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I Think Your App Should Be Free


Guest post by Joey Flores, co-founder of Earbits,com, an online radio platform that help labels, artists and promoters acquire fans and market music and live events.

[Editors Note: This article was originally published on October 4th, 2011. It was an allegory intended to show developers and the tech community what musicians go through every day in protecting their copyrighted works from filesharing. It ultimately shot to the top of HackerNews and Reddit, and generated hundreds of comments from the tech community.]

Well, you've done it. After $15,000 invested and six months of slaving away with 3 of your hacker buddies, you've launched your awesome-sauce new app in the Android app store. It is truly a thing of marvel.

If the first day's downloads are any indicator, your $0.99 app is going to make you and your friends a cool $50,000 the first year and some straggler dollars for years to come. You've got app idea #2 brewing and this is the beginning of something good. You all toast to your hard work, stay up late watching the first day download totals, and dollars, adding up, and go to bed exhausted and happy.

What the hell? That's Our App!

What, no champagne with breakfast? Clearly you should be riding high on the success of your application's immense day two downloads! But no, you wake up to see that your numbers are flat. You search Google for the name of your app and, lo and behold, you find an app alright… your awesome FREE app, uploaded by another user to a shady black market app store with your app name in the description, and it's getting 100 times the downloads that your paid app got, and climbing.

Your app has been cracked and uploaded for free. It ranks higher in Google than your app does. The whole world is linking to it.

You contact the app store furious. You manage to have it taken down, but every day, every FUCKING DAY, there is another cracked and free version of your app in this slimy app store. There it is, again, available for free, and your paid app in the real retailer is a stagnant pile of code being ignored.

You are forced to play police every day. You find the next cracked version of your app on shady site #132 and report it. You scream to high heavens at the people from the app store. Why can't they do a better job of making sure copycat apps don't make it into the store? These thiefs, err…sorry, pirates…errr…whatever, are getting all the downloads. Nobody is buying your app…and yet, there is such clear demand.

They're doing the best they can, they say. Most of all, they're complying with the law, they say.

But every day, your app is in the free store. Poor users don't even know they're downloading something they're not supposed to. I mean, who's to understand these unclear laws or know which sites are legal and which are not? Pooooor users.

Information Wants to Be Free!

After ranting endlessly on Hacker News and the like, finally the person who keeps stealing your app posts a reply.

They think all apps should be free.

It's not stealing, they're just giving away copies.

Your code is still there for you to do with as you please. Nobody has stolen it. You've got your original and can do whatever you want with it.

You plead with them. You spent your own money, and that of an investor's, making this app. You want and need to recoup your expenses or nobody will invest in you again.

The reply? They don't like your VC.

Your VC has a long history of screwing over entrepreneurs and they don't want to see them make any money. Only a fraction goes to you anyway. It's really the VC who's losing out, and screw them. They've been known to patent troll and stop innovation. Your VC is evil.

Fine! Maybe the VC isn't a friend to consumers or their own portfolio, but that isn't your fault, and this is your app! You put everything you had into it and, look, the downloads are now in the millions. The FREE downloads.

Isn't it better to be known for creating a cool app that you didn't make money from than making a few bucks and remaining obscure, they ask.

You tell them that's your choice to make, but they don't think it is.

They tell you your business model is broken. You should make money some other way. Maybe you should sell t-shirts with your company's name on them, or put on events of some kind and charge for tickets. That's where the real money is. Paid apps are a thing of the past, they say.

Look to the future.