Just a little bit communist


Although still somewhat rare, just recently I have had two separate clients present me with legal documents and contracts to sign after I thought the negotiating part of my work was complete (by which I mean after I had presented my final, revised quotes to them for the work to be done). As I said, this is quite rare, and greatly affects the time and effort I need to put into their projects outside the quote itself. I suppose that henceforth I will need to include clauses in my quotes about hourly attorney’s fees if this sort of thing is to continue, because I never accounted for that, and never want to account for that. Part of the reason I enjoy working with small clients is the dispensing of what I consider unnecessary bullshit. I want to spend all my time on the work itself, and not on evaluating the legalese in various documents pertaining to who “owns” what intelectual property. Part of the reason I am such a fan of open source software is that it is not “owned” by anyone. Everyone is free to look at the code, or modify it to suit. What I make for the vast majority of clients is an arrangement (of code) that they are free to use and rework any way they want. To ask me to transfer “ownership” of any and all work I have done for them defies common sense (but apparently not over zealous legal sense), and represents a dangerous corruption and encroachment on my services by the overabundance of lawyers and litigation in this country. While large companies do create and hold secret large amounts of customized software, the nature of web design and coding today makes this idea quite laughable for a number of reasons:

1. Although much of the executable server side of things remain hidden, anyone in any browser can substantially look at the source of any web page and copy its formatting at least. Indeed this is how I and many programmers and web designers first learn how to do specific things, by looking at the work of others.

2. The vast majority of websites today are running at least partially on open source software, without which they would not be able to exist. Whether it is the webserving software itself, or the underlying content management system, or the plugins that further enhance that system, people would not be able to conduct business without it.

3. Enforcement of an ownership claim is very costly and almost always amounts to nothing. The only people getting rich off of going after perceived infringements are lawyers, except in very large cases. The web has almost no examples of such large cases.

What I am getting at here is the ridiculousness of trying to “own” intangible things like a web design. They should be thought of more like a service one has free use of, or a style of dress that one is wearing. People may very well like your style of dress and try to emulate it. Consider it flattery, not stealing.  Kirby Ferguson, one of my heroes, makes points about the nature of creativity far more eloquently than I, and his recent TED talk here is well worth watching:


Kirby’s basic thesis is that all creativity has its roots in copying work that came before it, and that current patent and copyright law is antithetical to this basic premise. Despite being there to “promote the progress of useful arts” patent law as understood (and litigated) today, works precisely against this. The sooner we get over our loss aversion, the better we as a society will be.

So I guess you could say that in certain cases (such as web design) I don’t believe in ownership, which I suppose makes me a little bit of a communist in some people’s eyes. I believe in free use, because I have seen first hand, over and over again, how valuable open source software can be in building a better world. I, and many other people around the world gain great uses and owe a large part of our livelihoods to this, and when I donate back to the greater good with contributions of my own, I feel even better.