buying a puppy, General, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

Puppies and the morality of the market (or Are puppies a derivative?)

If you've been reading anything within the blogs-about-blogs world this week, there's one dominant topic: WordPress versus Thesis (or Mullenweg versus Pearson). If you haven't been following it, it's a fascinating story and I think it's very relevant to the way we think about what we do as breeders and as owners.

Here's the short version: WordPress, which is the platform this blog exists on and also forms the architecture for a whole bunch of blogs and sites that are actually important, exists under what's called a GPL, or general public license. The GPL that governs WordPress exists in order to keep it open for users to change or modify or build on in whatever way they wish. That's why you can get inside WordPress's code and (on your own site) either break it or improve it or modify it as much as you want, whereas something like Microsoft Word forbids that kind of thing. 

Releasing a platform like WordPress under the GPL is a philosophical decision – it says that its owners don't agree with the concept of closed or proprietary code and believe that all users should be able to have free software – where "free" means freedom to use or change, not zero cost (though WordPress is free).

Part of the GPL says that if you build something that has its own function but uses code from the original platform – if you build a plugin for WordPress, for example – you have to also release it under the GPL. This makes the freedom inherited, and is – again – a philosophical choice. It says "Don't build for this unless you're willing to cede your power to the users."

Where the rubber has hit the road this week is in the issue of themes. 

Themes are what tell the blog what it looks like to you, the reader. They're deeper than "skins" but some people refer to them the same way. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of themes out there that allow my blog to look different from Kate's blog or from Jeri's blog or from anybody else's blog. 

Themes can be as simple as instructions for the text to show up in a plain white box or as complicated and useful as their own little programs. The one I'm using right now allows me to, for example, easily display certain pictures in certain ways, or not have certain pages or posts visible, and it does this by adding code to what WordPress is already doing. 

The vast majority of all themes are released under the GPL, because their owners and developers consider them to be "derivatives" of WordPress. Plenty of those developers charge for the themes, especially if they add a ton of user-friendly functionality and support, but the deal is that once you own the theme you can tinker with it as much as you want.

So, for example, for this blog I started off with an off-the-shelf theme and then changed it like crazy so that it no longer looks like it did when I downloaded it. And I have the right to do this, even to go so far as to strip the theme of its identifying details (as being developed by Woo themes) and pretending that it's mine. And I could give my modified code to somebody else and they could install it and slightly modify it again and call it theirs. And so on. 

Developers who work under the GPL make sales for slightly different reasons than Microsoft or Apple does. You're not paying for the software as much as you're paying for their expertise in making it really useful and in supporting it if you have problems. So, even though I could legally e-mail you code, you're probably going to just go spend the $40 to buy a theme yourself because there's a high chance that I've screwed up the code in some way and there's an even higher – approaching 100% – chance that I can't answer the questions you have about how the theme works. 

Entering this arena is a person who did what many, many other developers have done – he built a theme for WordPress. It's called Thesis. And, by all accounts, it's a good theme. The huge difference is that he decided that his theme wasn't going to abide by the GPL; he was going to release it under a license a little more like Microsoft's or Apple's license. If you buy his theme as a single user, you must abide by his license terms. You can only have the theme installed on one website. You have to have his identifying footer. And you can't redistribute the code to anyone else. 

In the world of blogs-about-blogs, this issue has mushroomed to an astonishing extent. What themes are, what derivatives consist of, whether themes are new works, whether themes can stand on their own, the rather astonishing revelation that big chunks of Thesis code are copied directly from WordPress's, and so on. It's become a big fat hairy deal. 

I'm always interested by big fat hairy deals, but it would have remained on the edge of my awareness if it were not for the VERY unique response that Thesis's owner, Chris Pearson, gave to the accusations that he was violating the GPL.

He did NOT say "I am not violating the GPL, and here are my pieces of evidence one two three."

No, he said, "I don't care if I'm violating the GPL. The market has spoken."

In other words, because he was making so many sales, the market had blessed his decision and nothing else mattered.

