Thursday Aug 30, 2007

Free software and the Blade Runner strategy

Now that I am part of the OpenOffice.org services team, I've been thinking more about free and open source software, and about intellectual property in general. Clearly, one place where free software has the potential to help people is in the Third World, the developing countries where increased access to software and the Internet is a vital component of the effort to lift whole societies out of poverty. Ironically, experience seems to show that free software has not had the impact that it should have in the Third World, and the reason is that there is another low-cost alternative: pirated copies of Windows and Microsoft Office. 

My son in Shanghai told me about going to a black market technology bazaar right out of Blade Runner or Neuromancer, where hundreds of tiny shops were busily constructing whitebox desktops, and happily loading them with bootleg Windows. A similar black market exists in Mexico City, and I'd be willing to bet that one exists in most countries outside of the First World.

Piracy is obviously wrong, but it's also clear that failing to enforce intellectual property laws is a workable development strategy often pursued by countries to spur economic growth. When Taiwan was struggling to develop, it refused to sign international copyright conventions, making it possible for students to buy pirated technical books very cheaply. Back in the day, my brother brought me a bootleg technical manual from Taiwan that cost maybe a tenth of what it would have cost in the US at that time. As it grew richer, and sought to join the World Trade Organization, Taiwan brought its intellectual property laws into line with the First World. Perhaps enforcing copyright is a sign of a country's increasing economic maturity. Morality is for those who can afford it.

This suggests that free software may actually play a greater role when a country rises a bit above complete poverty, and starts to crack down on piracy in order to enjoy the benefits of more trade with the First World. At that point, free software will have more of a price advantage over the outrageous monopoly pricing imposed by First World software companies operating in the Third World.

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davidleetodd

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