Is it ethical to sell sofware suite that can be replaced with 1 line of code?

Here is an interesting question. Is it ethical to sell someone an expensive software suite the functionality of which could easily be replaced by simple 2-3 line shell script or few lines of code in the right place? Note that this is perfectly legal practice. But do you think this is fair? Or is this exploitation?

Let me give you an example. Yesterday I stumbled upon a very peculiar piece of sofware called CopyNo. It is a little GUI app which let’s you drag image files onto it’s interface, and generates a bit of HTML and Javascript which generates nasty looking hover effect for these images that you can copy and paste onto your web page. The author claims this script protects images from being downloaded using “traditional methods”. Let’s ignore for a second that this method does not work. Let’s forget about the fact that this hover behavior is extremely annoying. Let’s not dwell on the fact that overlaying your images with a transparent gif would achieve a better effect. It still wouldn’t stop people from copying images, but it would be impervious to the dreaded “disable javascript” method, and it wouldn’t scare or annoy visitors by displaying a big red circle on the page that essentially says “YOU ARE A THIEF!”. Hell, let’s not even think about the fact that implementing feature like that on your portfolio page is just about the worst thing you can do in terms of “first impression”. The only worse thing of course is creating your page entirely Flash in a way that would prevent anyone from actually linking directly to some image or album in your gallery. But that’s a whole other topic.

Let’s simply focus on the core functionality of this program. All it does is outputs 2 html tags per each picture, along with 2 lines on javascript inlined in the onmouseover and onmouseout attributes of the <a> tag. If I really tried I think I could teach my 109 class to do this. It’s not rocket science – it’s a trivial scripting trick which is used on dozens of websites out there.

Charging the user $20 for something even a novice user could learn in 5 minutes strikes me as bit unethical. It’s almost like exploiting your end user. It reminds me a little bit of those sites which ask you to pay a nominal fee to download open source applications. Granted, CopyNo is a little bit better than that because it actually does do some minimal work for the user. I can see how someone without any HTML or Javascript experience could possibly consider buying something like this. So this is not a scam – it’s a legitimate product. An annoying one, but legitimate nevertheless.

Personally though, I wouldn’t be able to sell something like that. I believe that a piece of software with absolutely trivial functionality that could be replaced with 1 or 2 lines of code has no inherent value. Not to me, and not to anyone. Especially if it’s as ineffective as CopyNo. I would feel like I was conning my consumers into buying something they can’t possibly need. There is the convenience factor that sometimes comes into play here. If I was aware of the fact that my software actually complicates and muddles some easy process I would feel I was simply praying on users’ reluctance or fear of learning very simple concepts.

But then again I’ve been called an “open source hippie” in the past so my views here might be skewed. Every single piece of code that I ever written was either published under GPL or flung haphazardly into cyberspace without any copyright attached whatsoever. I never actually sold software – I sell my services. So I do make a living writing code but I do it as a service to the company. So yeah, selling code is kinda funny concept to me in general. But I’m not opposed to it – proprietary software has it’s place and if you create something good you ought to be able to charge people for it.

It’s just that charging $20 for an app doing something that just about any web designer could teach you in 5 minutes for free just seems wrong to me. Wrong on very personal, subjective level. I’m sure the author of CopyNo has an entirely different approach to this. I respect his choice to sell his application this way, but I do not agree with it.

What do you think?

[tags]copyno, javascript, html, code, programming, web desing[/tags]

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29 Responses to Is it ethical to sell sofware suite that can be replaced with 1 line of code?

  1. ikaruga UNITED STATES Mozilla SeaMonkey SuSE Linux says:

    You could say the same thing about doctors. “Take two asperins and call me in the morning.” “By the way, we will charge your health insurance $100.”

    You could say the same thing about IT help-desk workers. “You have to first turn on the computer.” “By the way, that’ll be $25.”

    I’m oversimplifying everything… not every problem has such an easy solution. Really, you’re paying someone else to do something you don’t (or can’t) do. In the first case, you’re trusting your doctor with your health. In the second case, you either don’t have the time to pour through a manual or would prefer to pay someone who will.

    The problem comes when you charge more (a lot more) than what your service provides … aka exploitation. (The programmer of that crapware should charge no more than $5 or give it away for free altogother.)

