Why PAID Software is More Likely Than Free Software to Treat You as “The Product”

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 8 July 2020
Photoshop installation CD
A Photoshop installation CD, back at the dawn of the century when it was possible to own a copy, and the main distribution means was the high street retailer. Within a compatible environment, you can still install and use this today. No spying, no lab-ratting, no monthly fees.

For many years there’s been a notion that the way to avoid becoming “the product” when using software or online tech, is to pay for it. The logic states that providers of free tech are more or less forced to turn their consumer into a product, because they have no other significant means of making money. But that the providers of paid tech have a direct revenue source, and so do not have to monetise the consumer him/herself.

But this logic overlooks the inevitable goal of enterprise. Namely, not merely to make a sufficient amount of money and then ignore all other potential sources of revenue, but to make as much money as can possibly be made. The idea that just because you pay for a “premium account” on a commercial internet service, the provider will no longer have an interest in capitalising you as a product, is ridiculous. There’s a fundamental and all-revealing truism that proves almost all commercial tech companies will generally treat you as a product regardless of whether you’re paying them…


Look around. Find an online service provider who switches you onto a separate privacy policy when you become a paying subscriber. Bet you can’t find a single one. And the reason you can’t find one is that they treat paying customers’ data and privacy rights exactly the same as they treat free users’ data and privacy rights.

But surely free software is still worse-behaved than paid, right? Surely it has to be more aggressive than paid software on monetising the consumer as a product?

It’s true that some free software is badly behaved - especially stuff like antivirus and anything else that wants or needs to "scan your drive". Browsers are a lot worse in their behaviour than many people think too. But there are a lot more exceptions to the aggressive behaviour pattern in the world of free software than there are in the world of paid. This is primarily down to two factors…

  • The personality types of the people or communities who create free software, versus the personality types of the people who offer commercial, enterprise software. Enterprise software is a business, driven by people with a highly money-orientated business mentality. But free software may be developed as a hobby, or by a community who value the excitement of creating the software above the money it can potentially make. Creators of free software are often also genuine privacy advocates. That's obviously not the case with commercial enterprise. Any claim that it is, is just theatre.
  • The justification that the software provider can find for using control-freakery – i.e. the need for commercial software to manage rights (which normally involves gathering at least some user identification data). Free software cannot demonstrate any need to manage rights, so its consumers will be a lot more perturbed and suspicious if they’re required to log in and have their usage monitored. Rights management has absolutely become a licence for enterprise software companies to spy on and “productise” their users.

For example, if you look at Photoshop, and its free equivalent GIMP, you see two very different systems of operation. Photoshop, the commercial product, has for years come in the form of SaaS – Software as a Service. It can’t be used at all without Adobe being informed, and being able to closely monitor (let's just say spy on) user sessions. Contrarily, GIMP is something you just download, install, and use, in complete privacy. It’s a perfect example of paid software being much more aggressive and controlling in its treatment of users than free software. The archetypal contradiction to the myth that paying buys you better privacy.

Bodhi Linux
Bodhi Linux is one of the many free GNU/Linux operating system distributions. GNU/Linux provides a way out of the aggressive control-freakery of large corporates. Bodhi Linux comes as a stripped down installation that allows you to choose which applications you install. Bodhi is also great in that it has very modest resource demands, enabling installation on an old computer. It's very easy to install and if you have an old machine, it's a great first step in shifting away from corporate control without doing anything drastic with your main system. You can also try it out within your current operating system by using VirtualBox.

But for the home user, SaaS didn’t really exist at the beginning of the century. With Photoshop circa 2000, you bought an installation CD, installed it, and that was that. Adobe didn’t have a clue who you were, what you were doing with it, or who you might be passing it on to. As a consequence, Adobe struggled to effectively manage their rights, and Photoshop became one of the most commonly stolen and illegally redistributed pieces of specialist software in history.

So the change in operational practise for enterprise software came to an extent by necessity. But true to the inevitabilities of the commercial mindset, once adequate rights management had been established, the companies did not say “Okay, that’s enough now. We’ve basically stopped piracy.” Commercial enterprise just wants more and more and more. There’s no such thing as “enough”. So “let’s control our rights” eventually became “let’s control our consumers”. “Let’s turn our consumers into lab rats”. “Let’s turn our consumers into a product”.

This has routinely destroyed user experience and user peace of mind, and is one of the leading reasons why online service updates almost always provide a worse user experience than the previous version.

