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Summary:

For anyone trying to understand why bloggers would give their content for free to a site like The Huffington Post — which is being sued by contributors for as much as $100 million — here’s a related question: Why do some programmers choose to create open-source software?

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There’s been a lot of sturm und drang recently about the lawsuit that some bloggers have launched against The Huffington Post, arguing they deserve to be compensated for their writing, despite having agreed to provide their work knowing full well they wouldn’t be paid. Many of those commenting on the issue can’t seem to understand why someone would choose to write for free, and I’ve been trying to come up with an analogy that would help. I came across a blog post about a completely unrelated topic and it hit me: Blogging for free is a lot like writing open-source software.

The post in question, which I came across on Hacker News, is by a programmer named Ollie Rattue and is entitled “Anarchism, Capitalism, Altruism: Why Do I Open Source?” It has nothing whatsoever to do with The Huffington Post, but is about the author’s experiences and releasing various software projects as open source — meaning they are free for anyone to use. He describes how he was working on a recent project and thought to himself:

I wasn’t being paid by a client. Although satisfying, the work wasn’t challenging or particularly interesting. So why was I doing it? Is this altruism at its purest or am I doing this for selfish reasons?

Rattue says he came to the conclusion that he gets a number of benefits out of creating open-source software in his free time outside his regular job, including:

  • It improves the work. Though he knew the code base for a specific project, Rattue says because he was open sourcing it, “I added clear comments and references [and] by coding for someone else I actually produced a better product.” Writing for outlets such as The Huffington Post, even for free, can do the same for bloggers and authors.
  • It enhances the brand. Rattue says working on open source “sends a signal to the world that you are an expert in your field… I get my work in front of more people, always putting my face and name on the product to increase my personal brand.” Writers are having to become brands as well, and many of the bloggers who wrote for The Huffington Post — including Tasini — did so to enhance their brand. Says Rattue:

    I like to think that someone who stumbles across my small corner of the internet would get a sense that I am committed and know my stuff based on my free apps, code, and my blog. My passion is my biggest sales tool. Open source demonstrates it.

  • There’s positive feedback. Working on open source was satisfying in part because of the responses to it, Rattue says. “I like to be able to look at my buzz page and see a whole list of positive comments. I like that someone knew me at a conference and thanked me for saving them time. Open source opens you up to respect and criticism from our peers.” The exact same could be said for blogging.

The world of open-source programming is complex, with different licenses and approaches that aren’t really worth getting into (you can read more about them here if you’re interested). But in a nutshell, open-source software is designed to allow anyone to use free of charge, provided they agree not to sell it. Some licenses require that if a licensee develops a related piece of software with the code, they must release that as open source as well, but other licenses do not.

Arianna Huffington by World Economic Forum

The analogy with writing for outlets like Huffington Post isn’t perfect, but it has a lot of similarities. As founder Arianna Huffington noted in her response to the Tasini lawsuit, writers for the site maintain the rights to their content; in other words, they can post it wherever they like, and make money from it in other ways if they wish. The site also doesn’t collect money from those who read this freely-submitted content, although it does make money from the ads that run alongside the content.

In a similar way, there are companies such as MySQL — which was acquired by Sun Microsystems for $1 billion in 2008 — that are corporate entities, even though much of what they sell is based on open-source software. Red Hat has built a billion-dollar business on support and other services related to open-source software. One could argue that The Huffington Post does something similar: it produces its own content, but it also aggregates and distributes free content, and that is a value-added service.

And there will always be people who are willing to write for free — whether they are doing it on their own blogs, for Wikipedia, or for a site like The Huffington Post — just as there will always be people who are willing to create open-source software. Would it nice if everyone could get paid a handsome salary for everything they do? Sure. But one of the strengths of the web is that it allows other methods of compensation to flourish, and the HuffPo is just another example of that in action.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Lordcolus

  1. No. No. Nononononono.

    Not even close on this one, for a number of reasons:

    1. Most developers working on open source also use that same software or framework in their day jobs. Working on open source makes the day job easier.

    2. Developer make more than freelance writers, and that often involves an exponent. I took a HUGE paycut shifting over to writing and editing than I did as a developer. Developers don’t usually have to have a second job at night to make ends meet. Freelancers don’t usually have that luxury.

    3. You aren’t building something FOR A COMPANY TO SELL. HuffPo was sold, plain and simple. You can argue that they only sold ads against the content and writers kept their rights, but without a lot of that free content, there was no HuffPo to be sold to AOL. You can sell support for that software, or make money writing a book about that software, but you aren’t building something specifically for one company. Sure, Red Hat had its own distro and made money on support, but there are tons of other companies who also benefit from that open source. With HuffPo, only one person benefitted, and that’s Arianna. There’s no altruism involved.

    Comparing writing for the alleged brand-building to coding (or doing documents for or..) an open source project is like comparing indentured servitude to a commune. They aren’t even close.

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  2. “But in a nutshell, open-source software is designed to allow anyone to use free of charge, provided they agree not to sell it.”

    This sounds factually wrong to me. None of the popular open source or free software licences has this condition, not the GPL, GPL variants nor BSD licences nor Apache licences. I can’t name a licence with this condition but maybe you can.

    Otherwise it’s in some ways a useful comparison.

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    1. Carl is correct. Sorry I didn’t catch that, Mathew. You can sell open source software, but there are generally accepted conventions for doing so, and depending on your license, there are source code conditions. Explanation of GPL:
      http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html

      Of course, the general intent is still free, and if I pay for a distro, I can also make copies and hand the software to you without charge, something I can’t do with MS Office.

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      1. There’s a reason I said in the post that I didn’t want to get into the various aspects of different free software licenses — which is why I linked to a description of them. It’s an analogy, not a perfect one I will admit, but still a useful analogy. People write open source for the reasons outlined in the post, and I think those reasons apply to writing blog posts for free as well.

