July 11, 2001

Rant - Microsoft vs. Children

My brother sent me an interesting link to a Salon article about Microsoft cracking down on pirated software in the public school system. Basically, because Microsoft is pressuring public schools to pay for software that they can't afford, many educators are starting to turn to Open Source software.

Now, I usually won't hesitate to side with an article that advocates Open Source and decries Microsoft's unscrupulous practices. However, the prevailing attitude expressed in this article rubbed me the wrong way. Here are some quotes to show you what I mean:

"Intellectual property law should take a backseat to education," says Kowalski.

"We're a large school district, but compared to Microsoft, we felt like we're the little guy being beaten up."

"It's kind of like AIDS in Africa and the drug companies," Kowalski says. "Can anyone expect a dying person to be concerned about the drug companies' profits?"

"Yes, software is copyrighted, but my concern is educating students in an urban school who are already deprived of so much."

While these quotes were stated by people interviewed in the article (and not by the author directly), the thrust of the article sides with these assertions. And here we see the media's secret weapon for pulling the public's heartstrings: For God's sake, think of the children! With that battlecry, one can safely throw all logic and reason out the window. Any big corporation that opposes children must be stopped, period!

As much as I like children, let's not lose sight of the facts here. The issue at stake isn't kids vs. big corporations. It's simply about people illegally copying non-free software, which is a crime whether the culprit is a child, a teacher, or Mother Theresa. Now I realize that everyone and their sister pirates M$ software, and I'm not shaking my finger at educators in particular. I'm not even saying that you should feel particularly remorseful or guilty if you do it. All I'm saying is that if you get caught pirating software, you can't claim the moral high ground. Proclaiming "I did it for the children!" doesn't cut it, simply because Microsoft products are not inherently necessary for the education of children.

It's not the same as stealing bread to feed your starving family. Making an illegal copy of PowerPoint doesn't make you a martyr for children everywhere. There are plenty of cheap, even free, alternatives to Microsoft's products, and by pirating a Microsoft application for students to use instead of choosing a low-cost alternative, an educator perpetuates their dependence on the expensive stuff. So, while you can argue that M$ Office has more features than Sun's Star Office, at a cost of $0, Star Office is the more sensible choice.

To its credit, the article does promote Open Source software as the alternative for schools. It even gives an encouraging example of a school that makes extensive use of Open Source tools. However, the implication is that schools are forced to seek these alternatives because mean old Microsoft is trying to take money from poor children.

I didn't write this rant to make Microsoft look like the good guy. It's true that they are a greedy company and their products are exorbitantly priced. I just want to point out that it is their absolute right to be greedy and overcharge for software. It is not every american's birthright to use Excel. If it is too expensive (it is), just use an equivalent free application and stop complaining. If you decide to pirate Excel for your school, then realize you run the risk of getting caught- and if you do get caught, don't act indignant or wronged, just pay the fine. You have no case, because you had the choice to use Open Source software and you rejected that choice.

If you intend to bash Microsoft, do it for the right reasons. Bash their god-awful, bug-ridden, bloated software. Bash the constant lies and cover-ups they commit to divert attention from unstable products and non-existent customer service. Bash Microsoft's hilariously inept campaign of misinformation against Open Source software. Just don't bash Microsoft for trying to collect money from people who steal from them. And please don't compare Microsoft's crappy products to AIDS medication for dying patients. That's just silly.

Drake Emko