Some Indian companies recently got a lesson about file formats that the WHOLE world needs to learn. But it is a lesson that is at least ten years old.

Almost ten years ago I attended a Free Software Conference in Kosovo. Among other things, I met many young programmers and a few representatives of what we would call today “startuppers” with a common attitude:

“we sure love Free Software. But sometimes we are just forced, if we want to get a degree, or make a living, to use illegal copies of proprietary software that we cannot afford to buy. Who cares? It gets the job done and nobody will ever catch us anyway.”

I and a few participants immediately spotted the flaw in that reasoning. One or two years later those feelings were confirmed. The same guys more or less told me that they had never been catched. They had had to turn themselves in and surrender:

“we have to find a LOT of money to buy regular licenses of all the proprietary software that we came to fully depend on. Why? Because here in Kosovo the best, if not the only software business there is, is consulting for (mostly German) EU-based companies, which are bound by their own regulations to not even touch partners without some certification, or other proofs that they are playing by all rules…

That was Kosovo. Today, in India…

Indian companies learning about file formats the hard way /img/india-self-busted-by-software-piracy.jpg
Cover image of 'The big-muscle anti-piracy tactics of Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk in India'

exactly the same thing is happening, for the same reasons:

  • Coercive tactics employed by software vendors against piracy
  • some business owners describe being “borderline abused” by a software vendor representative who came and demanded to “check unlicensed versions of [their software]… without a legal notice to conduct the audit
  • “Venture capital funded companies are probably easy to target because these companies are well known and supposedly want to operate in a clean manner.
  • (please note the LOCK in the image above. We will get back to it in a moment)

Of course, the first and most serious issue here has nothing to do with software: it is private corporations pushing governments aside, and directly acting as if they were law enforcement. As far as software is concerned, however, the real question is:

What is that lock REALLY made of?

Indian companies learning about file formats the hard way /img/india-self-busted-by-software-piracy.jpg
What is that lock REALLY made of?

The real reason why those local companies in India are “locked”, like the ones in Kosovo, in the grip of software multinationals is not that the software of those multinationals is proprietary. It is that they have come to depend, just like software drug addicts, on secret file formats and computer protocols created by those multinationals, just to create lock-in. Because it is file formats, much more than licenses of software source code, that can favor (or hamper) innovation… and REALLY free markets.

If the formats of all the files that those companies have accumulated over the years and need to use least they go bankrupt were really open formats:

  • by now, there would surely be Free/Open Source software (FOSS) that can read and write those same files without any compatibility issues
  • those companies would not have to fear the “attacks” that unavoidably come as soon they try to grow
  • because they could just switch to use FOSS, if they hadn’t already, without any loss
  • (and even the proprietary software would cost less, thanks to the really free market created by really open file formats)