is nothing inherently worse about paying a fee you can afford than enduring an inconvenience you have the time to manage. When the works we need or want come readily available at affordable costs that we can pay, and paying is easy, there’s no great harm to access or progress or truth. That cost many not be great. But if a great many pay it, the results can be.

For those interested in economics, intellectual property, and history in the news industry specifically, I heartily recommend Will Slauter’s Who Owns the News?. You might also read up a bit on stalwart news institutions, like the Associated Press. What you find might surprise you.