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  2. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    What a thing is worth is determined entirely by how much people are willing to pay for it. It does feel a little exploitative. On the other hand, anyone with enough know-how to see that this isn’t worth a thing, wouldn’t buy it.

    So if they can make money by using their greater knowledge to extract money from lusers.. good on ‘em, it’s been working for Microsoft for years :p (he says posting from Windows.. but I didn’t pay for it, so it balances out)

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  3. Starhawk UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    No it is not ethical, it is akin to beating up on the handicapped retarded boy down the street. Who ever is selling it probably has his/her reasons and most likely adheres to a much different philosophy than I do. Such is life.

    Honestly if ya don’t want people to download crap ya put on the internet don’t put it on the internet. That actually should be common knowledge.

    [quote]I’ve been called an “open source hippie” in the past so my views here might be skewed. [/quote]

    Let me break it to ya gently Luke you are probably not a hippie, whoever told ya that tell em to come to my house…I’ll find some real hippies to show them ;)

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  4. jaymz UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    as a developer, i would sort of feel bad about the fact people where spending money on that sort of thing. ive seen my boss over charge a client for a website by thousands, then when i’ve built it on drupal i feel bad for the client knowing that if i had done the work for them freelance i’d have charged say $3,000 rather than $20,000.

    however :) i have noticed that there is a ton of people out there that simply wont learn, arent interested in learning and if you can ‘fix’ their problem for 20bucks, well, its worth it. in fact, i’ve recently finished an Excel VBA project for a client. Essentially all it does is give the user a pretty form to click through and fill in rather than using just the sheet itself and working through it. Granted, its a lot more complicated and useful than the CopyNo thing but during the development of it all I did keep wondering ‘why cant they just learn to use excel’. after a few weeks of requirements creep I realized that the few thousand they’d spend for my time would be of benefit to them from a business sense.

    i sometimes think that my good nature and ‘help all’ ethos from years of being in the open source community sort of hinders my business ‘make myself some money to have a better life’ sense.

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  5. astine UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Value is subjective. If someone thinks that two lines of javascript is worth twenty dollars then it is worth twenty dollars, to that person. Some people really are incapable of implementing things like this themselves, not that they are stupid, just incapable of coding.

    Yes the price is certainly too high for such a POS item, but that’s going to hurt him more than anyone else. I honestly don’t think that very many people will buy it. There are better solutions, more easily available and better publicized. Anyone smart enough to install this, is smart enough to realize that its a crock.

    JMO

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  6. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    What’s wrong with making an honest buck by starting a buisness that exploits peoples idiocy?

    If people are apathetic/stupid enough too not learning simple HTML tags, making money off of them is perfectly ethical. They’re simply paying to not have too be bothered about something they don’t want too understand.

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  7. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    “No it is not ethical, it is akin to beating up on the handicapped retarded boy down the street.”

    And how is starting a buisness that exploits peoples lazyness (Note: exploits them without the use of firearms of gratuitous violence) akin too random acts of physical aggression?

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  8. Starhawk UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Mackenzie I suppose if this is used by people who are simply lazy then I have no problem with it. But I think alot of people who will end up using it do not know either out of stupidity or out of ignorance that a) it doesn’t really work and that b) it is unnecessary to pay for something that as luke says,”the functionality of which could easily be replaced by simple 2-3 line shell script or few lines of code in the right place?”

    In this sense you are taking advantage of those customers for being either not to bright or not to computer savvy. In this sense it is akin to beating up on the handicapped retarded boy down the street. the violence is implied in the theft of money from such customers for a product that is in a sense a rip off.

    Ya gotta learn to look over me, sometimes I’m a bit blunt and a bit harsh with my words. Its a zen thing akin to hitting somebody with a stick when they don’t meditate right the way things are traditionally done in zen. Anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

    What’s wrong with making an honest buck by starting a buisness that exploits peoples idiocy?

    I suppose we have a difference here in philosophy and ethics, I really wouldn’t consider that an honest buck. Not something I could do.

    jaymz, “i sometimes think that my good nature and ‘help all’ ethos from years of being in the open source community sort of hinders my business ‘make myself some money to have a better life’ sense.”