I am sure there are people reading this nodding and saying, "Oh, an anarcho-capitalist," and I think you're right. In fact, I think you're so right that about the only thing that will ever resolve the above issue is litigation that tells Thesis's owner that he's not allowed to distribute under his own license; he is going to be completely impervious to any appeals to what is the "right" thing to do or what's respectful or anything else. 

The more I thought about this, about how amazing his response was, how gleefully amoral it was, the more familiar it sounded. 

How many times have you heard, when a terrible breeder is challenged on his or her practices, "I have a hundred happy puppy buyers." Or "I never have any trouble selling my litters." or "You're just saying that because you don't want me competing with you." or "People come to me because you expect them to jump through ridiculous hoops and sign their lives away."

These people will not ever actually address the issue – they never say "Yes, I do test my dogs and here's the evidence." Their response is one of market creating morality. Because they sold puppies, their actions are sound. Because they have no trouble getting checks made out to them, nothing else matters.

Michael Walzer, who has written a lot on how we think morally, said it this way:

Competition in the market puts people under great pressure to break the ordinary rules of decent conduct and then to produce good reasons for doing so. It is these rationalizations – the endless self-deception necessary to meet the bottom line and still feel okay about it – that corrode moral character. 

To you as a good breeder, this should be front and center every time you sell a puppy. You are selling a puppy under a very specific license, if you will. You are saying that the puppy is the derivative of your breeding program – would not exist except for your input and your framework – and therefore decisions made about its future must be made under a set of actions you've set. The puppy must never be bred, must be shown, must be fed a certain diet, must be mated to a certain type of dog. 

You are trusting that everyone around you understands the rules of the system, and wishes to work under your license. They've bought the puppy not because they couldn't get one free somewhere, but because you offer the predictability, education, and support that the free one doesn't come with. 

But out there are a whole bunch of people for whom the market establishes the morality. They will buy one of your puppies and they will do whatever you want, sign anything you want, say anything you want them to say, with absolutely no intention of following it if there's a chance that they can make some money. And, when and if you confront them, their response will be the same as we've heard so many times – "I didn't have any trouble selling that litter. You just don't want me competing with you. You're just mad because I'm succeeding at this and you've failed."

So my question is – what should we do, as breeders, knowing this reality? Is there a way to more accurately assess buyers? Are there any real legal recourses that will actually protect the dogs – not just give us some money for misbehavior? Is there a way to come together as a community and share common goals – to write our "Dog GPL," as it were? How can we act, within our system, in a way that shows respect both for the creatures that we love and respect for (but with the knowledge of the frailty of) human nature? I think we have adequate legal recourse – we CAN, after all, always sue them – but doing so doesn't protect the dogs in the first place. That has to be the definition of success, not that we got paid after the fact for something that wrecked a dog or a breeding program. Is there a way to genuinely establish a morality that is not the market?

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  • Reply Kathy Schwabe July 19, 2010 at 4:06 am

    Excellent post (although it took me awhile to get through the computer stuff to where I actually understood the dog stuff )

    And… this is exactly why, for several years, I refused to sell a single puppy to a show home- every puppy- regardless of what it could have been- went out of here on a limited registration with the AKC and a mandatory spay/neuter contract. (I kept the AKC papers until after surgery)

    One bad experience with a ‘show home’ can ruin most breeders! No matter how carefully you screen potential homes, they still manage to slip in!

    I still prefer to sell to companion homes with the same stipulations. The very few puppies I put in show homes are people I already know and respect in the breed; and I will use co-ownerships to protect both the puppies and myself.

    Its a very sad statement when you can’t trust people who profess to love our breed.

  • Reply Jen Simmons July 19, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Go GPL go!

  • Reply kelly July 19, 2010 at 9:00 am

    I’m really new to the debates about dog breeding but I had two brief thoughts in response to this post:

    1. By participating in a system built on a common set of ethical principles rather than the cold hard logic of buying and selling products you are going against the grain of our culture. Educating outsiders into the principles of this system is vital – it’s taken me some time to begin to understand them. Education alone won’t compel everyone to follow the ethical principles, but if blogging about them in informed and interesting ways and including really cute pictures of puppies and children doesn’t change people’s hearts then nothing will.

