The curse of free beer.

Well, it’s come up again, the age old argument that certain people always seem to raise. Often in defense of open source software, but in general, in defense of “free stuff”. The “free as in beer” part, free speech has nothing to do with this. This editorial, like most of my other ones, is a rant, I make no bones about it. It goes slightly into hyperbole on occasion, but the core of it should be rational.

If you want to give counter arguments, or whatever, feel free, that’s what the comment box on the bottom is for.

What am I talking about here today? I’m talking about the argument that’s of the form: “Don’t judge/criticize people doing this project. They’re doing this for no compensation, in their own free time, so don’t expect so much from them, and if you don’t like it, don’t use it/play it/etc.” For example, Here. Nevermind that the thread’s descended into a different brand of idiocy.

Frankly, I don’t get this argument very much, it seems to make very little sense to me. But there’s lots of pieces to it, so I should take it on piece by piece to avoid making it a confusing mess.

First, overall, what is this argument telling us? It’s telling us that, because person X, works on a project Y, for free, that we should, in some combination:

  1. Note that it’s free.
  2. Because it’s free: Not expect quality (supposedly compared with “commercial” stuff)
  3. Because they’re doing it for free: we should praise them.
  4. We shouldn’t, or don’t even have the right to, criticize person X’s suitability to do project Y in the first place (as a consequence of “free” and the “we should praise” parts probably)
  5. Ignore it if we don’t like it (supposedly ‘cause it “does no harm”)
  6. Oh, and did we mention it was free?

I think that covers most of the major demands of the argument, more or less.

To cut to the chase, let’s take on the foundation of the argument first, the for free (exclamation points optional) part. Why is it, that we’re so obsessed with this?

It makes even less sense in the context of fan translation. The very act of translating a work is creating a wholly derivative work. Under the Berne Convention, if we don’t have permission from the copyright holder, it’s pretty clear cut that what we do isn’t legal.

If we so much as tried to profit in any way from our work, the legal liability would be enough to stop all but the most bull-headed people. Instead, we exist in the legal shadows where if we try not to arouse the wrath of the copyright holders by making it not worth their while to sue us into the ground. Not making any money whatsoever is part of it. As is not encouraging piracy. So, Duh, of course it’s going to be free.

But what exactly is it about the whole “it’s free” thing that makes people go “ooooh ahhhh!” like tourists at a street performance? I like free stuff as much as anyone else, but this goes farther than simple “wow that’s nice.” Is it because someone’s “sticking it up for the little guy” against “Big Business” or something? Are we making anyone who even appears to do so a hero? Is this some kind of sick post-modern cliche romanticism here?

How much investment does someone need in order to write some software, or translate a book? The tiny sums required to get a computer these days, a few pieces of software, dictionaries, manuals, and lots and lots of time. It’s not like they had to go and invest a tens of thousands of dollars for equipment here. So we can’t be praising them for some great “self sacrifice” like starving for their art, or whatever.

But time is money! Right? So they really are sacrificing money! Oh yeah sure, if you want to look at it that way. But then, what’s the value of their time? Who knows, could be $5,000/hr, could be $0. One thing is clear though, they’re working on this project, right? If we like to think they’re rational (economist’s usage of the word) expected utility maximizers, then most likely we can infer that value doing project > value doing something else.

Maybe they’re only getting ego points for it, but if you’re telling me they’re engaging in an act that eats up their time and resources, for something that benefits them in no way, not even self-gratification via altruistic behavior, you’ll have to show me how that works.

But the real kicker of this grand argument though, is the “they’re doing it for free, so obviously it’s quality isn’t as good” bit. I have no idea where they come up with that one. Maybe it’s true in an industrial setting. If I want to build, say, a TV set that I will give away for free, then above overhead costs, each and every set would cost me money to make and give out, so if I skimp on the cost of parts a bit, I’d be able to push out more TV sets to more people (making more people happy) for the same amount of money. Okay, that’s reasonable, right?

