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MacHeist and the ethics of software discounts

MacHeist is happening again. It’s the usual Phill Ryu publicity stunt that will result in a bunch of blog attention, a few developers selling licenses at very steep discounts, and a charitable donation that downplays the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Ryu and his company will likely walk away with.

Ryu’s pitch to developers is straightforward: agree to sell a large quantity of licenses at a very low price. The developers are promised “exposure” to offset the reduced revenues and the cost of the large influx of support email and other per-user costs (plus some non-obvious problems such as perceived value dilution). Some developers appreciate the deal afterward while others regret it. Enough has been written on that debate that I won’t get into it here. (I’ve edited this paragraph to be more accurate. I apologize for the inaccurate original claims — they’re not part of my argument.)

Buying the MacHeist bundle is the real problem.

You’re getting copies of software that feel like the real thing. You can tell yourself that you’re supporting their developers. Their developers can tell themselves that it’s a good deal and it’s worth eating the discount to gain exposure.

But most developers aren’t as good at marketing, negotiation, or hype as Phill Ryu. Most developers, like most people, are terrible negotiators and are inclined to undervalue themselves (and overvalue hype). While there may be an occasional outlier, the majority of MacHeist’s developers aren’t seeing a net gain from this, but they don’t usually realize that until afterward. (That’s why there are so few repeat participants.)

So, in most cases, you can be pretty sure that it wasn’t worthwhile for that application’s developer to sell you that license. And while you may feel that you gave a fair price (through MacHeist) to the developer who charges $50 for that program, I can assure you that you didn’t.

You could rationalize this in the usual ways:

  1. The Drop-in-the-Bucket: “They’ll never miss my money because they’re a huge faceless corporation and they make tons of money.” (But these are tiny companies or individuals, they don’t make tons of money, and they will miss yours.)
  2. An Unreasonable Price: “This would never be worth its price to me, so I’d otherwise just pirate it or go without it, so at least they’re getting some money from me.” (You may be able to justify this for Photoshop, but it’s not a very strong argument against the list prices for MacHeist software.)
  3. I Can’t Afford It: Bullshit. Yes you can.

Call it what it is: You’re willingly accepting a license that will result in the developer earning almost no money.

Therefore, you’re not really supporting these developers: you’re telling them that you don’t value their work enough to pay full price, but you’re going to use their software anyway.

Their compliance with the MacHeist deal is irrelevant.

Most software is an incredibly good deal, especially the applications that you use every day or as part of your business. For example, given that I make all of my living by using TextMate, and it was developed entirely by Allan Odgaard over (probably) thousands of hours, it would be ridiculous for me to haggle its €39 price. Why seek discounts on something that you want to support and that you believe is already a great value?

I refuse to purchase MacHeist for the same reason I respectfully decline license discounts or App Store freebie coupon-codes from other developers (that I occasionally receive because of my roles in Tumblr and Instapaper):

I believe in supporting software developers by paying full price for their applications.

MacHeist supports MacHeist’s staff extremely well, but it’s not a way to support its applications’ developers.

Update: Phill Ryu responds and I clarify some points.