Open source and piracy

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Over at ZDNet, Dana Blankenhorn has a blog entry about whether software piracy benefits or hurts open source adoption. Evidently this originated from comments by Louis Suraez-Potts at OSCON noting that the availability of “free” (that is, pirated) proprietary software makes open source less necessary from a cost perspective. I’m not at OSCON this week (long story) and so I don’t know who said what and in what context, so I’ll let you read Dana’s piece and linked articles. I will instead add a few remarks of my own on the topic.

Let’s consider a couple of extreme if unlikely situations.

Suppose that it is 100% guaranteed that you could not pirate proprietary software. In that case the price of the software would very much factor into the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) calculation. Given the existence of “good enough” open source competitors, the proprietary software would need to offer significant advantages in terms of price, quality, features, security, ease of use, upgrade policies, support, and service. In turn, however, open source software would evolve to keep pace with the proprietary software. Whether you think open source or proprietary software wins in this case, the consumer of the software comes out ahead.

On the opposite end, assume that piracy is rampant and use of stolen software carries no consequences. Then all software is “free” and price is no longer part of the equation of how users decide what to use. The other factors such as quality, ease of use, and security become much more relevant. Once again, competition improves both kinds of software and consumers win again. Unless they have other sources of income, providers of proprietary software will probably not stay in business very long in this scenario.

Life in the software world doesn’t exist at either of these extremes and there is a lot one could argue about the freedoms afforded by free and open source software. In practice today, I think the balance and competition between proprietary and open source software is improving software in general and driving innovation. We even need vigorous competition within the open source world if we choose to ignore proprietary software.

We want better software. We want software that gets the job done with the flexibility and assurances for the future that our situations require. Competition among software providers is good for consumers, especially when there are open standards that allow interoperability and interchangeability.

As I think Dana concludes, I think it’s probably a wash as to whether piracy helps or hurts open source adoption. I think there are more important questions to be asked on this topic.

  • How much is anti-piracy enforced in areas that are seeing adoption growth of open source software?
  • Have some vendors and their surrogates adopted an attitude of “we don’t like that they steal our software, but we would rather they used our software than someone else’s, including open source”?
  • Are we seeing measurable movement to or from open source software when piracy increases or decreases?

In answering these questions it is important to look at particular countries and regions and not make blanket world-wide statements about the relationship between piracy and open source. The occurrence of piracy and the ways it is fought is not uniform everywhere.


  1. > How much is piracy enforced in areas that are seeing adoption growth of open
    > source software?

    Did you mean how much anti-piracy is enforced?

  2. @PolR: err, yes, fixed! Thanks.

  3. Piracy means the attack on ships (and such things).

    It’s better not to repeat Hollywood’s daemonisation propaganda terms.

  4. “Piracy” does hurt open source. Anything that erodes the right of software developers to supply that software under whatever terms they see fit affects the whole industry.

  5. I need to wear two ‘hats’, as far as open-source software is concerned.

    As a consumer and ‘member of the public’, I have reason to be grateful for Firefox; it’s the principal competitive pressure on Microsoft Internet Explorer, the main thing that forces Microsoft to spend development dollars on it, to improve its features and to improve its standards-compliance. The same goes for other pairings of ‘open-source’ and ‘proprietary’ offerings with broadly-comparable function; competition is good for consumers.

    As a loyal member of Sam Palmisano’s merry band, the situation is somewhat different. If you think of Sam P as the modern day equivalent of Queen Victoria, I’m like an engineer on one of her ships on a 6-week voyage to India. My job is to make sure the engines run smoothly and at full power so that the captain can deliver his message … whatever it may be … to the Global Imperial Administrators, so that the empire can continue to run profitably for the benefit of the homeland.

    IBM Websphere Software and IBM Lotus Notes forever, if you like. With customers paying the price that they agreed with their IBM salesman, and with IBM Service delivering on the contracted warranties.

    The ‘README’ on the CD for the IBM xlC compiler has it about right; “If you received this over the Internet from a source you do not think is authorised to distribute it, please take the matter up with whoever supplied it to you”; or words to that effect.

    And I don’t think the British Empire took too kindly to competitors. The ‘Open Sourcerers’ in the good’ol U S of A still bear a few scars from the squabbles of 1776, even though nowadays they’re mostly on display as tourist attractions.

    Personally, I think the Internet Storm Center keeps offering valuable insights. In their words,

    “We protect ‘information’ not hardware. For instance, we simply cannot protect consumer PCs. They are inherently insecure and insecurable and it’s fundamentally unsound and unfair to expect consumers to be able to harden their own machines. We need to accommodate our electronic commerce to this fact.”

    I don’t think the next 20 years are going to be terribly like the last 20 years. And I think the growth of the Internet has a lot to do with the renewed competition.

    OS/2 is gone. Long live Linux.

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