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Fred's Views

And Software for All

As I was proof reading my last column - the part about computers being given away in cereal boxes - I realized what a golden opportunity was being wasted by Microsoft.

Hasbro and Disney have been distributed free software in cereal boxes for over a year. Here in Canada, we get several British computer magazines that come complete with a CD or DVD that almost always contains four or five complete programs free for the price of the magazine. And these are not shareware or freeware, but commercial programs that a year or so ago would have sold for $50 - $100 or more each. The trick, of course, is that these are all older software or older versions of software. If these programs are appreciated by the users, it may perhaps entice them to buy new software or new versions.

It may sound like a simple marketing ploy. But it is actually much more than that. There are a lot of families that scrimped and saved to buy a computer, probably in the hope of helping the kids do better at school, only to discover the expensive computer was only a door stop or a paperweight without software. But the price of software can quickly outstrip the cost of the hardware. Now, these families can obtain some software, some of it with educational benefits, for the price of some cereal - and get the cereal too! There is a down-side, of course, something that's free might just be worth what was paid for it. And, if this software is free, why isn't more software free? There might be a further erosion of consumer's understanding of the value of intellectual property. But I believe the benefits outweigh that single problem.

I think there are several reasons why people obtain pirated or illegal software:

The last reason I have no cure for. But as to the others ...

Software is expensive, too expensive. I have legitimate copies of every piece of software I use, although I will admit to stretching a few licensing agreements to or perhaps beyond their limits. Software is expensive to produce, but does it really cost more than a major motion picture? Yet, neither the price in the theater nor the price of a video comes close to the cost of most software. There are other concerns: good software is used much more than almost any motion picture; sales of software are still lower than sales of popular videos; software vendors must supply support for their products (sometimes). I can buy a video of most movies for less than $20, usually less than $15 and sometimes less than $10. It costs about $2 to buy a blank video and another $2 or so to rent a movie. So, I could make a copy of a movie for about $4 or buy my own copy for about $8. The quality of my copy is going to be somewhat less than the quality of the purchased product. I'd still be saving half the price, but I'm getting good value for my money - and my time and equipment are worth something as well. In many cases, it is more convenient and maybe even cheaper to buy the movie. Not so with software. If the big movie studios can package their movies, sell them at a profit and still honor and protect intellectual property rights for not much more than the cost of making my own, illegal, copy of the software, then why not simply buy it and be done with it? Oh, and is it illegal to make a copy for my own use? Probably, if I rented it. But if I recorded from a broadcast? I don't think so (and it shouldn't be). It's illegal to sell or distribute such a copy, but that's another thing.

The licensing agreements are too strict - and there's no easy, economical way to buy additional licenses. Most software licenses limit the user to installing the product on one machine. Sometimes, it can be installed on two, provided the primary user is the same in both cases and only one copy of the software is used at a time. Rarely are more generous terms offered. I could live with that, if, the publisher provided an easy way to licence additional machines affordably. In most cases, the publisher need do nothing but issue the licence, maintain the information in a database and process the payment. Most if not all of which can be done by a computer automatically. Only one physical copy of the software would be required. A cost of $10 per machine would not be unreasonable for most software in most cases. Perhaps even a package deal. For $25, the user may install and use the software on up to five additional machines. That would cover most, if not all, home computers and most small businesses, the very people who can least afford the software in the first place.

Many people simply don't understand that intellectual property rights are every bit as real and important as any other type of rights. This is a holdover from the time when only hard, manual labour was considered to be real work. It's an educational problem. Software publishers have not done enough to better educate consumers.

Although there is not a whole lot of incentive to buy a movie as opposed to copying it, some video's and most DVD's do include additional features that would not be broadcast. In some cases there are coupons or other offers to make the purchase more attractive. While rebates are sometimes offered on software, there is little other incentive to actually own the software. Perhaps the first update should be free if downloaded or available on CD at the manufacturer's cost. Additional updates should also be more reasonably priced. Software is also updated far too frequently in many cases. I still use Microsoft Office 97. I have not found any reason to upgrade to the 2000 version, and I may not upgrade to the "XP" version. I would like to, of course, but the upgrade cost is way too high for the slight, if any, improvements in the software. I don't use Office every day, so I don't have the same need to be current as other more frequent users might. But that's also the point. Many people opt for an illegal copy of a program like Office because they can not justify the cost with the actual limited use they would make of the product. Yet, when they do need it, they may also need the compatibility or the features that only the top of the line product (as opposed to Microsoft Works or Wordpad) offers.

It has to be difficult for anyone to believe that a piece of software is actually worth $100, $200 or more, particularly when they are told that Bill Gates is the (or one of the) richest men in the world, and Microsoft seems to be so profitable. Other publishers, of course, aren't doing so well. Still, it's hard not to resent a company that will charge you $100 or more to update a piece of their software which didn't work correctly to begin with. That's somewhat oversimplified, since the problem does not lie only at Microsoft's door, but it's still too close to the truth. And now Microsoft wants to stop piracy by making your software harder to use. They want us to believe that their piracy prevention code will work as intended, despite the fact that their premier product still doesn't work as intended after 15 or more years in development. I'm sorry, but I just don't believe them.

One partial solution to piracy in general is to make older versions of software easily available to everyone. Put Windows 98 inside a box of Special K. Put Encarta 98 or 99 or 2000 inside a box of Sugar Crisp. Incredibly, I saw Windows 98 (it didn't say if it was the second version or not) being offered for sale for just under $80 (Cdn). That's almost half its usual price, but it is still way too much for software that is essentially two (or three) versions old. (And it was an upgrade.)

Most of the software released in the last five years is still quite usable. While Windows 98 is still far from perfect it is a noticeable improvement over its predecessor. Give everyone a legitimate starting position, then make it advantageous to them to upgrade.

How do you stop piracy? Offer a good product at a reasonable price with cheap additional licenses and upgrades. Somehow make it advantageous to own the real product and to register it. Give away older versions of the product so that everyone can have a legitimate starting position. Educate the public about the value of intellectual property and the need to stop piracy. Then, prosecute anyone left pirating.

Copyright © 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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