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Let's not be too sanctimonious here

On Thursday this week, the US Department of Justice led an international sweep to seize computers being used for the distribution of pirated software, movies, and music. With an estimated $50 million worth of contents (though one has to wonder a bit how that number was derived), these computers are said to be central to the international warez circuit. "Warez," as you probably know, refers to pirated software distributed in private groups who are often more interested in the challenges of acquisition than in actually depriving software owners of licensing revenue. The DoJ says, "The enforcement action announced today is expected to dismantle many of these international warez syndicates and significantly impact the illicit operations of others."

Now, most developers I know would never endorse software piracy, and I've seem suggestions at various times that the perpetrators of such acts should be boiled in oil, or tarred and feathered, or otherwise heavily punished. And yet, I wonder...just how many developers are squeaky clean in this regard? If I came over and examined your hard drive today, what would I find? I don't know, of course, but here are some of the things I've heard from developers in the past:

  • "Oh, it's just shareware, if they really wanted money they wouldn't let me download it." Actually, shareware is a distinct distribution method for software developers who do indeed want money for their work. Just as annoying to a shareware author is "I'll pay for it one of these days."
  • "The company has a license, and only one of us uses the software at a time." The company may have paid for a single license, but if you've got the software installed on half a dozen computers you're almost certainly violating that license.
  • "I'm planning to buy this CD next week, I'm just making sure I like it." The music industry is generally not licensing their releases for previewing.
  • "A license for this tool is too expensive, so I just figured out that setting the clock back on the PC would let us run it when we need it." That's right up there with "paying for lobster is too expensive, so I just figured out that I could pry open the back door of the supermarket when I want some."
  • "Microsoft has all the money they need; they'll never notice if we run a few extra copies." Well, you might get lucky, or you might get audited. In any case, illegal behavior doesn't become legal just because no one is watching.

I expect you could add your own favorite excuses to this list. What it all boils down to, as far as I can tell, is that software is easy to copy, fun to use, and expensive to buy. This combination tempts many otherwise law-abiding folks to bend or break the rules when it's convenient for them. The curious thing is that software developers are (in my experience) so often in this group. After all, we're the ones who lose the most if it becomes impossible to maintain a market in software because casual piracy becomes socially acceptable.

So, along with the DoJ, perhaps you should do your own part to combat software piracy. Clean up your hard drive and pay for some of that shareware (or stop using it). Push your boss to buy the right number of concurrent user licenses. You'll feel better, and so will the industry.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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