A pirate's open letter to computer publications

(Translation into English by R.Girvin)

A pirate's open letter to computer publications

(Translation into English by R.Girvin)

1. A philosophical-religious aspect of the problem

2. A cultural aspect of the problem

3. A police aspect of the problem

4. A moral aspect of the problem

On opening any issue of any computer publication, one can stumble upon articles concerning the problem of illegal copying and program distribution. This letter broaches this subject, but in a slightly different context. It makes no attempt to condemn or justify piracy. The author merely tries to examine this problem from unusual angles: philosophical, religious, cultural, police, moral ... and even sexual.

1. A philosophical-religious aspect of the problem

A naturalist interested in a real-world phenomenon has no ability to appeal straight to the Creator (God or Nature, according to your choice) but has to ask the research object itself that is, carry out an experiment by perturbing this object and investigating its reaction.

A program has its own creators, the authors. Their names are not always specified on boxes, disks and in the documentation, but they do exist. Hence theoretically it should be unnecessary to experiment with programs. All questions that may arise ought to be answerable either by the documentation or the authors themselves. But in practice if a user wishes, for instance, to identify the measurement unit (degrees or radians) of a sine function, they won't rummage in the documentation. They will simply define x:= sin(90) and observe the x variable value.

Such experiments are carried out hourly by users, who appeal to the documentation only in extremely complicated cases, as a rule when they're not satisfied with their own answer. And it's rather problematic to appeal to the creator. The program dealers, not the authors, run the support hotline; and readers well know that this isn't the same thing. The hotline operator will most likely offer to test the program and try to find out the answer, and ask you to ring back in a couple of days. And it would often be ineffective to ask the authors, who have forgotten their offspring and are entirely engrossed in a new project. Even if that isn't so, they can't be expected to remember all the properties and nuances of their creation.

That is why users usually forget that a program is a product of human intelligence and skills, supposing at an emotional level that it's a fruit of the efforts of an anonymous and unattainable Creator who doesn't have a support hotline. Here, most probably, lies a philosophical explanation (but by no means justification) of the widespread practice of illegal program copying. We're not talking about deliberate larceny, like creating Chinese-Bulgarian CD-ROMs labelled "Everything for your Office".[1] Here, we are dealing with relatively honest people, installing a program on their computer from the above-mentioned CD-ROM in order to understand its nature and to share their knowledge, for instance with students.

One might think that the Creator, by throwing an apple from above and hitting Newton's head, had unveiled one of the mysteries of His Divine Plan. The genius, Newton, had the advantage of finding himself in the right place at the right time.[2] Programs are also figuratively falling at our feet from above, under circumstances when one is not obliged to pay money, crazy amounts by Russian standards, for them. Hence a shareware ethos ensues, and it is dealers who primarily resist this idea, rather than the program authors.

The saying goes that God created Man in His own image, but it could be argued that this also applies to the computer. The program code is the soul breathed into a spiritless pile of magnetic iron. For humans, body trading (transplantation of organs, transfusion or, at last, prostitution) is the reality of contemporary life; traffic in souls is a matter for fairy tales and fiction (the Faust story, for example). When we purchase software, we are getting only a "body": disks, documentation, information and discounts for the new versions, and, chiefly, the after-sale service.

2. A cultural aspect of the problem

Open the first page of any Western publication and you will notice the prohibition on duplication, whether chapters or pages, of the book. (I originally wrote "the formidable warning will strike your eye", but in the interest of neutrality replaced it with "you will notice"). Everyone is quite aware that only commercial duplication is meant here. Both Western and Russian libraries are quite legally equipped with photocopiers, which allow a book or a magazine to be 'xeroxed' from cover to cover, except maybe the very page with the formidable, but probably futile, warning. It is possible to duplicate the printed matter in every possible way for educational and scientific purposes (to copy an extract to an exercise book, for example).

Moreover, any hindrance for this kind of information distribution is regarded as a direct infringement of the rights of the author: not of the copyrights[3] but specifically "the rights of the author". But behind this phraseology is the fact that almost without exception, it is not the author controlling the copyright, but the publisher. The authorial rights are like human ones given 'from heaven', which can't be transferred to anyone. It is the copyright owner who is disappointed by the appearance of 'black' books on the market. The author (owner of the author's rights) may be at first flattered, but then he becomes worried about the future, but as a rule ephemeral, loss of profit[4].

The vagueness of the borders between commercial and non-commercial use can be illustrated by another fact. Suppose a graduate student has Xeroxed enough articles of other authors, and has sculpted from them a dissertation (let's be more tactful a part of the dissertation) then received a scientific degree, and afterwards, with its help, a high-paid post in a firm or university. Even if "has sculpted from them" is replaced with "has used them as research material", the essence of the matter doesn't change: the knowledge is the most precious article in the civilised market.

