Licenses are not polite agreements

NOTE HXA7241 2011-04-03T10:29Z

There is a quasi-meme-let around that proposes that software shrink-wrap copy-restriction licenses etc. are just honourable agreements. This is irritatingly spurious, and ought to be exposed. Here is a rebuttal – or inoculation.

This Hacker News comment exemplifies the idea:

It seems strange to describe ‘we'll give you something, if you agree not to use it for certain purposes’ as depending on ‘particular exploitation of given laws that allow market restriction.’ To me that's more just about ‘common courtesy’ between consenting parties.

It is not ‘common courtesy’, it is a market interaction. A market interaction is not decided only within the bounds of individuals, but with an awareness of what the market as a whole offers.

If I say ‘I will buy your product, but you must agree to mow my lawn every month.’ they will not bother because they can just sell to someone else. And similarly, if they suggest conditions not intrinsic to the product, and so with no general need to be imposed, I will just buy from someone else.

Except here I do not seem able to – and this is the point. Why? I am compelled to agree to these conditions because I cannot buy elsewhere. But I cannot buy elsewhere because everyone is agreeing to those conditions. That kind of circular system cannot get off the ground on its own: it is only sustained because of external legal force that will punish noncompliance. That is the market restriction.

• • •

This ‘common courtesy’ idea is annoying and pernicious, because it is so plausible, tendentious, and covert. We are vulnerable to it as a hostile meme.

Corporations are profit-seeking. Everyone knows that. They are not making nice polite agreements with their pal the public. Yet all that remarkably somehow fades away when the ‘common courtesy’ idea is put forward.

It would be a great PR device since it makes a compelling deception. The direct result of this market restriction is to benefit the corporations and hurt customers. Yet it is masked by a neat, cozy, emotional message that cannot be disagreed with.

One need not even diverge from capitalist orthodoxy to find a problem here. Markets do not work if some participants are deceiving and manipulating others.