Software piracy: what's in a name?

I finally see how we can solve the software piracy problem once and for all, and it's really quite simple. All we have to do is eliminate the term from our vocabulary. First, it appears that we have little choice anyway but to stop calling it software piracy, because it seems we're offending the real pirates. A spokesbrigand for what he called the Lafeete Nation notified me that it 'wishes that violation of copyright no longer be associated with the term `piracy.'' Not wishing to have a band of buccaneers angry with me, I think we should try to honor his request.

I finally see how we can solve the software piracy problem once and for all, and it's really quite simple. All we have to do is eliminate the term from our vocabulary.

First, it appears that we have little choice anyway but to stop calling it software piracy, because it seems we're offending the real pirates. A spokesbrigand for what he called the Lafeete Nation notified me that it "wishes that violation of copyright no longer be associated with the term `piracy.'" Not wishing to have a band of buccaneers angry with me, I think we should try to honor his request.

Fortunately, reader responses to my last column on the subject make me suspect that eliminating the term might be one of the few areas where we could achieve a consensus. Many felt that the software companies are really the ones who ought to be called pirates.

"The value is no longer there," wrote one reader. "Documentation is either minimal or nonexistent. Support is an absolute joke ... and the companies charge for it. A lot! And they don't take responsibility for their bugs."

No wonder, the reader said, that customers are tempted to a little freebooting of their own.

Many readers felt the software industry has to blame itself for customers not understanding the value of its products. Software bundling gives the impression that only the hardware should cost something, competitive upgrade programs encourage customer disloyalty, and software protection schemes still seem designed only to punish the honest customers. (We'll examine another example of this next time.) And open-source software advocates were quick to point out the ways that following their path would eliminate software piracy from our vocabulary.

A number of readers reported incidents that showed them how hypocritical software companies can be on the subject of piracy. When a multimedia instructor discovered his whole class was using one of those high-end graphics products illegally, he offered the vendor's representatives a chance to discuss the ethical issues involved with the students.

"They were not at all surprised to learn that all of my class had illegal copies, but they informed me that (the company) believed it was a way to `hook' users on its product and they were reluctant to pursue transgressors," he said. "For a company I had previously thought was most concerned about copyright protection, these are curious methods of engendering product support, encouraging new users, and safeguarding its product."

On the other hand, why shouldn't software publishers have the right to choose whichever tactic they want?

As one software developer retorted to a reader on an InfoWorld forum who had complained about publishers encouraging academic piracy, "While it's certainly a tried-and-tested sales tactic to `give away' versions of your software to students ... don't you think that it should be left up to the company to decide, rather than the students themselves? ... It's their blood, sweat, tears, and money that went into producing it, after all."

Whatever you call software piracy, there's no denying that software companies do lose money because of it. And users who claim the right to pirate because of previous suffering don't generally restrict themselves to pirating from those responsible.

"I feel that the software producers are more than justified in taking any measures to protect their products and investments," wrote one system administrator who recalled working for a software-pillaging manufacturing company. "When I came on board, piracy was rampant and in fact encouraged by the CFO. ... She justified the piracy by claiming she already had spent so much on software that she felt they didn't have to spend any more, even though there were different vendors involved."

One forum participant had what I thought an intriguing "fair-use" philosophy.

"If I think the publisher's terms are unfair, I treat myself to what I think is fair use. I don't care if it's legal. I care if it's fair. Let's say, for example, that I buy a PC that comes with NT and one that comes with Windows 98 ... I later decide that I want to run NT on the second one and Win98 on the first."

No way would he buy more licenses in such a case, he said: "No chance. ... I don't care if this violates the terms of the license agreement or the law. It's fair."

It may well be fair, but is it software piracy? We may not be able to get rid of this term after all, because it has come to cover so much ground. And we'll have more ground to cover on this issue soon, so I hope the real pirates will forgive me continuing to take their name in vain a little longer.

(Ed Foster has been writing about technology and consumer issues for nearly 20 years. Send him gripes about computer companies and products at gripe@infoworld.com, or visit his forum at www.infoworld.com.)

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