Why you should pay for the software you use

Pirates (more accurately called “thieves”) have lurked around in the background of the high-technology world since commercial software was first made available to personal-computer owners back in the olden days. When people think of digital piracy, however, they most often relate it to software. But piracy can be extended to anything available in a digital format on a local device—including mobile units—where the cost of producing perfect copies is almost zero. Even more, digital piracy may soon be found in the physical-goods world thanks to the growing popularity of 3D printers. The problem is, piracy (more accurately called “theft”) can eventually lead to a product’s development being stopped in its tracks because of a lack of funding for future versions. And that may well be the biggest reason to start paying for what you use.

Step into my time capsule. The year is 1985. . .

That gigantic 5¼-inch slot in the side of your computer? That comfortably houses this new technology commonly referred to as a “floppy disc.” To prevent you from copying their applications, software publishers are trying different solutions including adding bad sectors and even white space to the media. These will produce errors preventing you—in theory, at least—from copying the disk.

Some game developers are also combining media protection with extra steps such as entering specific words from the physical manual included in the box.

Piracy is not new. And while some technologies appear to be promising, the industry is still a few years away from a hack-resistant solution.

Another approach still used today with more expensive products is the requirement of a physical device plugged into the computer (in the parallel or serial port previously, in the USB port today) called a dongle. While this certainly adds a higher level of security, clever buccaneers have always been able to hack the hardware check process.

With the advent of the quasi-permanent internet connection, a solution, called activation, has been implemented by many vendors. The basic premise here is that a user must confirm that the copy being used is legitimate. This is normally done anonymously, helping software developers better enforce the terms and conditions outlined in their respective End User License Agreements. (And yes, I also use a combination of these anti-piracy technologies in my products today.)

Here’s the problem: These piracy protection methods tend to add extra steps for legitimate users while not really preventing piracy. Just as it is for dongles and just about every other security solution so far, activation is usually bypassed by clever hackers within months (if not weeks) of a product’s release.

Anti-piracy measures send customers the message that they are not trusted

So, why do software vendors continue to heavily invest in these types of technologies? One word: money.

According to The Software Alliance, the global piracy rate in 2013 was about 42 percent, with countries such as China having a rate of 74 percent. With an estimated commercial value of unlicensed PC software at $62.7 billion globally, it is easy to understand why software companies large and small put so much effort into protecting their intellectual property.

Just like there is not just one type of customer, there is also not just one type of pirate. Over the years, I’ve determined that there are victim pirates, casual pirates and intentional pirates.

  • Victim pirates — As its name indicates, these are people who do not know they are using pirated software. In mature markets, they usually purchase their software from an online marketplace or auction site at a huge discount (often more than 80 percent). In emerging markets, software usually comes pre-installed from the local computer reseller selling the hardware. (I still remember stores in Moscow a few years back selling software using a different type of business model: $5 for 1 CD, $10 for 2 CDs, etc., regardless of the software on the disc.) Don’t want to be a “victim” pirate? If the deal is too good to be true, stay away.
  • Casual pirates — These are people who purchase one legitimate license of the product, but then install it on multiple machines, well beyond the terms covered by the license agreement the user accepted during the installation process. Surely, one copy of the product can be installed and used by the five employees of my small business, they think. No. Normally you need five licenses for this. Similarly, a casual pirate might purchase an education version but use it commercially.
  • Intentional pirates — These people never intended to purchase the software in the first place yet, they fully intend to use it, sometimes even in a for-profit environment. Using modern search engines and a few well-chosen keywords, these pirates can find solutions to bypass activation and anti-piracy measures of most software these days, usually in a matter of weeks after its official release. My worst experience in this regard was learning the crack to remove the anti-piracy measures was available a few days before we officially released our software 🙁

The software industry is progressively moving to subscriptions, but here again, as long as the software is getting installed on a local device, developers should assume that hackers will find a way to bypass protection measures.

When you pay for software, you enable the development of the next version

While software piracy is taking money out of the pockets of developers, we must understand that the purchase price is not funding the software you bought. It is, in fact, funding the next version. If this source of funding from legitimate buyers dries up, it can lead to a product’s development being stopped in its tracks. And that may well be the biggest reason to lose your bandanna, eye patch and big golden earring, and start ponying up for what you use.

Original picture and photographer credits available at unsplash.com.

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