Thursday, September 6, 2007

Replacing Piracy with Choice

In case you haven't noticed, large software companies such as Microsoft and Adobe are making a lot of noise about the issue of software piracy. Of course, figures which estimate these companies' monetary losses by treating every pirated installation as a lost sale are fundamentally flawed; nevertheless, the fact is that piracy is taking its toll on the software industry, both for the companies which lose revenue, and for the paying customers who face annoying and restrictive anti-piracy "features" in commercial software. I feel that a much better alternative to these restrictions would be to provide a wider array of licensing options to end users. I'm not talking commercial users here, but individuals who don't have the resources or money to negotiate a fair license with a software giant. Frankly, I suspect that many of the individuals presently labeled "pirates" would gladly fork over the money for a legal license if they were provided with licensing options in line with their actual usage habits.

The very existence of casual piracy among non-commercial users demonstrates that the traditional shrink-wrapped-copy-for-one-computer-costs-$700 is not right for every consumer. Ignoring the risk of lawsuit, here is what Adobe has to say about the benefits that legitimate copies of their software have over pirated versions:

What do I get out of purchasing my own software?

When you purchase authorized copies of software programs, you may receive user guides and tutorials, quick reference cards, the opportunity to purchase upgrades, and technical support from the software publishers. With authentic Adobe software, your programs are safe, stable, and backed by a partner you can trust.

No doubt most sane people would consider these benefits to have monetary value, but casual pirates are casual users and these benefits are not worth $700 upfront to casual users.

A greater variety of licensing options to suit different needs, given proper publicity (and accompanied by the complete stripping of annoying, buggy anti-piracy features from off-the-shelf software), would go far to balancing the relationship between large software makers and individual users, and would, in my opinion, greatly reduce the demand for pirated software. After all, why use software illegally when there are legal alternatives which match your particular usage habits and are thus priced fairly?

The type of license I see as crucial for fighting piracy allows users to purchase less than what a full $700 package provides. Why pay for the entirety of Photoshop or Dreamweaver, if you're only going to use the software one to three hours a month? The full price would allow one to use the software every hour of the month, but the price currently does not scale back if one's needs are substantially less. This is a bad situation from the consumer's standpoint; the choice is to either pirate (which is unfair to the company), or pay the full box price (which is unfair to the consumer). Now, I absolutely do not condone the use of pirated software, and I do not use pirated software myself; but at the same time, I have a hard time blaming non-commercial users for committing casual piracy given this dilemma, and I find it absolutely despicable that commercial software vendors criminalize casual software piracy when the software makers themselves are the ones with the power and responsibility to provide a fair deal, yet don't!

I am not terribly fond of the idea of "software as a service;" I like to have control over where my data is stored, and I also like the convenience and speed which comes from using software which does not depend on an Internet connection. A "pay-per-hour" or "pay-per-use" license for desktop software would seem to have the disadvantages of "software as a service" (the user depends on the vendor's existence and willingness to continue selling the product), while at the same time providing none of the technical advantages (eg. remote data storage & product updating). One way around this would be for software manufacturers to provide a sort of guarantee - if the company is no longer selling hours to users, the users are automatically entitled to an infinite amount of time, as if they'd purchased a full shrink-wrapped product. Generally speaking, I try to use Free software in lieu of proprietary/closed software; but where this is not possible, I would gladly pay for proprietary desktop software on a "pay-per-hour" basis given the stipulation that if (Adobe, say) abandons the product and is no longer willing to sell more hours, I am legally entitled to use the software for as long as it continues to run on my computer, without paying a nickel. I view this as an equitable agreement; Adobe, Microsoft, et al., make money, while my right to use the software is preserved. (The software vendors' claim that users have no rights to the software they use is nonsense insofar as the intended use of the software is the creation of original content by the user.)

I propose that, as an alternative to criminalizing casual software piracy, large software makers draft a small set of stock "fair" licenses, each catering to the needs of a different group of users, and put them in multi-colored boxes and market them the way Apple marketed fruit the original iMac.

In the mean time, so long as large commercial software vendors continue their anti-piracy crusades without providing a fair, legal alternative to piracy, I will avoid their products wherever possible.

P.S. Everything I have written above is geared towards non-commercial users; piracy by commercial organizations is just plain wrong, and software makers are right to pursue such actions in court as theft.

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