A lone reason for OSS advocates to support the BSA
Stealing is wrong. I know that. You know that. And the Business Software Alliance – that bastion of software piracy prevention – knows that. What I also know is that giving away something – without price or restriction – or allowing anyone to download a copy of my work – under the same conditions – is not the same as stealing or being stolen from. This is something that the Business Software Alliance appears not to understand as they blunder through their regular campaigns with the misconception that any user that has not paid a major international software vendor a large sum of cash in exchange for software is a pirate. And in truth they are right in many instances – some countries have software piracy rates that the BSA puts at more than 90% and even with a liberal pinch of salt make a mockery of software licences. But equally in many cases the BSA and its notoriously heavy handed tactics are not always right.
Take for example the European University of Munster which earlier this year was informed it was illegally distributing copies of the open source OpenOffice. (TheRegister story here describes the letter that the university received for allowing users to download copies of the software – even though OpenOffice.org is made freely available by its developers. The BSA later graciously admitted it was an error on their part but the fact remains that this is typical of the BSA\’s tactic of tarring everyone with the same brush.
Yesterday, the South African branch of the BSA announced a 90-day grace period for South African businesses to legalise their software. Presumably before they send in the heavies. Normally this type of campaign by the organisation would hardly attract my attention. And if it did I would typically feel a mixture of anger against the might of proprietary software vendors that they can afford to employ people to harass businesses into submission and humour at the ongoing attempt by the organisation to make inroads on software piracy. But mostly I would feel frustration that the end result of this campaign is likely to be a host of companies that can ill afford the time being forced to complete software audits and submit to investigation, all the time being made to feel as if they have already been convicted – I\’ve seen this happen.
This time is different though. Here\’s the thing: despite all of their heavy handedness and blustering and the thinly disguised fact that the organisation is a front for the world\’s largest proprietary software vendors there is, I believe, a compelling reason for the open source community and its developers to embrace the BSA, as scary as it is. And that reason is that as the open source community we too don\’t agree with or seek to promote piracy. We too agree that any user that does not have a legitimate licence for the software they are using is at fault and even behaving illegally. The only difference is that my licence (one of the many free software licences such as the GNU GPL or the Lesser GPL) might say that I am free to copy the software as many times as I like. It may also say that I can give – or even sell – copies of software that I did not write to other users, on the condition that I ship the source code with the application and don\’t try to restrict the buyer from have the same rights as I had. It doesn\’t mean my licence is illegitimate. Nor am I acting illegally. And I am certainly not a pirate, even if I am making money out of someone else\’s work.
And the sooner the BSA realises this and incorporates respect for all licences in its mandate the better. And if the BSA could be made to understand this then they might well be forced to protect the rights of free software developers with as much gusto as they do proprietary vendors. It\’s a long shot but it might be worth it.
The problem is that I\’m not sure the BSA is solely interested in preventing piracy. I suspect, and case history shows, that the organisation has previously argued the case of proprietary software against open source software and in doing so conveys the impression that open source software is somehow connected to piracy. Besides being untrue, this kind of behaviour is clearly outside of the BSA\’s mandate.
Time and again the organisation has overstepped these boundaries and has even gone so far as to actively campaign against open source software. A case in point is the BSA\’s testimony on federal policy and open source software to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (on the BSA website here). In its testimony the BSA argues against governments and public offices leaning towards open source software over proprietary software. For an organisation that is supposedly concerned about software piracy this particular stance seems a little incongruous. And the fact that they take the time to cast open source software against a negative background strengthens the impression that open source software is somehow illegal whereas proprietary is supposedly not.
This is exactly the reason that the open source community needs to engage the BSA in an effort to ensure that it represents all software developers and not just those that ship their software with costly licences attached.
The upshot? The more successful the BSA is the better for open source software. Presumably many currently illegal users will cough up the money they rightly owe. But a significant portion may well decide that they can\’t afford the cost of proprietary software and look to switching to open source software. A win-win situation for all concerned.
And unlike the BSA television advertisements that are being flighted in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent currently, these users will come to realise that perhaps the biggest advantage of using open source software is that a large software vendor can not close down your business simply because you did not – or very likely could not afford – to pay the licence fees. Open source is about a sustainable business model that respects copyright and software licences but does not restrict users in what they can do with the software. And owning software you did not pay hard cash for is not by definition a crime.