Well, I hate to break the news, but we’re talking about intellectual property here. I may spend $2million out of pocket developing the world’s next greatest video game, but once that’s paid out, it costs me practically nothing to make copies. Add in that for intellectual property, the main up front cost is often simply time, whether it’s the time of developers to write code, time of artists to do CG, etc. But once again, get a group of volunteers, how much non-time resources do they have to put in to make an intellectual good? Not too much that I can see, not if they’re writing a book or software or whatever.

A manufacturer with revenue can invest to improve quality, while a manufacturer without, can’t. But someone sitting at a desk translating a work, is the same guy, doing the same work, whether he’s getting paid, or not. Once you give him enough money to live comfortably while working (as opposed to starving), throwing more money at him isn’t going to significantly improve quality.

So, why exactly should we expect lesser quality from a free intellectual good? There is nothing standing in the way between the guy and a good end product except for things that take away from his time. Or does the lack of a paycheck give the guy an excuse to slack off? Well, if that’s the case, I’d say that’s more a problem of being proud of one’s work and motivation.

So, looking back, why are we affording some kind of moral high ground for these people? Simply doing something for free should neither bring you praise nor shield you from criticism. If you do good work, if you make things people like and want to use, then by all means, you should be praised, on top of that you’re being generous and giving it out for free? Then even more praise for you.

If you stink, if you’re unqualified, don’t have the skills, and in general clutter the environment with your very presence in the marketplace, then of course we, as people standing in the marketplace, have a right to disapprove and criticize, free or no.

“But what does the public know!” Well, potentially a lot. You might like to pretend that the masses out there are all uniformly stupid. But mixed in with the loud idiots, are experts with more than enough qualifications to tear your work up. They exist, don’t pretend they don’t. Only a fool would ignore those comments, how you distinguish between the two, how you use them, is an exercise in personal judgment and character.

Finally, “Well, if you don’t like it, don’t use it!” It’s not hurting anyone by being out there, right? Choice is a wonderful thing!

Oh sure, as an individual, I have this choice. But, step back for a second and think about the community first. If crap gets put out into the world, for free, then it becomes part of the community. Well, if enough crap gets put out, soon, we’ll be wading in it, and newcomers visiting the community, the people who don’t know what’s good or bad, how will they possibly know what to look at?

I was looking around curious if there were a better sound editing software than Audacity without going all out into sound forge and the like which was beyond my needs. Page after page after page of useless, expensive, craptastic shareware things, horribly implemented, bad interfaces, incomplete feature sets. I was wading in crap, and crap that cost money to boot. Even if I were willing to pay good money for such software, finding one that suited my needs out of all that was impossible. In the end, I gave up. This is the sort of situation we want to avoid. All that choice did me no good, and actually cost me plenty of time.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, and things that get released into the community contribute, for better or for worse, to the overall quality and perceptions of it. That’s why the voices of the rest of the world are important, if no one calls out bad work for what it is, no one calls the emperor out on his new clothes, then it leaves those who are unable to know good from bad with no way to make a comparison themselves. We can’t stop you from putting things out there, that’d be censorship, but we shouldn’t be just bending over and letting you have your way with our home either.

Bottom line?

Free isn’t an defense nor a license to do whatever, it’s merely a feature, and like any single feature, it won’t make gold out of lead.


  1. Aaron
    08/13/2007 11:30 PM | #

    Amen to all of that. I don’t understand people’s complaints mainly because they don’t have to accept this version of the product.

  2. MokouMoe
    04/24/2011 10:26 AM | #

    Can i translate this in to Thai and Post it in Forum?
    Here in Thailand we are starting to have a problem in low quality Fansubber and would like to spread your word around.

  3. 04/24/2011 12:10 PM | #

    I don’t mind if my articles are translated and redistributed, so long as there’s a link/reference so people can see the original article.

  4. MokouMoe
    04/24/2011 01:24 PM | #

    Thank you. I will put a link to this article then

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