How to smile at pirates, and win

A nation built on illicit software sounds like an affront to civilisation. The reality is more interesting
Written by Leader , Contributor

According to experts, chutzpah is a child who murders their parents and then begs for mercy because they're an orphan. That definition needs to be updated. Romanian president Traian Basescu greeted Bill Gates to Bucharest with a speech proclaiming that: "Piracy helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania". Gates, in the position of Philip of Spain being asked to admire Queen Elizabeth's new silverware, smiled and said nothing.

And as with 16th century maritime adventures, the morality of the Romanians' actions is open to interpretation. Piracy and theft are bad words to describe unlicensed use of intellectual property: a pirate is a man with a machine gun who'll kill you and steal your boat; theft is taking with intent to permanently deprive. The courts sensibly differentiate between such actions and those where the harm is less apparent. By itself, copyright infringement is neutral — simply making a copy of a CD has no effect on anything. Damage is done subsequently, and where damage can be shown action can be taken.

In cases where a poor country uses unlicensed copies of software, that damage is peculiarly hard to pin down — unlike the benefits. Windows is a high margin product priced in a hard currency: it is unlikely that the Romanians of 10 years ago would have bought it in significant numbers if there had been no other way to obtain the software. It is much more likely that they would have turned to an alternative operating system, or even developed their own. What actually happened is very much to Microsoft's benefit: a newly mature nation of Windows experts has arrived. Real pirates often got caught and hanged when trying to rejoin society with their loot: there is no sign that Romania will be anything other than welcome.

It will be different with Vista. If Microsoft's authorisation efforts are successful, unlicensed copies of that software will be next to useless — and this time, with European prices being nearly double those in America, it may not be just the former Eastern Bloc countries that demur. Yet it will be the developing countries, those with the biggest need for the tools for self-advancement, that will suffer most — if suffering means having to choose between the numerous open-source alternatives. Microsoft has made some moves to recognise reality, but creating crippled versions of software that aren't quite so outrageously expensive is nowhere near enough. As Queen Elizabeth knew very well, what some call piracy others call nation building. Microsoft must decide whether it wants to be a part of the nations whose time is yet to come, and act accordingly.


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