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The software police vs. the CD lawyers

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue October, October 1 - October 31, 2000 | BY Dan Bricklin 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

The recording industry needs to learn more from the software industry than just suing people involved in copying.

Reading the statements of the recording industry about Napster and seeing their legal maneuvering I've felt somewhat conflicted. I feel something is wrong with how the music recording industry is going about it, being so heavy handed and uncompromising. Yet, I'm reminded of my tenure on the board of the SPA (the Software Publishers Association, now known as the Software and Information Industry Association, SIIA). We had a campaign, started a decade ago and still going, that got us and related organizations the nickname of the "Software Police." We'd go after "pirates" who made illegal copies of computer software. We'd participate in raids with law enforcement agents where illegal copies were confiscated and millions in "makeup" payments were made. It was effective. Piracy in U.S. corporations slowed substantially, and a vibrant software industry flourished with many people paying for our software.

Why isn't what the recording industry doing the same as the SPA, looking to emulate our success? Here are some thoughts:

The Software Industry

There were two types of "pirates" that the SPA concentrated on for legal action: Corporations that used more copies than they paid for, and companies or individuals who made unauthorized, counterfeit copies and resold them (usually at low prices, or preloaded on systems to make their PCs more desirable).

The corporations were the actual end users (well, actually their employees were, but it was on the corporation's behalf that they used the software). They used the software exactly as they would have had they paid for it, they just saved the money or the hassle of keeping track of how many copies they bought. The threat of lawsuits and penalties by SPA offset the savings, and SPA provided easy-to-use auditing software to make the job of keeping track of what they had bought vs. what they were actually using more palatable.

The counterfeiters were just middlemen who were trying to make money. They served no purpose to the users of the software other than to, perhaps, lower the price. In some cases, especially outside the U.S., their versions were inferior because of poorly printed documentation, poor duplication, etc.

Other copiers of software were normal users who shared copies with their friends. SPA approached them with an educational campaign, such as a "Don't Copy That Floppy" rap video with syllabus for use in schools and other videos for companies. These explained the economics of software (no money means no version 2), ethics (please pay the poor developer), etc. We tried to be careful about negative publicity. We rarely, if ever, sued kids.

The organization behind this campaign, the SPA, was made up of software developers. The people suing were the companies who, in most cases, actually wrote the software and documentation. They were directly hurt by lost sales. There were no alternatives for income. (As a software "star," I can tell you I rarely get paid for my personal appearances. The most I usually get is free admission to a conference, but I still pay airfare and hotel...).

In the early days of PC software we had copy protection schemes. Users hated this. To "protect our rights" we made it harder for the users. We found out that when we made it easier to use our software (i.e., no copy protection) users were happier and we still got paid. When we made it hard, they just didn't buy or used special programs to get around our schemes. The support costs of helping users deal with our "protection" were very high. The idea of getting them just used to paying was much better.

Users of software usually found the prices charged "reasonable" for how they used it. For example, the software used by a secretary would cost a very small fraction of what a company would pay in salary, benefits, etc., per year, yet make that person much more productive. There were "professional" versions as well as "home" and "personal" versions of products, priced to be "reasonable" in light of how they were used. Over time, prices dropped, often at the same time that there were more capabilities added. It used to cost $495 for Lotus 1-2-3, and hundreds more for WordPerfect and perhaps a database. Then there were professional-level suites for a few hundred. Now the "Works" versions are powerful enough for most people for even less.

We listened in other ways besides copy protection and price. Users liked buying products bundled together, paying much less than individual products for features they probably wouldn't use but wanted available already on their machine "just in case." They liked common software pre-loaded on their computers and other distribution methods. They liked "trial" versions, etc., etc.

In general, we tried to listen to our customers and give them the products they wanted in the forms they wanted so they could use them in the ways they wanted.

The Recording Industry

The recording industry is different. The product they are selling is basically the same as it has been since the 33 1/3 record came in many years ago (further back than I can remember). The distribution channels the end user sees are the same. And, at least for the last 35 years as far as I remember, the prices have stayed the same or gone up. The only real innovation to the user has been portable players (the Sony Walkman) and slightly improved quality.

The users of recorded music want to use it differently than it is delivered. For example, they like mixing and matching songs. Getting just the songs you want is one of the great features of Napster. Kids love making mixes for themselves or friends. One of the things driving David Winer of UserLand's work with Radio UserLand is sharing playlists. We listen to radios that don't play whole albums, just mixed songs, and hop from station to station. Yet, despite this way of use, the recording industry still sells albums of multiple songs they decide to put together. Singles, which are rarely available, are quite expensive. To get the equivalent of a medium sized Napster-acquired collection of music that you might listen to for a few months (one or two songs each from a hundred albums) would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, not a "reasonable" amount in terms of the spending money of many of the users. The days of buying an album or two a month are over.

Look at who the recording industry is suing. Not the people who actually want the different use. Rather they are suing the companies that are trying to figure out how to get those users what they want. They think that by stopping the people providing what people want they will stop the need. This is not how the software industry fought piracy. The software industry tried to figure out how to give people what they wanted, even if it meant changing the distribution methods, bundling methods, or pricing. The software industry grew incredibly and is well respected. The recording industry needs to copy from the software industry more than just hiring lawyers.

Copyright 2000 Daniel Bricklin. All rights reserved. Dan Bricklin is the founder of Trellix Corporation and the co-creator of VisiCalc, the first PC spreadsheet. This article was published previously on Dan Bricklin's Web site


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