The Connection Between Free Software and Piracy
In every major culture, there are subcultures. Within those subcultures, you may find other, smaller, groups interested in something that seems completely unrelated to the larger group. An individual may tell you they hate loud music but later you catch them rocking out to AC/DC. These aren't contradictions. They are non-intersecting curves of interest that have nothing to do with each other. Or to put it another way, one doesn't have anything to do with the other.
So it is with cultures of freedom. In the free and open source community, we toss around the expressions "Free as in speech" and "Free as in Beer". That's because free isn't always a question of cost. When referring to software, somebody might give you a live Ubuntu Linux CD just as a friend might hand you a beer at a party. It didn't cost you anything and you get to enjoy your drink, or software, as the case may be, without shelling out some money. In the case of your software, you also have the freedom to make additional copies and hand them out to other friends. Once the beer is gone, it's gone. But I digress . . . Legally. If you are technically inclined, the source code is available and suddenly, you have the freedom to modify or extend the software in ways that are useful to you and others.
That's the cool thing about a Linux distribution like Ubuntu.
On the other hand, you can't legally make a copy of Microsoft Windows 7 and hand it to your friends. The terms of the license under which Microsoft Windows is distributed makes this illegal. It's also called piracy. As with cultures and subcultures, there are many opinions about piracy and you'll find many opinions regarding issues like cost and just how harmful 'a little piracy' actually is. That holds true in groups of students, business people, free software enthusiasts, proprietary software designers, and so on. The proprietary software designer may tell you that piracy is bad but then goes home and downloads a movie via Bittorrent. Meanwhile, the free software advocate may be a staunch and vocal supporter of copyright.
There's an article over on Advogato that talks about the overlap between 'pirate' parties and FLOSS groups, asking "Should FLOSS and free culture advocates embrace pirates as comrades in arms or condemn them? Must we choose between being either with the pirates or against them?" The author then goes on to say, "Our communities seem to have no clearly and consistently articulated consensus."
To which I reply, "Why should they?" While some pirates may be FLOSS advocates and some FLOSS advocates may be pirates, one doesn't necessarily imply the other. Some FLOSS advocates embrace copyright and would never knowingly pirate software or media while others who embrace copyright and denounce piracy aren't FLOSS advocates. There is no reason to suggest that the free and open source community needs to speak in one voice regarding these issues.
But perhaps it already does. Perhaps the statement is implicit in the software and its license.
I personally do not believe that people should be making or using illegal copies of software. If you want to run Microsoft Office, buy a copy (you can get a copy of Microsoft Office 2010 from Amazon.com for just under $397.00 US). If you want to run any commercial software package that isn't distributed free of charge under a free software license, then you should pay for it. If you don't want to pay for your operating system, download a copy of Ubuntu or Kubuntu and you won't have to pay for it. Best of all, it's an all around better choice than WIndows 7 and it comes with a full office suite that reads and writes Microsoft documents. You'll work faster, better, and you'll enjoy a secure system when you connect to the Internet. And did I mention it's free? Legally free?
Microsoft claims it had lost many billions of dollars because of people running illegal versions of various Microsoft software packages. That purported loss implies, of course, that every person in the world who has a non-legit copy of Windows (or Microsoft Office or whatever else) would have bought that copy of the software. We've all known people who run pirated software on their computers; the truth here is is that if those people hadn't gotten their 'borrowed' copy of Office from another persons, they would never have spent the hundreds of dollars to buy their copy of Microsoft Windows or Office. They run the software precisely because they were able to get it free.
Some will argue that the piracy Microsoft claims has cost them all those billions has actually contributed to making them and their operating as successful as it is. Neither argument is important to the discussion of whether FLOSS should take a position on piracy. It's simpler than that. People should abide by the licenses that come with their software. If the software comes with a license that says you can make copies and distribute it free of charge (like Ubuntu), then by all means do so. If the license says you have to pay for it, then pay for it.
If everyone in the world ran only legal copies of software, paying for it when the creator asks, the world would be a better place, largely because Microsoft would not be the behemoth that it is. Better, and truly free operating systems and software, like the Kubuntu system on which I am writing this post, would be more common on the desktop and portable computers of the world.
There is no connection between truly free software and piracy. They are non-intersecting curves.