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Software Piracy and Political Theory

November 9, 2010

Software piracy and legal protections for Intellectual Property is an ongoing legal battle for scrappy, college student software pirates and their corporate foe, the owner and software distributor. However, Silicon Valley Giant, Microsoft is now taking active and punitive measures against those pirates in this New York Times Article.

Microsoft views itself as a legal owner and developer of brand name applications like Microsoft Office and Windows 7. One would assume that if this corporate entity invested  its own labor in these programs, that it is legally entitled to its benefits and profits. But, when foreign organizations steal Microsoft’s product code exactly and produce mass counterfeit duplicates for undeserved profit, Microsoft offers little mercy in defending its property. Presently, Microsoft commissions a specialized task force to investigate disparities in software resellers’ sales and actual licenses distributed. This task force also monitors foreign underground organizations who buy mass quantities of software licenses and distributes duplicates as genuine Microsoft Software.

Consequently, Microsoft reacts with the Business Software Alliance and mobilizes government police forces to raid software pirates’ offices and distribution operations. These government entities are comprised of the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Secret Service. The increase in physical raids in Mexican and Chinese counterfeit operations indicates a trend the government is following the lead of Microsoft’s anti-piracy assault.  Microsoft has asserted that its intellectual property is a powerplant of economic growth, but only when sold and possessed by the correct legal means.

However, we can analyze the political theory themes, under the surface of this modern-day Intellectual Property dispute. Hobbes explains that common power is instrumental  in maintaining a stable commonwealth.

Desire of knowledge, and arts of peace, inclineth men to obey  a common power…and consequently protection from some other power than their own. (Hobbes, Chapter 11)

Here, we see that individuals do not fight other individuals if there is a higher, overarching power that they must obey. It is when men see that other individuals have equal power that they view themselves on the same social plane, and thus believe they can take away the property  of another co-equal. This concept is relevant to the software piracy as pirates look to no common Internet police power in their PC that they must obey. The Internet is the new Wild West, with no ramifications for theft.  Therefore, they feel entitled to duplicate copies of Microsoft. When Microsoft encourages government intervention, there is an assertion of common power and quells these disputes. In addition, when counterfeit operatives duplicate and sell these copies illegally, this is a violation of the End User License Agreement. This acts as a contract where society agrees not to infringe on the software developer’s property in exchange for being able to use it at a nominal fee. Thus, violating the EULA is an act of war according to Hobbes. This is an overt statement of defiance to Microsoft and the Government’s legal jurisdiction.

More importantly, Locke’s idea of property is especially relevant to this predicament. Locke states the following:

Every man has a property within his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his… he hath mixed his labour with… makes it his property. (293)

From this view, we see that Microsoft invests its developer’s labour into the product, making it their property. Even though pirates use labour to duplicate these products, the software is pioneered first by Microsoft, warranting government intervention. According to Locke, government can appropriate where the property in common can be given, as long as human labour is used by the original creator, introducing the protection of private property.


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