Discussion Workshop

Unlicensed software

Held upstairs at The Bath House, 96 Dean Street, London W1 on 16-Jul-2008

A report by Mike Collins, MPG

The use of unlicensed, copied or 'cracked' software is said to be increasingly widespread, not only by amateur and semi-pro musicians, but also by a number of music professionals in commercial studios and training facilities. The APRS recently held a panel session to look at the underlying reasons for this and how it could be discouraged. Moderated by recently elected APRS Director, Gilead Limor, the panel included Julian Hobbins of FAST (the Federation Against Software Theft), Dave Tyler (Digidesign European Sales Specialist) and Duncan Williams (Course Director, City of Westminster College).

In the late 1980’s, Cubase seemed to be ‘everywhere’ and many people were using ‘cracked’ copies. It has often been suggested that Cubase’s extensive user-base was originally built up by the widespread availability and use of these ‘cracks’ - so there can be benefits for manufacturers here. But most software manufacturers, not unreasonably, prefer that users pay to use their software. Most professionals can afford to buy the software that they use, and most do. Nevertheless, software copy-prevention methods can be bothersome to users. On the Mac, for example, Pro Tools uses iLok USB copy-prevention, Cubase and Nuendo use a similar USB key, while Digital Performer and Logic Pro simply require you to enter a serial number. The serial number method is the least intrusive, but relies on the honesty of the user not to give this away. The iLok scheme can be a bit ‘fiddly’ at times, but is actually pretty straightforward most of the time and does prevent all but the most determined hackers from circumventing this. However, if you want to get hold of ‘cracked’ software, there are CD’s being passed around with collections of ‘ripped’ software, keys or serial number generators, and there is a stuff ‘out there’ on the Web if you look for it.

Gilead Limor was particularly interested in whether a ‘blind eye’ should be turned toward the use of unlicenced software by students and other non-professional users while they are learning the software. Replying to Limor’s question about whether a University would be liable if its students were involved in copying software, Duncan Williams said that he did not feel that he could be held personally responsible for the activities of his students. ”I frown on copyright theft,” said Williams, “but I can’t be policing what the students do on their own time, such as letting their friends copy software in the library.” Julian Hobbins pointed out that “If the software is copied onto hardware and if this is owned by the University, then the copyright owner could potentially ask for payment for the unlawful installation. The University would probably try to hunt down the student responsible in turn, but it would be the University that gets whacked first!”

Turning to Dave Tyler, Limor posed another leading question: “If you knew that your user-base would increase if some piracy was tolerated would you go along with this?” Tyler favoured zero-tolerance, pointing out that Pro Tools LE is quite affordable.  “Our entry-level product, the Mbox Micro with Pro Tools LE software, priced at just £150, represents a relatively small investment. So I do not believe in tolerating cracks.” This is a small amount of money for a working professional, but can still be regarded as a hefty amount by an impoverished student, so Limor asked, “Why not provide free, entry-level Pro Tools software, as Digidesign once did?” Explaining Digidesign’s position, Tyler said “It simply costs us too much money by way of engineering effort to do this. And you can buy Pro Tools at educational prices.” Many manufacturers, including Digidesign, do offer educational discounts to teaching establishments, but not necessarily to those who, arguably, need discounts the most – i.e. students.

On behalf of professional users, Peter Filleul then expressed concerns that innocent studios may be targeted for legal action by an organization such as FAST, which was set up by a group of software manufacturers to discourage the use of unlicenced software, targeting business users rather than private individuals. “We work with large and small companies – who are often struggling to earn a living themselves,” Julian Hobbins explained. “Some just need a little education about the rights and wrongs of the situation, then they go legal.” Filleul asked what might happen if an independent producer brought a computer system into a studio with unlicenced software installed. “We would educate first, ideally persuade the studios and personnel involved to buy legitimate software, then follow this up with checks later on to ensure compliance,” responded Hobbins. “Litigation would only follow in the most blatant and clear-cut cases where there was no cooperation from the infringer. And many of our members, Oracle, for example, won’t ever sue! They work on recommendations by users, so they don’t want to risk upsetting potential clients.” Recorded music sales work a lot like this, with people who have heard or obtained a particular recording recommending it to their friends. “There is no legal difference between copying software and copying music,” Hobbins explained, “but the software industry is just not as litigious as the music industry! They have backed off – they are no longer keen to litigate.”

Interestingly, this is how the BPI is now handling the situation, while the games industry is currently becoming more aggressive. The music industry did initiate legal proceedings against illegal file sharers in 2004 and 2005, and in a similar initiative, five games companies are currently writing to 25,000 people in Britain suspected of illegal downloading and demanding £300 from each of them to avoid further legal action. The games companies are also preparing to take an initial 500 people to court if they refuse to pay. However, Matt Phillips, the BPI‘s director of communications, says it now works with ISPs to educate consumers to combat illegal downloading, rather than charging and fining those who share files.

It costs manufacturers a significant amount to implement copy-prevention schemes, which may be the reason why some manufacturers forego these in favour of simple serial number schemes that cannot prevent anyone with the inclination from providing copies to friends. Of course, many users will be honest and will refuse to give copies to anyone. But others will undoubtedly succumb to temptation. One can only assume that manufacturers like Apple have made their own assessments and believe that it is better, on balance, to dispense with the often-awkward and always-costly copy-prevention schemes in favour of either trusting their customers not to provide free copies to others – or perhaps in the belief that they will widen their user-bases because their existing customers will provide free copies to others! Removing the expensive copy-prevention schemes also makes the software more affordable for the end-user, which can also benefit the manufacturer by increasing sales.

At the end of the APRS event, it was generally agreed that heavy-handed methods were unlikely to be successful at preventing software copying in the long run, and the overall feeling of the majority was that APRS members should lead by example, always using properly licenced software and encouraging others to do so. The ‘bottom line’ here is that music professionals should not put their sessions at risk by using potentially ‘dodgy’ software and should not put their professional reputations at risk by becoming known for acquiring copyrighted intellectual property (software) from the rightful owners without payment – and especially if they want others to respect their copyrighted intellectual property (i.e. their songs and recordings).

© Mike Collins, 2008
(Originally commissioned by Pro Sound News Europe - used with permission.)

Members: listen to a recording of the evening's discussion

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