The Business Software Alliance, that concerned body in the US which bangs the drum for victims of crime — Microsoft, Adobe et al — has produced another fine survey setting out the sheer scale of global anarchy in the software industry.
That survey, the BSA says, shows that around half of the world's computer users "acquire their software by illegal means most or all of the time," with the figure for China topping the league at 81 percent.
This accounts for what the BSA describes as a "$59 billion dollar heist", as of course every copied piece of software would otherwise be bought at full price. Especially in China and the emerging economies, where the assumption is that plenty of people would be prepared to pay a month's wages for Office or Photoshop (actually, Adobe's Creative Suite Master Collection, at a UK price of £2763, is almost exactly the yearly median per-capita income for Indonesia).
The BSA also says that its survey shows that more than 70 percent of people agree with it about not being naughty, and blames the disparity on lack of education and enforcement. If we all knew it was wrong, and if we all got caught if we copied software, then that $59 billion would magically appear in the bank accounts of Microsoft et al, and the world would be a better place.
I disagree. Furthermore, I detect a hidden and most praiseworthy agenda behind the BSA's thesis.
Assuming that everything the BSA says is right, then it's as plausible to blame unbearable temptation as it is ignorance. If you could obtain something that was worth a year's wages at the click of a mouse, and you knew you'd not cost anyone a penny, what would you do?
Quite. So while it's perfectly in order for the BSA to wish for more money for its members, and good luck to them all in that, it's highly unlikely that its proposed solution will in fact liberate that $59 billion — the GDP of Croatia.
With perfect holiness and inescapable enforcement, in a world with no illicit copying at all, what would happen is that most of the world wouldn't have most of those copies of the BSA membership's products.
Would that bar them from the benefits of IT, and all the necessary economic and social tools needed to be a productive, happy part of the global digital community? Fortunately not.
A logical conclusion of the BSA's arguments is that the free and open source software (Foss) model would step in to provide legal alternatives. Of course, for some software such as Adobe's top-end creative products there is no Foss equivalent; the paid-for market is small enough and the lock-in so significant that there's not been much point.
Once the world cannot get what it cannot pay for, though, the motivation to make top-notch Foss products will be much higher, and we can reasonably expect them to appear. Indeed, we can expect the new wave of software to become so good that it will be functionally competitive with the full-price Western option - and competition, as we all know, promotes a healthy, honest market. Something we know the BSA is entirely in favour of.
Thus, the real message of the BSA's survey is to actively, even aggressively, promote the development of Foss within the developing world, to create far more competition that will help reduce prices worldwide, and to encourage a truly diverse and equitable digital world for everyone.
I must admit I didn't know that the BSA was quite so much in favour of market reform and diversity. I'm impressed, and can only encourage them to develop these ideas further.