The news that Windows Vista's end-user license agreement (EULA) is a bit tougher than Windows XP's has a lot of folks up in arms, and it's led to some misunderstanding about what exactly the license includes. At the SuperSite for Windows, my fellow Windows IT Pro contributor Paul Thurrott has already penned a nice piece that covers many of EULA's fine details, so I won't repeat his work here. What I want to talk about this month is the notion that you can't move your copy of Vista from one computer to another more than once.
I've always found the notion of software licenses insane, and the Vista license is no exception. As I've written in the past, can you imagine being a plumber, going to the hardware store to buy a wrench, and having to agree to use that wrench only at one customer site and to have to buy a different wrench for use at each customer site? I can't, but apparently Steve Ballmer and every other software mogul can. The idea of software licenses is something that just about everyone takes for granted, but given the fact that Microsoft turns the screws just a bit more with every new version of Windows—gimme a break, I can't run Home Basic as a virtual machine? —permit me to suggest this: Perhaps software licenses aren't legitimate. Perhaps software vendors should be compelled to enjoy the benefits of our society's intellectual property laws—and nothing more.
Software is intellectual property. The whole idea of intellectual property—the notion that I can write books, sell them, and be protected from someone trying to photocopy my books and sell them without giving me a cent—is a notion that hasn't always existed in our culture. In some cultures, it just plain doesn't exist. When societies came up with the idea of intellectual property, they offered artists a deal: If the artist wants society to protect the artist's ability to maintain a revenue stream from his or her art by criminalizing the act of stealing the artist's work, the artist must agree to cede control of that art to society after some number of years. (That span of time was 56 years until recently and is 95 years now. The number is approximate because of the twists and turns of copyright law.)
If I buy a copy of a book, I can resell that book once I'm done with it, or I can lend it to a friend. Very few readers will know, however, that book publishers haven't always liked that practice and in the past have colluded among themselves to punish any bookseller that offers discount prices. In the early 20th century, book publishers flatly refused to sell books to the R.H. Macy department store because it discounted prices on books. Macy's sued the publishers, and the case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1913 that book publishers couldn't dictate retail prices. In other words, book publishers tried to control sales of their intellectual property beyond the point allowed by law—and were stopped.
Software can be, and is, copyrighted—a notion protected by Title 17 of US law. The law affords a pretty good set of protections for copyright holders and provides for as many as five years in jail and a fine of as much as $250,000 per violation—hardly a law that calls for a slap on the wrist when violated. As long as I don't copy a book before selling it, the law specifically allows me to sell it.
All of which brings me back to Vista. Why on Earth is it permissible for Microsoft to bar me from decommissioning one computer and installing that computer's copy of Vista on a new PC, despite the fact that I've removed Vista from the hard disk of the old computer? Copyright law doesn't provide for that kind of activity, but the law isn't good enough for Microsoft, a company that uses contract law to try to remove our rights under copyright law.
Perhaps it's time for someone to challenge this software-licensing nonsense. It's too bad Macy's doesn't sell computers.