The WordPress blogs were recently alive with discussion about whether or not having pay-for themes, plugins, etc., was a good (or even legal) thing. Jeff Chandler recently pointed to a post entitled What’s the point of community? which I think goes back to the discussion I had with Tarus Balog of OpenNMS fame a while ago, about social norms and market norms. Basically, one of the points from Dan Ariely’s excellent book “Predictably Irrational” is that when you mix, or confuse, one set of norms with another you inevitably end up with problems.

What’s also slightly interesting to me, as a long-time FSF supporter, is the continued separation of “open source” and “commercial” in many people’s minds: the whole point of saying “open source” used to be that it was commerce-friendly. If people don’t think it is any more, then it seems like that term is even more lost than I thought it was.

I think first off, when you release something to the community, it’s released. So this notion of “adequate compensation” by availability of other stuff in the community doesn’t really make sense: there is no difference between someone charging for access to something, or not granting access to something, if you’re unwilling to pay. If you reason that people charging diminishes your value, then not releasing or developing in the first place must also do so. Which clearly doesn’t work, logically.

What does strike me, though, is that there is a seemingly strong moral imperative for what business models should and shouldn’t happen in the WordPress community. I have to say, I would much prefer to see people charging small amounts and actually making money from plugins, themes, etc.: if I go into (for example) the plugin browser right now, for many requirements it’s a wasteland of half-finished and ill-conceived ideas. And in many ways, there’s really not much incentive to make them work well to begin with but, even more, to keep them working long-term, or support it. Doing one-to-one deals to support a particular customer may work for more complex plugins, but it won’t work for the vast majority of them, that model simply isn’t workable.

I personally would love to see a community – not necessarily WordPress – where Free Software code is charged for, perhaps not much, but also shared and developed by the community. I would love to see people paid to work on the software, and have a social ethos that being paid is ok. I suspect, though, that it essentially cannot happen: once you move into those market norms, people start counting beans and hey! he has more beans that I do! But it would be an interesting experiment.