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Why Knowledge is NEVER Free

It seems to me that the operating mantra of some of those who steal copyrighted IT certification test-prep materials (CBTs, practice exams, study guides, etc.) is "Knowledge is free! Spread the knowledge!" While I am all for the legal and legitimate spreading of knowledge, I nonetheless want to remind these individuals that there is always a price to be paid for gaining new understanding.

One important cost that copyright infringers never seem to truly appreciate is that by stealing someone's software, book, or other intellectual property, they deprive the author, the publishing company, and all of its constituents (read: human beings) the compensation that they rightly deserve for exerting the blood, sweat, and tears in producing the product in the first place.

I wrote practice tests for Transcender during their "glory days" (late Windows NT 4.0 life cycle, Windows 2000 Server, and early Windows Server 2003). It was always disheartening, to say the least, to observe the volume to which our software was pirated all over the world.

It seemed that no more than one or two days after we released a new copy-protection scheme for our software, some software cracker from overseas would reverse-engineer it and distribute unprotected versions of our products.

"Knowledge is free!" cry the peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharers and Usenet downloaders. However, putting food on my family's table is not free, friends.

There is a real, measurable financial cost to copyright infringement.

We could talk about pirating copyright-protected materials as incurring a cost to the downloader's character, but this is an information technology resource blog, not a freshman-level ethics class.

To revisit the financial cost of copyright infringement once more, I will quote something I have heard seemingly countless defenders of "free knowledge" parrot:

"Those big corporations like Microsoft have enough money! They won't miss a few eBooks or copies of Windows XP."

Here's what those individuals conveniently overlook: those "big corporations" ultimately resolve from monolithic, money-grubbing entities to flesh-and-blood human beings who deserve an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. If you find use from Microsoft's products and services, for instance, then why is it such a big deal to pay them their fair due for those products and services?

Therefore, we can conclude that one legitimate cost to the attainment of new knowledge is the honorable compensation of the knowledge providers. When an IT certification candidate purchases a book or a license to a CBT/test prep product, they do themselves, the producers, and the IT industry as a whole a good turn.

In most general terms, the attainment of new knowledge always incurs cost with respect to expended time and effort. The discipline and "brain stretching" involved in picking up a new technical skill, for instance, ought to make this point readily understandable to most people.

Have you heard of opportunity cost before? According to Wikipedia, opportunity cost represents "the cost incurred (sacrifice) by choosing one option over the next best alternative (which may be equally desired). Thus, opportunity cost is the cost of pursuing one choice instead of another."

True dat. Consequently, opportunity cost for my illegally downloading a cracked copy of a Transcender practice exam is that one or more Transcender employees have their job stability affected to a greater or lesser degree. Another opportunity cost incurred would be that I contribute to the possible dissolution of that particular company itself due to excessive lost sales.

I can't pirate what ain't there anymore.

This post is not intended to be a lecture. Certainly, I have a vested interest in protecting copyright because (a) I am a published author and software developer; and (b) my livelihood and pocketbook have been directly affected by copyright infringement.

Having said all that, I nonetheless felt the need to express my most fervent belief that as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is likewise no such thing as free knowledge.