Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 25 / JUNE 1982 / PAGE 14

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg
Los Altos, CA

Piracy Revisited...

My February "interview" with the software pirate Long John Silicon generated quite a bit of mail. Because of the sensitive and complex nature of the software copyright issue, I decided to share a reader's response with you and to elaborate a bit on my concerns.

Chris Crawford (Atari software expert par excellance) wrote as follows:


I saw your column on piracy in COMPUTE! I believe that your logic is imprecise. You imply that effort is the proper index of rightful ownership of designs. While I agree that toil ennobles, I reject your implication that effort confers license. The thief who steals the jewels by dint of vast cleverness and painful effort is still a thief. And no matter how wealthy the owner, how wanton his wastefulness, it is still unethical to steal.

Ethics is no place for sloppy logic. Think it through again – carefully.

Chris Crawford

I agree that ethics is no place for sloppy logic. I am also concerned with Chris's analogy. There is a great deal of difference between stealing the Hope diamond and cutting a new diamond which looks somewhat similar. Nowhere did I condone the idea that it was acceptable for someone to steal a software product, marketing it at the expense of its rightful owner. I think that people who make carbon copies of other people's software and then sell these copies are doing a great disservice to the computer industry, and are breaking the law as well.

I am against true piracy – the copying of existing software for other than personal backup use by one who has purchased the product. This industry will collapse if talented authors aren't guaranteed protection for their effort. The basis of any protective law is that it protects everyone – designer and customer alike. The designer benefits by receiving appropriate compensation for his or her effort and the user benefits by the encouragement this reward provides to developers of new and better software. The best way to drive good designers out of software is to deprive them of their income for their effort. Software copiers might think they are getting something for nothing, but in reality they are damaging the industry.

But this type of copying is not what I had in mind when I wrote my editorial. The question I raised was concerned with the propriety of someone who makes a totally new and improved product which had its genesis in another product.

In the hypothetical game "Tooth Fairy," Long John Silicon had taken the basic idea behind the arcade game and improved it during its conversion to run on a home computer system. It was not his goal to replicate the original game in every detail. Is he to be denied the right to do this?

What if no new word processor programs could be developed because the authors of the first antiquated teletype-based versions declared broad sweeping rights to the generic field? Who would benefit? The public wouldn't, because the existing software wouldn't be sophisticated enough for their needs, and the original developers wouldn't because their market would dry up.

In the game area one might ask if software developers are to be forbidden from improving existing game concepts by adding a tutor mode, by providing dynamic handicapping, by converting a single player game into a multi player game, by modifying the playfield, etc. I may be too dense to follow Chris's logic, but I fail to see how developments along these lines are analogous to "stealing jewels by dint of vast cleverness."

I guess that the use of words like piracy, stealing, etc. to describe activities which, in the area of hardware, are called "patentable differences," really bothers me. Simplistic slogans regarding thievery and piracy bother me when they are applied to issues as complex as those I described.

Are you an accessory to a crime? Have you seen My Fair Lady, knowing full well that the authors blatantly made a musical from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion? Have you engaged in the criminal act of watching West Side Story, knowing that the vicious criminal, Leonard Bernstein, stole the story line from Shakespeare?

Shame on us all.

Imagine how much better off the world would be if we didn't have "piracy" rampant in the arts—if Archibald MacLeish were thrown behind bars for basing his play J. B. on the Book of Job. Copying from the Bible, no less—how criminal can one get?

Well, excuse me folks, but to say that one idea is so pristine, so pure, and so complete that it cannot and should not be improved upon is sheer stupidity. It is a concept which hurts designers and users alike. Just as designers must be protected from those who make outright copies of their work, so must they be granted the protection and right to benefit from their significant improvements on existing ideas.

How different is different? This question has plagued philosophers back to the time of Socrates. There are no easy answers.

What I do know is that there is much to be gained from a careful analysis of the problem and little to be gained from righteous finger pointing and sloganeering.

What do you think?
Let me know.

David D. Thornburg
P.O. Box 1317
Los Altos, CA 94022