posted by David Adams on Tue 26th Oct 2004 16:30 UTC

"Identity Crisis: Page 2"
Historically, copying a new invention or a book involved quite a bit of effort, and most people were content to buy those products or books from whoever sold them. It wasn't until a product came into the marketplace that was in high demand but was particularly easy for the average person to copy that there was a real crisis. In the days before recorded music the main way for new songs to proliferate was by selling sheet music. But copying the music and words of a new song is easy to do even by hand. It doesn't take more than a few minutes, and once you learn the song, you can perform it all you want and even teach it to others. In the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a copyright infringement crisis in the music industry. Within a few decades, radio and recorded music came on the scene, and songwriters no longer depended on sheet music for their livelihoods.

The invention of the photocopier created another crisis of sorts for the publishing industry, as it allowed small-scale copying of published material. Shortly after that, the VCR gave the TV and motion picture industry a heart attack. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them, but that's another story. But the mother of all intellectual property crises was born at exactly the same moment as the software industry really hit the big time: the proliferation of the personal computer.

At first, software was included with the computer, and wasn't really assigned any value outside of that context. If you had a Univac, it came with some software, but most of it you had to write yourself. Eventually, companies started writing software for other companies, but its use was limited to a very small pool of business users, and the associated contracts and other legal agreements were strict enough to keep that software where it was supposed to be.

But when the personal computer came out, suddenly you had these ever-more-powerful tools in the hands of a lot of people, including a lot of kids. And these computers needed software, but a lot of people didn't want to buy it, and frankly didn't think they should have to. And the software was so easy to copy. Even in the days of cassette drives and gigantic floppies it was easy, though it was slow. And copy they did. At first it was kids swapping floppies, then using BBSes, and later the fledgling internet. It stayed small-time for a couple of decades, but even back then it was enough to cause a young Bill Gates to lash out at hobbyist software copiers.

The software industry took steps to prevent copying, with license keys, elaborate protection measures, and even hardware devices that were required to use the software. But most of these methods were eventually cracked, and those cracks were disseminated within the community, and the protection measures ultimately succeeded only in annoying and inconveniencing legitimate customers.

Luckily for the software industry, the real money was in selling to businesses. Though smaller businesses also routinely violated software licenses and made illicit copies, the high stakes for violation and aggressive enforcement through the Business Software Alliance ensured that most businesses would pay for software, so the piracy problem remained mostly an issue for companies that sell to the general public.

Unauthorized copying and redistribution is also a major issue for companies that want to expand overseas. Just like the early American founding fathers, many people in less developed countries see the vast wealth of the Western software industry and feel no moral obligation to pay into it. They feel that constricting economic development for lack of ability to afford foreign software just doesn't make sense. And sympathetic lawmakers in those countries are reluctant to enforce foreign copyright with too much vigor.

Major software companies have generally taken a philosophical attitude toward this problem. Microsoft has even been accused of encouraging distribution of pirated copies of Windows in the less developed world because it takes the long view: as countries like China and India become more developed, and governments spring to protect its domestic software industry by cracking down on copyright violators, everyone will have become hooked on Windows, and will start to pay.

But even taking rampant piracy in some countries into account, unauthorized redistribution was no kind of death blow to the software industry, even its most vulnerable, consumer-oriented companies, until the personal computer revolution took its most dramatic turn in the mid 90s with the popularization of the Internet. The easy copyability of software was already a problem when the mode of sharing was recordable media. Once the bits and bytes could be disseminated over the net, the industry found itself with a genuine crisis. And as the pipe got wider, the problem spread to the other intellectual property-based industries. In the early days of the internet the publishing world was already under assault (though I doubt they even knew it at the time) as unauthorized digital copies of books and other printed media, but probably mostly porn, were shared over the network. Then music, then movies.

Today, if I'm sitting at my desk, it's vastly quicker and more convenient for me to download most software programs that I might want illegally than it is for me to buy them through legal channels. And that's a serious problem for the software industry.

But the problem for intellectual property-based businesses isn't that it's quick and easy to infringe. It's also quick and easy to smash a store window or run over a kid on a tricycle. But regular, decent people don't do those things. But regular, decent, normally law-abiding people do routinely violate intellectual property laws. And why? Because while they do realize that it's wrong on some level, they find it easy to justify.

Table of contents
  1. "Identity Crisis: Page 1"
  2. "Identity Crisis: Page 2"
  3. "Identity Crisis: Page 3"
  4. "Identity Crisis: Page 4"
  5. "Identity Crisis: Page 5"
  6. "Identity Crisis: Page 6"
  7. "Identity Crisis: Page 7"
e p (0)    86 Comment(s)

Technology White Papers

See More