Open Source, Software Piracy and Archaeology: a dissertation bit

Hello from sunny Qatar! Most of my spare words and thoughts have been going toward dissertating, so I thought I’d post some of my textual thrashing. (breaks in the text added so it won’t set off the tl;dr alarm)

“While some archaeologists are marginally aware of Creative Commons licensing, many archaeologists, myself included, exclusively use proprietary software. The software often is the industry standard and there are not necessarily good alternatives to use. In 2011, common proprietary software includes ArcGIS, the extremely popular global information system software suite, costs USD 1500 for a single-user license and Microsoft Access, an overwhelmingly popular database software costs USD 99 per license. More specialized software such as Autodesk costs USD 4000 for a single license. Increasingly interpretive projects and publications call for visualizations that require the detail and complexity that expensive proprietary software can provide.

Whether they are students or professionals, archaeologists generally do not have the money to purchase the sophisticated software with expensive licensing, so the copies are often illegitimate, and can stop working at any time. While it would be imprudent to identify specific individuals, archaeologists generally have thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of illegally downloaded software to perform everyday tasks and do not hesitate to publish results and visualizations gained from using this illegal software.  Whether or not the archaeologist has a philosophical commitment to Open Source and Creative Commons, it is in their interest to prevent the catastrophic data loss that is possible with proprietary formats and illegitimate software. To this end, LP Archaeology has developed their own database software called ARK, which is open source and available for archaeologists to download.

Sadly, much of the proprietary software that archaeologists use has not been replaced by similar open source software. Even in cases where there are free alternatives such as Open Office, archaeologists do not feel like they have the time to learn something different and worry that the results will suffer. Obviously a more formal study of software use among archaeologists would be required to make steps towards correcting the issues surrounding Open Source software, data formats, and preservation standards. Still, there are many places for archaeologists to fit into the Open Source and sharing spectrum, whether it involves Creative Commons licensing for photographs or developing specialized software — supporting these efforts would benefit our collections, our connection to our stakeholders and the longevity of the archive.”

Is it ethical to use pirated software for archaeological work? Why or why not?

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

12 thoughts on “Open Source, Software Piracy and Archaeology: a dissertation bit”

  1. I can’t speak to the archaeo-specific programs, but there is a trend in bio anth towards more open-access program use. The Smithsonian, for instance, is rolling out a database that will help bioarchaeologists collect data from skeletal remains, and I believe they intend for it to remain free. More and more of us are using LaTeX rather than Word or Open Office. I learned LaTeX a decade ago when I wrote my first MA thesis and haven’t looked back – it’s incredibly powerful, will generate a bibliography for you in any format, and obviates all the problems Word introduces when you’re trying to format tables, figures, etc. Most of the journals I want to publish in have finally caught up to the other science publishers and are accepting LaTeX submissions, so I don’t need to reformat into Word.

    I suspect that if we anthropologists looked into what the other sciences are doing, we’d find more options for open-access programs – like R as a replacement for the uber-expensive SPSS/Systat. So I’ll be interested in hearing more from you about how we can make our work more open in all respects!

  2. When I was at university in the 90s much of the software that was available and used was illegal. When I started working in archaeology that was very much the same. Over the last decade the concern in the UK as shifted to more and more licensed software.

    Looking back to the 90s and early 00s dodgy copies of Dreamweaver, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and in some cases AutoCAD were prolific. In my opinion this was not an issue for software manufactures. While in archaeology many people continued using illegal copies of software (initially) I believe other sectors were far more concerned and bought licenses. Which software did they make sure to use, well the ones people knew how to use, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, Photoshop and AutoCAD. Allowing illegal use means users know how to use your software. I’m not saying this accounts for all of the success, useability is essential, however, providing cheap student licenses is not an act of altruism.

    One final point, I was once told a few years ago by the local license manager that ArcGIS was only valid for use at the university. I pointed out it was essential for our overseas fieldwork, this got me no where. So we took the licensed machines with the software into the field and they worked, broke the use agreement but worked. Was it ethical, I don’t know but bringing down a funded field project because a software manufacture can’t cope with the idea of fieldwork is just inconceivable.

