Lies, damn lies and statistics

Does the BSA really want to be labelled Brash, Suspect and Arrogant?
Written by Leader , Contributor on

The Business Software Alliance has been busy. As 'the voice of the world's commercial software industry', it has been assiduous in promoting the interests of its members - which it considers to be a very broad definition of intellectual property backed up by very strong legal rights to those who lay claim to it. Openness is for markets, freedom is for companies such as Microsoft and Adobe to operate as they see fit. Consumers are wayward sheep who must be intensively educated, legislated and policed lest they transgress.

This relentlessly corporatist approach has its detractors, and ZDNet UK is proud to count itself as a voice of dissent. The most important thing, however, is that the debate is properly conducted.

The question that most bothers us, therefore, is why a well-funded, hyperfocussed organisation such as the BSA has such trouble marshalling its facts. It is quick to claim huge financial damage caused by use of unlicensed software, and keen to show how many companies large and small depend on software patents - arguments that it constantly advances at the highest levels.

Yet a dispassionate look at the BSA's own figures shows that the statistics may not be as strong as it claims, and that the organisation is curiously imprecise in the way it presents them. The Economist recently took a wry look at the BSA's penchant for overstatement in an analysis called "BSA or just BS?", detailing assumptions made in a cost of piracy study that would get a first year student of statistics into trouble. "Ridiculous!" said the BSA. "Offensive, misleading, extreme, irresponsible!" Indeed, it was so offended that it couldn't bring itself to answer any of The Economist's actual points.

More recently, our own Ingrid Marson has taken a long look at a software patent study from the BSA that has been instrumental in persuading political groups in Europe to support the proposed legislation. You can find the mistakes she uncovered in her piece - and the BSA's dismissive response when asked about them.

Unless the BSA gets its act together and replaces overstated and misconstrued data with properly researched and carefully presented facts, it will become known as an arrogant organ of propaganda. There is no doubt that it is correct when it calls organised software piracy a major problem for the industry, but it would do well to remember the story of the boy who cried wolf.

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