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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 (s aol), 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.
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 (s orcl) — 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 (s rht) 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.