The desire within commercial tech to lab-rat and productise the users is now so great that virtually all updates are built around the premise of consumer profiling and gathering more data. They say they need the data to improve the products, but that’s not what it’s about at all. If it were about improving the products, the products would be better. And they’re clearly not. What it’s really about, is finding out what consumers want, so they can be sold to. And genuinely improving the user experience is so low on the priority list that after the devs have integrated all the new spytech, they can’t even reach parity with the old version, let alone improve on it.

Remember, spytech is not just unseen session recorders and stuff running invisibly. It’s an actual part of the interface. It’s making you click two links instead of one, because two clicks gives the business more info on what you’re really thinking. If they put everything conveniently on one page, they may not find out exactly why you visited that page. If they spread it across multiple pages, they can better narrow down your exact goals.

Fundamentally, this is why updates almost always make the user experience worse. The program also becomes more sluggish because they’re pumping it with a lot more tracking scripts. I network-analysed WordPress.com and within one minute of page load the main stats dashboard had made over 170 network requests in total, activating 69 proprietary scripts (i.e. programs whose exact function may be unknown), including one from Microsoft, one from Facebook, and thirteen from Google. Does that bullshit stop if you pay WordPress.com for an “upgrade plan”? What do you think?…

In the face of this, these companies are trying to tell you their new interfaces are better than the old ones. It’s pure brainwashing. They know the new interfaces are worse. But what, realistically, are they going to do? 1) Say “Hey, we invested a load of money in this new interface and it’s shit compared to the old one. Do you wanna use it or nah?” Or 2), gaslight you into thinking you don’t know your own mind, and that actually, this terrible, sluggish, resource-crippling, click-desperate, data-mining JavaScript hell is better than the lean and simple HTML interface you actually liked?

They have too much money and incentive tied up in the new interface to take option 1. It’s always going to be option 2. And if that fails, withdraw the old interface completely and force the userbase onto the new one.


If you head back to the early part of the century, you find a soft-tech world that was very much focused on product improvement. There were two primary questions for the manufacturers at that time…

  • How do we improve our products so that the maximum volume of people will want them?
  • How do we stop people from stealing our products, so we can earn our rightful revenue from everyone who uses them?

With no physical form, software was usually easy to steal, because without protective measures, stealing was just a matter of copying the installation package. There was no financial overhead in doing this – all of the production expense lay in the programming. And because a lot of consumers couldn’t visualise the vast amount of labour and investment that went into producing and supporting software, their mentality was: “Why should I pay for something whose physical substance is worth nil?

It’s the same today with digital images. People don’t think: “How much did this photograph cost to produce, in travel, time consumption and other expenses?” They broadly just think: “How much does this photograph cost to copy and distribute?” The answer is nothing, and so to them, its value, at least in financial terms, is nothing.

The sophisticated image editing package GIMP provides an extensive range of imaging tools, and is just one of the free Linux-compatible packages that allow you to sidestep contolling corporate software - most obviously in this case, Photoshop. If you want a more simple imaging package, there's the very adept Pinta, and various other options. Similarly, LibreOffice serves as a free and non-aggressive substitute for Microsoft Office.

The commercial purveyors of software at the start of the century were in danger of being wiped out by piracy. Especially the smaller operations that didn’t have the budget or market clout to significantly attack the problem. Those companies sometimes resorted to tactics like integrating hardware into their software. A copy protection dongle, for example. Without a supplied dongle sitting in the USB port, the software wouldn’t work, so no one could just copy the installation CD and give it to a friend.

Manufacturing dongles, however, added expense to the distribution, and for packages whose retail value was only £20 or less, the cost was obviously prohibitive. So some software companies would instead make their installation CDs into critical pieces of hardware. The program needed the original manufacturer’s CD in the drive to run. But this approach was frought with problems too. It put the CD drive out of action, meaning that if every software manufacturer resorted to this measure, the consumer could only run as many simultaneous programs as they had CD drives. Clearly not a workable solution, and the dongle approach was to a lesser extent subject to this problem too.


Microsoft had been among the first companies to really take rights management to a new level. They’d managed to browbeat suppliers of new PCs into pre-installing their operating systems essentially on a “Windows tax” basis.

The "Windows tax" was a system in which OEMs would pay Microsoft a fee for every PC they sold - even the PCs that didn't require an MS-DOS/Windows installation. Microsoft couldn’t force OEMs to pay them this “Windows tax”. But they could make the “tax” system so economical, and the alternative of selectively buying ad hoc numbers of Windows copies so uneconomical, that the OEMs were better off just paying the "tax". It was really more about dominating the market than managing rights. Stopping OEMs from loading other operating systems onto their PCs. But it did also manage rights exceptionally well. True, it didn’t stop piracy among small, street corner retailers. But in the big chains and distribution mechanisms, Microsoft was basically getting paid for every single PC that was sold.

