Windows piracy must not harm Linux

Bad law could harm Linux for all the wrong reasons: it should not pass

In the endless war of words and numbers between Windows and The Rest, Gartner has chipped in with a paradoxical observation. Forty percent of PCs sold with Linux installed are subsequently hosed clean and receive an illicit copy of Windows, the analysts say – and that's just in the US and Western Europe. In emerging markets, that fate awaits a full eighty percent of Linux pre-installs.

The paradox comes in deciding what this means. Is Windows piracy boosting Linux numbers, or is Linux encouraging Windows piracy? Either way there's irony enough for both sides, and the FUD index has gone up by a couple of notches. That is in nobody's interests. Yet the implications could be far worse than that.

Microsoft has argued in the past that shipping PCs free of any OS encourages piracy. This has seemed like self-interested bluster and is in any case ineffectual in the face of free operating systems. Are vendors who sell computers with a very lightweight option such as FreeDOS really any different from those who sell those with none at all? If people want to obtain their OS separately from their hardware, who's to say no? Free choice often includes the option to sin: it's not to date been a good enough argument to ban free choice itself.

Yet if the Induce Act currently being debated by the US government manages to pass, anything that looks like encouragement to piracy could be held to be as illegal as the piracy itself. This raises the interesting idea that sales of any PC pre-installed with an OS that is cheaper and less popular than the market leader will be banned by law. It's then hard to avoid banning the sale of motherboards and other components or the second-hand sales of computers themselves – all acts that could encourage people to avoid paying the Windows licence.

The end game here is that the infamous Microsoft Tax that everyone seems to pay on their PCs anyway will become just that -- a government-enforced levy, probably charged to the manufacturers of processors. Those in favour of Induce -- such as Senator Orrin Hatch, father of the Act -- would do well to take a cup of tea in Boston and remember what happens when unfair taxes are extorted by a distant and uncaring regime.

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