June 10, 2002

Commentary: How software piracy hurts Free Software

- By Nathan Joel Lunt -

I was discussing Linux in all its glory with a friend of mine, a Windows
XP user, the other day. I told him all of the great things I could do
with my Free Software, and offered to make him a copy, knowing there would
be no legal stipulations on me doing so. He responded, "What can you do
with Linux that I can't do with Windows?" So I proceeded to let him know
that I could do everything he was doing, but legally. Unfortunately, this
didn't persuade him, because he gets all his software for free, too.
Using Free Software doesn't offer him, the basic desktop user, any
advantages, because "pirating" proprietary software doesn't affect his bank
account, and there is a prevailing if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it
mentality that locks people into using vastly inferior software. For now.

The Business Software Alliance, the
self-proclaimed software police, have released a survey that
demonstrates wide-spread software theft to the tune of "billions of
dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs every year." Out of 1,026 users
surveyed, 81 percent neglected to pay for all the copies they made, and
57 percent of those rarely or never pay for the proprietary software they
download. Interestingly, only 12 percent admit to software piracy.

I understand the absurdity of likening copying software to raiding ships
of all their cargo, but for the sake of discussion, it's best to deal with
proprietary software advocates on their level. "Software piracy" should
best be defined as violation of the license agreement that's required for you to be able to use the software. This is more accurately termed "breach of contract" and applies to proprietary software when the vendor's distribution model is usurped or to Free
Software when the source code is used beyond the guidelines of the GPL.

Free Software groups would be very offended if another group started
selling software released under the GPL in a format similar to proprietary
software, with only a binary executable, copy restrictions, and
a BSA-backed extortion scheme. Why should we, then, expect proprietary
software vendors to involuntarily play by the rules of the GPL and not be
offended? The assumption on the part of the proprietary software vendors
is that they will be able to compete with Free Software on a completely level
playing field, where everybody follows every license to the letter, but,
as the BSA survey shows, users will typically avoid paying for
prohibitively-licensed software whenever possible.

On the other hand, GPL violations are few and far between, and actually become big news items within the GNU community, as in the alleged cases of NuSphere and Lindows.

Free Software advocates have a terrific advantage in encouraging EULA
compliance. Not only can we encourage our friends and colleagues to put
their money where their mouth is by paying the exorbitant license fees to
use the inferior software and be prohibited from making necessary backup
copies, but we can also provide services to companies who are in danger of
being audited by the BSA, helping them to easily convert to Free
Software solutions, provide training, and save them thousands of dollars
in fees paid to the BSA in the process.

We should encourage people and corporations to follow restrictive licenses
of proprietary software precisely. Not only will this give Free Software
a boost in users, but it will give Free Software creators credibility when
they require strict adhesion to the GPL. As long as users and corporations can
justify and rationalize using proprietary software without paying for it
and ignoring the End User License Agreements, Free Software loses its primary
selling points: Freedom.

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