Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Has the battle against software pirates been forgotten as the computer industry wages war on music and video thieves?

STOP, THIEF!

Q. Most people I know have a copy of Microsoft Word, but barely anyone has paid for it. Is the battle against pirated software being forgotten?

Scarcely a week goes by without a news story highlighting music or video copyright infringement via the internet, but the lack of publicity about software piracy has allowed us to forget that it's illegal.

Cracked versions of commercial software are swapped on the same file-sharing networks that carry music and videos. With a broadband connection, it's relatively simple to avoid spending a small fortune on, say, Adobe's Creative Suite 2 Premium Web Bundle.

Our correspondents are predictably cagey about what's on their hard drives, while hinting that this is a significant issue. "Software that I've actually purchased?" writes one anonymous reader. "I think I might have a legitimate copy of Windows 2000. Somewhere."

Edith B is more forthright: "When I was a music student, I felt no guilt whatsoever about using pirated music software; it was ridiculously expensive, and resources at my university were scarce." Al Thomas continues in this vein: "I have a thought that expensive professional software should be free for personal users, who then pay if they start making money using it."

A similar idea was launched this month by the blogging software company Movable Type, which is giving away its software for personal use in the hope that businesses will start using a paid-for version.

It may be naive to assume that businesses are any more conscientious than individuals when it comes to software; the Business Software Alliance estimates a 27 per cent software piracy rate among UK businesses, and offers rewards of up to £20,000 for reporting offenders. Some readers share the BSA's hardline stance; Edd Turner says: "Some people seem willing to take for free what they should pay for, while refusing to believe that they're doing anything wrong."

There are legal ways to avoid shelling out for the big software packages. Free, open-source programs are increasing in popularity - particularly the OpenOffice suite, which can read and write files in the ubiquitous Microsoft Office formats. "It's not brilliant," writes Nigel Armstrong, "but it's free, and isn't bloated with pointless features." Equally, the unfortunately named GIMP is a free and highly-regarded image-manipulation software package, perfect for those who use an illegal version of Photoshop but don't need its huge array of features.

But if Word or Photoshop are perfect for you, your conscience will no doubt advise you whether to pay up.

Diagnosis required

Mike Kingston writes with next week's question:

"Keeping up with the quantity of interesting writing on the internet is a bit daunting. A friend said I should make use of RSS feeds. What are they, and what I should be doing with them?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.

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