  3. Comments on specific software:

    OpenOffice requires basically no extra training for most use cases. Only very hard-core Word users are going to have a problem with the differences, and then in edge cases like complex tables or formatting. Most of the time I actually try to work in rtf (using Bean on the Mac), and if I need more I use OpenOffice (in its NewOffice incarnation usually). Word can now read .odf files, so some of the barrier to sharing is gone.

    A bigger barrier is going from Excel to OOo, due to the much nicer pivot tables in Excel.

    Does anyone serious use Access? I’ve long used FileMaker Pro, but am looking to move over to sql in some flavor.

    1. Yes, most definitely, I know someone who had to rebuild a database in 2001 from FileMaker Pro in MSAccess as the agreed solution to allow the data to be used in ArcGIS. By the way until recently ArcGIS used personal geodatabase which were Access databases. In my current job I’ve several hundred MSAccess databases that have been developed for serious archaeological purposes. You’ll be surprised to hear I’ve never actually seen a FileMaker Pro database.

  4. The situation seems to be somehow different over here in Europe.
    More and more universities here in Germany are now using open source software on all levels, mainly because of the enormous licensing costs of proprietary software. And universities usually do already have IT departments so they are not dependent on expensive private contracts for installation and maintenance. State archaeology services and CRM firms are (very slowly) following up, for the same reason. Today there are open source programmes available for most applications needed in archaeology, and their use is not too different from the use of proprietary software, so learning to use them is rather easy. Privately I have been using Open Office for years now without problems, and will use open source GIS for my next research project. Illegal copies of course exist, mainly among students who simply cannot afford official copies, not so much among professionals or university staff.

  5. You reference the “J. on Computing & Cultural Heritage”. The implication is that is “Open”; it is not–or I can’t figure how to obtain an article referenced in it???

  6. It used to be a condition of Arts & Humanities Research Council funding in the UK that any data produced was archived with the Arts and Humanities Data Service, which existed for that purpose. They in turn insisted that that data should be archived in an open-access format, for transportability and convertibility as much as for any ethical reason. I do not know if this is still true; I have not held an AHRC grant since the AHDS had their funding withdrawn circa 2008, and though their site still exists and the data there is still available (including things like the Sutton Hoo Research Committee’s reports and images, though I would expect most archaeology projects to be funded by other research councils) I don’t think anything is still being added. The ideal at least was there.

    As to more personal feedback:

    OpenOffice requires basically no extra training for most use cases. Only very hard-core Word users are going to have a problem with the differences

    Alas, I wrote up the basic data I use for my work (which is historical not archaeological) in Word files with embedded links between them at the beginning of my thesis, when I lacked guidance on how such things should be done, and no free Office clone I’ve yet met will correctly open them; many extra line-breaks materialise and the links don’t work. When such a suite can do that, and contains something that can open Access files, and I find the time to find this out, I’ll happily move off Microsoft.

    Does anyone serious use Access?

    I do but I don’t think I’m serious in these terms.

  7. I suppose it’s ethical if there value of using the pirated software outweighs the consequences of paying for it. If a student or a small project is using pirated software because they simply cannot pay for the licensed version, then it’s like stealing bread to eat (provided we assue that some fieldwork and studies are sufficiently important to steal to make them happen. I tend to think this way especially since the ethical threshold of using pirated software is rather low. After all, using a copy of the software does not prohibit someone else from using another copy or impact someone using a fully licensed version as long as the pirate was not someone able to pay the cost for a licensed version (and, for example, contribute to resources used to ‘engooden’ the product.).

    And as some of the commenters have noted, companies are unlikely to send their lawyers after “pirates of necessity” because they are unlikely to benefit actual sales and cost the companies money without serving as a general deterrent. People are unlikely to decide to starve because stealing bread is illegal.

    If a project is using pirated software out of laziness or as a cost cutting measure (i.e. to maximize profits), then I wonder if the risk to the data that they are collecting and their professional reputations outweighs the benefit of saving a few grand.

    Oh, while I suspect John is being snarky, plenty of archaeologists still use Access because of its immense status as a legacy system. Moreover, it remains ubiquitous, reasonably powerful, and easy to use. I don’t love Access, but for years it was simply the best solution to a small project’s database needs. In the end, like Filemakers, it’s just a front end to a series of related tables.

  8. “Open Source, Software Piracy and Archaeology” would be a good discussion for the Ethics discusssion group on ArchaeoSeek! :-)

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