Paying for free – is Flattr a payment or a donation?

One thing that we have been discussing back and forth since we started our company is if “flattring” is a payment or a donation. I don’t think we’ve come to an agreement or decision, or if we ever really will, even though we say “payment” on our website.

One day people will of course call it a “flattr” but until then, here are my thoughts about one and the other.

What’s a donation

A donation should by definition be “gifts given without return consideration”. So you don’t have a say what the money should be used for. Or that it was made for certain reason or specific goal. You’re also not entitled to get anything in return.

What’s a payment

Here’s the definition: “A payment is made in exchange for goods, services, or to fulfill a legal obligation.” This means that a payment gives you the right to something and or you can demand that something happens, something is sent to you or someone does something.

This quickly at the problems with a “flattr” – it lands somewhere in between the two. Here are only some some of the arguments for the different sides we’ve heard so far.

Flattr is a donation because:

* You give without expecting anything in return.
* You can’t demand to get anything because of your flattr.
* You would have gotten whatever you got even without flattring.

Flattr is a payment because:

* You get something in return. You wouldn’t flattr without getting this “something”.
* You flattr a specific piece of content.
* The receiver knows why they got the flattr.

So why did we choose to call Flattr a “payment”? It’s simple really, and comes down to two arguments.

1. You pay for a reason. “I give you money because you have done this.” We don’t think paying before or after you got this something makes a difference, that is more of a question of how the internet works.

2. We want to change how people think about payments. A payment for digital content can not be done on the old premises of physical goods.

We know the word “payment” will be tough for some to swallow as the usual expectation is that you get something after you make the payment – a link to something you can download, something you can print out, something you can put on your eBook or software you can launch.

In our case you “pay for free” meaning that you already got what you pay for, the free content. And you pay because you feel it had value for you, because the author and the content was awesome!

This will not end here, in the next blog post I will elaborate on “Why payments for digital goods can’t follow the same rules as payments for physical things”

Images from Materials Aart, GirlieMac and doublemacchiato

8 thoughts on “Paying for free – is Flattr a payment or a donation?

  1. Thanks for addressing this topic.
    This discussion has one more aspect: If you call it a “donation” then many charities will have to handle the revenue in a totally different way. E.g. you might have to apply for the permission to do a public collection of funds, you need a separate bank account, you have to submit regular reports on how you used the money. Money via Flattr is in a grey area and it all depends on national legislation and how much leeway the charity has to define the process. I’m not sure about non-charities but there, too, might apply special provisions for collecting donations, at least in some countries.
    So, yes, it’s one more reason to call it a “payment”.
    Or, alternatively, you could leave it up to each user to define it (on the profile page or with each thing.)

  2. The only problem with the word payment (heard in pro- and anti- Flattr discussions around the internet,) is that it seems to imply that you are “charging” people to enjoy your work. That’s not really true, since we flattr FREE creations, but it seems to be a common concern, and it is the usual connotation of the word “payment.”

    Nevertheless, I agree that payment is the more appropriate word. On a practical level, I think for many people donations are something… special, something they have to sit down and think about, and something they probably can’t do for everything they wish they could. Isn’t that precisely what Flattr tries to sidestep?

    Additionally, I think the question of whether people expect something in return is becoming moot in the digital age. With Flattr, you are paying for something that is already there for you, and this is more and more the case with digital creations (both legally and illegally – that’s not the point though.) Of course, you can Flattr someone hoping that they will continue to create things in the future, however, I do not think Flattr will catch on mainly because people have faith that the things they enjoy will continue in the future–things come and go all the time online–but simply because they have already enjoyed something. Expectation is somewhat irrelevant in this system.

    Payment–the way we pay, what we pay for, who we pay, etc.–is all changing in the digital market, so I think it is only logical that the word evolves along with it.

