Thursday, May 3, 2012

Definitely not ok

I spend a lot of time here talking about what is conventionally thought of as not ok, is actually ok, from my point of view.  It really is the central theme, in many ways.  But today I just wanted to point something out that is not ok, along with why I think so.

Down under, the New South Wales police department apparently went crazy making copies of a proprietary piece of software they use called "COPS (Computerised Operational Police System) " (hardee har har that's cleever).   But apparently this is an important and useful piece of software that the NSW police licensed years ago, and apparently "forgot" that it was a limited license, and spread it all over the department.

Now, I've worked for a software company (in fact, all my professional work has been in software companies).  I know a thing or two about the subject of licensing and licenses and the practical issues that arise.  For example, I had one customer call me on a weekend because a license of our company's software wasn't working on his laptop at home.  Believe it or not, he wanted to use our sophisticated graphics software to make a birthday banner for his kid.

What did I do?  Did I explain to him that it wasn't working because he wasn't connected to his corporate LAN, and thus could not reach the license server for that app?  I did.  And then I generated him a temporary local key so he could make the banner for his kid's birthday party.

Now I won't claim that it was 100% the goodness of my heart at play, here.  In fact, it was very much Ayn Rand-ian self-interest, along with a knowledge of what that really means.  First, there was no way I was going to spoil a personal relationship with a customer over some licensing quibble.  That is just business suicide.

But also I knew that it cost our company literally nothing.  First, there is no chance whatsoever that this individual is going to purchase a multi thousand dollar license for our software just to print his kid a birthday banner.  Obviously, this was not the purpose we sold it for (it was for creating big, high resolution presentations of scientific data for the oil and gas industry).  It's just as a byproduct of it's functionality, it just so happened to be a super easy way of making a big birthday banner.  I knew this, too, as I'd used it at work many times for just such personal purposes.

But the core point is that there was no sale to lose, and indeed only customer goodwill to be lost, and a little to be gained by being difficult to work with.

And this just happens to fit in with my larger theme of non-commercial copyright infringement being okay (haHA! bet you didn't see that coming).

That is exactly what our customer was doing, and it was, indeed, okay.

Now this nonsense down under is a bit different story.  The police use of the software was definitely in a commercial capacity (as opposed to individual/consumer capacity), and probably violated an explicit contract.

From experience I can also tell you that software vendors do sometimes engage in shady practices (not my company, but I've seen it done to be sure) including turning a blind eye to extra copies and installations floating around a customer's company, only to come charging in and threaten a lawsuit when the app is extremely broadly entrenched and main production is dependent on it.  I'm not saying that's what happened here, I'm just saying I'm not crying my eyes out for the poor software company.  There are ways to prevent this sort of thing, and they didn't use them.  I'm not even talking about DRM type technologies (which are only slightly more natural on software than on media), but simply asking the customer to do an audit on a regular basis, which is a very common and civil way of keeping these things under control and avoiding nasty surprises.

But anyway--definitely not okay to abuse software licenses in a commercial environment.  But just fine when it's personal.

Please, pirate my game.

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