The year is 1981. IBM has just released the Personal Computer; a low cost machine it hopes will create a winning brand. Several models are produced in quick succession accompanied by an ad campaign featuring a Charlie Chaplin figure. The message is clear: It’s cheap and it’s cheerful.
The growth vector for the product turns out to be a software application called a spreadsheet. Its many early forms - VisiCalc, Multiplan, Lotus 1-2-3, along with WordStar word-processing and of course games all help drive hardware sales.
Nobody seems to question the rapid and promiscuous spread of these programs by copying onto 5.25” floppy disks and passing from person to person.
That was then. This is now. Harsh fines and jail sentences are threatened to anyone involved in doing what came naturally back in the early ‘80s. It’s a Very Bad Thing to copy software without having a license to do so. Software manufacturers have suddenly wrong-footed most PC users and small businesses in the world. They say ‘this stuff is ours, we want to be paid for it’, and of course they’re right.
But here is a problem. Software’s binary information is a kind of digital DNA, always wanting to replicate. It’s what has made and sustained the digital revolution. When transmitting information, whether from one disk to another or over the Internet, errors can be corrected, faint signals regenerated as new, and even lost portions of messages recreated. This is the essence of the digital world, and replication is its big trick.
One of the things most of us did with our first computer was to copy something. In our early PC vocabulary COPY was the most popular word. Doing it was so easy and so immediately rewarding. It did nobody any harm – did it? The user got the software and the manufacturer got their product widely distributed.
But a company has to make money, not just gain market share, and at some point in time a shift occurred. It’s as if the manufacturers decided to play the soccer off-side rule and grab the high moral ground. After all no one can really disagree with their position. But how will they play catch-up on their lost revenues? How can they now make all their customers compliant?
A London analyst who specializes in intellectual rights issues says "the paradigm we have at present where the license chases the product doesn't seem to be an effective mechanism for compliance by itself."
In other words trying to push a license into everywhere the software has gone without the ease with which the software got there in the first place will prove difficult. But that’s not all.
An account manager for a hardware firm in the US says "It can be difficult to keep the licensing nailed down. The hardware changes, the software moves on, departments, even companies, merge. The picture is always changing".
Demand has always fuelled innovation in Information Technology. Fluid, dynamic, competitive, the elements of IT constantly move. Suppliers apply different strategies at different times for different reasons: Market share, volume shipments, profit. Licensing is a big weapon in their arsenal. Then new technologies emerge, legislation changes, big players go bust and others are created. It’s hard to see how a static and legalistic document can cover all this.
There are also the licensing arrangements that software manufacturers employ. Licenses may be priced according to whether they are academic, charity, large volume, product upgrade, competitive upgrade, client server, thin-client, or one of several other types. On top of that there are the popular service add-ons of maintenance and technical support.
Of course if we all started afresh that would make things easier. But as that’s impossible we must do two things; look at new software in terms of correct quantity and correct type of license. That’s the easy part. The not so easy part is to look at what your company already has and see what licenses, if any, are missing or incorrect.
‘The biggest criminal gang in history’ is about to be disbanded.
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