In January 2011 Italian newspaper Repubblica published an article that is a nice example of how much confusion there still is, in mainstream press, about the nature of software and copyright, their relevance for all citizens and the responsibilities of Public Administrations in these fields. That article may have been written everywhere, there's nothing specifically Italian in it, so I translated my objections to it because they too may be useful outside Italy (to stimulate discussion if nothing else).
The article titled Il Bel Paese dei pirati - siamo un popolo di hacker (translation: "The beautiful country of pirates - we are a people of hackers") shows its poor quality and attitude before even reading it, from its very title.
The message that the title sends is that software pirate (used in the original article as synonymous of "computer criminal") = hacker. Usage of this equation has been for many years a sure way to assess the (in)competence and the conscious or unconscious agenda of whoever writes about Information and Communication Technology. A software pirate, or computer criminal, is a person that commits some computer-related crime, something that is against the law and can be only done with a computer. A hacker is a completely different person, instead. A hacker is a person that can't avoid to tinker with some technology (software, as far as we are concerned). A person that really wants to study how stuff works and how to improve or customize it: what's wrong, or illegal, about this? Saying or encouraging people to think that "computer criminal = hacker" you send the message that being a hacker is against the law, or at least something socially untolerable, not unlike smoking in a closed room where there are also children and pregnant women. Why?
Going past the title, half that article simply repeats for free, acritically accepting it as being as true as the Gospel, only one voice: the heart-breaking, tearful declarations of who, like the Italian anti-audio/video piracy Federation (FAPAV), wants to maintain their current monopoly on music and movies distribution:
"[according to]...a terrible estimate in a recent study of Tera Consultants about content piracy through physical copies and Internet downloads... the creative industries of the European Union may suffer, from here to 2015, losses as high as 240 billions of Euros and 1.2 millions of jobs"
The truth is that, even if copyright should be respected, whoever wants to report about these matters should first try to understand for real how big the actual damage is and who really suffers from it, rather than blindly repeat numbers provided by one, pathetically not neutral stakeholder. There are lots of studies that tell the other side of the story, like (pages in italian) this from Scambio Etico or this from NBTimes.
The article goes on by repeating the same mistake made in the title: "the diffusion of broadband substantially changed the scenario, driving an exponential growth of downloads and Internet piracy". It will be interesting to see what Nichi Vendola, a likely adversary of Berlusconi at the next general elections, thinks about this position, since he publicly promotes universal broadband as a panacea, even when he only does it to take the discussion away from Free Software, but this is another story. The problem of that sentence is that it contains the implicit equation downloading = piracy, whereas downloading stuff from the Internet is not always illegal. This must always be very clear, to fight the misinformation that's always around, even in official initiatives. Two perfect Italian examples of what I mean are the partnership between Google and the Italian Telecom Police or the EMCA propaganda inside Italian Schools.
What about software?
After explaining how illegal downloads of music and movies will do much more damage than global warming, that article moves to software:
“even software is heavily damaged by online piracy, as stressed by the IDC study commissioned by the Business Software Alliance (BSA): data show that software piracy is increased worldwide… In the European Scenario, piracy amounts to 57% of the Italian market, putting our country at the first place in Europe, together with Greece”
too bad that the author doesn't mention all cases in which businesses and families are forced, or at least encouraged, obviously not in an explicit way, to use pirated, that is illegally installed software, by Public Institutions of all sorts, from public schools to political parties. For example:
- why should a Chamber of Commerce distribute or demand documents in formats that only benefit one (foreign) company?
- why should a State-financed University tolerate or encourage presentations of theses with the most expensive office software around?
- why should a political party that gets public funding set up websites that are easily usable only with commercial operating systems?
In addition to the story of a few big companies, the article author should have told also the huge economic damage for ALL businesses, families, schools and Public Administrations that would result from paying licenses for software that is not really needed! With a crisis like the current one, many families and small businesses certainly have no money left to buy expensive software. That would not be a problem, since there so much Free Software that is perfectly adequate to their real needs. Or, more exactly, that would not be a problem if those users were not forced to use certain specific programs, only because some customer won't pay or some teacher won't give good grades if they don't get their files in the format that they demand simply out of laziness or ignorance. So why not say that, at least for certain software programs, piracy is an obligation created from the top, by demanding or tolerating proprietary formats in public contexts, even when there is no real need for them?
Summing up, this article from Repubblica, or any other of the same type, has only one value: it demonstrates once more that, copying and downloading everything one finds even when there is no actual need for it (haven't you ever meet people, especially young ones, whose computer is full of movies, songs and other files they have never opened?) it's a huge help to multinationals. Because it gives them numbers to justify certain assertions and give credibility to absurd law proposals like computer health certificates or cash for software clunkers. Please remember this, before doing illegal downloads from the Internet. Above all, remember to ask your representatives and all your local Public Administrations to demand that only truly open digital formats are used for public documents.