Free software off limits for SUV drivers

Innovative licensing strategy or crass P.R. attempt to co-opt the threat of global warming?

Published March 15, 2007 7:59PM (EDT)

I want to preface this post by acknowledging that I knowingly allowed myself to be manipulated into writing it. How the World Works is not big on product reviews, and is especially loath to pay attention to any pitch sent by for-profit entities. In fact, my initial reaction after I read an e-mail this morning bearing the subject header "PR: No Free Software For Carbon Criminals -- Frequent Fliers Pay the Price," was to scoff.

The e-mail announced a new software licensing strategy for WordWeb, a free dictionary/thesaurus program for Windows. No longer, declared WordWeb's creator, Antony Lewis, would the program be available for free to everyone. If you drove an SUV, or flew more than four flights a year, you had to pay for the "pro" edition.

"Climate change is an international crisis. By linking prices to customers' carbon footprint we can provide an incentive for people to cut down," said Lewis.

(Actual license restrictions may vary, however: "the registered disabled who require an SUV for transport may use the program freely if they take at most four flights per year.")

How low can you go? Co-opting the threat of climate change to publicize a software program? I don't know what's more disgusting -- this shameless attempt to hitch a ride on environmental armageddon, or my own willingness to play along.

I did have one question, which I immediately e-mailed to Lewis. "How exactly do you intend to enforce this license restriction?" I mean, I downloaded the software, and gave it a spin, but, I'm mortified to confess that I take more than four flights a year. And yet, just who is going to stop me from continuing to use the program if I see fit to do so? My conscience? I'm sorry, but if I'm a willful gas-guzzling CO2 emitter who cares nothing about my culpability in the destruction of the biosphere, then I'm also not likely to worry overmuch about shareware license restrictions. Am I?

Lewis responded to my e-mail in five minutes flat, which endeared him to me, suggesting, as it did, that he is a one-man show operating on a shoestring.

"At the moment there is no good way to enforce it, though many companies check for license compliance of any software they use. Dishonest people have always been able to get pirated software for free anyway -- to this extent all downloadable software relies on honesty of the user (a search on Google will bring up a pirated download of any software you care to mention)."

"It would be possible in principle to track the IP address of the Internet connection being used and hence judge distances travelled, though there are obvious technical and privacy concerns about doing this. If governments introduce some form of official carbon emission accounting then it may be possible to do it more formally in future."

Government-enforced personal carbon emission accounting! Now, that's what I call Big Government!

Oh, and as for the program? Installs in a jiffy, works as advertised. PCWorld calls it an "amazingly helpful tool." I don't know about that, but I did find it kind of neat that when it couldn't locate the word "eco-fascist" in its offline dictionary, its "look on the Web" feature took me speedily to Wikipedia where I was informed, in a most unneutral point-of-view tone, that "eco-fascism, however, is really underpinned by a desire to use environmental issues as a means of controlling others and for revenue generation."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works