Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Is Open Source the Answer to Software Piracy?

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Ever since the dawn of commercial software, piracy has been a problem without a realistic solution that meets the needs of both the software vendor and the end user. From serial keys to outright DRM (digital rights management) schemes, the software industry has left no preventive measure untried.

Some software companies by contrast, have opted to step out of the DRM minefield altogether as it was a perceived irritation to their customers.

Due to the overall negative reaction from many end users with regard to DRM, a number of open source advocates have pointed out that if software companies simply adopted one of the many open source licenses, the need to concern themselves with anti-piracy efforts becomes completely unneeded. But making this kind of business model switch requires more than simply switching licensing models. There are revenue streams to be concerned here.

Open source is easiest when it starts out that way.

It would be naive to believe that moving from a closed source business model to that of the open source variety is a good fit for all software companies. This is simply wishful thinking. It is generally more effective when a software project starts off with open source code from day one.

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Two of the biggest reasons include:

• Development teams are already used to sharing ideas and working with open source code.

• Switching licensing gears midstream can be a little bumpy on the revenue front without one fantastic open source model in your business plan.

At the same time, a closed source company can indeed make the change with a strong model in place as to how they will keep from losing their customers and, in the process, the bottom line. Unfortunately, this presents a risk that can be difficult to calculate with any expected accuracy.

This brings us back to square one – the closed source software will still be pirated and the companies creating this software are not finding a lot of success battling this.

Before going on, however, I think it might be helpful to fully understand why this software is being pirated in the first place. After all, in many cases there are otherwise viable open source alternatives that meet the needs of thousands of users everyday. So what is the hang-up with its adoption in place of proprietary software piracy?

Fundamental software differences.

Products like Open Office, Scribus and GIMP have long since been trumpeted as a piracy alternative to those who prefer to steal a copy of MS Office, MS Publisher and Adobe Photoshop over Peer-2-Peer networks.

While these notable open source applications have certainly provided value to those honest enough to use legal alternatives to piracy, there is a bias against these applications as being “true replacements” over their closed source counterparts. Here are some examples.

Open Office vs. MS Office.

Perhaps the best example of end users opting for a commercial application over the open source alternative has to be Open Office vs. MS Office. Despite there being little difference with regard to functionality, the core reasons I hear for selecting the expensive closed source alternative are as follows:

• Familiarity. I use Open Office everyday. Then again, I am used to its layout. For someone migrating, there is a small, but real, learning curve; the user interface is different. Some people would rather avoid this altogether. What is amusing about this is how the user believes Word 2003 has less of a learning curve than Open Office. One has managed to maintain a closer resemblance to older versions of the Microsoft word processor than the other. And best part is, it is not Word 2003.

• Java is used with Open Office. Many Windows users feel that Java is simply too bloated and slow to be used for daily use.

• Charts do not always convert well with Open Office’s Calc application.

Photoshop vs. GIMP

Many people in the open source community claim that GIMP can do everything that Photoshop can do. Unfortunately, along with ignoring the learning curve presented with a completely new menu layout, there are some important features missing from GIMP that more advanced users simply cannot live without.

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• Learning a new workflow. Many serious artists, such as my wife for instance, are simply not willing to bother with this. They are perfectly happy to use a commercial product like Adobe’s Photoshop instead. Casual users are often hung up here as well, as they do not enjoy relearning to work with a new photo editor.

• Lack of commercial-level features. The two biggest lacking features happen to be a lack of support for CMYK and PANTONE. Despite the average user never seeing this come up for their simple edits, advanced users are not likely to be this forgiving.

While there are serious open source applications in this field that are used by pros, like Inkscape and Cinepaint, GIMP is not taken as seriously in the professional world as Photoshop.

Overcoming learning curves and a general perception of application difficulty.

Believe it or not, most of the previously mentioned challenges are in fact hype driven. Here is a fact check:

• The average person can migrate to Open Office easily, it just means taking a little time with the user interface and expecting some migration-based format issues with existing documents.

• If a user is not familiar with Photoshop, using GIMP is not going to be all that more difficult to learn. It simply takes time to get used to finding the tools and finding a workflow that works best for that user.

• Most popular open source applications have books available to make the switch a lot more painless from the user’s standpoint.

With proper education about open source alternatives to piracy, encouraging realistic user expectations of what they are getting for their time invested in learning, I suspect that there will be a noticeable positive shift in the piracy wars.

One example of progress in this area would be with Linux distributions. Linux distros are beginning to chip away at the piracy problem with Microsoft Windows. But for some closed source software companies, this may be a path they do not want to see well traveled given the eventual loss of their market share.

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