Many non-profit, non government organizations (NGO), including those who try to express dissent in authoritarian regimes, use popular software like Windows or Microsoft Office for their activities without paying for a regular license, because they have no money. Therefore, charging these organizations for software piracy is an effective way to shut down disturbing voices. They are violating laws, after all. According to the New York Times, “Microsoft is vastly expanding its efforts to prevent governments from using software piracy inquiries as a pretext to suppress dissent.” This is good, but there are a few things that any NGO should know about plans like this.

The N.Y. Times article continues saying that Microsoft “plans to provide free software licenses to more than 500,000 advocacy groups, independent media outlets and other nonprofit organizations in 12 countries with tightly controlled governments, including Russia and China. With the new program in place, authorities in these countries would have no legal basis for accusing these groups of installing pirated Microsoft software.”

Where’s the problem?

A post on the same topic on The Official Microsoft blog explains that “we (Microsoft) want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain. We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior.”

Kudos to Microsoft for taking this position. This is good news. Software “piracy” is wrong (and stupid, especially when there’s no real need for it, see below). Using it as an excuse to silence people is much worst. However, any NGO of any kind, everywhere, should understand very well what follows.

First of all, there’s one essential thing that the N.Y. Times doesn’t say: the simplest and safest way to never provide anybody with any “legal basis for accusing you of installing pirated Microsoft software” is… to not use that software. It’s perfectly possible, don’t you know? Alternative operating systems like Gnu/Linux and programs like OpenOffice, that run on Windows and Mac, already exist, are legally installable for free on any number of computers for any purpose and are perfectly adequate to the actual needs of the organizations we’re talking about.

But software scares NGO, what can they do?

The world is full of great, good, brave people who will face a charge from armed policemen to protect freedom of speech or risk their health every day to save children from starvation and diseases, but faint at the sole thought of moving from a familiar computer program to another with slightly different menus and buttons (I’m not criticizing or making fun of anybody here, just assessing the situation). What should such people do?

One thing is to look at the whole picture. Many NGOs use old, donated hardware. But another post from the same Microsoft blog specifies that “the unilateral NGO software license will last until January 1, 2012, thus giving us time to help NGOs move to our standard NGO software donation program, through which they will be able to easily keep their software up-to-date and secure. Microsoft’s standard NGO software donation program offers the last versions of their products. This means that the money that you wouldn’t need anymore to respect the law (that is to buy software licenses) may be needed anyway, and may even not be enough, for the new, more powerful computers that you’ll need to run those programs.

Software is like nuclear waste

Last but not least: what about the others, that is the people (children, senior citizens…) whose assistance is the very reason to exist of many NGOs? What could happen to them if their NGO uses Microsoft software in the wrong way?

Software is like depleted uranium weapons or drugs. It can hurt people who aren’t using it or weren’t even there when it was used (here’s a talk on this concept) or create addiction, just like drugs. If you use the latest version of Microsoft Office to send documents in the latest versions of Microsoft formats to the people you’re serving, you may very well force them to use the same version of the same program. In other words, you may be forcing other people (who don’t qualify for free licenses!) to pirate that program or to buy newer computers with money that they’d really need for some other purpose. All this just because you accepted a gift and used it without thinking. Please avoid that. Please switch to Open Office and other Free Software, which doesn’t create these problems. Or, at least be sure to only use file formats that are surely usable with any computer or operating system when you send documents to others.

And if you are thinking “My NGO can’t switch to OpenOffice because it messes up the formatting of lots of MS Office documents that we already have, or can’t run Office macros”… well, you’ve just proved my point. Your NGO is an Office drug addict. The very least it should do in order to fulfil its own mission is to not spread that disease to others. Please.