FOSS Is Not To Blame For Piracy

Linux News says Digital Rights Management Picking on the Wrong People is an article to defend Free and Open Source Software against the charges that they are the ones who promote piracy.

I was surprised to hear from someone on the Indie Gamer Forums many months ago that all of the contact he had with FOSS was with people who only wanted things for free and would pirate everything from movies to games. There is also a lot of animosity towards FOSS in the ASP newsgroups, and a few months ago there was even an article in the newsletter about how FOSS was supposedly bad for business and didn’t offer any benefits to the public.

My experience is very different. I have a friend who refuses to buy DVDs because he doesn’t want to support the media cartel and the digital restrictions management used in most DVDs. I know people who pirate games and movies, but I also know people who refuse to use anything to do with Windows. If it isn’t available, they do without. After all, if you can’t play a game on Gnu/Linux, what would be the point in pirating it? Rather than break the law to watch his own movies, my friend just decides to be very selective with his DVD purchases. Revolution OS is one of the only DVDs I know that doesn’t use stupid region encoding, something that does nothing but punish paying customers while allowing commercial piracy to still occur.

In any case, it seems to me that most people who use Free and Open Source Software are fully aware of the licensed terms under which they may use their software. They are the ones who refuse to use Windows Media Player because they would prefer that their software doesn’t change the way their computer works without them knowing about when, how, and why. You can read the WMP EULA and see that it is pretty absurd what you have to agree to allow Microsoft to do. If anyone is committing piracy, whether casual or not, it’s more likely the people who don’t realize what it is the license allows them to do. Why would FOSS supporters be part of a group of people who ignore licenses and EULAs?

Sure, there are those who don’t care about the license and just want everything to be available at no cost. Open source usually is free-as-in-beer, and so if you want freely available software, it’s definitely safer than trying to get away with copying software illegally. Still, some people are going to make illegal copies of Windows, or games, or office software, or even shareware, and it is definitely possible that those same people might support FOSS.

But what a broad paintbrush we would have if we made the assertion that FOSS users in general are the ones who will most likely copy software illegally. It really makes no sense that people who consciously use FOSS to avoid vendor lock-in or support software freedom would at the same time pirate software that was proprietary or work only on a proprietary system that they are not using.

I guess I don’t interact with enough people outside of the FOSS community. I haven’t heard of too many people who believe that we’re all criminals or out to destroy the livelihoods of software developers or that we’re just anti-Microsoft zealots, but those people exist. Somehow they “heard” or “learned” what they believe FOSS is all about. They get almost as shrill defending what they think as people do when you try to tell them that copyright infringement is not the same as “theft”, and it is probably because the two issues are so related in their minds.

Maybe it is just because it is an issue related to copyright, which is fairly complicated and even people who think they know about it can be wrong. Maybe it is because FOSS is really different; when you’re driving an automatic all your life and someone gives you a manual, you’d freak out at first because you have no idea how to drive. “Why is it so complicated?! I just want to get from point A to point B!!” Or, since a lot of you are probably geeks likes me, it’s like when you give someone vi or emacs after they have been using text editors like Notepad or Pico for years. It’s a different way to think about typing. Similarly, FOSS is a different way to think about software.

Some people dismiss FOSS for their own good reasons. They’ve at least thought about it, researched it, and come to their own conclusions. But it seems that when I do meet people who “don’t get it”, they really don’t get it. They don’t understand that Free, with a capital ‘F’, as in Freedom, is different from free, lowercase ‘f’, as in “no cost”. “But why is it such a problem to pay for it?” It isn’t! There is no problem with paying for FOSS. People can’t wrap their heads around it because of the unfortunate double-meaning of “free”.

But people for some reason have no problem making the leap from “FOSS means no cost”, however erroneous that thought is, to “FOSS means stealing software”, which is an even worse assumption. While I believe some might have an agenda and would purposely lead people astray, and some other people might honestly feel that they are fighting a good fight to defend non-FOSS, I think most people just attack what they don’t understand.

6 comments to FOSS Is Not To Blame For Piracy

  • I think the problem here is two-fold. Unfortunately, both folds go back to the same man – Richard Stallman. Stallman’s crusade against proprietary software has led him to make some indefensible statements, which tacitly support software piracy (since he believe proprietary software to be evil, pirating or “sharing” it is no crime). It’s easy for young geeks to rationalize to themselves that if sharing software is fine, then sharing movies, music and books must also be fine. Besides, it’s cheaper.

    I personally loathe Stallman and the FSS because if they get their wish, they will destroy the game industry. If you cannot control the distribution of your software, then you cannot charge for it on a per-copy basis. If you can’t charge for a program on a per-copy basis, you can’t make money off of it. And games require more money to make than just about any other kind of software. Stallman’s ideas seem fair and reasonable on the surface, but the result of them would be a marginalization of programming as a useful trade skill and the destructi0n of an entire industry. Stallman is aware of this, and doesn’t care. I…do.

