Thursday, April 28, 2005

Is IITK supporting Piracy?

Just received an .XLS file of a course's marks from a Professor here at IIT Kanpur. As I was going through it, a thing struck me. No, not that I had performed badly in the exams! If I didn't have Microsoft Office software on Microsoft Windows OS, how would I view that file? This is not a unique case. We have Microsoft Powerpoint Presentations, Microsoft Word Documents, Microsoft Excel Documents, etc. being frequently distributed by institute authorities (Course intructors, DOAA/DOSA offices, etc.). Several issues arise here:
  • It is being assumed that each user (student, instructor, other institute residents) has the means/tools to use a format of file, which is supported by Microsoft Softwares. Now, this leads to copyright issues of a commercial software. All users can't afford a valid copy of MS products, which results in widespread piracy. It is a fact that piracy is rampant in the campurs. But, are the official authorities encouraging/supporting/assuming piracy in the campus? Afcourse, there are Open Source Tools available (Open Office etc.), but if I send a .ppt file to somebody, I assume that he owns Powerpoint to open that file. Also there are technical issues regarding the quality of format conversion etc.
  • Shouldn't be the format of files be platform independent, especially if these formats exist? I know it's going too far, but aren't the authorities promoting/supporting MS products in the campus?
  • Lack of awareness among the authorities regarding the copyright issues and widespread piracy in the campus. Even in the CS department, most computers in the lab have Linux as the OS . Linux is run most frequently even on the dual-boot machines. In this scenario, I find it amuzing that some CS professors still distribute course material in MS Office formats !!
  • Quality of documents: I doubt whether MS office is the best software for documentation. Latex for reports/presentations, Open office, Prosper can solve the purpose. And, there are commercial softwares available to convert MS Office documents to pdf format. Institute will have to buy these, atleast it will make whole thing legal.
Piracy and copyright violation are big issues in developing economies like India's. While software vendors make hue and cry regarding their revenue losses, some have even claimed that piracy is an ideal model for these countries to access the latest in technology. Without going into this debate, I seriously believe that people in IITK campus (infact, in campuses all across country) should campaign for distribution of information in electronic formats, which are platform independent (.pdf, .ps etc.) . This will have several benefits:
  • Platform compatibility. So, I don't have to switch from Linux to Windows just to view a document :)
  • Uniform format for Information in the campus
  • Increased awareness against piracy (it is atleast illegal, whether good or bad is debatable :))
  • Educational institutes across developing nations are moving towards open source softwares. IITB is an ideal example for this. It leads in Open Source (Linux) usage and awareness. May be this will be the first step towards it in IITK and lead to increased awareness/usage of Open Source softwares. Afterall, best way to curb piracy is to use freely available softwares ! May be this could also result in few sleepless nights for Bill Gates :)
IITK, use .pdf/.ps instead of .ppt/.doc.....


Aayush Puri said...

Great to see you bloggibg. THe article you wrote was rather provoking. This type of discussion has taken place many a times in my wing without some solid conclusions. Here are some of the important points I want ot put forward:
1. In case of using Windows, there is no need to use Microsoft Office suite to open Office documents. Microsoft provides freely available viewers for all Office documents -
2. Their is huge degradation in usability when you are talking about using LaTeX for a layman who just wants to write some text in rich format.
3. PDF and PS do not provide writing capabilities, so for use of documents that need to be changed, industry still needs to decide on a standard (similar to what XML is for data).
4. Open source doesn't mean free! That's an important point that many forget. Moreove rthe term Open Source is quite misleading. Microsoft also opens it's source to some government agencies and some partners - wil you call it open source?? Open Sourse just means that the code is under an "open" license. The meaning of "open" might be subjective!!
5. Use of LINUX cannot stop piracy. After all the big names that are promoting LINUX today - IBm, Novell, red Hat - they all are capitalists. They are here to just gain money and thats it. Thus the term "community" that people use quite loosely in context of Open Source makes no sense. Just see the example of what RedHat did to the "community" when they pulled support from RedHat 9 and forced people to buy it or move to a distribution which may not even be called an alpha product for which support to developers and people is subject to the discretion of RedHat.

pango said...

MS viewers will again work on MS OS. So, the issue doesn't change.
Regarding LaTeX, no doubt it's difficult to read, but I think it's best for research reports atleast.
PDF and PS don't support writing capabilities, that's why I had specifically suggested that IITK should buy some of these softwares. Atleast you won't need MS OS on each PC.
Sure, Open Source doesn't mean free. May be I should use "Free Software" instead of "Open Source". Even in the case of distribution of Linux, companies mostly charge for support.
But, my blog is in context of an educational institute like ours, where support is not such an issue.
The point is that there is no awareness regarding IPR in IITs, or an IPR policy which is rather amusing and disturbing too. It's unlike any US university.
But, again whether piracy is good or bad for India is an issue in itself!

Aayush Puri said...

>But, again whether piracy is good or bad for India is an issue in itself!

Exactly that's the point! It is difficult to enfore honesty by force. To make people honest, honestly must be "cheap". That's exactly why Microsoft is releasing lower priced versions of their products after taking out some features from the OS. And other companies are taking the same path.

pango said...

Yeah, on one hand, I don't trust Microsoft, on the other hand, the whole philosphy of both open source and FSM is confusing.

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