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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Software Licensing - Time To Get Angry
Licensed? Incensed, more like.
Why has Peter Cochrane frozen most software upgrades? It's all down to current licensing, which just has to change...

When I first started in personal computing most software came on floppy disks, was intuitive, fast to load and simple to operate and never seemed to come with handbooks, terms and conditions or, indeed, a licence. Today software either arrives on CD or DVD or is downloaded over the Internet and is far more complex, with handbooks and lots of near incomprehensible documentation. But most prominent in all of this is the now ubiquitous software licence.

For many years I would load software, read the gradually growing tomes of documentation that ultimately included copyright, terms and conditions of use and licence. And I would agree to all these and activate the content to get full use. But gradually I began to lapse into a default state of acceptance without reading.

This situation ensued for years until recently when I took to reading through the now very long licence conditions associated with all my software purchases. Bluntly I have become alarmed at what I have been agreeing to in the past and what I am expected to sign up to today. In much of the text I find not so small print that states I agree to the supplier of the software having the right to modify its software, and indeed other software content, on my machine at some future date.

I wonder how many of you have even read a software licence and, if you have, rejected the application on the basis of handing over control to the supplier? Not many, I fancy. Suddenly we are faced with a dangerous situation where, by default, the control of our machines is gradually being handed over to a very few giant corporations. I for one have started to avoid agreeing to all forms of software licence or accepting terms and conditions that hand over control of my future. I have started to freeze upgrades and new applications on the basis of future risk.

At a recent conference, I was involved in a comprehensive discussion on this issue with large corporate software users and was surprised to find that several had frozen their IT progress at the year 1998 or 2000. What's more, these corporates were refusing to upgrade any software from now on. They had stockpiled applications, licences and tools that they felt would be sufficient to see them through the next decade without the need to upgrade. In their words: why would we upgrade anything at great expense and huge risk of external control when we see no advantage in the new products on offer?

There seems to be a controllist mindset out there that is spreading from content - in terms of the printed word, graphics, pictures, movies and music - through to computer operating systems and software applications. It began with the copyright and protection and then moved on to control.

Along with many others I was bemused by the music industry destroying Napster and the MP3 Wars that followed. This has included the arrival of content controlled CDs and more recently the attempts by that industry to make it (curiously) legal to attack peer-to-peer software and networks.

And I have also witnessed young people, frustrated by these intrusions, by-pass all attempts at software and network control. This has included legal, semi-legal and wholly illegal (by today's definitions and standards) actions on the part of the invisible community of incensed users.

In the parallel universe of the personal computer I now find an increasing number of websites where you can download complete software applications that have been ripped and stripped from their original source. These are devoid of control, licence, fee or payment, and are entirely illegal, breaching all copyright and reasonable licence terms and conditions. Of course this has all been prompted by software producers trying to assume control of the destiny of their customers. I think we will have to call this Copyright Wars - and I only see a really bad ending to the whole game. Industry and users will both lose.

On the upside, a new industry is born out of this frustration and thousands of individuals now create an unlimited and unbounded supply of applications made available free or at a very modest fee. The largest of these is the Linux operating system that has been written and supplied on a free basis for almost all hardware platforms.

The mighty software industry may be powerful and clever but what they are up against is millions of bright people who are determined to maintain their freedom. I think what is required here is an injection of sanity.

On every occasion in the past, when some force or power has tried to fetter and control the human mind, spirit and progress, they have ultimately failed. Whether a financial or a political system, it is immaterial. People cherish their freedom above all and will commit what is considered to be a crime today to achieve a free world tomorrow. I can only see a lot of pain for providers who continue trying to control the machines, minds and pockets of their customers.

This column was dictated onto an Olympus recorder; typed on an iBook by my secretary, emailed to me via a cable modem, edited on my G4 laptop and despatched from a hotel LAN on the Garden of the Gods Road, Colorado Springs.