  • I’ve heard similar arguments, but I’ve still not heard anything from Stallman that would imply that piracy of proprietary software is fine by him. In fact, the FSF makes an effort to point out that any use of proprietary software, even if it is free-as-in-beer, just sucks you into relying on proprietary software. Hence projects like GNU Classpath to provide a Free equivalent for Java’s SDKs.

    I also don’t see how allowing access to the source code of games would “destroy” the game industry. There are some companies making open source games, and they apparently make a decent living off of them. Caravel Games is one example. DROD, which is apparently really popular, allows you to play with the source code all you want.

    Shareware authors can’t always control the distribution of their software, but they seem to do just fine. They still get paid per copy. And there are MMO games that don’t rely on a charge-per-copy and still manage to make money.

    That games might cost more to develop and produce than other types of software is not all that important here. If a specific game cost $0 to make, it would still be protected by the same laws as one made with billions of invested money.

    I also don’t see how programming would become marginalized as a skill. If all software was Free and Open Source, wouldn’t programmers actually be in demand instead? I know I don’t have the expertise to code everything I would need, and companies already pay programmers to customize or develop in-house applications, some of which don’t ever see the light of day outside the company.

    This situation wouldn’t change. Free software doesn’t require you to distribute all of your changes to anyone who wants them. It just requires you to distribute it to those who actually receive the software from you. If I take the Quake 3 engine, change it, and don’t give the resulting binary to anyone, the GPL doesn’t require those code changes to be released. You want the resulting binary? Pay me, and I will have to give you the source as well. A perfectly fine thing under the GPL.

    Other software can operate the same way. The ability to read the source code doesn’t reduce security unless your security was pretty weak already.

    I think the game industry has just been so used to security through obscurity that to lose it would be a death blow to a lot of developers. “You mean our networking code would be available to anyone? Woe is us!” On the other hand, the developers of BZFlag have been learning and attempting secure yet open networking code.

    It’s hard to argue it all in one comment on a blog post, but it’s definitely not as dire as you make it out to be.

  • “If you can’t charge for a program on a per-copy basis, you can’t make money off of it. ”

    IBM, Red Hat, Novell, MySQL AB, the company behind Samba, and hundreds of other companies, including the small mom-and-pop company I work for, would disagree. We don’t charge per-copy for the code we write, but we’re doing great financially. Free Software actually makes our jobs easier. I could name numerous others as well. Your statement as made is absolutely false, as has been proven in the market.

    What you’re arguing is that one particular business model, the factory model, doesn’t work unless you can mimic the physical behavior of a physical widget product (but not have to pay for manufacturing costs, score!). That much is (mostly) true. However, there are lots of other business models in the world. Companies that refuse to change their business model as technology changes are those that go bankrupt out of stupidity. (Or if they have a lot of money they start bribing Congress; see also: RIAA, MPAA, etc.)

    If the Free Software zelots get their way, then yes, the software-as-an-artificially-scarce-commodity model will probably die off or become marginalized. That’s not a bad thing, as artificial scarcity is an anachronism and damaging to the society at large. But software will not be marginalized. It will simply function under different business models. Sell the service, server subscription, sell the data files, assume most users won’t notice it’s GPLed, tournaments (the software equivalent of a concert), all of these are viable models. None of them require mimicing factory manufacturing.

    I’m not actually zelously anti-proprietary software myself. I will pay for games that I feel are worth paying for, and don’t consider it unholy. I AM, however, against invasive copy-prevention mechanisms or artificial lock in. (DRM == Evil. Period. Blizzard’s takedown of the bnetd project gets them on my shitlist. etc.) If your business model requires violating fair use law and doctrine, then your business model is not viable. Find a new one or go out of business.

    That’s what every industry does, and software is no different.

  • GB: “I’ve heard similar arguments, but I’ve still not heard anything from Stallman that would imply that piracy of proprietary software is fine by him.”

    These are just a couple:

    “Copying all or parts of a program is as natural to a programmer as breathing, and as productive. It ought to be as free.”

    “I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.”

    “If programmers deserve to be rewarded for creating innovative programs, by the same token they deserve to be punished if they restrict the use of these programs.”

    “The desire to be rewarded for one’s creativity does not justify depriving the world in general of all or part of that creativity.”

    And my personal favorite:

    “Anything that prevents you from being friendly, a good neighbour, is a terror tactic.”

    All from here.

    GB: “I also don’t see how allowing access to the source code of games would “destroy” the game industry.”

    I feel that you have not properly understood the ramifications of releasing a piece of software under the GPL. If you release a game under the GPL and someone buys it, they are then free to turn around and give free copies away to anyone they wish. These people, in turn, can legally give copies to anyone they wish, etc, etc, and there is no way for you to stop it. How many copies do you think you will sell when everyone can just get a legal copy from someone who already has one?

