Software industry calls half its customers thieves

47% of PCs run pirated software according to unrealistically biased criteria of vendors

We are all pirates.

It's just time to admit it. To 'fess up. Clear the air, come clean and acknowledge that we are all software pirates.

Out of simple respect for the low-paid, philanthropic organizations that selflessly offer us perfectly usable, bugless, secure software to use as we see fit and not be limited to using in only ways the software provider believes will make it the most money – we all have to admit that the simple act of using a personal computer for our own purposes makes us pirates or potential pirates that can be viewed only with the greatest suspicion by the charitable organizations providing our software.

It's the only way to interpret the continuing series of studies from the completely objective Business Software Alliance, which is not biased in either its policy or its studies toward the interests of the software vendors that make up its membership, pay its bills, write the questions and define the correct answers to its studies of software piracy worldwide.

A report released by the BSA yesterday shows that, globally, 47 percent of PC users see nothing wrong in using software they've obtained improperly, costing software vendors a (creatively) estimated $59 billion during 2010 alone.

Much of that piracy came from third-world countries where ancient PCs that sell for less than $100 in the U.S. are considered a luxury and even the drastically reduced prices vendors charge for software is usurious compared to local incomes and available capital.

Nevertheless, we in the developed world have to admit our culpability in the gross violence being committed against the profits of the software industry (which often dip below 20 percent, sometimes for more than one quarter at a time).

We have to admit doing almost nothing to stay within the law, despite a long history of doing things like buying an album five or six times on vinyl, tape, CD, special mix CD and boxed set before finally downloading a lower-quality version than we already own because the CD's Digital Rights Protection won't let us move bits we bought legally to a different medium.

We have to admit that not satisfying the BSA's varying and often mysterious definition of "legal" software is not the fault of companies that sell the software and provide the proof of purchase; it's the fault of those of us who continue to use the software despite not having satisfied software vendors that our hearts are pure and that we have not violated a single one of the requirements in those idiotically, incomprehensibly, unenforceably complex software licenses software vendors throw in front of us every time they have a chance.

We have to throw off the rationalizations of our own miscreant behavior and ignore the bleating of naifs such as James Gaskin, whose paltry list of publications and questionable standing among the computer-industry commentariat hardly justify his radical positions, not to mention calls to rebellion and lack of submission to software vendors in screeds like the following:

"I'm concerned about how the BSA bullies small companies that lose paperwork, or are victimized by angry employees who destroy the single piece of evidence the BSA considers acceptable. What evidence is that? Want to guess? If you guess wrong, you pay a fine.

Is the original software packaging enough? Pay a fine. The Certificate of Authenticity on the computer? Pay a fine. The original disks holding the software? Pay a fine.

When I spoke to the BSA director several years ago, I asked her what she considers proof of legal software. She told me to ask the software vendors. So I asked the Microsoft person in charge of compliance. She told me to ask the BSA. Can you spell Catch-22?" – James Gaskin, Network World, 2009

It is absolutely true that some individuals and some whole companies choose to use software illegally, either installing it on far more machines than the number of licenses for which they've paid.

It's also true that third-world countries – especially China, which has a tacit policy of supporting software piracy as a way of reducing costs for growing businesses in its own economy.

Unrealistic estimates

The BSA study claims as many as 86 percent of all PC users in China acquire software illegally.

That doesn't stop its members from working as hard as they can to sell more software to Chinese companies, of course.

Overstating the case weakens the case

That alone gives the lie to the absolutist picture BSA paints of criminality over the image of every company that ever ran even one seat above the number of licenses it bought, or failed to shut down a critical application the second a license term ran out without the vendor's reps having responded to requests for renewal.

Sure, some companies persistently run way more seats than the licenses they bought, run pilot-test installs as production software long after the test should have been completed or other obvious dodges.

A lot more of them do things like run the correct number of licenses for the right people and licensed purposes, but in virtual machines that violate the vendor's outmoded license that limits the user to running a specific app on a specific machine.

That makes the implementation "illegal" but doesn’t remotely qualify as either theft or piracy. In most cases, the software only runs in that configuration because the vendor built support for virtual infrastructures into it, and used VM compatibility as a selling point for the latest version, even if the license doesn't allow it.

Most end-user companies try to make it right, anyway, even at higher costs than they expected. Rather than violate license agreements wholesale, most that I've ever interviewed prefer to just switch vendors.

The percentage that steal software knowingly and without any effort at compensating the vendor is nowhere near 47 percent, though. No industry in the history of the world has ever survived a base of customers half of whom would unrepentantly steal rather than buy the products for sale.

The BSA just wastes what credibility it has with biased analyses and absurd claims of its own losses and the extent of its customers' culpability.

Instead of demonizing customers that don't live up to its unrealistic expectations, it should do something useful, like push members to standardize the means they use to verify a legitimate purpose, build virtualization and cloud support into their licenses, not just their feature sets.

And they should quit with the obviously biased sob stories based on unrealistic definitions of "legal," estimates of potential losses from theft that are pure fantasy, and the role of vendors themselves in helping customers waste or lose money on their products.

No matter what the license cost, no company improves its productivity buying software that's buggy, insecure or so poorly designed and integrated that thousands of end users allow IT to install it on their machines and then refuse to touch it.

U.S. companies waste $12.3 billion per year in maintenance costs alone for shelfware, out of the total $3.67 trillion business spend on software globally every year.

But, you know, I don't think I've ever heard the BSA calculate the amount of money it gets customers to waste on needless upgrades or unusable software as part of its overall calculation of how much customers are stealing from it, rather than the other way around.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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