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Free alternatives to software piracy

"Warning. Our scans have detected unlicensed software on your computer. An automated email has been sent to the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST), the FBI and Microsoft. You will be contacted within the next 48 hours to arrange a court date."

Often a favourite of spyware scammers, messages similiar to the one above do certainly send chills down the spines of millions of computer users out there. Maybe they borrowed installation CDs from the office, or perhaps a trusted friend. Others might have been the unwitting victim of counterfeited software, and many more will have used a combination of peer-to-peer networks, IRC, newsgroups and BitTorrent downloads.

They all have one thing in common: they are using software they have not legally purchased the rights to use.

The question we want to explore today is this: what if, from today, everyone started with a formatted hard drive and it was 100% impossible to copy, crack, warez or pirate any commercial software.

What would you do?

Free alternatives to software piracy The cost of being legal Free alternatives to software piracy The cost of being legal
Not all pirates look like this but that doesn't stop them hamming up the nautical association

Pete the Pirate

Let's take a fairly typical Windows user who has merrily bypassed all countermeasures to prevent him stealing software - we'll call him Pete the Pirate. Pete runs Windows XP Professional - why bother with XP Home when you're not paying for it, even though 99.9% of private users won't need the extra features? Office 2003 is, of course, the de facto standard - who doesn't use Word and Excel these days? Again, free from the economical constraints of being legal, Pete installs Professional, just on the off chance he might need Access or Publisher (again, unlikely).

Adobe Photoshop is no longer only used by graphic artists - millions worldwide use it every day to manage their digital camera photo collections and sites like b3ta.com have brought photo editing for comical purposes to the mainstream. Those with a conscience might opt for the cheaper, cut-down Photoshop Elements which still has more than enough functionality for most people, but Pete runs the full-fat Photoshop CS2, just because he can.

For the sake of this exercise, let's tot up the retail cost of the software on Pete's PC:

£246.74 - Microsoft Windows XP Professional Retail
£339.54 - Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Retail
£496.19 - Adobe PhotoShop CS2 Retail

Total = £1082.47

Ignoring the plethora of other highly expensive applications that Pete might have installed on his computer just for the hell of it (Premiere, Visual Studio, Acrobat...), this core of three applications represents a substantial investment. At over £1000, it would comfortably exceed the build cost of Pete's PC. Indeed, when that PC can be bought these days for as little as £199 from Dell (which presumably includes £59-worth of XP Home OEM license) try telling Pete that he needs to cough up another £900.

Free alternatives to software piracy The cost of being legal

Going white box

Of course, there are cheaper ways of being legal. Given the same shopping list, the first move is to buy all-OEM versions. Normally reserved for bundling with pre-built machines, buying OEM software as an individual is still perfectly legal as long as you buy "a non-peripheral computer hardware component" with it, according to Microsoft. That means adding a £5 mouse to your order is a no-no, but next time you're buying stuff like CPU, RAM, motherboard or graphics card etc you are entitled to add OEM software to your basket. The savings can be substantial:

Microsoft Windows XP Professional - Retail = £246.74. OEM = £93.87. You save 62%
Microsoft Office 2003 Professional - Retail = £339.54. OEM = £218.54. You save 36%

It is not possible to purchase Adobe Photoshop as an OEM package, but even including the £496.19 cost of the retail box, Pete would save a total of £273.87 by switching to OEM for the two Microsoft products. Remember, you have to buy some hardware with OEM software but Pete could buy himself a brand new 400GB hard drive and still have over £130 in change.


Know what you need

To reduce the cost even further, Pete could be hard-nosed about what applications he actually uses - if you strip away PowerPoint, Publisher and Access, you still get the core Word / Excel / Outlook trio by buying Office 2003 Basic OEM for £133. Substitute Adobe Photoshop CS2 with Photoshop Elements 4.0 and you still get relatively powerful photo editing abilities for under £70, compared with £500.

However, even using this strategy, Pete's Suite would still cost £280.90 from scratch; granted that is 75% less than his original shopping list but it is still quite an outlay. Let's look at the current favourites and their (legally) free alternatives.