Michael Marshall Smith is the best-selling author of Only Forward and The Straw Men, his next book Killer Move is out in July

There's a sentence I find more infuriating than any other at the moment. It is: 'This should be free'. It drives me ****ing mental.

I recently encountered it from an actual journalist, reviewing an iPhone app in a real, printed magazine. It's one thing for the cheapskate lamers out in knee-jerk land to claim something shouldn't cost (they resent paying for anything at all, be it software or a CD or an entire TV series), but when a writer in an exists-in-the-real-world publication does it, then I'm baffled.

I'm at a loss to understand what moral authority is being leveraged to justify use of the word 'should'. I'm confused as to what person, institution or body of thought determines anyone 'should' give their work away for free, to people who will give nothing back, but instead whine about perceived imperfections in what they've been given.

I think the reason this bugs me so much is that it speaks to a growing online attitude toward the products of other people's labour. Even if an app is useless, there is no moral imperative for its creator to give it away.

A market value attaches itself to things that are made, naturally, and ignoring it will make the product commercially unviable — but idea that some creations 'should' be free is not only inexplicable on 'moral' grounds but represents the thin end of an insidious wedge — one that refuses to respect or even recognise the intellectual property of others.

Hundreds of millions of people access the internet every day. Of those, only a minuscule percentage bring something of their own making.

There seems to be an unspoken but strident view, however, that pecking out a one-line 'review' of someone else's work counts as a contribution, and thus elevates the 'reviewer' to the same plane as the people who write software or music or articles of genuine worth.

Well, it doesn't. You're freeloaders, and whiners, and a drain on the system. Either start bringing something of your own to the party, or be grateful for what you're getting. If you haven't put anything up (neither reviews nor tweets count, unless they are frequent, well punctuated, and packed with useful information and insight), then you're not allowed to say someone else's work 'should' be free. You haven't earned the right.

Cheese Thursday

Let me put it another way. Last week, I happened to spend a working afternoon in a North London pub. After a while we noticed that the pub had a range of cheese and biscuits and breads laid out over on one side. I asked the landlord about it.

He told me it was an informal arrangement called 'Cheese Thursday'. One of the locals made bread, and brought it in. Others brought biscuits and cheese. The deal was either you brought some cheese to the party — in which case, of course, you get to help yourself — or else you paid three quid.

And I thought… What a brilliant idea.That's the way the online world should operate, an ad hoc and good-natured sharing of resources amongst equals who have all contributed in one way or another. Yet this is the opposite of the way it works for many people, who believe all the world's cheese is theirs as a birthright.

It isn't.

Don't turn up without cheese and expect to help yourself. Don't sit there bleating 'this cheese should be free', unless you brought bread. If you behaved like that in a pub, you'd know you were doing something wrong, riding on the back of other people's goodwill and generosity. It would be clear that you were being not only a leech, but a bad-tempered and ungrateful one at that.

On the web, a lot of people evidently don't get this. They just want free cheese. And then to say it wasn't good enough.

Act like this, and you are not part of the community. You are a parasite. Marry this to a willingness to grab what you fancy from torrents, and you're worse. You're a thief. Run a site where people swap this stuff — even if you hide behind the claim that you can't stop people 'sharing' stuff they don't own, and you'll take it down if asked — and you're a thief and an asshole.

That's not an acceptable way of life in the real world, and the fact that it's easier on the web doesn't make it any less venal and greedy. If we want the Internet to become a positive evolution of our societies, there are rules which must continue to obtain.

The fact that stealing is the oldest profession (yes, I'll bet it pre-dated prostitution by quite some margin) doesn't confer status upon it. It merely says something depressing about the ways in which our species will behave when we think we're not being watched.

If you can afford a smartphone, then man up and pay the whopping 99 cents they want for the app, and take the hit if it turns out not to be perfect.

Do not pretend there is a moral imperative for others to give you stuff for free. Over the web as a whole, either contribute — in kind, or financially, or at least through a positive attitude — or… f*** off.

Blog first published at http://michaelmarshallsmith.com/blog/?p=428 used with author's permission. And for free.