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    2. According to definitions at Wikipedia — which I admit may be imperfect — BSD and some other open source systems require that the code be released in the same way that the original author did. I assumed that meant free of charge. If I am wrong I’d be happy to correct it.

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      1. Not sure what Wikipedia reference you are referring to but anyone can charge for open source software. Now if anyone will pay is a different question….

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  3. Mathew,

    I see where your coming from and I get the analogy your trying to make. I think the liscencing comments are probably unnecessary thought and like confusing the actual discussion. As a blogger that provides free content to other sites as well my own, without expectation of monetary recognition, I do it mostly for self branding and additional reach of my content.

    Where I think the HuffPo missed out was the idea on share the reward with the people that made it all possible, the content providers. Even a token thank you, of a small amount, would probably have gone a long way compared to nothing… The issue with large payouts for community based sites/content aggregators is that community feels a sence of ownership, and they get upset when they are not recognized by the old and new owner.

    My 2c.

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  4. Mathew, I think this analogy’s partially a good one, but there’s one big distinction you don’t address.

    Free-open-source developers understand that they are contributing to building a collective public good. Though the value they contribute can be leveraged by private/for-profit entities in various ways, the heart of what’s being created is fundamentally not for sale and not capable of being “owned.” And though individual developers may earn dividends from their work via “personal branding” or whuffie or whatever you want to call it, that incentive is only part of a much more complex set of motivations. Whereas the content contributed to HuffPo is essentially a private good — it’s owned by each writer, as you say. And any collective value created by the sum of the contributor’s labors does not become a public good, as with open source code, but rather, in this case, became (part of the value of) a company that Huffington was able to sell for a nice price.

    I happen to think Tasini’s suit is ludicrous and most HuffPo contributors surely understood the nature of the relationship. I don’t mean my objections to the open-source comparison to be taken as any sort of critique of HuffPo’s business model, which I think is shrewd, though ultimately problematic. Rather, I just think you’re not giving the open source model its full due.

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    1. You are right, Scott — which is why I admitted it wasn’t a perfect analogy. It’s true that open source contributors typically do this in part because they are helping to build something larger that has a public benefit. But do they necessarily expect to be compensated when someone sells something that involves their code? I don’t think so. In any case, I was simply trying to get at some of the motivations behind why people do either one of these things, and I thought that blog post by the developer did a nice job of describing them.

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    2. I agree with Scott here. Open-source is not the correct analogy. Maybe you could say it is a bit like going on TV for free except in this case the TV was partially built by the contributors. Open-source coding motivation is very different and centers around the idea of contributing to a commons which is not proprietary and which cannot be commercialized as is. See other commenters who explain how the commercialization comes from doing something extra.

      I mean, have you ever heard of programmers working for free for Microsoft?

      I think the lesson here is that creators should get their act together regarding the license/control framework of their work if they don’t want the platform to be sold to AOL down the line. If they contribute to a commercially-driven site for exposure, they should understand that they are giving up control and risking commercialization in ways which they may not want.

      I write for free for exposure at times for free but I would not code for free for a commercial software company. Open-source is about commons-building, writing for free for exposure is a different beast, motivationally speaking.

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  5. your analogy fails to work. a huge difference exists between the huffpo example and that of open source writers. as you note, companies such as mysql made their fortune on providing extras built around the kernal of open source. but that was on them to extend the service and provide extras they could charge for. huff po is quite something else. there’s nothing communal about it. they were able to build a huge business based upon the labor of free contributions, but in return, they did not contribute back anything into the “community” of laborers. also, keep in mind that open source software often is put out there under terms of the GPL, which governs usage and – i believe – provides a firewall against a commericial interest from taking unfair advantage. all power to huffington, but she can’t seriously be viewed as a communitarian such as those found in the open software community.

    sorry, but you failed to think this one through sufficiently.

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  6. I take snaps and write for a living. If I want to contribute a guest post to a site for no fee, I have a reason. That may be because I’m doing someone a favour, I want build my brand, or whatever. The point is, I choose to contribute on those conditions.

    Now many freelance travel writers (my speciality) may bemoan the fact that so many people are willing to contribute their pieces and photos to web sites free of charge or for tiny fees, but that’s their right. The site in question may make money off the back of this crowd-sourced content, but that’s their business. If you contribute on one basis, don’t complain later that you should be given a greater slice of the pie where there has been no deceptive conduct.

    The argument that the Huffpo writers weren’t building something to sell is spurious. They contributed for their own reasons with no thought as to whether sometime in the future the company/site would be sold and that they would share in the sale price (even if it could be calculated). Simply put, they’re now trying to carve themselves a slice of the action. If the site had made a stonking loss, do you seriously think they would have put their hands in their pockets to pay off the debts? “In your dreams”, as we say in Australia.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Tony — the rise in hobby photography and crowd sourcing of photos is a great comparison.

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  7. Sander van der Wal Friday, April 15, 2011

    There are many more writers than places where they can advertise themselves for a large number of leads. This means that a writer will have to pay a lot for such a spot.

    No writer can afford to pay writing for HuffPo, but they can all afford working for free there. Hence HuffPo has an limitless supply of free content, and writers have no negotiating power.

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  8. Thinking about it again, I find this a very useful analogy.

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    1. Thanks — me too :-)

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  9. Nice analogy in some ways, though the way she showed a total lack of class after the sale with her contributors makes it satisfying to see someone call her out on it. Once a B always a B it seems.

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  10. Now, if all the bloggers were to go and set up a new rival site with all their content and reconnect with their audience in a more free way, then that would be cool and more like open source devt.

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    1. I agree, Adam — I would love to see something like that happen.

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