    And yes, it has been tried. Many indie gamers have tried simply releasing a game and asking for donations, and in all circumstances, the money they received was far less than comparable games that they actually charged for. In most cases, the money received was not sufficient to even cover the costs of making the game. This is not a viable business plan.

    This is one of the reasons Stallman annoys me so very, very much. He hates proprietary software. He believes selling a copy of software is immoral. Yet he and the Free Software Foundation tell people that the GPL doesn’t forbid people from selling software. This is true, it doesn’t. However, the end result of the restrictions of the GPL is that while you can sell GPL software, you cannot make money off of GPL software, which is just as Stallman intended.

    LG: “IBM, Red Hat, Novell, MySQL AB, the company behind Samba, and hundreds of other companies, including the small mom-and-pop company I work for, would disagree. We don’t charge per-copy for the code we write, but we’re doing great financially. Free Software actually makes our jobs easier.”

    You don’t charge per-copy for the code you write. And neither does IBM, Red Hat, Novell, etc. Instead they either sell hardware that runs free software, like IBM’s server business, or they sell service contracts on free software installations, lie Red Hat and Novell do. Neither of these business models will work for games. Games have always been sold on a per-copy basis, and they always will be, because they are consumer software.

    In the end, it boils down like this: if you are selling hardware or services, free software is your best friend, because it lowers your operating costs. If you are selling actual software, free software is your worst enemy.

  • I’ll just comment quickly on the idea that releasing your code under the GPL means that you can’t make money off it.

    Why does it have to be an all or nothing deal? I’ve seen your argument before, but it seems to assume that I either keep the source and data proprietary or I give away both. Why not keep the data proprietary, specifically sell it, while allowing anyone to do whatever they want with the source code? It’s not the same as donation-ware. People aren’t legally allowed to redistribute your proprietary data. The Quake 3 engine doesn’t all of a sudden allow anyone to redistribute the games made with it as well. Using the GPL doesn’t allow anyone to redistribute your game. It only allows them to redistribute the code used by the game.

    Whether they do so or not is a matter of legality, and enforcing copyprotection is just harder when the code that creates it is openly available, but why assume it is necessary in the first place?

    If your game uses a lot of hardcoded logic and constants, then yeah, it would be a difficult thing to release under the GPL. But even if you ignore service-model games like MMOs, I find it hard to believe that FOSS would bring about the destruction of the games industry. FOSS isn’t restricted to making money off of service and support, and it has nothing to do with the proprietary data if the developer doesn’t wish for the data to be similarly licensed.

  • Viridian, you’re almost making a valid point but you’re then generalizing it so far that your valid point is lost.

    1) “You can’t make money from Free Software”. As I said and demonstrated, false. Now, it may well be true that you can’t make money *using the per-unit pseudo-factory business model* with Free Software. I suspect that on a large scale that is probably true. If something gets popular enough that a savvy person finds it, they’ll realize it’s legal to redistribute and do so. Of course, the exact same thing happens to proprietary software, it’s just not technically legal. (There’s probably more illegal copies of Photoshop or MS Office Pro in use than legal ones, but that’s been true since long before Free Software had a critical mass in the public mindset.)

    Stallman et al are well aware of that. The “you can look but don’t touch” requirements of the pseudo-factory business model are what they object to, for perfectly valid reasons (not just philosophical but solid pragmatic ones too). The GPL is structured in such a way that yes, it makes a business model based on artificial scarcity really really really hard. That’s the point. It’s not anti-making money, it’s anti-artificial scarcity.

    Artificial scarcity is a form of extortion. What’s more, scarcity of information is damaging to society. This is the world Stallman et al fear. It sounds outlandish until you realize that it’s all coming true. The middle ground between Stallman’s ilk and the information cartels is rapidly shrinking and will soon be gone. Unless you’re a mega-corp, you’re better off with the Free Software people than the info cartels.

    Now, there are plenty of business models that don’t require artificial scarcity. Most branches of the software world have found one that works, or works well enough that the programs are getting better by the day.

    Games are a harder case, because, as you say, there is ideally little to no after-sale interaction between developer and user. Does that mean that no other business model exists, though? No, of course not. Personally I don’t mind paying for a copy of a good game, and even if I get a pirated copy from someone I will frequently go buy a real copy.

    People have been playing games for as long as there have been people, and they will continue to play games for as long as there are people. The type of game, model of interaction, and ways of making money off of it change over time. I don’t know exactly what business models the gaming industry may end up using, frankly. I just oppose any that are based on DRM.

    Free Software is not the enemy of profit-making in software. It’s the enemy of artificial scarcity and the pseudo-factory business model. If you steadfastly refuse to give up on those out-dated concepts, then yes, like any other out-dated business model you will fade out. Business models do that.

    But to go from that to “Free Software is evil and encourages people to steal”? Hyperbolic BS.