Tag Archive | intellectual property

Freedom & Piracy

I was cleaning out some old e-mails this morning when I came across a link to an article I had saved last November. Katherine Noyes of LinuxInsider reported the release of 64-bit Adobe Flash for Linux. In her article, she cites a post by blogger Julian Saraceni titled “Stop pirating Adobe Software, Use Free Software Instead”. Both are quick reads and I recommend them.

Commercial software can be expensive, but in my experience, the old adage “you get what you pay for” holds true more often than not. As you might expect me to say, the price of software is driven not only by what people want to pay, but also by what authors are willing to charge. The cost of developing, testing and maintaining software must be recouped and an adequate profit margin added on top of that to keep software companies interested. That’s an economic reality.

Many people feel that software prices in general are unreasonably high. I’ve found that the justification for this belief is usually relative to the specific person’s financial situation at the time, but in many cases I agree that software is overpriced with respect to what you get for your money. Really good software is worth every penny. The perception that software prices are not fair is one of the main reasons people commit piracy.

Pirates also believe (or have to convince themselves) that they have a right to use software, even if the terms of use explicitly require a one-time or subscription payment. Have you ever thought or heard, “I need this software to do [whatever] – it’s the best/only software for this type of task – but I can’t afford it, so I’ll just use it for now.” The person making this statement is obviously dealing with a moral/ethical dilemma.

Piracy does have serious, far-reaching consequences. The most direct economic effect is felt by the authors and sellers, but economic imbalance has a way of rippling through an entire economy, through the product and labor markets in many sectors – the problem is not isolated. As piracy becomes more acceptable, a skewed sense of property rights develops. Society’s standards change and the peoples’ sense of right and wrong dulls. Theft, of which piracy is just one type, is more easily justified and thus, committed more frequently and even casually. Respect for the rights of others, and therefore respect for others themselves, is abandoned and the social contract decays.

OK, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Where’s the FUD? “Everyone” knows that the Linux community was started by a “bunch of hackers” and the negative connotation that accompanies that statement is well-understood. “You Linux people want everything for free!” This perception unjustly deposits the Linux community in the same class as pirates. I occasionally come across the accusation that Linux egregiously promotes piracy, though this is most often made in the context of copyright violations in the entertainment industry.

The truth is, (intellectually) Free Software is available to those who disagree with the concept and/or laws of intellectual property. Usually, Free Software is also (gratis) free or low-cost software, because intellectual protection is often what permits software price gouging. The authors are usually the first users of a Free software package, so overall quality is generally higher than one might expect. As expressed in the articles above, the availability of Free Software should reduce or eliminate the perceived “need” for piracy. Free Software is not limited to the Linux platform, but the Linux community supports and fosters this mentality explicitly.

Perhaps we can solve the problem of piracy at the root. (pun intended)

-Brandon

Piracy or Marketing?

Linux is often mentioned in discussions on Intellectual Property (IP) and the protection thereof. The reason is two-fold. First, the Linux platform is often seen as the “Wild West” where there are no (enforceable) laws. The perception is that Linux makes it easier to pirate software, music, video and other digitized IP products. Unlike the analog piracy of the past, there is no (or imperceptibly little) degradation in the quality of the copy with respect to the original.

Second, Linux itself defies the very concept of IP protection due to the OpenSource philosophy held by its development community. Some believe that OpenSource advocates illicitly extend this philosophy to other, non-Open products – that they actually believe all products are intellectually-free – and therefore, that they do not and will never respect the true ownership of IP.

Now, I said all of that as a segway into this very non-Linux story. A British band out of Devon, England called Show of Hands admits in an interview that they depend “utterly” on piracy viral marketing to support ticket and album sales. I mulled this story over for a while and came to realize that this band is to the recording industry what a shareware developer is to the software industry.

A small band, Show of Hands probably does not enjoy nearly the amount of radio airtime as, say, Metallica. This means that album sales rely much more heavily on concert attendance and I’d venture to guess that concert ticket revenues constitute a much higher percentage of the band’s total revenues than for bigger names. Like shareware companies, tolerating some piracy actually earns them more money than preventing it outright.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. A big-name band does receive a lot of airplay, which can translate into fewer tours (if they like). Concert venues, being oppressively spatial in nature, can hold a limited number of humans safely and the band usually has a minimum return in mind; thus the ticket price is adjusted to allow just the right number of real fans to enjoy the performance first-hand. Not everyone can see the show, but everyone can buy the band’s albums on CD. For many bands, CD sales far outweigh concert revenues, so piracy is a much bigger threat to the band’s monetary success, especially considering that sound quality is not sacrificed. Albums re-released on CD probably sold well on cassette and possibly in LP format as well. Some groups like to repackage old material into “Greatest Hits” albums and other compilations, sometimes adding one or two “new cuts” to keep old fans buying. Like big software shops, big bands like to lock you in and repeatedly resell to you.

Enter the RIAA and other IP groups who claim to have the protection of the artists at heart. Like legislators, these groups want to represent their constituents, but all too often the only folks they get to talk to are the lobbyists and the influential. The “best interests” of the recording industry and the artists themselves begin to look a lot like what the big guys want. Forget that the small bands may be able to use viral marketing to their advantage. I know, nothing is stopping them from “giving away” their IP if they choose to do so, right?

Wrong. So-called “digital media rights” must somehow be managed to protect IP (read: imposed, because legal punishment is obviously not an effective deterrent) and technological controls are increasingly replied upon to achieve this. If it becomes illegal or highly cost-prohibitive to own or operate equipment free of IP protection functionality, the small band will have no choice but to conform, eliminating one of its most effective marketing strategies. This constitutes a barrier to entry for competition, strengthening the resale potential of established big-name bands.

What does this mean for Linux? It seems that the creators of codecs and IP protection software are reluctant to share their algorithms with the Linux community, the most-likely reason being the fear of the “Wild West” described above. If you don’t want stuff stolen from your gym locker, don’t write the combination of your lock on the door, right? The IP folks probably won’t budge on this point unless the Linux community can be trusted (read: controlled).

One last thought – if music piracy is such a big problem and Windows+Mac still has 95% or more of market share, I really don’t see how Linux is the root of that problem (no pun intended).

-Brandon