Why is it 'OK' to nick software?
Date 9-Jul-2003 15:23:53
Topic: Software News
|What's the difference between ripping software and shoplifting? None. Yet millions of us twist the arguments and kid ourselves we are not hardened criminals.|
Call me prejudiced, but from what I know, I'd say you could well be a criminal.
If you're computer-literate enough to be reading this, there's a strong chance you will know how to copy expensive design software from your friends, or download alien-shooting games from the net without paying. And if you know how to, then the chances are you've done it.
The likes of you and me wouldn't normally like to think of ourselves as thieves. We don't pocket CDs in HMV or triple chocolate muffins in Tescos. So why are we happy to steal electronically?
According to the industry, it's because we're a pack of immoral cyber bandits. Developers across the world lose $11bn a year in business software alone, says the Business Software Alliance. It estimates nine out of 10 programs sold on auction sites are pirated.
The booty on your hard drive cost Americans 111,000 jobs in 2001, $5.6bn in lost wages and $1.5bn in unpaid tax. If that doesn't make you feel a twinge of guilt, you're obviously a hardened crook and should consider becoming a career criminal or an oil executive.
Admittedly, the figures may be inflated. How do they know you would have bought the software if you hadn't half-inched it? And how do we know that if you'd paid for it they would have spent the money on creating new jobs, rather than on executive jacuzzis or a new laser corkscrew for Mrs Gates?
Deflate the figures if you like, deep down they still remind us of what we always knew: our virtual shoplifting may feel safe, respectable and innocuous, but that doesn't stop it harming anyone.
When you make it out of the doors of cyberspace with your Mac bulging, someone somewhere loses out.
Stubborn little icons
All of which is terribly obvious and brings us back to the question why do we feel so comfortable with our theft?
Because it's virtual? We haven't taken anything solid or physical, so we don't feel we've taken anything at all. I'm sure that's part of it, although the icon stubbornly remains on the desktop, reproaching us every time we use it.
Another reason is our uncertainty that we've stolen anything. How can we have, when no one has lost anything they used to have? A valid philosophical question to be sure, though the law doesn't see it that way.
But the most important reason is also the most depressing. We don't feel bad because there's no risk of our being caught and punished. If I pocketed a bottle of whisky in the supermarket I'd be so anxious about the security guards grabbing me, plagued with visions of shame and humiliation, police cars and magistrates, that even if I got away with it I'd feel horribly guilty.
That doesn't happen with computer applications, even though they tend to cost much more than the kind of whisky I buy.
This isn't a flattering thought. It suggests the main reason I tend to behave decently and honestly (in my own way) is not that I am decent and honest, but that I know bad things will happen if I don't.
There's one more reason why we're not more troubled by our ill-gotten games, I think. It's that we don't really mind ripping off huge fat-cat corporations, which would probably do the same to us given half the chance.
The ethics of intellectual property are not only about individuals. If companies charge extortionate prices because they can, perhaps they ought to get their own house in order before suing customers. And if they package their software in sweatshops, who's ripping off whom?
Consider the cautionary tale of music CDs. Everyone, bar the music industry, agrees they've been sold at vastly inflated prices since the 80s. Along come CD writers and MP3s and the market collapses about their ears. Who's surprised?
If bootlegging acts as a safety valve to keep software prices sensible, might that not be such a bad thing after all?
So what are we to do? Perhaps "trial piracy" could offer a reasonable compromise between us and the marketers. The unconventional software billionaire Kai Krause suggests this rule of thumb: "If it's still on your hard drive after a year, pay for it.'
And if you can't manage that much, you can just relax in the knowledge that you are simply a Bad Person. At least you're not alone.