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Asides

Why Give to Wikimedia?

Why Give to Wikimedia? is a new fundraiser blog for the Wikimedia Foundation that is actually quite good. (And powered by WordPress.)

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Ask Matt Essays

Price of Freedom

I got asked an interesting question today:

The only thing why (at least) I encode the footer is to prevent people from removing my designer link. I usually spend around 6 hours designing the graphics and coding the theme and some people simply take my link off and some of them even dare to write that the theme was designed and coded by them! How would you feel if someone took your WordPress script (since it’s free) and said they made it? Wouldn’t you like to bite their head off?

The response became too long for a comment, so here it is:

Kate, thousands of people every day remove the WordPress link, or my link, or search and replace the WP logo with their own and redistribute it, use it to spam, distribute hate speech, or any number of awful things you can imagine. So why have hundreds of people spent thousands of hours working on it?

Though the freedom intrinsic in the GPL that has allowed people to abuse WordPress it has allowed even more people to do amazing things and over time the good far, far outweighs the bad. Most importantly I feel like WordPress would have never gotten off the ground if it hadn’t been open from the beginning. (In fact there were several more functional blogging programs started around the same time that have since withered away.)

Ultimately I know our software isn’t going to change anyone’s spots. Good people will do good things with it, and bad people will do bad things with it — regardless of any protections I put in place. Windows Vista, a multi-billion dollar enterprise, was cracked within days. Does any piddling encoding I can do in PHP really matter? If protection like that isn’t broken it’s a statement of popularity, not security. I suppose could harass the bad guys, shut down their host, send them scary letters, but it’s just going to stress me out and like cockroaches they’ll pop up someplace else. I also know that most projects, software, and ideas die from obscurity, not piracy.

If you accept that bad people are going to be bad then the real question becomes how do you maximize the effect of the good instead of treating them just like the bad. (No one likes to be treated like a criminal.) In my brief experience here’s three things that work:

  1. Give people the tools they need to succeed. This can be interpreted on a lot of levels, but personally I’ve found at the most base the freedoms provided by the GPL and other open source licenses are incredibly empowering.
  2. Celebrate the successes. Talk, connect, promote, and embrace the people who are creating things on top of your creation. (The best revenge against someone doing something bad is helping create something awesome.)
  3. Provide a way for people to choose to help you, and try to remove as much friction from that process as possible. Now that you’ve ignored the bad people and delighted the good, by their very nature they’ll want to give something back.

The success stories around this model are numerous and growing every day. People can and do rip-off the entire Wikipedia, but it’s still become one of the top ten sites on the internet and a marvel of what can happen when you let go. (Not to mention it is run entirely on open source software.) WordPress itself was built on top of a pre-existing GPL product called b2/cafelog. Anyone can run the software behind our hosted service WordPress.com and create competitive sites, and many have, but it hasn’t hurt us one bit. Linux, GNU, and the thousands of related desktop projects haven’t taken a bit longer than folks had hoped, but the impact they’re having, especially on emerging economies, is dramatic. The list goes on and on. It’s not hard to join the movement, but first you have to figure out who you’re fighting, who you’re trying to help, and if the price of freedom is something you’re willing to embrace.