  3. Meh… I care little for words, so this long discussion on what one should call Flattr seems a bit redundant/unnecessary bla bla.
    Apart from the verbal smoke in the eyes, imo Flattr can be explained in (unnecessary) words by looking at the process of Flattr-ing:
    What are you actually doing when you flattr?
    1. Do you feel like you are paying someone?
    2. Do you feel like you are giving something to charity (except if you are actually giving something to charity through Flattr)?
    In my case that would be 1. No 2. No.
    I flattr because I want to support. Support projects and most of all support the people behind them.
    It s really cool to spread some love and give feedback and make people feel good about what they are doing, but giving them money is sort of like saying one of the these three things on top of the love (or more than one at the same time):
    “1. You know, this stuff you are doing is so cool that I want to help you keep doing it the way I can
    2. Hell, I even want to help you be able to do just that as a full time occupation or whatever.
    3. No, actually, you know what? I don t even care whether you keep doing it, just for the fact that you came up with the idea and brought it up to this point if I ever meet you I will offer you a few drinks. And a pizza”
    So it s kind of a chaotic thought process, but behind that there s the will to support/help and to give. Which is the same thing someone that does open-source does: He/She gives in order to help others with his/her knowledge/ninja coding skills.
    That s it. Payments and donations or whatever are just empty means to an end. Behind them if Flattr.

  4. Hmmm… With the definiton „A payment is made in exchange for [stuff]“ in mind a donation could always be seen a payment as well since i do expect something in return of may payment. This returning value does not necessarily have to be a value I personally could use, but something I could enjoy. Example: I give a flattr/donation to »Amnesty International« then I dont expect them to help me personally, but instead I have the „returning value“ to know that my donation will serve a good cause. Thats what donations are about for me. a good cause. And just another thing about donations & payments: Whenever i do provide payments and get a returning value afterwards (eg: shopping, your booklink example), with donations its usually the other way around (eg: street artists). With flattr its the same: i have no paywall for blogs, but already consumed great stuff and want to say „thank you“. I get the idea, that the payment is switched (consume great stuff first, then pay for it) but this kind of approach is grey. Feels more like a requirement then, not like a gratuitousness.

  5. It’s worthwhile to think about this because thinking about this is a way of thinking about what people are trying to accomplish.

    Donation sounds like a closer match to what people want to do, which is to support artists out of their generosity. The arguments for why it is one are IMHO deeper and go more to the heart of the matter, Args presented for why it is a payment are more superficial. They could apply to anything else we already call a donation. For example, if MSF raises funds because of a particular tsunami and people give to the tsunami fund, are they paying MSF? After all, the recipient knows why they are getting the money. Likewise, if I put a tracking device on each of my donation pales to see where people push buttons, do they become payments? What happens if a street musician hands out his hat after each song?

    I worry that calling this a payment confuses people and disconnects flattr from this goal. Yeah ok so we’re trying to encourage some sort of moral view of compensation by encouraging people to pay for free or pay a blogger, but I don’t think that’s an entirely healthy route, better it seems to somehow help people to reinforce the feel good factor of “I use flattr because I am a good person” (and not “I use flattr because I feel a moral obligation to pay for services rendered”)

    Fnally, patronage may be a useful idea here.

  6. Cant we just invent a new word for this, like it’s a supportment. It may be a bit awkward at first but it will grow on you.

  7. Eric: Totally see your point here, and my argument would mean a street artist does not get a donation, it gets a payment. And yes, that is exactly what I argue. I think that is the case. Not agreeing with me is absolutely fine. Of course. I don’t see the argument about the tsunami, as the giver does not get anything back, except karma. Not only a reason is needed for me to mentally classify it as a payment. All this said, some flattrs are more in the donation area then others. But the most part do I see as payments, rather than donations.

    Patronage is a good description. We have had that up for discussion but a lot of english speaking people does not know what it means, and even more non native english. So it’s not a good word to use to describe something.

    Evan: We already invented the word “flattr”, doing another word does not really help. Even though it was a good one =)

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