February 1995


A Few Hard Truths...

Software Piracy Is A Good Thing (Seriously)

GOOD AS IN Mom, apple pie, and that quality which many Americans consider the highest of all virtues - sales volume.

Take a minute to think about it. You've undoubtedly seen the figures put out by industry mouthpieces like the Software Business Alliance, which recently claimed that $2.4 billion was lost to software piracy last year in the United States alone.

Frankly, this figure is pure hogwash, as about 10 seconds study reveals. First of all, SBA has no hard data on the amount of software piracy taking place. Therefore it estimates piracy based on how many software titles it believes an individual is likely to purchase in a year, which is four.

Thus, if you only buy a couple software packages, you will be credited in the SBA's calculations as having pirated a couple more - even if you have never pirated anything in your life!

This sort of reasoning offers computer users a bizarre choice: either buy as much software as the industry believes appropriate, or be judged statistically guilty of piracy.

It also leads industry groups to make the preposterous claim that well over one third of all software used in North America is pirated. Like Jimmy Buffet in A Pirate Looks At 40, "I've done a bit of smugglin'," but I don't know anyone who is using 35% to 59% pirated software, as the SBA claims is the average for in the U.S. and Canada.

Then there's the matter of how much piracy subtracts from sales, if anything. Industry groups like the SBA and the Software Publishers Association assume that every piece of pirated software represents a lost sale.

Fact is, the vast majority of pirated software does not represent lost sales because most bootlegs are unneeded or useless. Without access to a bootleg copy, most people would never spend 10 seconds with these programs - let alone buy them.

And this brings us to a very important point that is entirely overlooked by the software industry. Piracy sells software - perhaps more than anything else. That is to say, instead of SUBTRACTING from software sales, it actually INCREASES them.

Let me put this in personal terms. I am the registered owner of thousands of dollars of Windows software (including CorelDraw, Adobe PageMaker, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Intuit Quicken, Calera WordScan, Claris FileMaker, Fauve Matisse, Aldus PhotoStyler, Delrina WinFax Pro, Dvorak NavCis Pro), and I've rarely bought a program that I didn't have as a bootleg first.

The thing that sells me on software is working with it. That's what shows me if it's well designed, and meets a real need. If it's truly useful, I will buy it, no matter what it costs. And if it is a turkey, I want it out of here, no matter what it's supposedly worth.

I mean, seriously, how much hard disk space does the S.B.A think I have? A gigabyte for myself, and then another couple gigabytes to load up on pirated programs just for the illicit thrill of it?

I think not - nor am I unusual in this respect. If an average user has a pirated copy of an app they use regularly enough for it to become an important part of their work (or play), they will eventually need to buy it - for a full manual, for tech support, for new features in the upgraded version, or for simple shrinkwrap lust.

Although there may have been time when it was possible to get by with only a set of bootleg disks and a cheat sheet, today's complex programs (and what Windows program isn't complex?) make the manuals, technical support, and bug fixes essential to getting the program to work well.

But what about the morality of the thing, you ask? Isn't piracy simply stealing? The industry's answer is yes, but again let's take a closer look. The California penal code, for example, states a person is guilty of theft if they "take, carry, lead or drive away the personal property of another." That is, theft is fundamentally subtractive. A victim of theft must have had something taken from them: a car, a necklace, etc.

So what does software piracy take from the software manufacturer? Because the disks are copied, not purloined, the software manufacturer suffers no physical removal of property. The only thing that software pubishers can claim to have lost is the opportunity for profit.

But since software piracy actually increases sales and profits, where is the theft? The answer - there isn't any. Software piracy is a good thing, and good for business too.

The solution? The industry's hired watchdogs should chill out, and spend their time worrying about real problems, like making software perform as advertised.

In fact, if the industry really wants to help sales, it should take some of the money that goes into piracy propaganda, and hire more tech support people. Heck, it might even bring back toll-free tech support! Now there's a concept that would REALLY influence buying decisions.

-- Bruce Brown


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