This is an essay I wrote for one of my classes about software piracy. This issue is a lot more nuanced than many people realize.
The allure of other people’s stuff has caused humans all throughout history to take what they shouldn’t: ancient Egyptian pyramid builders were deterred from stealing with the threat of being lashed with spears (Griffiths, The grim reality). Theft is no less common nowadays, but it has become more common to steal intellectual property than pharaonic property. Software piracy in particular has become a global problem – but that phrase doesn’t truly get to the bottom of how ubiquitous and “normal” piracy has become. The sordid tale of software piracy begins at the dawn of the information age.
The first case of software piracy, the unauthorized and illegal copying of software with the intention of distributing it to others (Software piracy), probably began in 1975 with the release of BASIC interpreters on cards which were not very user-friendly. The Homebrew Computer Club, a hobby group devoted to learning more about computers, copied the computer language on “larger, more effective cards” (Plafke, The untold tales of software piracy). Prior to 1980, there wasn’t much software developers could do legally when someone stole their software. The law at this point did not recognize copyrights on source code. Like books, the entire piece was copyrighted, not individual components. Lobbying and testimony by Bill Gates was instrumental in expanding the protections afforded to software.
Before the Internet, pirates used their telephones to steal software. They used a dial-up Bulletin Board System to upload and distribute software to other computers. For large files, pirates actually swapped addresses to mail each other floppy disks. In the 1980s, these small-time crooks were usually not worth the effort to stop, so few faced criminal charges, but with the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, everything changed. Peer-to-peer systems such as BitTorrent and Napster made piracy easier than ever, meaning now people download millions of illegal movies, games, textbooks, music, software, and more every day. In fact, the lost revenue due to piracy is estimated at $18,670,310 every day (Plafke, Untold tales). About 20% of all software is pirated in the United States, but in other parts of the world the number is huge: in China, about 82% of software is pirated (Plafke, Untold tales), while in Vietnam the number is a shocking 90% (Hill, Romania: piracy built this country).
Several laws and organizations exist to prosecute pirates. The Business Software Alliance (BSA), founded in 1988, is one of the ways that companies like Microsoft and Adobe (whose products comprise some of the most pirated software) are fighting back. The goal of the BSA is to promote legal software use. To that end, the BSA conducts studies on software use and piracy, and BSA members speak before governmental bodies on how protecting software benefits our digital and information-based economy.
The punishments of piracy are sometimes harsh, but not nearly as grim as that faced by thieving ancient Egyptian slaves. The Copyright Act is a key piece of legislation in the battle. Under this law, “making an infringing copy of software with the intention of obtaining a commercial advantage or profit and if the person knows or ought reasonably to know that the copy is infringing copyright and is now a criminal offence” (BSA, Penalties for illegal software) and they face stiff fines up to $93,500 and/or five years in prison. Companies who violate this law can get fined up to $467,500. In addition, pirates can face $150,000 per program copied if the copyright holder opts for statutory damages in a civil suit (BSA, Software enforcement and US law).
But the threats of pirated software go beyond prison terms and hefty fines. Pirated software often contains security risks, no warranty and little documentation, lack of technical support, and few if any upgrades. The BSA estimates that nearly $10 billion is lost every year – and that’s just in the US.
Although most associate software piracy with actually distributing (in particular, selling) software, it encompasses more than that: anytime an individual modifies software, that is piracy too. Learning this was shocking to me: what computer gamer does not “mod” their own games? Ease of modification is one of the major draws of computer gaming versus console gaming. Video game modding is extremely popular. YouTube videos of the practice are abundant, making it clear that anyone with the knowledge can add whatever they want to their games.
Further, another recent debacle involved using the camera of a 3DS (a Nintendo-brand handheld gaming console) to “inject” hacked Pokémon into the player’s game (Taylor, Scan QR codes, get any monster you want). Called the “Spider exploit,” it was extremely popular, though short-lived since Nintendo patched the exploit almost as soon as it hit the Internet. Since it involved circumventing the copyright protections Nintendo places on its products, this exploit was very illegal. When typical video game news outlets are running how-to articles about exploits like these with no mention of how illegal they are, the meaning of software piracy is diluted and gamers remain ignorant of the law.
