Have software licences and anti-piracy gone too far?

09 May 2008
4 minute read
ITAM News & Analysis

Have software licences and anti-piracy gone too far?

09 May 2008
4 minute read

An interesting article by Martin Brampton; The Brampton Factor: Licensed to bill 

Software piracy may well be a very bad thing. But does it justify inflicting misery on legitimate software buyers, asks Martin Brampton.

There is a lot of talk about the awfulness of software piracy but little seems to be said about the gross inconveniences that vendors seem willing to inflict on legitimate buyers.

This all seems part of a wider pattern, where the publicity machines of the likes of the Federation Against Software Theft (Fast) pump out comments that suggest the civilised world is about to end unless ever more draconian legislation is passed to halt the immense losses suffered by vendors.

Yet how real are these losses? Microsoft has said it alone is losing £250m annually in the UK from piracy. If we accept that figure seriously, then it is quite remarkable that Fast proclaims on its homepage that in the past five years £1.8m has been levied in fines, and Fast has recovered no less than £5.5m. That is more than £1m per year.

Should we conclude from those figures that the alleged problem is being wildly exaggerated, or should we suppose that Fast is extraordinarily ineffective in its recovery actions?

And in the particular case of Microsoft, Fast’s £1m per year is dwarfed by the fines totalling €1.68m imposed on Microsoft because EU judges determined that the company had abused its monopoly position.

If the judges are correct, then we are entitled to assume that software is costing more than it might by virtue of Microsoft’s restriction of competition.

In fact, even Fast’s claim that every breach of a software licence constitutes theft is contentious. Andy Burton, founder of asset-management firm Centennial and a director at Fast, has said: “Most companies today I believe fall foul of compliance issues because of poor management rather than malicious behaviour.”

So, corporate misuse of software licences seems to be down to incompetence, which is not yet generally counted as a crime. In fact, this incompetence is often compounded by vendors whose record keeping is rather worse than that of their customers.

Moreover, little trouble seems to be taken to ensure that licences can be purchased to match the needs of customers.

Why are vendors so unhelpful over licensing for light enquiry use of software, as opposed to regular full use?

When it comes to individuals, the situation is far less simple than Fast would have us believe. Theft was originally understood to be the unlawful removal of someone else’s property. It is pretty clear why this is damaging to the victim.

But it has yet to be explained how the owner of a digital entity is damaged if someone takes a copy of it that they would not have wanted if they had to pay for it. Indeed there is often seen to be an advantage to the “victim” in achieving market share, especially in the polarised markets of IT where leadership is all.

The revenue that is supposedly lost is pure illusion, since in many cases the users of copies either could not or would not afford the official price.

Despite all this confusion, there are calls for the providers of internet access to police transfers of software. This is an extraordinary suggestion, tantamount to demanding that bus companies guarantee that their passengers never carry stolen goods.

When representatives of organisations such as Fast regularly speak about suspicions rather than facts, what do we think the hapless ISP should be doing? How exactly would they detect unlawful software transfers?

Given the huge effort that is going into removing spam from the welter of email, and its decidedly partial success, there will always be considerable doubts. And they would surely include false positives with possibly serious consequences for innocent internet users.

It does seem that buyers of software have legitimate grievances that go unheard in all the shouting about piracy.

Before castigating their customers or the general public, it would be far more constructive for software vendors to consider whether their licences are fair to users. And to check that enforcement mechanisms are not unreasonably cumbersome.

Most of all, before attempting to take the moral high ground, vendors could look to their own practices.

Read the full article here The Brampton Factor: Licensed to bill

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