Rant: Paying the Piracy Piper

An endless stream of paid lobbyists bemoan software piracy in the PC industry, lamenting that teenagers with CD burners will send businesses to the poorhouse. Meanwhile, big software houses get richer, and demand more money for less service.

Inflated claims of monetary losses due to piracy are just so much bulldust. Piracy doesn't harm mass-market software companies, it helps them - and they know it. Furthermore, anti-piracy efforts don't hurt pirates, but they do hurt paying customers.

It's time software users started to worry about their own rights. Have you ever tried to install a piece of software which requires a registration key, only to find that the one that came in the box doesn't work? How many times have you had to interrupt whatever you were about to do, in order to scrabble for the right CD to make your program work? How many times did the program fail to recognise the CD when you finally found it? All of the above have happened to me, and I doubt I'm alone.

A program that simply does what you want it to do is far better than one which demands that you fill out and submit your name, e-mail address, date of birth and aunt's maiden name to someone's corporate spam list before it will even install - and then still wants a disc or dongle before you can actually use it.

The irony of such impediments to the use and enjoyment of software, in the name of anti-piracy, is that pirates don't suffer from them. Those lucky people who steal their software have no twenty-digit sequence to key in perfectly, no dongle to find and attach, no intrusive "registration" mumbo-jumbo to perform - just a program that works without fuss, like software should. Software crackers perform a valuable community service by removing this rubbish from otherwise decent software.

Why is it that thieves get a better deal than paying customers? Greed. Something much more important to business in the long term - customer satisfaction - has been cast by the wayside in the obsessive pursuit of a mythical goal.

Perhaps corporate executives have been hypnotised by their own propaganda. Perhaps, when they quote untold millions of dollars in "sales" lost to piracy, they actually believe that every one of those estimated pirate copies represents someone who would have forked over the inflated price of a full software package. Maybe they think they can actually sell more by making their product harder to use.

To an extent, they may be right. There are many naive users who don't realise that their $1000 office suite costs the manufacturer only $20 to mass-produce, and who accept restrictions on computer products that would be unacceptable in other areas of business. Would you buy a car that had the engine compartment welded shut? Would you be happy with a TV which required you to call the manufacturer's headquarters and verify your identity every time you wanted to turn it on? That's what the software industry is selling.

Exactly how many software companies have gone broke due to piracy, anyway? A lot less than have gone broke due to anti-competitive practices by industry giants, I'll wager.

In the long term, piracy actually helps companies gain market share. Many popular programs started out without any form of copy protection, and their manufacturers knew that they were being widely and illegally distributed, but took no action. This was because clever marketers understand that there are a lot of people, such as students, who can't afford the ridiculous prices of software sold to businesses - but who may have influence and money at a later date. If you can get a young person habituated to your program, you'll have a user for life - one who will buy your product when he or she gets a paying job.

For this reason, many companies have turned a blind eye to piracy among the young, or offer special "educational" prices to entice students (and even entire educational systems) into their proprietary web. However, this doesn't stop them moaning about piracy, even when the pirated software would never have been sold at market price, even when the companies are gaining long-term market advantage from such unauthorised use.

It's a nice scam, but it can only work in a world that is largely ignorant of computer technology and still somewhat overawed by it. As users become more educated, they will start to wonder why paying customers are treated like untrustworthy scum by the very suppliers whose coffers they fill. They will start to demand the same level of convenience in ownership from a computer as is now expected from a car or TV.

In years to come, companies that set unnecessary hurdles for the customer to jump over, that infringe consumer privacy, that try to take over a user's computer and make it effectively their own, may well find that customer loyalty lasts only as long as consumer ignorance.

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