Most software is given freely or a licence is given under some conditions of the owner’s choosing. Copyright is usually the basis of the legal authority of the owner/creator to do this. If anyone follows the rules of the creator they can have a copy or make a copy. That is pretty much the way a lot of material protected by copyright is distributed. Software has a major difference, though. It needs maintenance. If you obtain the use of some software that becomes useless because some malware gets its number the thing is of very limited usefulness and you will want to pay less for it. By maintaining the software, the owner gets to charge a higher fee because the software will be useful longer.
Particularly software that runs on a limited variety of computer will have a limited use even if maintained. When machines that can run it disappear, so does its utility. The result is that the owner may maintain the software for some years and at some point cuts off support. No one minds too much if the software is binary and that hardware is no longer available. If the hardware is available but the length of time the software is useful on it is long enough it still is worthwhile paying for a licence and providing support. It is all part of the negotiation, either individually or as a market.
The present discontinuation of support for XP SP2 and Lose 2K has sparked many articles about what this means in particular for the fate of the free world/”7″/GNU/Linux. I found the article in the Washington Post interesting for a comment by SteveR1. The writer had two interesting ideas, not because I agreed/disagreed with them but because they fundamentally address issues that arise at end-of-support:
- Software providers should sell/give an end-of-support service pack – a snapshot of the state of the software so the user will be able to bring the software back to that state as often as he needs/wants
- Software at end-of-life should go into the public domain, meaning anyone should be able to copy/support the software if the owner chooses not to support it
The first idea is pretty reasonable. It even has the good aspect for the owner that he can wring the last drop of value from the software by selling that final snapshot. Only an owner who is anxious to force an upgrade could disagree with this. Copyright should not be able to provide such leverage, so SteveR1 has a second rule: at end-of-life the software should become public domain. This is quite a bit more controversial except the owner is forswearing further value by discontinuing support anyway. Copyright does not/should not guarantee value for the next work, only the present work. Of course supporting software does imply some copying which is exclusive to the owner so giving abandoned software to the public domain would permit the necessary copying. Other media do not need these tweaks because the goods are too ephemeral (performance) or too enduring (books do not need maintenance by the owner of the work). Software because it requires maintenance to maintain value does.
To justify changing the rules for software it would likely require courts or legislators to accept that not following these rules would be an abuse of copyright for software. Nothing forces an owner of a work to permit copying. On the other hand software does have the leverage other works do not in requiring maintenance. This reduces the period of value greatly if not maintained, thwarting copyright in any event, and, because software is used repeatedly, users become dependent on it and pressured to obtain the next version. It would make software more comparable to other media to require maintenance or donation to the public domain if support is retired.
It may not really be important to adopt these two rules if current prices are driven by market forces and not monopoly. Changing the rules might only change the prices. In the case of monopoly the owner of the software breaks even in a very short period of time compared to the authour of a book who may need income from several books in a year to survive. Software that makes a million sales likely has more than broken even in a year. Viewing copyright as a motivator for creation, is there really any increase in motivation after the first $billion? Operating systems could be different as no one expects to make a modern operating system in less than a few years these days. Further, operating systems imply some level of monopoly/lock-in because the user has to invest in acquiring apps and configuring the operating system so copyright may be seen as a compound monopoly, one for the platform and one for the software. SteveR1′s rules might apply especially well to the operating system, limiting the monopoly on platform.