Who Are You Calling a Software Pirate?
I, too, was happy to see that the good guys won in Sunday's conflict in the Indian Ocean.
That's not my opinion as a technology journalist, but as an American. But since then, one aspect of this story has intrigued the tech-journalist part of me: When we have such a graphic example of what real pirates do, is it appropriate to apply the same noun to people who use commercial software without paying for it?
The NYT's always-interesting Freakonomics blog raised that question yesterday. Stephen J. Dubner wrote that "as real-life pirate attacks have gained in intensity, violence, and geopolitical meaning, talking about digital thieves as pirates has come to seem clever to a fault, and inaccurate too."
The Business Software Alliance, a trade group devoted to stopping people from using commercial software without paying for it first, does not agree. Also yesterday, the CNet tech-news site reported that a BSA publicist sent an e-mail explicitly comparing thugs hijacking supertankers to software thieves: "Piracy takes many forms, some more violent than others."
(Writer Gordon Haff called that e-mail "one of the most tone-deaf and cynically opportunistic PR pitches I've seen for quite some time.")
I believe that people should pay for the commercial software they use. If you can't or don't want to, there are plenty of open-source alternatives you can use honestly; see these three sites for help with that.
But I don't support the BSA's vocabulary, just as I don't appreciate other attempts to equate duplicating a file on the Internet with the taking of physical property by force. When I once heard a copyright lobbyist on a radio interview describe music and movie file-sharing as "economic terrorism," I felt like grabbing him by the lapels and explaining -- at great volume and with numerous expletives -- that I'd seen that cloud of dark gray smoke rising from the Pentagon on 9/11 and knew damn well what terrorism looked like, so he'd better not use that word unless he really meant it.
(Note that I also hate many of the other euphemisms of Big Copyright, like "copy protection" -- more accurately called "copy prevention," "usage restriction" or "copy controls.")
But if we're not going to call people who don't pay for their copy of Microsoft Office "pirates," what word should we use to describe their activity and place in its proper moral context?
Blogger John Gruber suggests the term "bootlegging," but I'm not sure about that noun either. To me (a one-time concert reviewer for the Post), it evokes homemade recordings from concerts, an activity that demands individual initiative and, when done right, creativity. Installing a copy of a program on two computers doesn't require much of those qualities.
"Software theft" itself suffers the problem that theft, by definition, involves the victims losing the stolen property:
the act of stealing ; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it
That doesn't happen with digital media, where somebody installing a not-paid-for copy of Office doesn't stop your copy, mine or Steve Ballmer's from working. Rather, the key concept here is that somebody has short-circuited a normal business transaction through deceit or trickery. And for that, the most apt definition appears to be "fraud":
deceit, trickery ; specifically : intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right b: an act of deceiving or misrepresenting
Does "software fraud" work for you? What terms would you use instead? The comments are yours...
April 14, 2009; 2:08 PM ET
Categories: The business we have chosen
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