The real loser in software piracy isn't who you think

Date January 20, 2012


You might have heard that the US Government recently shut down MegaUpload, an online "file locker" which was used by many pirates to store their illegally acquired and transmitted software. Of course, the fact that it was used by a great number of people to store completely legitimate files was irrelevant to the DOJ.

But it did get me to start to think about software piracy, and consider the harms that it causes, and what its detrimental effects really are.

So what is the nature of software piracy, anyway? Is it theft, as lawmakers would have you believe?

As many have said, theft is the taking of something which deprives the owner of use. If you steal a car, the owner of the car can't use it anymore. So it's certainly not theft as it would be defined in the physical world.

However, a software pirate is taking something that, if acquired legitimately, would have required them to pay the copyright holder money. The copyright holder did not get their money in the case of pirated software. But is that theft? The copyright holder wasn't materially injured, but they were not justly compensated for the use of their property.

By that logic, it sounds to me like software piracy is more akin to trespassing than it is to theft.

Of course, I also find it laughable whenever software piracy is mentioned and people assign monetary value to the "stolen" software...as though the options were either "steal this software" or "pay for it". A false dichotomy if I ever heard one.

Let me just say this...I was in college and I knew a lot of people who pirated software. I can tell you with 100% certainty that none of the people who had the newest copy of Photoshop on their computer would, if unable to steal it, say "gee, I guess I need to pony up $500 to buy photoshop so I can alter this picture of my professor". They didn't have $500 to buy Photoshop. Did Adobe really lose the $500 that didn't get paid to them? No. That money didn't exist. Assigning it a value is dishonest.

Another option is to use an alternative piece of software to accomplish the same thing. As it turns out, Adobe does make several versions of Photoshop. Photoshop Elements is around $60, or about 1/10th the price of Creative Suite. But guess which one is pirated more?

I'm not going to link to the Pirate Bay, but you can check if you want. If you don't want, you can just take my word that Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 currently has 462 seeders, while Photoshop CS5.1 Extended Edition has 5,881. It's really interesting that the the ratios between price and seeders is so close. I'm going to have to investigate that further at some point.

Nevertheless, you can see what's happening. Not nearly as many people are pirating Photoshop Elements. Is it because the pirates who would have "stolen" it bought it instead? I have my doubts. I suspect that it just isn't as appealing to pirate as the more expensive option.

More people pirate CS5 because there's no disincentive to them for doing it, compared with Elements. "In for a penny, in for a pound" is the phrase (incidentally, pound is a reference to the monetary denomination, not the weight, for my fellow Americans who have never really thought about the it). If you're going to pirate something, you might as well pirate the most feature-rich application available, right? They're not going to hold a trial and find you less guilty. No one will complement your restraint for having "only" pirated Photoshop Elements. So why not get CS5?

So imagine a perfect world, where there is no software piracy. What are the options? Well, we take the false dichotomy listed above, and we can immediately add "Don't use software in this manner". In other words, there is always the option to not photoshop your professor's head onto a donkey. I think we all know that this scenario is unlikely.

The 4th option is to use an alternative software, such as the above-mentioned elements. However, we've seen that would-be pirates are less likely to use that, probably because they're unable or unwilling to spend money. There is, of course, alternative alternative software. Not every image editing program is made by Adobe and sold for money. Software like The Gimp has, I would estimate, 80% feature matching with Photoshop. And of that 20% left out, there are essentially 0 features that the average young, run-of-the-mill software pirate would be interested in. Most of the features are professional level, having to do with things like printing and high end modeling. For casual (or even mid-to-high level) photo editing, The Gimp has everything you need. And it's 100% free.

So why aren't people using it?

Well, a lot of people are, but why aren't the pirates using it instead of pirating photoshop?

I suppose it depends on what their goals are. There are software pirates who collect software much like I collected baseball cards when I was a kid. There are also probably the print shops out there who pirate software because they're running so close to red that they really can't afford to buy another copy of CS5. Aside from those two extremes, I'd guess most are "casual" software pirates. People who need to do occasional image editing, who use their software, but aren't in love with it, and only continue to use it because they're familiar with the interface and because it's easy to get.

That last group, the "casual" pirates, are where we see the bulk of the damages in terms of claimed income lost, and also where it's the most ridiculous, because there's absolutely no need for them to use something as powerful as Photoshop when something like The Gimp would be just as valuable to them.

And this is the true evil of software piracy. Those users who don't need any features specific to the software that they're pirating are actively shrinking the user base for the free software that fills the same niche. Every user that pirates Photoshop when they could be using The Gimp (or paint.net or pixlr or any of these) takes resources away from the others. Of course, when the price of The Gimp (or whatever) is the same price as Photoshop CS, they make the same choice as when they choose between CS and Elements.

These users aren't stealing software, they're stealing userbase.

Does that affect you? Yeah, absolutely. How?

Because publishers can write losses to piracy off of their taxes.

