What is wrong with Free?

Ok, maybe this is something you business/marketing types understand intrinsically... but it is something that I do not understand, so please bear with me. Why do people complain about getting something for free that used to require money? I thought people like getting something for nothing.

For example, Microsoft recently announced that Virtual PC 2004 will be available free of charge. I expected users to be happy to get yet more quality software for free... but I did not expect the firestorm of complaint from users on newsgroups that fall along this line of logic:

Gosh, I feel like a used dummy for paying Microsoft $X for Virtual PC 2004 Y months ago. Either

  • Microsoft is stealing money from me
  • I am simply lining Microsoft's profits without even an acknowledgement

These users either want:

  • Microsoft to give compensation, either in the form of money-back or money voucher, for people who purchased Virtual PC 2004 in the last Y months
  • To pirate other Microsoft software to "get back" at Microsoft because it extorted money on eventually free software and who knows, it may be released for free in the future.

I simply do not understand the rationale for this line of logic. Software is not your possession; you purchase a license to give yourself the right to use that software.

If I purchase a possession and the seller later decides to give the item away for free, then sure I will be bummed because it means I cannot later resell that possession. I am cheated from being able to resell that possession because the sellar has deflated the market price for that item. However, regardless of price, I still get my utility and value from using the item - it functions the same whether it is priced at something or nothing.

If I merely purchase the RIGHT to use an item and the seller later decides to give the item away for free, then how can I be cheated? Since I never owned the item, I am not cheated from being able to resell the item because I could not sell the rights to it in the first place. However, I still get my utility and value from using the item regardless of price.

So, I do not think there is any stealing going on. Instead, I think there is a natural sense of Buyer's Remorse. Why one thinks that s/he is magically entitled to compensation for feeling remorseful... I do not know.

I mean... no one pointed a gun at you or otherwise extorted you to purchase an item Y months ago for $X. You willingly purchased the item because you believed its utility is worth at least $X at that time. Just because its price is now free does not diminish its utility - you are not investing in something you don't own; the binary files didn't change; the software doesn't phone home and alter behavior, did it? And since you did not own it in the first place... what's changed?

Are you upset that Joe Schmoe now gets the software for free while you had to pay for it? But what about those Y months when you had utility of the tool but Joe did not; was the price not worth it? But if it was not worth it, then why did you purchase it in the first place? Oh, you thought that Y was going to be a long period of time to amortize the initial cost... but who gives assurance of that assumption?

I sense the same analogy in computer hardware. It seems like every year the hard drives double in capacity at the same price point. Do I complain to the hard drive manufacturers that I am simply lining their profits this year and that they are stealing money from me because next year they will charge me half the price for the same item? Or that they should just give me the discounted price now or give me cash back/voucher towards the future purchase of a hard drive? Or that I should steal an identically sized hard drive every year because it halves in price?

Nope... I take comfort in the fact that when I purchase a hard drive, I do so at a reasonable price point at that time, and the utility of having that drive for a year is worth any depreciation in price. Looking back and feeling remorseful is only going to be upsetting because most things tend to get cheaper/faster/better as time goes on. I just accept it and move on.

So... can anyone explain to me why Buyer's Remorse deserves compensation, or that Microsoft is somehow stealing by giving away software for free? Because as far as I see, Microsoft is far from stealing - it is simply not making money it can otherwise make. Maybe there are subtle points that I do not understand; feel free to kindly enlighten me. :-)