Beachhead - Pirates and Pollywogs

Exploring proprietary software and piracy.

“maddog, maddog”, came the voices. Of course, I knew what this meant; it was the weekly meeting of the Pollywogs, a group of young friends who wanted to learn more about the history of computers. They came to the small restaurant where I had dinner on Saturday evenings, the Alideia dos Piratas, to ask questions and receive the best answers that I could give.

“Boa noite”, I said (being most of the Portuguese I know), “what can I do for you tonight?” “Tell us about pirates”, they answered in unison. “Pirates?” I questioned, “this seems a little off normally are interested in computer information, why this interest in pirates?” “Software pirates”, they answered, and now I saw the connection.

“What most people call software piracy is a complex issue”, I said. I continued:

In the earliest days of computers, both hardware and software were incredibly expensive. The people who could afford the hardware of the computers also usually could afford the cost of the software. Likewise, software was typically created as a service for the customer. Manufacturers supplied the operating system software for their own computer systems, so their customers could use their hardware, and applications were written specifically for a particular customer as a service. When customers “bought” software, usually the license did not specify how many computers they could run it on, and customers “owned” the software they had purchased.

As time went on and computers became manufactured in larger quantities, the price of hardware dropped considerably, but software remained expensive. So, people thought about manufacturing software the same way they manufactured hardware. This software typically would be delivered only in binary form, at a fraction of the cost, but you would not own the software, just the right to use it under terms of a license. The creator of the software still “owned” it. This is what most people are used to in today's market.

Although this was adequate for a lot of the world's market, it had some artificial limitations. Depending on the license, restrictions were made as to whether the software could be re-sold or re-used. Although older hardware might be re-sold to people who could not afford to buy new hardware, the old software could not be re-sold. Ironically, repopulating an old computer system with fresh copies of the software it originally came with might cost more than buying a new computer with the software already “bundled”.

André gave me a knowing look. He told the group about his grandmother who was given a used computer, but it had no software on it. The person giving it to her had stripped the software off, to be “legal”. The software alone would have cost her $2,000 US to replace, just to do simple word processing and some manipulation of her digital camera pictures. His grandmother was now a “software pirate”.

I continued:

As the prices of the hardware dropped, the prices of the commercial software necessary to “do business on the Internet” stayed the same or even went up. While new computer systems with high-speed CPUs, lots of memory and disk space dropped in price to hundreds of US dollars, the software to run them stayed the same or rose in price to thousands of dollars.

It is interesting to note that commerce has moved in time from viewing the computer as a luxury in business to a necessity in business. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a business to exist without using computers and/or being tied to the Internet. Yet for people whose monthly income was measured in tens of dollars, this meant they could not afford the computers they were told they needed to do business today.

Enter software piracy. When caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place, people started to copy software and distribute it to people who needed it. People realized it did not cost $600 US to make a shiny plastic disk and that they could get the equivalent disk at their local CD store for $2 US. I mentioned that one time at a conference and a voice from the back of the room said, “One US Dollar!”, a tough negotiator.

Nevertheless, this copying and selling of the software is illegal, and it is against the wishes expressed in the license as well as (in most cases) against the wishes of the software creator.

“It is as wrong as stealing a bicycle or a car, or photocopying a book for re-sale. It teaches a disrespect for the law that filters down to other issues”, said Pablo. Pablo is studying to be a doctor, but is also active in his Software Livre! club. He went on to say, “In addition, stolen software does not typically allow for the thief to go back to the creator of the software to ask for patches, extentions or training. And there is no pride in stealing software.”

“Why don't companies do more to protect their software?” asked one of the members of the group.

“Ironically, companies who scream the loudest about software piracy often admit to encouraging it”, I said, and continued:

A South American product manager of a large software company based in Redmond, Washington, once admitted to me that they “help out” people that they know have pirated their software, providing patches and information to them. “It keeps these people from using alternatives”, he told me. Yet, in the same country, this company is an active member of the Business Software Alliance, which often audits companies to see whether they are using unlicensed software and oversees the legal actions against them.

The group agreed that this seemed more than a little hypocritical.

Cesar told us that this same Redmond-based company often provides “free” distribution for “Education” or “Digital Divide” reasons. The latest edition of this software can run only three applications at a time, and other similar restrictions makes their software even more useless. “The motivation behind this is so transparent, it is enough to make a person laugh or cry. They hope to keep the buyer of the computer from trying a truly free operating system and software”, he said.

Pablo pointed out that free software cannot be stolen. “You cannot steal something that is licensed to you freely. There may be a request with the free software that you acknowledge the person or company that wrote it, but this is typically a low- or no-cost request, easily done.”

Finally, I said:

Free (free as in freedom) software, allows people with little money to help contribute to the software in many ways. They can contribute to the development, to the documentation, to the testing or to the promotion of the software. They even can sell support and training, making a living off of it, instead of a drain. They do not have to worry about the Business Software Alliance. This means that people who have little money still can contribute to the advancement of the software they use. They can join the software community with pride, not as a handout, and not as a thief.

Although you think I may be talking only about so-called third-world countries, how many businesses anywhere have “enough” money?

Marlon told us about his uncle who needed several pieces of very expensive software, available only from the United States and available only in English to run his business. The software would have cost him more than $2 million US, but more important, it would have forced him to teach his employees enough English to use the software. Instead, his uncle found a free software programmer who duplicated exactly what the uncle's business needed using MySQL, Perl, FreeGIS, Apache and other free software products. His uncle paid the software programmer money to create the software needed, and the software worked in Portuguese, not English. The money also stayed locally, buying local food, local housing and paying local taxes.

“Enough!”, I said, “Enough talk about software pirates and software piracy. If you do not start your football game now, it will be too dark!”

And while the younger Pollywogs went off to play their game on the sand, the older ones and I put on our jackets, watching the sun drop down behind the trees and the stars come out over the water.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International (, a nonprofit association of end users who wish to support and promote the Linux operating system. During his career in commercial computing, which started in 1969, Mr Hall has been a programmer, systems designer, systems administrator, product manager, technical marketing manager and educator. He has worked for such companies as Western Electric Corporation, Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He is now an independent consultant in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Business and Technical issues.


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