Time to bomb educational software prices

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 05/92 item 02 - scanned

Up and down the country, thousands of people live in fear of a lawsuit from software publishers for copyright infringement. Yet not one of these fearful folk have consciously broken any agreements and they wouldn't have made a brass farthing even if they had. These people are the teachers and network administrators who have been charged with giving our children a grasp of computer systems.

They become panic stricken at the very mention of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST). No two software publishers can agree on the conditions of use, so our friends are in constant fear that they will accidentally breach someone's licence terms. It would only take one extra user to fire up a package without the administrator's knowledge. This is hardly likely to harm the publisher yet, officially, it's an offence.

Then you've got the pricing policies. One publisher will try to sell at a small discount. Others will bomb the price down to a fraction of its original level. Some sell licences for 16 users at a time, others for 20. Some will ship 16 disks and manuals, others just one set. Since schools don't normally give manuals to pupils, the first approach is wasteful, to say the least.

A school or college installs computers to teach the students about using computers and software. It is not a commercial endeavour where the software directly contributes to the profitability of the company. Most publishers seem to think that education is a captive market, fearful of copyright law and therefore exploitable. Schools are forced into making extortionate payments to software companies who should be earning their money elsewhere. Publishers pooh-pooh the idea that loyalty is generated by school and college use of their software. This clears their consciences for prices which can run up to several thousand pounds for a disk, a manual and the right to upload multiple copies of software from a server.

Some software publishers are less blatant about it. They supply a disk and manual for each licence purchased. But teachers don't need masses of thick manuals to show the students how to use software. They will usually prepare their own teaching materials and handouts if necessary. They are unlikely to need more than one or two copies of the manual and a single copy of the software. This can be installed on the network or on a succession of individual machines. So, given that there's no commercial exploitation of the software, where's the penalty for publishers to sell one copy of a product to a school and allow unlimited educational usage within the establishment?

But what about the publishers' profit? Well, let me ask you this - if the publisher has supplied a single copy of a business program so people that can learn how to use it, how much profit do they deserve? It frightens me to hear of publishers of business software who look to the education market for a third of their turnover and, in all probability, more than a third of their profits.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about support? If the support issue is a problem, the customer could always be charged for the time spent on the telephone. Unless, of course, the difficulty turned out to be the publisher's fault.

I believe that software publishers should sell their products for educational purposes at cost plus a fixed fraction of the normal retail price. Cost could be based on the number of manuals and disks involved, with an additional charge for administration. The fraction of the software price would provide some profit and introduce a competitive element into the school's buying decision. I'd suggest something like £3 per disk and manual, plus £10 for administration, plus 20% of the retail price. So a five-disk product with two manuals which normally retails at £300 would cost £91 for unlimited educational usage and a school could stock up on all the important packages for around £1000.

The publishers might not make a fortune in educational sales - although a market of 22,800 educational establishments is not to be sniffed at but wider exposure would probably increase future business.

One question remains - how could this happy state of affairs come about? The Department of Education is pushing schools to use IT across the curriculum, so why doesn't it come up with some pricing guidelines for software publishers? It needn't take long to find a sensible formula and would cost the government very little - yet it would save the education system a fortune and boost IT awareness into the bargain.

(Before angry publishers write in, I should mention that I have been publishing software since 1981.)