Open source against piracy

There are a few good reasons why open source fans should support the Business Software Alliance.

February 16, 2010
Open source against piracy

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I dislike the Business Software Alliance (BSA). It’s questionable statistics and its sweeping generalisations make for annoying reading at the best of times. But recently I’ve been thinking that perhaps open source advocates should get behind the BSA.

I don’t support stealing and piracy: it’s wrong. I know that and you know that and – from what the BSA says – it knows it too. But I also know that giving away free and open source software, or even selling it where appropriate, is not the same as stealing. This is something that the BSA doesn’t understand. It’s black-or-white approach to exactly who is, or isn’t, a pirate leaves a lot to be desired.

Which is why I think there may be value in open source software developers and vendors signing up to become BSA members. Free and open source software is shipped under one of many open source licences and the producers of FOSS software have an interest in ensuring that these licences are obeyed.

Perhaps for different reasons to most of the BSA membership, but still important.

Broader definition

By joining the BSA open source advocates can do the whole community a service by pressuring the organisation to acknowledge that its simplistic definition of software piracy is inadequate.

On its website the BSA defines software piracy as “the unauthorised copying or distribution of copyrighted software. This can be done by copying, downloading, sharing, selling, or installing multiple copies onto personal or work computers.” The problem with that definition is that these are exactly the ways that open source software is distributed. The fact that I can give a copy of Firefox, Ubuntu or OpenOffice.org to as many people as I like is the exact value proposition of open source software. And if my friends in turn want to make extra copies for friends and family they can.
And none of us is violating the copyright or the licence of the software.

Getting the BSA to acknowledge that there are many software licences which actually allow users to copy and share software would be a big step forward.

Right now the BSA’s approach is to suggest that anyone who copies software and gives it away is a pirate. And the problem with that is that consumers believe it so they are naturally cautious of anything free.

Scare tactics

There is perhaps even a better reason for joining the BSA, however, and it is based on the BSA’s favoured tactic of enforcement: scare tactics. The more scared that users are of the BSA the more likely they are to look for alternatives to pirated software. This could be a significant opportunity to the open source community. So why not encourage the BSA to up its crackdown on piracy and drive more users to open source?

Users are price sensitive. A good portion of users pirate software not because they are hardened criminals. They do it because the cost of the software is prohibitively expensive. Open source software, on the other hand, can be either very affordable or even free. Which is an attractive price point for anyone.

I’m not about to join the BSA right now but it is worth considering.

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