    2. Great Michael Walzer quote. That sums up a lot of things, doesn’t it?

  • Reply C-Myste July 19, 2010 at 9:55 am

    As a software author in real life (whatever that may be) I was following the WP/Thesis debate with interest this weekend. It doesn’t pertain to our product, which is “legacy”, not derivative, and not issued under GPL. But it is an important issue in the industry.

    In dog-life our little Cardigan family has recently had to clean up someone else’s mess. An intact dog and intact bitch were sold to someone locally on full registrations. I can tell you that when the puppy owners started having problems, the breeder did not step up to offer any help.

    Now I have wondered why I never had heard of this person before she started advertising puppies for sale. She is, after all, the the same (extremely small) town. She didn’t contact me when she was looking for Cardigans. So obviously I was out-competed in the market. Perhaps she could tell from my website and application that I wasn’t going to sell her pets on a full registration.

    It’s a losing proposition as long as there are those among us who will push puppies out the door. Over-breeding leads to competition for sales and to cutting corners.

  • Reply shirley July 19, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    the GPL as a directly analogous contract in the dog world would necessarily allow for people to mess with the code (breed dogs) as long as they then pass on that right to others (sell the puppies intact) when they sell their ‘product.’ what responsible breeders tend to do in order to protect their product and the future of the product line is much more akin to how proprietary software is licensed, where you restrict what people can do with the (genetic) code that you have taken the pains to formulate so people can’t ruin it. since with dogs you’re dealing with lives rather than just software code, it makes it much more reasonable to follow the limited contract route. . . but then it makes sense that the argument against it would be one based on the market – restricting use of the ‘product’ necessarily restricts profits for the new owners/licensees. it may not be the reason the license/contract is restrictive, but limiting profit potential will be a direct consequence of this type of contract.

    so when you call for a dog GPL then, is it the community spirit of the GPL that is what you’d want to apply? in the case of the dog world, is it that you would create a community based on a code/ethics based on fair breeding principles and that thus legitimizes activity & any organizations within this community, and is so strong and pervasive that those that decide to act in defiance of this code (take dogs from this community and then no longer follow the ‘license,’ for example) turn out to have very little incentive to do so? or at least become the subject of heated debate and infamy when they blatantly defy the license (a la wp vs. thesis)? if so, then what exactly would your license look like? would it be similar to those breeder codes of conduct i see listed by rescue orgs? or would it be as near as possible to what you’ve stated before should be the basic rule of thumb – “following the practices of breeding or buying that don’t hurt dogs”?

    • Reply rufflyspeaking July 19, 2010 at 3:10 pm

      Yes, you’ve got it exactly. I am thinking of bringing a sense of heritability to actions – if you build on what we’ve started, you need to follow these rules, and the people who build on yours must follow these rules, and so on and so on. And I’m NOT connecting it, at least in my own mind, to health testing – I mean that dogs must never be abandoned, that records must be kept, that you remain the place where the buck stops, that truly dissatisfied owners have a safety net. That dogs don’t get hurt. As it is, each “generation” of owner has a default of “I can do whatever I want,” and we’re trying, with contracts and discussion and education, to ask them to choose otherwise.

      What we need to do is redefine both the default position and redefine profit. In a system where you don’t make money on the actual product, and making money on the product is considered skeevy – which is where we need to get in dogs – the profit is reputation and the money is made in education and support and advertising. In dogs that would be books and blogs and equipment and training courses and seminars and endorsements and sponsorships. I know there’s always the consideration of whether sponsorships taint the system, but the movement would be so incredibly positive that I’d be willing to take that risk.

      More people in the US own dogs than own WordPress. There is the potential for a huge market to develop around not the dog transaction but the dog support. But there is a cultural expectation that needs to change in order for people to insist on a great base product on which the producers made no money, and then expect to spend money on outstanding support.

      Personally, I’d be glad to give puppies away and have people pay for the “theme” I provide instead; right now the way dog buying even in the excellent-breeder community is viewed is that we sell the puppy but give away all the education and support. I would give a lot to be able to flip that expectation around.

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