    I suppose that is the difference between Stallman and Gates. lmao

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2278″]i sometimes think that my good nature and ‘help all’ ethos from years of being in the open source community sort of hinders my business ‘make myself some money to have a better life’ sense.[/quote]

    Same here. It’s funny but somehow an idea of selling the code I wrote sounds dirty and uncool to me.

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  10. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    Anyone with the means too buy and/or use this product could probably learn how too replicate it’s functionality in less time by googling some HTML tutes. It even says on the tin that it generates code. What’s too stop these people learning that same code? Ohwait, there isn’t a barrier.

    Dunno about you, but I’d prefer too actaully recieve a little cash payback for a product I’ve spent time and effort creating. Called Intellectual Property, Folks.

    And this is not theft, obviously, because it is a valid T-R-A-N-S-A-C-T-I-O-N.

    The customers pays money for a product which does what it says on the tin. Theft would be paying money for a product that was never delivered, or didn’t work.

    Buisnessman puts time and money into creating and marketing his own software, customer pays money for said software, which in this case comes with no hidden catches or extra charges rah rah rah. Honest Buck.

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  11. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    Ohyes, and CopyNo never actually guarantees it would make it impossible too steal the image, it simply says it will “reduce” the amount of illegal copying and such.

    Also, I’m still not seeing much gratutious violence on behalf of Copyno.com here.

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  12. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2278″]And this is not theft, obviously, because it is a valid T-R-A-N-S-A-C-T-I-O-N.

    The customers pays money for a product which does what it says on the tin. Theft would be paying money for a product that was never delivered, or didn’t work.[/quote]

    You are right. It’s perfectly legal in every sense. The author ow the website doesn’t make any false claims, and he does deliver a working product which does exactly what is described on the page.

    But legal != ethical. What I’m asking here is how people feel about selling an application like that. I wouldn’t be able to do it because I would feel like I was ripping off my clients.

    :P

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  13. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    Really, I’m not equating legal too ethical here. What I am claiming is ethical, is exploiting peoples lack of motivation and ignorance.

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    And this is probably why I’m never going to be rich and famous – I just do not like exploiting peoples ignorance or lack of motivation. It just feels inherently wrong to me. :(

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  15. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    meh. I’ve got no bloody sympathy at all for people who spend 20 bucks because they’re too narrow minded/apathetic too learn to do the same thing in about 4 minutes.

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  16. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    You’re a strange man, Mackenzie, to say that exploiting people’s ignorance is ethical.

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  17. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I just do not like exploiting peoples ignorance or lack of motivation. It just feels inherently wrong to me.

    But calling them lazy and stupid is ok…… ;)

    On a side note, many people have spent money for Word or some other software with a spellcheck feature, yet so few even use it…..

    On a sider note, I often dream of starting a website for people who are too lazy/apathetic/ignorant/stupid to learn the correct usage of too/to/two, there/their/they’re, and other simple writing fundamentals. (I mean, they use language every day, yet they don’t bother to take the time to learn how to use it at the level that I can!) Even those who take the 5 seconds to do spellcheck will often miss this type of thing, but they could come and have their writing proofread by me for a small fee. Would that be ethical?

    Now, where’s that half-kidding, tongue-in-cheek emoticon…..?

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  18. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    Not really. Exploiting peoples ignorance is good buisness sense, and it’s perfectly ethical when said ignorance is a direct result of lack of self-cultivation, rather than anything which is forced upon them.

    Ie, exploiting an african peasants lack of knowledge about world economics and unionising would be unethical, because the means too learn about that sorta stuff isn’t available too them. But the ignorance that this software exploits is due too people not being bothered too use 4 minutes of time too google and scan through some HTML tutes.

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  19. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2278″]But calling them lazy and stupid is ok……[/quote]

    Yup. Perfectly ok. Hell, more than that – it’s recommended. :mrgreen:

    The spellcheck business is a little bit different because most people make spelling mistakes when they type – even the best spellers. It’s kinda like having your IDE highlight the obvious errors. Sure, the compiler will catch that, but it’s a nice thing to have – it cuts down the amount of times you need to do that whole compile, fix bug, recompile cycle. Same with spelling – if the spell check is in place you are now mostly looking for few common typos that are not caught by it, and can concentrate on higher level concepts like grammatical errors.