Computer users are among the most avid reading public nowadays: not only adverts for romantic novels are flashing by in the Metro, but also those for various User Guides or "Excel for Dummies". This applies not only to printed matter but also to software, which is a programming product (production, products and similar are all marketing expressions). Studying a program is just as interesting and useful, culturally and educationally, as studying a book. A misfortune for programs, but perhaps a hidden blessing, is their easy copying. They can be duplicated much more easily than books. Furthermore, even the most ingenious programs are obsolete before the copyright expires, in contrast to the works of classical literature. Nowadays anyone nowadays can publish the undying compositions of Pushkin and Shakespeare.

3. A police aspect of the problem

There are always articles in the Russian press about the routine dispersal of pirate CD-ROMs of popular computer programs, by traders in Moscow outside the OMON (civilian police headquarters); somewhere at the All-Russian Exhibition Centre (formerly the NKVD building); in the Mitino district; and near the Gorbunov Palace of Culture (a favourite location called "Gorbushka").

One's first reaction is: "At last!" But later, other ideas surface. When people with machine guns at the ready are examining a hawker's documents in a pedestrian subway, nine out of ten passers-by assume not that they're enforcing law and order, but collecting a cut to turn a blind eye. The tenth passer-by believes that the small fry will be hauled in again, while the real organisers of illegal trade will get off with a mild scare. God forbid the idea that any problem can be solved purely by police action in our country! It has not proved a workable approach so far, and even when it appeared so, historically it led us down the path of the Gulag labour camps. Furthermore, the possibility is always looming.

4. A moral aspect of the problem

Police raids on the black-market software dealers and this was mentioned in the mass media were initiated by Russian computer companies, who had noticed illegal copies of their software on hawkers' stands. It's worth noting that the office workers of these companies have cut their teeth professionally on pirate copies of others' programs. They have, of course, been installing these illegal programs with the aim of general education and science, but consider the following. It's alleged that the Moscow department of a certain renowned computer company was behind the police raids. A department of that very company followed up with a lengthy series of copyright infringement trials. This renowned company would be advised to understand the Windows interface copyright before going off to inform on someone else. Have you ever seen the principal of this firm? Does he look like a man who has been robbed?

The Biblical story tells that Jesus Christ rescued an unfaithful wife from mob law, having appealed for someone without sin to cast the first stone at the miserable woman. I have a similar feeling, that our press (the voice of the crowd) attempts to invoke mob law against our miserable domestic program users[5]. In doing so, a hawker from Gorbushka and a high school teacher are quite often lumped into the same category.[6] Yes, they both indeed have illegal copies in their hands, but they should be named and, especially, judged in a different manner, considering all the above angles. The Gorbushka traders are not concerned with copyright law at all. They should be prosecuted under quite different measures and articles of law such as infringement of trade regulations, or even larceny and robbery. The Russian software manufacturers and not only Russian have got into a vicious circle. On the one hand, it's valid to protect your own rights by all possible means, but on the other, you can scarcely claim the moral high ground if you have repeatedly infringed someone else's rights and will continue to do so (if your son, for instance, 'skims' virtual games from black-market disks at home).

If the program is stolen ... No, we won't hurl a stone; we'll rephrase. If the author or the copyright owner is ignorant of the program duplication, it is not a cause for concern: conversely, it should be a matter for pride that it is used (for the author, of course, rather than the dealer). The program ought to be protected by active positive means (good after-sale service[7], or an electronic key as a last resort) rather than fiscal. There's an analogy to adultery, which is piracy in family life[8]. If a man has a pretty wife, and his neighbour is leering (or worse) at her, it is wise for him to struggle against infidelities actively by gifts and declarations in short, good after-marriage service (we can consider the ancient chastity belt analogous to the electronic key[9]). What's unhelpful is shadowing her by private detective. And it's extremely repugnant to try to enforce community fidelity by condemning other people's wives or trying to bind behaviour by Zalesskian[10] legal declarations and clauses.

It appears the author has found for himself one solution to the computer piracy problem. It's impossible to be, as the old joke goes, "a little bit pregnant". But, probably, it's possible to be "a little bit honest" in the commercial use of others' programs. My colleagues and I design programs for power stations. This work began, naturally, with illegal use of such programs as Turbo Pascal, Visual Basic etc. But as soon as we had received the first money for our own programs we sold, we didn't pay anyone's salary or buy a new computer: we had spent it on acquiring legally the software tools we had used, even if we didn't use them any more[11]. At present all our commercial projects are based on the legal programs, while the educational ones I work in the Moscow Power Engineering Institute for the time being aren't. More correctly, they aren't entirely: the software is bought (though not always a stone can be hurled at us for that) for one computer, but afterwards installed on all the equipment in an educational class[12]. But the solution of this problem is only a matter of time. Russia will either finally get bogged down in different crises, or will adjust to a normal educational system (and public health service, social maintenance etc.) with appropriate financing. For the present, it would be pragmatic not to place a moratorium on the use of illegal copies, nor condemn those who apply them to general education and school aims (considering that the range of commercial use of others' programs is very wide). At one end of the scale is the post-graduate student processing experimental data, and at the other the supplier and distributor of black-market laser disks. It's hardly the nastiest of black-market dealings: let's be pleased that the trade is in hardware and programs, rather than firearms and drugs.

