June 7, 2003

"Free Piracy" vs. Free/Open Source Software

- by Flávio Codeço Coelho

Every once in a while, articles get published talking about Microsoft's
double standards on software piracy, particularly in developing
countries. This is a well known fact, and generally get two types of
interpretations: One is that Microsoft is a liar when it says illegal
sharing of software  "hurts everyone" while it seems to use this
very idea as its main strategy for market dominance in poor countries.
The other common interpretation of Microsoft's double standards on
piracy is the one I would like to focus on in this article. It is
frequently stated like this: "Microsoft is actually being nice in not prosecuting software piracy in
third-world countries. This way, people who can't afford software
licenses can have access to computers and, as a result, developing
countries can narrow the technological gap that separates them from
developed countries"

There are several flaws in the latter argument, the most important
being the fact that when piracy is widespread (as in Brazil where I live
and work) most people ignore the cost of using that software. Not only
the financial cost but the social costs associated with it: The most
obvious cost is the fact that these people live with their heads under
a legal guillotine. Secondly. their governments can be blackmailed in
the international arena for not being hard enough on piracy. Thirdly,
universal access to pirated software makes it difficult, if not
impossible for these societies  to find the real solution to
their  technological needs:  Free/Open Source  software.

If  the statistics of Microsoft world-market dominance would
account only for licensed copies it would be evident that it is probably
not legally present in more that 50% of the world's desktop
computers.  Societies that can't afford Microsoft's licenses owe to
themselves the adoption of free operating systems and software, their
rewards would not only be legal but also educational because Free/Open
Source software stimulate thinking and local development through
adaptation of existing software to specific contexts and problems.

Microsoft products' philosophy is one of hiding software and hardware
complexity from end-users and developers alike. The longer we use
Microsoft products, the dumber we get. Back in the DOS era, every
computer user had to know how to edit their own config.sys and
autoexec.bat and in the process of doing so, they would learn about
drivers, hardware features, etc. Nowadays, only Microsoft Certified
Engineers can completely understand the windows registry and fiddle
with it in an attempt to fix or improve a system. When Windows users
have problems with their systems, they backup their data, format their
HD and re-install everything from scratch. On the developer's side,
Microsoft has also succeded in their "dumbification" program. No one
will question that Unix programmers are much smarter than the ones that
grew up eating Microsoft's dog food. The final goal of Microsoft seems
to be convincing people that they can create great software using only
their mice, "no need to bother with that bunch of  keys on your
keyboard, much less those cryptical syntax rules from technologically
outdated programming languages." The names of their development
products, visual this, visual that,  almost makes one think that
you can create software just by looking at your computer.

The real technological gap between the developed world and other
countries can be defined in the ability to think about technology, to
use technology to build new technology and to learn about this process
at the same time, and this is something Free Piracy can't provide.

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