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  20. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I see what you mean, Luke. I guess the mis-use of words, using an apostrophe with an “s” to make a plural, and the like are what really irk me. They smack more of the type of ignorance you’re talking about here than struggling to type as fast as we think.

    Thanks for taking my post in the spirit in which it was intended. (i.e. pointing out that we’re all a bunch of hypocrites and snobs, each in our own way and about our own subjects) :)

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  21. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I wouldn’t say it is unethical so long as they are upfront & honest about what the program does and doesn’t do. They are clear it “reduces” people’s ability to copy. Interestingly enough, since I have noscript on, I couldn’t even see the “protection.”

    Once I was helping someone save an image from a webpage. Every time they saved it, they just got a blank page. I figured it was just a transparent overlay, looked in the source, found the image url, and saved it that way. The person was totally bewildered, like I’d done some kind of arcane black magic, but also thrilled they could use this picture in a school presentation. That type of “protection” seems to be at least as effective if not more.

    I totally agree with your mentality though. I like to help people realize & use the computer capabilities they paid for. If I had written that “program” and it was up to me, I’d post it somewhere and forget about it. Maybe we’re more service than product focused. In any event, I think it takes a special kind of individual to sell something so minimally useful alone for $20.

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  22. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    Open source hippies, all of you. x]

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  23. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    [quote comment=”8021″]Not really. Exploiting peoples ignorance is good buisness sense, and it’s perfectly ethical when said ignorance is a direct result of lack of self-cultivation, rather than anything which is forced upon them.[/quote]

    It may be good business sense, but it’s still not ethical. You make the assumption that people who need this functionality are all hackers of some sort who should know better. It’s not the case at all. I’ve been watching my mother put together a website with a CMS and it’s fine, but she doesn’t know much HTML. As a result, she doesn’t have the a priori knowledge to know that she can do these kind of things herself. She’s curious, she’s definitely not lazy, but she doesn’t come from a tech background so she doesn’t know what’s possible at her level. There are a lot of people like that out there.

    All through your comments I’ve noticed a common thread: you have a lot of trouble seeing things from other people’s viewpoints. You seem to assume everyone has your level of knowledge. It’s just not the way things are.

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  24. Mackenzie UNITED KINGDOM Safari Mac OS says:

    I would have thought it was fucking obvious that if a product says it “generates a few lines of Java code” the end user would go “Hangon, isn’t that a few lines of code I can write myself if I read some HTML/Java tutes?” I’m not seeing anything in the tirade about your mother which actaully says she looked at a HTML tutorial too figure out what the basic was, or how easy it is.

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  25. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Settle, petal. If you think that was a tirade, no wonder you have problems understanding people.

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  26. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    On a more humorous note:

    [quote post=”2278″]Settle, petal.[/quote]

    I just wanted to say that this is the first time I actually saw the wort petal used this way. LOL I’m assuming this was a typo. ;)

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  27. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Nah, it wasn’t a typo, it’s a patronising way of telling someone to calm down. Think of a father saying it to a young daughter (his ‘petal’). It’s a good one to use when someone is having a bit of a tizzy.

    In other petal news, I live with a couple that commonly call each other ‘petal’ (among other things). One day the male half decided to mix things up a bit and started calling the female half ‘pellet’. That didn’t go down too well…

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  28. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I swear, I thought you meant to say pal and due to some odd keyboard accident “e” and “ta” somehow got inside that word. :P

    [quote post=”2278″]In other petal news, I live with a couple that commonly call each other ‘petal’ (among other things).[/quote]

    Ok, I can see that but it still sounds kinda funny. It might be an Australian thing. :)

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  29. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Petal’s just another one of the vast menagerie of ‘sweetie’ words that means sweet/delicate/precious. It’s probably British in origin. I know I’ve heard Brits use it.

    The best ‘sweetie’ word I’ve heard is from a South African woman who calls her sweetheart ‘cookie’. Apparently it translates directly from Afrikaans as ‘sweetie’, but of course means crumbly, sweet parcel of yumminess in English*. It’s funny to listen to her refer to her ‘cookie’.

    *I do realise that in some US subcultures, ‘cookie’ refers to something else entirely. The Cookie Monster was never the same after I learned that meaning ;)

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