Chekhov, by his own confession, "squeezed out the serf from himself drop by drop". But he never had it in mind to forcibly squeeze the bad qualities from his readers. Chekhov just helped them become better through his works, and nothing more. Let's squeeze computer piracy from ourselves, drop by drop. This process should go on without hysterics, without police swoops and especially without informing, while remaining comfortable with our own conscience and casting only occasional glances at our purses and the Criminal Code.

I fear that the computer piracy problem in our country will be settled in a purely Soviet manner: through the further expansion of the administrative machinery. A computer police would be established, for instance, which in much the same manner as the tax police wouldn't be able to poke its nose into the opulent private residences, springing up all over near Moscow without any tax returns; or into the wholesale markets that service half of Moscow without any cash registers. Harassing the ordinary business person or worker, hardly surviving in our tax disorder, is what this police would do. The tax police should break in not only bootleggers' doors, but also the luxurious office of the authority, decorated on budget means (in the first case an armoured vest should be put on; in the second, napkins). So, I am afraid that the computer police, if it is nevertheless established, won't go first to Gorbushka, but to any high school or a research institute in order to impose a fine on the above-mentioned post-graduate student.

I will spend a part of royalties for this book on a legal version of the text editor which has helped it to be written. But I want to be completely frank with the reader and say that I will only do this: if royalties suffice; if no new version of the text editor appears (in which case the new one will be purchased or "stolen"); and if I don't change my mind.



[1] As this book was being perfected, there appeared on sale a 'black' laser disk "Mathcad 8 Pro with Russian language specification". But it was a double trick: a) the disk, naturally, contained a stolen copy of Mathcad; and b) the specification turned out to be scanned or stolen from the published paperback of VP Diakonov's Mathcad 7 manual.

1 [2]There's a saying that the piano is very easily played: all you do is push the right keys at the right time! We have already emphasised this in Etude 3, discussing computer arts. And there are only a few geniuses at the piano, because the Creator is unable to attend to all players. We won't consider here the diligence of the musician (or programmer), and refer the reader to Pushkin's "Mozart and Salieri", which develops this subject rather profoundly.

[3] In English, there is no confusion between "rights of the author" and "copyright" a right to copy. But in Russian, "copyright" is translated ambiguously as "authorial rights".

[4] Not losses but profits may arise here. An author, having written a new work, can often make much more profit if his illegal copies are no less famous than legal ones. Examples are Bulgakov, Vysotsky, Pasternak, and Brodsky; the latter two would scarcely have obtained a Nobel Prize if they had been widely published in due time.

[5] You can bet your life that those writing accusatory articles have at least one illegal program (DOS or Windows Word, or DOS Lexicon) installed on their computer. Many police departments are equipped with computers (documentation, databases and such like) but again anything may be staked that no department, including that organising the computer market raids, cares always to purchase the legal program versions. Police officials often give crime reports on television. Next to the spokesperson, as a rule, there's a computer: they're not fools. The screen shows the two blue logos of Norton Commander - stolen, by the way.

[6] There's a poster hanging in the (Byeliya Vyetyer, meaning "White Wind") computer store on Nikolskaya Street in Moscow: a tattooed hand covering a mouse, with the caption above: "Don't steal!". I have walked through the store observing the prices of notebooks, the shop's speciality. If the mark-up accounts for 20-30%, it's called commercial; if 200-300%, gangsterism. The price of the most expensive Western notebook amounts to $2500 dollars. Only a special order for mother-of-pearl keys may cost more. To afford a 5000 "bucks" notebook and its entire software is only within the grasp of the very hand drawn on the poster, whose significance is somewhat different after a trip around the store.

[7] The above-mentioned Moscow department of the renowned company on the one hand is struggling with piracy, and on the other, indirectly promoting it. A certain colleague of the author bought there, for a firm he 'moonlights' for, a legal copy of the office system for $2500, though it costs 90 roubles on a hawker's stand. During the installation, advice was needed. He phoned the dealer, who replied that the after-sales service had been reassigned to another firm. He phoned there, where they said that consultations were chargeable: $60 a question. For such money they, of course, are consulting everybody, not only legal users.

[8] A sexual angle on the problem, if you like.

[9] An analogy here is in that two parties are involved: a wife and a husband (a program and a user). And the real pirates do not care a straw: it's quite easy to break both a chastity belt and an electronic key. There is another parallel: promiscuous sex and illegal program duplication are the main ways for viruses, human and computer respectively, to proliferate.

[10]Pereslavl-Zalessky is a university city in the Rostov area, home of the Program Systems Institute, where a group of programmers wrote a declaration not to use unlicensed programs.

[11] See the chapter "How the author sold programs" in Etude 3.

[12] I became acquainted with this approach while studying (good and bad) in Germany. Quite often only one program is installed on many computers there, but at the same time they ask the permission of the manufacturing firm. The firm gives permission, sufficient for the university's needs (would they find another place so suitable for the successful advertising of its products?) realising that if it refuses, the program will be installed anyway.