Cui Bono?: No-cost Software and Equality of Opportunity

January 6, 2023

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I woke up at 7AM today as it is usual. Did my morning routine and off I was to work in WordPress stuff. Shortly afterwards, P. woke up and the first thing he told me after “good morning” was:
“Let’s go out and have breakfast”, he said. “I saw a discussion on the internet that maybe you’ll want to write about”.
This was an invitation to coffee, a slice of cake, and a nice conversation – I was absolutely sold.

And so off we went. As I drank my café-au-lait, I found out the theme of today’s post: it turns out, the discussion P. witnessed was about Autodesk Maya vs Blender. If you don’t know what I am talking about, what you need to know is that both are 3D modelling softwares which are pretty industry-standard. Blender is donationware (donations are optional), and licensed under GPLv2, which makes it effectively freeware if you can’t donate, and FOSS. Maya does a similar work and costs $225/month.

Now, I know zilch, zip, zero about 3D modelling, and am notably a bad artist, but I know a bit about software, and about arrogance too. There is an ongoing debate of what are the capabilities of both Maya and Blender, and it is generally agreed upon that both are the best for 3D art out there. But in this particular discussion P. saw, Blender artists and modellers were being attacked from an elitist perspective, which is: if you are not wiling to pay for your modelling software, then you are either losing money, or you’re not doing things correctly from a 3D geometry (?) standpoint, or the worst of all: you’re not putting money on your career; you are, thus, a bad professional.

I was honestly struck in disbelief. I mean, I can understand criticising evil corporations or lazy professionals for doing lazy work, or firing shots at certain big companies for cheaping out on small things just to marginally & arguably increase profits. But calling someone a bad professional for not using a paid version of a software, when there is an industry-standard freeware alternative, is a line I would definitely, absolutely not cross. For personal and ethical reasons.

Being Brazilian is…

Although I have come from a middle-class family, since I was a kid I have been surrounded by friends which were worse-off financially than my family. I am not special for that: that’s just how it works in Brazil. So I know very well that many times, not having money isn’t about incompetence, or about not having worked hard enough to ‘deserve’ the money. And the people I saw, met and became friends with were very far from the reality I grew up with. They were more in line with the average life of the average Brazilian.

I’ll tell you what that means. In the Global South (formerly called “third world”), even well-off architects cannot pay US$225/monthly for certain CAD software. There is a reason is why Windows is the most pirated piece of software in the world. Digital artists also don’t have US$239/yearly for the yearly subscription of the most famous graphics editor out there – by the way, that is above the minimum monthly wage in Brazil, which as of January 2023, is US$226.74. However I assure you that this number is just optics; most of my college friends when I studied in Manaus were working informal jobs, so we’re talking basically US$120/month. In fact, my first job was actually like that. In my case, as a somewhat privileged young adult, I did not depend on it for my survival, but some of my friends did.

This particular line of poverty is problematic. It’s above the US$2/day that the World Bank states as the global poverty line; so it’s not that they’re starving, but it’s still very hard to climb that ladder – in part, exactly for that kind of elitist thought that P. witnessed. If one makes US$120 a month, how can they ever hope to buy a decent computer to do 3D art, or programming, or anything else? Their choices of a job are limited, and they have to find a way around things. Normally these people work multiple jobs, the weekends, find gigs, try to rely on relatives, they just try to make it work. Some can make it work. Many don’t.

It is said you should “invest in your career”. Well. “Invest” has a lot of meanings. And almost always it has to do with abdicating from a certain immediate good in the expectation of returns in the future; we can invest “x” money now so we get “2x” money tomorrow, we can invest “x” time and in return have something we want done, and so on. Investing in your career is essential; dedicate time to study, improve, train, collaborate with others, learn and teach when possible.

To each, what’s possible

But spending money in your career is something that’s more complicated to be a judge of. You absolutely should do it if you have the conditions to do so; and if you initially did not have money to spend but now you do, you should strongly consider doing it. Buy a better computer if you can, invest in a college degree if money allows you to, do all it takes to be not the best of all, but the best you. That said, in no moment one should be judged as incompetent, lazy or unwilling just because they haven’t had spent certain amount of money in something.

It’s pretty easy to judge someone as undeserving, as in, “you didn’t even bother to buy this software, so you’re not taking things seriously”. Meritocracy might seem like a good system in theory, but not if each person’s starting point is radically different. So to everyone who makes contributes to Blender, GIMP, Inkscape, Linux and all those wonderful software pieces we can use without having to pay a penny: thank you. Your work goes much beyond just offering something for free; it helps even out the playing field, positively impacting many lives in ways you cannot even imagine.

To clarify: this is not criticism of any software company. It’s about elitism.