Opinion

Thought for the day:The great software rip-off

No wonder UK companies use pirate software if they feel they're paying over the odds, says Simon Moores. If the price comes down, perhaps they'll be happier to shell out for licence fees.

The Business Software Alliance (BSA) estimates that a quarter of all business software in the UK is illegal, and that software piracy is fast becoming one the pillars of the black economy I commented on last week.

We are expected to feel moral outrage over illegal software in much the same way that we are urged to feel bad about non-payment of a TV licence or, indeed, ferrying in vanloads of cigarettes and French lager from Calais - for our personal consumption, of course.

Bootleg software isn't a victimless crime. After all, both the software and entertainment industries are losing billions of dollars each year to "free marketers" or software pirates in the "tiger" economies.

Worst of all is the great British boot sale, depriving the Treasury of yet another source of VAT which, quite possibly, concerns the government more than any natural sympathy for the software industry.

But why are we so reluctant to pay for software? Doesn't this reluctance tell us something important about the cost of software, like the price of cigarettes or the cost of a pint of lager? I would argue that the British, in the tradition of Robin Hood, have an instinct for what represents a fair price and what doesn't and unconsciously resent what might be regarded as profiteering at their expense.

The government has been fighting the alcohol and tobacco war with the public for centuries. And now there's very little sign that in an example of the Boston tea party in reverse, a collection of large, wealthy and mostly US business interests can convince people that the digital contents of a plastic beer coaster are worth more than £100.

After all, most people, if asked, would probably agree that DVDs and CDs are ridiculously expensive at close to £20, so why should software cost even more?

The owners of the intellectual property in question would argue - and quite correctly - that the high cost of software is entirely relative and driven by market forces. After all, these same forces create companies whose revenues are greater than most nations' GDP. So these forces fund further research and development, drive progress and the economy and encourage altruism in the shape of billion-dollar donations to charity and political interests.

The law clearly states that my software should be legal and properly licensed and I'm not advocating any other position.

Perhaps, however, the BSA and its sponsors should accept that while their position on software licensing is entirely correct in the eyes of the law, the moral dimension continues to elude them, because while laws can be enforced, they can only really operate successfully through consensus.

The root cause of the problem is not a fundamental dishonesty on the part of British businesses but is instead a collective expression of resistance against a perception of unreasonable and often complex pricing from the software industry.

If television licences cost only £50 a year, would prosecutions for licence evasion be so high? Perhaps the same argument can be levelled against software pricing.

Are we a nation of compulsive licence evaders because it's in our nature, or because we object to being milked, whether it's for the price of a pint of lager or an enterprise software licence?

What is your view?
Is software a rip-off? Tell us in an e-mail >> CW360.com reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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This was first published in November 2002

 

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