Nonfree Physical Products

A friend and I had a very interesting conversation on Wednesday night about how the free software ideology could translate into the physical world, such as with beverages and food whose recipes are not disclosed to the public. I have a few things I want to say clearly about the subject that I feel I didn’t get the chance to on Wednesday, so here we go:

The Similarities

There are a few very good points that my friend brought up about how the two situations are similar:

  • Physical products can also have information, required to create them, that is not disclosed by the company that makes it
  • That information is sometimes released, but not by the biggest corporations
  • Even if corporations do release the information, they mask it in a way that makes it useless for actually making the product (like APIs)

These are a lot of good things to draw on in this argument, so I can see where someone might conclude that physical products are just as important to have them be free. Since we, the consumers, do not have the information (and, as my friend pointed out, are never allowed to, even if the consumer is another company), we cannot possibly make the right decision about which product is best for us, nor can we improve upon or change the product.

The Differences

This is the important part, though: We *can* improve upon and change the product. We can’t necessarily do it at the source every time, but there are ways to chemically modify a beverage or food, I’m sure. I am not a chemist, but I know there are ways to modify even things you don’t know the content of. And of course, simply adding flavor is a perfectly acceptable tack. Maybe you couldn’t sell that finished product under the original name, but I doubt Pepsi would be too irritated that you were spreading their brand (even if it’s only the taste).

The only reason the consumer is allowed to do that, of course, is the other big difference between physical products and digital ones: In the physical world, no-one makes you sign a license that specifically precludes you from using the product in certain ways, or copying it, or redistributing. Admittedly, the latter three are implied based on the laws of the region, since patent law will likely prevent you from copying the formula verbatim, and redistributing under the same name will result in a trademark lawsuit.

The Big Deal

But those implied protections are not imposed by the corporation, they are imposed by the government–which we might not have much chance to change, but there is *some* chance. The biggest difference, to me, is that in the case of a physical product, we can lobby the government to regulate the practices of various corporations, and we can lobby the government to change patent and trademark laws (not that it’s working, but again, there is a chance). In the digital world, many of the restrictions placed on users is placed there by a contractual agreement between the user and the corporation selling the software. This is different in two ways: You can refuse to sign a contract (unlike a law, which you accept regardless of your wishes), and you cannot change a contract’s text (at least not an EULA, which is not generally up for debate).

Since the case of software is so much more the fault of the user, I have to consider that case before any others. I think that educating people so they don’t trap themselves in a contract they don’t understand is a pretty important venture. I understand my friend’s point, that beverage companies and the like are similarly bad, but I see them as mostly an indirect evil, so I’m not as worried about their works as I am worried about software companies.

Thanks for reading!

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