Several years ago Corel’s then-CEO Michael Cowpland made quite a stir with his offhand attitude to software piracy. Paraphrasing, the slant of what he said was that he’d rather have people use unauthorized copies of his product than those of a competitor. [I have been unable to find a reference for this.]
Other proprietary software vendors quickly jumped all over this statement, and from that time on, Dr. Cowpland seems to have stuck to the party line.

This isn’t news, but I’ve noticed two things. First, the number of free (or nearly free) “Light” versions of software has increased a great deal. Second, proprietary software companies and their anti-piracy associations seem to be making a lot less noise these days, at least on the end user front. Yes they continue to aggressively (and legitimately) pursue commercial counterfeiting and distribution operations, but the end-user sabre rattling seems to be at an all time low.

Now why would this be? I think it’s in large part due to the threat of viable open source alternatives.

Let’s be straight, from a single end user viewpoint, the primary motivation to obtain a legal copy is guilt. The more someone uses a pirated copy of something like Microsoft Office, the more likely they are to eventually give in and pay for a copy. Threatening to sue every person with an illegal software copy doesn’t carry a lot of weight with the general public, largely because it’s just not practical. The risk is that you are the person that Big Software decides to make an example of. The odds of that are pretty close to that of a reverse lottery, which means not much risk at all. So fear isn’t working.

Instead vendors are trying seduction. The process goes like this: 1) Give them a free limited version from a “trusted source” and let them become familiar with the program; 2) Make sure the free version is significantly crippled for any serious user; 3) Hope that either the user will upgrade to a legal copy, or that some time after obtaining a pirated copy, either guilt or a need for support will nudge them into buying a legal copy.

In fact the more a fear campaign works, the more people will consider perfectly viable alternatives like OpenOffice. The problem is that more and more open source software is meeting all the needs of its users, in terms of functionality, reliability, and yes even support. Every user a proprietary vendor scares into trying an open source alternative is a user who might never pay for another software package, ever.

Now that IS scary, but it’s the proprietary software vendors who should be worried. The irony here is that one of the things the open source community should probably consider is to pick up the slack and start warning users of the “dire consequences” of using illegal software. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt, indeed.