To illustrate this point, a 27-year-old California gamer faced serious charges due to his video game modding business (Kuchera, Modder arrest a reminder). (The charges against the gamer were later dropped due to inadmissible evidence, but hopefully he learned his lesson.) However, it is unlikely that companies would go after tinkerers who do not sell their tools or work, and who do not provide the tools for others. Jennifer Granick of the Civil Liberties Director of the Electronic Freedom Foundation says, “It’s very, very unlikely that any of these companies are going to bring civil suits against individual people who modded their own consoles. Economically, it’s not worth it.”
Is there an upside to the epidemic of software piracy? Foreign investors perceive Romania’s IT sector as a promising industry because of “high level of technical education in Romania, low wages and the country’s thriving underworld of computer hackers” (Reuters, Piracy worked for us). Traian Basescu, president of Romania where approximately 70% of software is pirated, is quoted as saying, “Piracy helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania…. It helped Romanians improve their creative capacity in the IT industry, which has become famous around the world” (Hill, Romania: piracy built this country). Amazingly, President Basescu delivered these words at a press conference with Bill Gates, who had no response. Some argue that piracy has helped many developing nations with their IT sector, giving jobs and skills to those who otherwise might not achieve financial stability. Not only that, but piracy may actually have the counter-intuitive effect of spreading the adoption of certain software, making the companies leaders in the industry. This appears to be Adobe’s belief: the Social Science Research Council credits piracy as a key to Adobe’s success because it “crowds out competitors” and “helps maintain Adobe’s tools as standards” (karaganis, Adobe Logic). Hobbyists in the 70s may have raised Bill Gates’ ire, but fast forward to the 1990s and he is quoted as saying, “As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours” (Plafke, The untold stories), presumably because he believes this to an extent too.
Another rarely-discussed upside to piracy is the preservation of legacy software. In the fascinating article Why history needs software piracy, Benji Edwards writes, “Like an ant that works as part of a larger system it doesn’t understand, the selfish action of each digital pirate, when taken in aggregate, has created a vast web of redundant data that ensures many digital works will live on.” Edwards describes how milestones in computing are at risk of being lost forever due to overzealous attempts at piracy protection. Some pirates have coined the term “abandonware” to describe software that is no longer in print. Such legacy software includes games for the Apple II, products that are completely obsolete. What are the ethics of pirating such software? Their value may seem inconsequential to us, but who knows what future generations will be curious about?
Are pirates and software creators polar opposites, or is it too utopian to wonder if perhaps the two sides can come together? Shareware and open-source software might be able to help bridge their differences. Shareware is provided free of charge at first. Users are encouraged to distribute it, thus spreading their product around. Typically, after a trial period, individuals are asked to pay if they want to enjoy functionality. Shareware may help cut down piracy because many pirates claim they just want to test out software to decide if they want it or not. With the painful cost of some popular programs (Adobe Creative Suite is in excess of $1,000), this claim may not be entirely false. Open-source software provides the source code for any who wish to use and modify it. A great example of this is the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), a Photoshop-like program with a steep learning curve, a ton of features, and a vibrant community. If open-source software such as GIMP were distributed in developing nations, this would surely cut down on piracy. Unlike pirated material, open-source software has updates and a community to serve as technical support.
In conclusion, software piracy is a complex issue that has spread to every corner of our planet. The negative impact it has on our economy is stunning, but at second glance software piracy is actually a nuanced issue. In the future, “Internet archaeologists” may only know about our digital lives due to piracy spreading software far and wide, yet this doesn’t excuse the wanton abuse of licensing agreements. To preserve the future of software, the two sides should come together.
- Sarah Griffiths. The grim reality of life in ancient Egypt. Dailymail.co.uk. October 15, 2015. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- James Plafke. The untold tales of software piracy. Themarysue.com. September 6, 2011. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- The Business Software Alliance. Penalties for illegal software. Bsa.org. Date unknown. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- The Business Software Alliance. Software Enforcement and the U.S. Law. Bsa.org. Date unknown. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Brandon Hill. Romania: Piracy built this country. com. February 2, 2007. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Unknown author. Software piracy. com. Date unknown. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Shawn Taylor. Scan QR codes, get any monster you want. com. February 24, 2015. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Ben Kuchera. Modder arrest a reminder that most console hacks are illegal. Arstechnica.com August 5, 2009. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Piracy worked for us, Romania president tells Gates. Washingtonpost.com February 1, 2007. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Adobe Logic. Piracy.americanassembly.org. April 4, 2011. Accessed December 5, 2015.
- Benji Edwards. Why history needs software piracy.