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I see that the Business Software Alliance (BSA) now estimates that a quarter of all business software in the UK is illegal and looking very much like one the pillars of the Black Economy that I commented on last week.

We are expected to feel the same moral outrage over illegal software in much the same way that we should feel bad about non-payment of a TV license or indeed, ferrying-in white vanloads of cigarettes and French lager from Calais, for personal consumption of course. Bootleg software isn’t a victimless crime. After all, both the software and entertainment industries are losing billions of dollars each year to ‘free marketers’ or software pirates in the ‘Tiger’ economies. Worst of all is the great British ‘Boot sale’, up there with the worst offenders and depriving the Treasury of yet another source of VAT, which quite possibly concerns the government more than any natural sympathy for the software industry.

But why, if we’re basically an honest society, with the exception of some well-known regional ‘Fast show-like’ hotspots, where cash remains King, are we so reluctant to pay for software? Doesn’t this reluctance tell us something important about the cost of software, like the price of cigarettes or the cost of a pint of lager? I would argue that the British, in the tradition of Robin Hood and Dr Sin, have an instinct for what represents a fair price and what doesn’t and unconsciously resent what might be regarded as profiteering at their expense.

The Government has been fighting the alcohol and tobacco war with the general public for several hundred years now and there’s very little sign that in an example of the Boston tea party in reverse, a collection of large, wealthy and mostly American business interests can convince the man in the street, that the digital contents of a plastic beer coaster are worth more than £100. After all, most people, if asked, would probably agree that DVDs and CDs are ridiculously expensive at close to £20.00, so why should software cost even more?

The owners of the intellectual property in question would quite correctly argue that the high cost of software is entirely relative and driven by market forces. After all, these same forces create companies whose revenues are greater than most nations’ GDP. This force funds further research and development, drives progress and the economy and funds altruism in the shape of billion dollar donations to charity and political interests.

The law clearly states that my software, like my dog, should be legal and properly licensed and I’m not advocating any other position, other than being a little uncertain about the upgrade process where a Yorkshire terrier is concerned. Perhaps however, The BSA and its sponsors should accept that while their position on software licensing is entirely correct in the eyes of the law, the moral dimension continues to elude them, because while laws can be enforced, they can only really operate successfully through consensus.

I would argue that the root cause of the problem is not a fundamental dishonesty on the part of 75% of British businesses but is instead a collective expression of resistance against a perception of unreasonable and often complex pricing from the software industry. If television licenses cost only £50 a year would prosecutions for license evasion be so high? Perhaps the same argument can be leveled against software pricing? Are we a nation of compulsive license evaders because it’s in our nature or because we simply object to being milked, be this for the price of a pint of lager or an Enterprise software license?


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