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Should Open Source Publishers Get On The BSA Bandwagon?

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An article featured in a South Africa technology portal popped up in one of my feeds today, and I couldn’t help but take the bait. The column, entitled “Open Source Against Piracy,” contends that open source software developers should consider becoming members of the BSA. As I best understand it, the reasons given are twofold:

  1. The BSA perpetuates a belief that anyone who copies or gives away software is a pirate; open source developers, as BSA members, could persuade the organization to change its definition of piracy and ensure the terms of FOSS agreements are being upheld.
  2. Users pirate software not because they are “criminals” but because the software they wish to use is cost-prohibitive; if producers of open source software can convince the BSA to be more aggressive in their pursuit of software pirates, illegal users will flock to free open source alternatives.

Frankly, I find these arguments rather curious and a bit thin on logic. First, the goal of persuading the BSA to conduct audits and enforce open source license agreements would be nothing short of futile, given the relative permissiveness of open source EULAs, the characteristic lack of paper trail, the absence of financial motivation, and the difficulty determining where, when, and by whom violations have occurred. How would the BSA even begin compiling its list of targets? It’s not that the BSA doesn’t understand the fundamental difference between commercial and open source EULAs, as the author claims—it’s simply that the entity isn’t set up or, perhaps more importantly, intended to enforce the latter.

Secondly, the BSA’s definition of piracy is “…the unauthorised copying or distribution of copyrighted software.” Yet the author completely ignores the operative word “unauthorized,” which is, of course, key to the definition. One need only examine a EULA to determine whether copying or distribution is authorized or not—whether or not the software itself is open source is completely immaterial to making this assessment. How, then, would the author propose the definition be changed? Am I missing something?

The next argument—which the writer cynically suggests holds the most promise—is, in my opinion, the weakest and most troubling. It’s a view we’ve all heard countless times and is tantamount to suggesting it’s not a crime to walk into a Best Buy and abscond with a plasma screen TV because it’s otherwise unaffordable. Furthermore, those who knowingly pilfer software understand there are potentially significant risks associated with their actions. So why haven’t pirates already abandoned illegal software in favor of open source apps? While increasing the probability of a software audit might cause a marginal number of users to jump ship, I’d assert that the users most likely to migrate are those who are actually paying for licenses and believe that open source offers an acceptable alternative from both a cost and functionality standpoint.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting the BSA couldn’t adopt some changes to its approach to piracy; but it seems pretty clear to me that open source advocates are better off working to perfect and promote their software than to spend time trying to lobbying for changes that won’t, in the end, truly serve their interests.