Question: illegal copies of proprietary software — good or bad?

Someone asked by email whether I considered illegal copies of proprietary software a good or bad idea. Apparently someone else had argued that since the FSFs say that software must be free to copy, we should also copy proprietary software; even if we have no permission to do so. After writing the reply, it occured to me that this reply might also be interesting to others. So here it is.

Are illegal copies of proprietary software a good or bad thing?

I believe that software should provide the four freedoms, which include the freedom to copy. Noone should ever be forced to use non-Free Software for anything.

But copying proprietary software is not a good idea. It does significant social harm by getting people used to the idea of finding illegal copies of proprietary software "good enough." That is why illegal copies of proprietary software are a major obstacle to Free Software promotion and adoption in many parts of the world.

It also serves to spread the confusion between "gratis" and "libre" — which is very bad for us, as we seek to spread awareness of Free Software and digital freedom in general.

Bill Gates is quoted by CNN in the following way:

     "Although about three million computers get sold every year in China, people don't pay for the software," Gates reportedly said. "Someday they will, though. And as long as they're going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade." 


This is also the reason why Microsoft does not do much against such illegal copies in schools and universities: it spreads the monopoly. Copying proprietary software ultimately only serves the interests of the proprietor, who gains more electronic and social control in the process.

Therefore illegal copies of proprietary software are inherently a bad idea.

We should not waste our time enforcing proprietary software licenses, which do social and economic harm and are fundamentally incompatible with our basic convictions. But we should also not welcome illegal copies of proprietary software.

Every time a proprietary software license is enforced, there is another person who has felt the chains in which she or he was put by the proprietor of that software. That experience will hopefully make them realise why they should have chosen Free Software in the first place and make them choose Free Software in the future.

Like many children have to put their hand on the cooker and feel the pain of being burnt, some people apparently need the same learning experience with proprietary software. But just as we should not encourage children to put their hand on the cooker, we should also not encourage people to choose proprietary software — be their copy legal or illegal.

So my answer to this question is:

Illegal copies of proprietary software do not only put you at a legal risk, they are also a bad idea and help exclusively the proprietor of the software. Don’t encourage people to copy proprietary software, encourage them to choose Free Software.


About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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