Viral advertising via free software

One business model that I’m surprised hasn’t been further explored for funding free software is advertising. Ads have been a standard way to make “free” media pay in countries like the USA, where advertising-based commercial television broadcasting has been the dominant medium for decades.

Many have tried (and a few have succeeded) to make the medium work on the web. Even “public” television in the USA can be largely regarded as advertising financed, through grant-based sponsorships which generally include recognition between programs. It’s much more polite than interrupting the show in the middle, but it’s still basically an advertising business model. More recently, advertisers have discovered the power of freely-disseminated video as a means of spreading an advertising message, and a free-licensed video can spread further and faster than one which is not. These so-called “viral” advertising campaigns indeed put one in mind of the “viral” GNU General Public License—both may deserve that name because they encourage sharing and replication of the works by users.

There is, of course, “adware”, distributed as closed-source software which can be freely downloaded, but forces the user to sit through advertisements before the program will do anything useful. That’s a little bit interesting, but such software is certainly not “free”. On the other hand, most free software does start up by default with some kind of splash screen (a habit learned from proprietary software, where the screen is meant to promote the brand of the software and encourage buyer loyalty—it serves a similar purpose for free software developers who also want users to come back to their work). Similarly, there are many opportunities to communicate a visual message when installing a package: usually this is used to identify the author and the licensing. Some GPL software even uses a “click-thru” license screen to ensure that you know you are using it under the GPL.

So, it clearly is possible to put an ad into the install or start up procedure for a program. Of course, it’d better be a nice polite “sponsorship” style ad, or perhaps an ad the users, packagers, and distributors find both amusing and tasteful, so that they will be encouraged to leave it in. With GPL licensing, there’s very little that can be done to legally ensure that a sponsoring organization is credited: however, if I install a package, knowing that organization X paid the developer for ad space, and it keeps the program actively developed, I’m unlikely to spend extra time and effort removing such an ad, unless it becomes a real nuisance.

Most programs include some means of seeing the “credits”, which is generally limited to the people who actually wrote it, though it’s not unreasonable to also list who paid them for their time. Most of the time, that happens when existing employees of a company develop software on company time (which usually means the program technically belongs to that company, so attribution rules actually do insist on keeping the name). But is there really anything to stop, say, a game developer, from selling install, splash, or credit space in exchange for money needed to develop the program?

I mention games in particular, because they can be one of the harder things to write under a free license. Games are a hybrid by nature: consisting of both program software (the “game engine”) and creative content (the “game content”). Some commercial games approach the sophistication of motion-pictures. I personally got a lot more out of Enter the Matrix because of the performance of the actors who were involved, the music, and other production values which were very high, since it was developed in conjunction with the Matrix movies. Those kind of production values don’t come cheap.

Now, of course, we might argue that such games simply can’t be made as free software. Maybe they can’t. Others might argue that such games lack merit compared to games which have better “game play” and lower “production values”. Maybe they’re right—after all, I’m not your most sophisticated gamer. But I think these are excuses. First of all, it may simply be a matter of genre: some of us like the atmosphere of a game as much as the actual playing of it. We’re looking for a movie we can interact with, not a game with a few plot inserts to tie it together.

Furthermore, dare I suggest that maybe—just maybe—coupling the high production values of a bigger budget game project with the bazaar environment of free software might result in a game which has both high production values and sophisticated game play?

But can’t they delete the ads?

Critics of course, will immediately recognize one fault in this idea: you can’t force the ads to remain with the software. Obviously, someone could delete the ads from the package before passing it on—the GPL license would explicitly permit that kind of behavior.

But here’s the thing: people hardly ever do. Most applications that are configured with a GPL click-thru stay that way. Most splash screens are left on by default. Every time I open up gvim, it reminds me that the author wants to help people in Uganda.

For that matter, is this really any different from ads on videotapes? I know that I usually fast-forward through them, though I often do watch them the first time I watch a tape. I want to know what’s there. And a customer who wants to watch your ad is the one you want. Despite increasing sophistication of video distributors mechanism to take away viewer choice in watching such ads (I didn’t use DVDs as an example, because some of them make it quite difficult to skip the ads, at least on a conventional player).

At an even more sophisticated level, I could duplicate a commercial tape onto a blank tape. I believe this is perfectly legal, so long as both tapes remain in my possession: it’s a case of fair use. So in fact, it’s never really been the case that users are forced to watch these ads. Advertisers have been willing to buy, based on the fact that people usually will watch the ads a few times, even if they aren’t forced to. And when you think about it, how good is it, really, to force your audience to read your ads? Surely the feeling of coersion is detrimental to your message? The best audience for an ad, is the willing audience. The ones who watch it, either because they’re interested to see what you’re selling (this is why movie previews are the main thing sold through video-tape advertisements, right?) or because they find the ad itself amusing (this is the secret to a viral video advertising campaign, of course).

Now, of course, free software introduces the extra wrinkle that the software can have the ads stripped and then be re-distributed without them. But who’s going to do that? Especially, if it’s a big package, like a game with lots of multimedia files, most users will want to get the original. Stripped-down copies will always have the reputation of being “bootleg”, and somehow less valuable than the originals, just because they aren’t the originals. Some people will use them, but not enough to cut into the audience significantly.

And, of course, if you’re the author or packager, you can promise that all of the original package files will contain the ads, so that’s going to be a fairly big market. Since most people who pass the files on will simply pass the whole file, the mere matter of convenience will encourage people to leave the ads in. Something like this is going on with many Linux distributions, which have original branding which may be removed if the user wants to redistribute the material.

“Tasteful” commercialism

Another factor of course, is that if the ads are sufficiently tasteful, it is not the ad content itself, but the fact that the reader learns that the advertised company is sponsoring development that would matter. Just as PBS sponsorship ads remind us of who underwrites their major production. I certainly am unlikely to forget that “ARCO Petroleum Products” sponsored Cosmos (why oil companies want or need to sponsor upscale PBS programs is a whole other topic—the point here is that they do), for example, even though they are only briefly mentioned at the end of each episode.

The fact that they can be removed, in fact, provides a simple soft-limit on how invasive such ads could be, so I don’t think there’d be a need to fear excessive commercialization. Just as with PBS, the question of sponsorship would probably be more abstract and less in-your-face with free software advertisements, simply because that’s the nature of the medium.

It would also, of course, be a matter of savvy marketing. One of the more subtle aspects of advertising is that it is often a “you’re worth what you charge” market. Excessive quantities of ads reduce the value of each individual ad, so setting the right amount of available ad space, and finding sponsors willing to pay enough for it might be a challenge. Maybe somebody with much more advertising knowledge than me will read this, and have a brainstorm. If it pays for more and better free software, that would suit me just fine. Regardless, I’m interested to hear what readers think about the idea.


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