Can't Software Licenses Get Better?

I wonder if I might offer some advice to software vendors, or at least to those who want to sell more products: Revamp your licenses or, more specifically, the recordkeeping that you require of us customers.

Software vendors regularly approach me and ask me to try their products. I usually politely decline, and they often ask, "Why not? What's wrong with our product?" "There's probably nothing wrong with the product," I reply. "The product may do truly wonderful things, and its price may be quite reasonable. My objection is the post-purchase cost--the recordkeeping necessary to protect myself from future software audits." As I'm sure you readers know, you must be able to prove, on short notice, that you own every piece of software that you use, or you'll face potentially ruinous fines and even jail time--quite a post- purchase cost.

If the local furniture company's representatives barged into my office and demanded that I prove that I indeed paid for my desk or face jail, I'd laugh and show them the door. However, the legal situation for the software buyer has become so draconian that it's unwise for a buyer to purchase much software unless that buyer hires some help to keep track of licenses. Now, as a business owner, I'm used to hiring bookkeepers and accountants, but in reality, most small businesses have no need of accountants or bookkeepers at all; watching the checkbook balance and doing a bit of back-of-the-envelope planning would be fine. In truth, small businesses hire bookkeepers and accountants because the government essentially requires them to do so. Without bookkeepers and accountants, determining profits is impossible, and taxes are levied on profits. I don't LIKE being forced to pay for all of these professional services, but at least it's the government who's making me do it. The idea of software companies forcing me to do even more accounting grates.

Look, I certainly understand how we got in this situation. A good bit of my income comes from copyright-related stuff, and I see evidence of people stealing my stuff every day. But--and here's the important point--what if we authors had an industry group that could bang down your door, inventory your books, audio CDs, and DVDs and demand to see invoices for every one of them? What if having a treasured book on your shelf for 20 years meant feeling a small frisson of terror every time you're not quite sure if you have the invoice from two decades ago? Simple: You'd stop buying books, music, and movies--or buy a lot fewer of them. (At least the IRS makes me keep records for only seven years.)

The fear that I can't prove my purchases led me to this month's column. I looked at the software that I use and realized that I have, in the past few years, unconsciously avoided using for-pay software to a great degree. Instead, I'm trying to get everything done by using just Windows, Microsoft Office, and a raft of free stuff. Again, it's not because I'm cheap. It's because I can't afford to hire someone to keep track of my software licenses, and I'm not willing to take on the administrative burden that tracking a variety of licenses would entail. This inhibits me from purchasing some software that would probably be of great value. For example, as an avid digital photographer, I'd love to use Adobe Photoshop CS. The software costs almost $600, which sounds like a lot, but I've spent more than that on a lens, and no one will audit my lens collection.

It'd be wonderful if the total legality-related cost of software were included in the purchase price of the software. These days, installing most modern software involves punching in one of those annoying product IDs, which buyers get from either the software vendor directly or a reseller. Surely these IDs must be maintained SOMEWHERE. Why not ask sellers to pass along a purchaser's name and product ID back to the software vendor (with the purchaser's permission), so that those software vendors can easily maintain a database of people and product IDs? I'd pay an optional $15 more for Photoshop, if it meant that Adobe kept track of the licenses for me. Actually, now that I think of it, the creators of one of the for-pay products that I use, VMware Workstation, do make keeping track of licenses easy, at least when you buy those licenses from VMware. Coincidence? I think not.

Hey software vendors, Windows Vista is just around the corner. You KNOW that Microsoft has the inside track on Vista-specific add-on applications because of course it's building both the OS and many applications. Having the inside track on how a new OS works gives any programmer a leg up on the competition; so how can a non-Microsoft application aimed at Vista hope to compete? How about with the most lethal of "killer features"--worry-free software licenses.

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