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Thursday, 25 February 2010 11:50

The best way to reduce software 'piracy'

Some years ago, while I was in a small computer shop in a suburb of Melbourne, trying to convince the owner to put a few machines running GNU/Linux on display, a lady arrived with a laptop in hand.

She had a problem: a disk had got stuck in the floppy drive and she wanted it taken out. The man in the shop reassured her that he could fix it and was promptly thanked  by the woman who then asked him how long it would take and how much it would cost.

He cast a quick glance in my direction and, with a straight face, told his customer that he would have the job done by 3.30pm and that it would cost $60. It was 9.30am at the time he said this.

As many of you would know, all that needed to be done was to straighten out a paper clip, shove one end into the little hole near the floppy drive and jiggle it a bit to get the disk out. It takes about 10 seconds.

The point of this tale? It just underlines the fact that the entire IT industry is built on overpriced products and services. People working in the business get away with it because IT is a complex business - and they are very good at making it seem even more complex than it is.

Whenever I see any kind of publicity material from the Business Software Alliance one thought comes to mind - lower the prices of software to something reasonable and nobody will copy it .


Yesterday the BSA sent out a release about its "Software Piracy Sentiment report" titled "Australia's attitude to software piracy."

The use of overblown terms like "pirate" to describe someone who is using software for which he or she has not paid is one of the chief weapons in the armoury of proprietary software companies and the BSA. Piracy is robbery on the high seas, not the act of using software for which you have not paid - but boy, it does sound like a heinous crime when the word "pirate" is flung about. I'm waiting for the day when they start referring to "software terrorists."

The survey was conducted for the BSA by a marketing company named Outsource. There were eight questions/propositions put to the participants; it was done as a telemarketing exercise. The entire survey is here (460k PDF).

The report says that more than 88 percent of Australian companies surveyed - 3000 IT managers and CIOs were called and 277 agreed to participate -  agree that using "pirated or unlicensed software" is a risk to their business.

Exactly what kind of risk is made clear only towards the end of the media release, where it quotes one Clayton Noble, the co-chair of the Business Software Australia Committee, as saying: "The use of unlicensed software can be very costly to a company if caught, and may result in lawsuits, damages bills and bad publicity. Pirated software may also compromise information security and bring your network down. IT managers and company directors need to ensure that an effective software asset management system is in place and in use, to protect their businesses as well as their professional reputations."

I get it: Noble is talking, in the main, about the normal legal shakedown that is practised by companies like Microsoft. It is somewhat ironic that a company which was fined for software piracy in 2001 by a French court should be one of the biggest backers of the BSA.

The company was fined three million francs in damages and interest for violation of intellectual property because of the illegal inclusion of another company's proprietary source code in SoftImage 3D, an animation package. It all happened at the Commercial Court of Nanterre, France, on September 27, 2001.


Noble asserts that, "pirated software may also compromise information security and bring your network down." This simply isn't true. You can get all three service packs for Windows XP at numerous locations on the web without downloading it from the Windows Update site. With those three service packs, XP is about as secure as it will get. There's a rider here: security is always a relative term where Windows is concerned.

You don't need unlicensed or copied versions of any software to bring down your company network; the worms, viruses, trojans, malware and adware that thrive in the Windows environment are catholic in their tastes and will attack any copy of Windows, even if you get it as a birthday gift from Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Just as an aside, let's remember that a certain William Henry Gates III, co-founder of the world's biggest software company, is credited with this quote: "Although about 3 million computers get sold every year in China, but people don't pay for the software... Someday they will, though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade."

The survey says: "A 2006 report by IDC, entitled Risks Of Obtaining and Using Pirated Software, revealed that 25 per cent of web sites offering access to pirated software and piracy-related tools were distributing malicious code, such as Trojans secretly imbedded in the downloaded software. In some cases, these web sites exploited vulnerabilities in the users computer to install the unwanted software automatically."

This is absolutely true. But then, one would have to be using Windows in the first place to be affected by these trojans. There is no other operating system on Mother Earth which is so susceptible to malware. Why isn't that made plain?

Another finding of this study is that 43.6 per cent of Australian corporate decision-makers believe that reducing the use of unlicensed software in Australia will improve job prospects and the economy, and 22.4 per cent don't know. This gives reason for hope that they will not be taken on this ride.


Noble says: "Australian IT managers may be unaware that reducing the software piracy rate in Australia by 10 per cent over four years could generate an additional 3,929 Australian jobs, US$438 million in tax revenues for Australian governments and an additional US$1.9 billion in revenues to local Australian IT vendors." These figures are from a BSA-sponsored study carried out by IDC.

But the BSA did not provide an estimate of the amount that these 277 businesses have lost due to their Windows systems being infected by worms, viruses, adware and malware that are created by young and old each and every year.

There was no mention of the number of additional staff who could be hired using the funds saved by having stable computer systems. No mention of the millions of dollars that these 277 businesses could have saved if they did not have to buy anti-virus software for their systems. No mention of the millions of dollars that schools could save if they used free software instead of the costly Microsoft operating systems and applications. And certainly no mention of the amount that could be saved by not having to upgrade hardware every time a new version of the Windows operating system is released.

I fear that these are perspectives the BSA will not offer.

Only 30 per cent of those surveyed were prepared to report the use of unlicensed software to the BSA - Australians, in general, have only scorn for those who dob others in, no matter what the situation. Another 32.7 per cent of respondents were unsure.

"In addition, the survey shows that IT managers place the highest priority on security of their IT systems, believe that that inadvertently allowing malware into the network through the use of unlicensed software poses a "high risk" to their business," the release said.


Risk? As I've pointed out, using Windows is a risk, given the fact that security on this system is something akin to Swiss cheese. But curiously, the BSA isn't warning anyone about this risk. Strange.

"Despite these risks the majority of respondents believe that the primary reason an Australian business may use pirated or unlicensed software is to try and reduce costs" - there you have it. Lower your costs BSA members and the problem will disappear. Be satisfied with a billion instead of two.

The next bit of the release again perpetuates a myth: "They may be unaware of the costs that malware found in pirated software can cause in network down time and information security breaches."

What about the fact that the copy of Windows bought in the big computer store can also play host to malware?

The BSA notes in conclusion that 93.2 per cent of survey respondents say they have systems in place to ensure that all software used is licensed and legal. Somehow I doubt that these figures would make the organisation happy - after all, if everyone started paying for the software they use, there would be no reason for the BSA to exist.
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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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