Apps, Mobile & SMS

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.

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  1. Interesting perspective; I would agree that piracy (read: thievery), in any form, is reserved for those who don’t appreciate the time, energy, and expense that went into the craft, and don’t respect those that are affected in result of their negligent decision.
    With the pervasiveness of streaming services and endless (free) downloads, the user experience has become far more passive and diluted. Music, for most of us, is the backdrop to a dozen other things going on in the foreground. It’s the soundtrack to our daily lives, but no longer is it the climax. For that, we, as consumers, have lost touch with those talented individuals who slave over their craft to bring us these sounds that fill our days. We no longer respect them because we no longer hear them.
    The unfortunate reality is that, with the onslaught of digital media, there’s no going back to the days where you walked out of a record store feeling good after spending $12 on a new album, because you would go home and sit in front of your speakers for the next hour intimately dissecting the skill and creativity that went into that composition. It’s unlikely that we will ever be able to rewire those individuals out there that justify their wrongdoings—dismissing them because they somehow feel entitled, or simply don’t possess the same moral code that the rest of us live our lives by—so, we must collectively find a way to move forward. Is this up to the artist? Absolutely not. This is a problem that the industry’s reluctance to evolve has perpetuated; so, for that, it is the industry’s responsibility to construct a sustainable platform in which the music industry ecosystem can once again thrive.
    Having little hope that the establishment will ever create such a system, we, at Amingo, are doing our part to create a community that encourages connectivity between the individuals within the industry, as a means of empowering musicians with the resources needed to take back control of their careers—and their lives. If this ideology appeals to you, and you want to help propel this movement forward, we encourage you to head over to to sign up, or to get to know more about us and our vision.

  2. Well… It’s the same old problem. Distribution. Make your app available in a timely fashion in an app store EVERYONE CAN ACCESS, and we’ll be more than happy to buy it.
    A lot of Android consumers out there are using devices which, for a variety of reasons, cannot access Google Market. If we can’t access Google Market, and your app is not on Amazon Market, guess what? We CAN’T buy it, much though we would like to.
    I’ve said it before: Distribution is not an end user problem.

  3. If an app has advertising in it, does the developer get paid when cracked apps run the ads? (I fully realize that many, many paid apps have no advertising.) Ethics and morality aside, (I’m a lawyer, after all) I’m wondering if the answer for developers is to create free apps with advertising?
    Understanding that this article is an allegory, I point out one major failure in the analogy. Whereas the sale of recorded music is but one part of an artist’s revenue stream, and that there is money in merchandise, live events and so on, the app (and ad revenue) is the developer’s sole income.
    In either case, as others have commented, it seems that the real solution is to adapt.
    It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about “it is what it is.” Stamp your feet and keep trying to stop piracy, which has never worked, or adapt, which according to Darwin and others, has always worked.

  4. First this is great. Joey Flores has done a very nice job.
    What if you took it further and they develop a technology that lets you use a streaming version of all the apps ever created for a monthly fee, lets call this “appify” or “appsody” The per app payout is only fractions of a penny instead of the .99 cents you were used to but it is better than piracy right?

  5. “Whereas the sale of recorded music is but one part of an artist’s revenue stream, and that there is money in merchandise, live events and so on, the app (and ad revenue) is the developer’s sole income.”
    Mike Ilitch is the owner of the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, and Little Caesars Pizza, all very successful revenue streams. Is it fair to say that one should be able to sneak into hockey/baseball games simply because he’ll make money selling pizzas? The availability of other revenue streams is not a justification to dry up one or two others. After all, you could provide other services, say, work at McDonald’s or Starbucks, and do legal work for free.
    Not all musicians play live shows. Not all songwriters play their own music. Indeed, one can and will adapt, but that’s not the point. I think the point is to question whose choice is it to charge and distribute (and how) a product: the creator or the end user (or an internet Robin Hood)?

  6. “Make your app available in a timely fashion in an app store EVERYONE CAN ACCESS, and we’ll be more than happy to buy it.”
    I can’t get Mac OSX on my Dell. I can’t open .docx files on my old version of Word. I can’t use my plethora of microUSB cables with my iPod. And I can’t get awesome PC games on my Mac.
    Propriety is a choice by companies and, at times, limited by technology. Distribution is not simply about making the product so “everyone can access” it – surely, it’d be smart and ideal to make a product available to all. Agreements need to be made, just like how you agreed to make yourself “accessible” at work for a certain wage and under certain conditions. Sometimes a deal is struck, sometimes not. It happens.
    Yes, distribution is an end user problem because as an end user, you want the product. But it is not a problem an end user can (or ought to) do much about except voice their opinion. It is up to those who control the distribution avenues to listen to the end users and fix it, that is, if they want to listen and fix it.
    I still can’t use Mac stuff on my PC, but I’m sure Apple is okay with that.

  7. Nicely stated, but let’s not overlook the fact that, in most cases, after that $.99 funnels through all the “necessary” channels it ends up being pennies on the dollar as far as the artist is concerned. The solution, in my opinion, is lessening the reliance of those channels—many of which aren’t necessary to keep on retainer. Give the control back to the creator and let them decide how to distribute *their* wealth, not the other way around. As a result, I stand by the notion that consumers would (and have proven to) be far more likely to purchase music once their attitude changes regarding what that money is supporting.

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