It didn’t stop retail copies of Windows from being duplicated and redistributed either, obviously. And that had been a tremendous problem with Windows 98 – protected only by a re-usable digital product key. The same had applied with Windows ME in 2000, although, good as it was, ME was not as widely adopted as 98. So in 2001, Microsoft introduced Windows XP with a product activation system that used the computer’s entire hardware architecture as a kind of protection dongle.

Native B4
Native Instruments’ B4 virtual organ software was one of the products using CD-based rights management. The CD did not permanently need to be present in the computer to run the software, but the software would deactivate itself at preset time intervals (months – not hours or days), and request the CD be inserted for reactivation. Only the original CD could activate or reactivate the product, so mass piracy was untenable. It was a pain having to dig out the CD every so often, but much better than a modern SaaS system, in that the consumer still owned their software copy, was not paying “rent”, and was not under the control or spying eyes of the provider.

XP’s activation system was really clever, because unlike dongle/CD protection, it didn’t restrict the consumer’s use of their hardware facilities. And for most users, who would not significantly change their computer’s internal hardware arrangement, one activation was good for the life of the PC.

I’ve got PCs still running Windows XP now, which have only ever had one product activation. And they're still incredibly useful as offline workstations with software from their time. A great illustration of how little the core software capabilities have improved in the interim, and how most of the investment in modern times has gone into areas like revenue protection, data-mining and recurring income technology.

The only place the XP machines have limitations today is online - and that's not because they're inherently incompatible with internet-users' needs, it's because of planned obsolescence. Browser manufacturers withdrawing support for XP, and services withdrawing support for older browsers. But at the time of writing, even the 32-bit XP can still use nearly all online sites and facilities via the excellent MyPal browser.

If Windows XP still came loaded on new PCs, and big tech still supported it, very few desktop users would be complaining. Most people are only using newer Windows systems because they had to get new PCs, and Microsoft's PC retail monopoly forced the latest Windows version upon them. They didn't choose their operating system. The choice was made for them, by Microsoft. This is not a traditional vendor/customer relationship. It's an authoritarian regime. It's an oppression to which users of GNU/Linux free software are not subject.

What we can conclude is that in home use, many of the proprietary software routines whose cores reached maturity in the early 2000s have not noticeably undergone any revolutionary improvement on the user side ever since. All of the big picture innovations, or almost all, have come on the vendor's side. It's clear that even if we're paying these companies, for many years their main innovation interest has related to their use of, management of, and influence on us, as opposed to the core usefulness their products. Same with traditional freemium online services. Does a paid blogging or photo sharing platform have any far-reaching user-side capability today that it didn't have in 2007? No. Does it have a completely re-imagined and revolutionised tracking and user behaviour-monitoring system? You damn well bet!

Windows XP still stands as the last Microsoft OS built truly to serve the consumer, before the steady slide into today’s world of Microsoft controlling the consumer’s machine. Deciding which companies advertise on it, forcibly changing it, forcibly extracting information from it, using it as a botnet component, etc. Windows 10 is, by every definition we used back in the 2000s, malware.

Compare Windows 10 with a free Linux OS, and you once again see that glaring disparity in behaviour. You have Windows acting in a very aggressive, oppressive manner, as opposed to Linux allowing you to get on with your own life and make your own decisions, without interference. Paid software turning you into a tool, sales lead and/or lab rat, while free software puts you in control and respects you.

So whereas it was once true that paid software came associated with integrity, while free software would so often try to bundle toolbars and other artefacts of crapware, that’s no longer the case. You can still find many free software downloads that do have those dodgy bits of annoying junk bundled into them. But you can avoid those, or just de-select the bundled stuff at the installation stage.

If you’re paying for enterprise software, or subscribing to online services (if that’s not exactly the same thing these days), it’s become almost impossible to avoid being spied on and productised in one way or another. And seriously, how much of a problem is a browser toolbar that embeds itself into a browser you’re not going to use, compared with an entire operating system that treats you like you don’t own the computer you’ve spent eight hundred quid buying?

We need to stop believing the myth. Whether or not you become “the product” depends on the personality type and ideology of the people bringing you the software. The more commercial the operation, the more aggressive the personality type, and therefore the more likely you are to become “the product”. Whether or not you’re paying. Sourcing your software directly from enthusiasts rather than enterprise, is the true way avoid becoming “the product”.

Let’s ditch the meme “If you’re not paying, you are the product”. Because today, the opposite is more often true.

Written with grateful thanks to all in the open source community for their hard work, integrity, and wonderful free software.