So these people who pirate software casually are increasing the counts of piracy, which allows the publishers to claim losses that aren't really losses, as I've explained. Because the publishers are claiming less income, they pay less in taxes...which essentially robs the government of its income.

Who is stealing from who?

What are your thoughts about all of this? Is there a solution that doesn't involve a massive upheaval of the copyright laws? What can or should be done?

13 Responses to “The real loser in software piracy isn't who you think”

  1. Phil Hollenback said:

    Great post Matt. A couple thoughts:

    1. The big problem with alternative (free) tools is the user interface. I'm a heavy gimp user and it frankly does not have a good UI. Also, the gimp UI is completely different from the Photoshop interface. Part of the calculus here is that people have a finite amount of time. Asking them to learn two separate UIs means twice as much work, and who wants to do that?

    2. I think John C. Dvorak wrote that he has always suspected that companies like Microsoft are fine with a certain amount of piracy as it increases their userbase. His examples of this is the widespread counterfeiting of Windows in China. Similarly, tacitly allowing piracy in colleges is a great way to ensure that you trap users early.

    I agree with your premise. The real crime of piracy is that it steals userbase. Large companies such as Microsoft or Adobe are using their monopoly power to either force users into their UI or using piracy as a loss leader to gather additional users.

  2. Systat said:

    Really nothing can be done honestly. They can change copyright laws all they want, they can change their softwares encryptions, keys, whatever they want to do. People will always find a way to get this software for free. I suggest that they star coming up with a more resonable price for their software. Not that I think these people and companies should not receive adequate compensation for what they spend hours and hours and hours coding and paying hundreds of the best minds to develop these software packages but if its affordable for these people to use then there will be less piracy. It will never stop all together like i said but i think it can be made less if software becomes more accessable to the people who are pirating it. These are the consumers who would buy it but why spend 500$ or more on something when it's all over the internet for free with keys to unlock all of its features. The only thing these laws will do is force software piracy further underground. There are several websites out there like the pirate bay which are private websites. I mean you go to these websites and they look like a fully functional business website, however with the correct login and password you are dropped into a website full of torrents for anything you can imagine. The only way to become a member of these websites is for a person who is already a member to give you an invite code. There is no way to stop it you can only do some damage control.

  3. Eric said:

    I have heard the same of Adobe products. Let them pirate when young then once they have a job they go to their boss saying they only know how to use photoshop so I need the whole suite. Instead of learning from day one on gimp. Then the gimp interface wouldn't be so confusing if you had used it from the start.

  4. Brian said:

    Don't forget that most of these anti-piracy efforts mostly come from the Movie and Music industries now. Software companies fought this fight long and hard in the 80s and 90s, and now they have just accepted the inevitable.

    Entertainment companies are still new at this, and will have to go through the same learning curve the software companies did. This is harder for them because, until recently, they were making money by selling you the same thing over and over, just in a different format, and they felt like they had full control over everything. Software companies grew up in this environment, so it just part of doing business.

  5. paxi said:

    You left out one reason, pirating for learning. Say if you have a course in image manipulation in school where you use photoshop, in this scenario it's quite natural that a pirate seeks out the same they're using at school. There's probably lots of examples like this, doesn't make it right but it can be a reason why the more expensive software is pirated more often.

  6. Curt said:

    I work in education and this is something that I have to deal with on almost a daily basis. I see a couple of reasons why:

    1. The general public does not understand licensing and, quite frankly, doesn't want to. I'm often asked why can't you just install (insert name of software) on my computer. After it's explained to them that they're not licensed for it and that it would be "illegal," sometimes they relent. Granted, Microsoft is making it much easier with their Education Agreements. Unfortunately, it takes a change in thinking on the part of upper management to see the benefits when all they see is another yearly expense.

    2. Once upon a time, we used to teach Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Drawing and Databases. Over time, this has evolved to Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Adobe Suites. The concept that if you understand the basics, you'll be able to use anything is long gone. As an extension, there's the sentiment that you aren't doing email properly if you aren't using Exchange and you need a Blackberry because it's so great for email.

    Also, there is the thought that if we have don't teach our students to use Office they won't be able to get jobs or won't be successful in college.

    Many of the people that I work with also have personalities that won't let them admit that there may be a way to do something other than the solution that they've heard of. I guess it's something of a "keeping up with the Joneses" type of attitude. (Everyone has it so we must have it too.) It doesn't matter that the final product is all that counts - I and some of my co-workers will often work in alternate applications and export the document and they never know the difference.

  7. Wesley David tackles the piracy issue | Standalone Sysadmin said:

    [...] think if you read the article that I wrote, I never said anything about right vs wrong, or illegal vs legal, and that was on purpose. I have [...]

  8. Roger said:

    Piracy will not go away. There will always be something that someone will want, and will not want to pay the price.

    One way might be to go to a cloud based application similar to google docs or zoho. Then no code would be available for download. You would have to buy a subscription to use the software, which would only be available via an Internet connection. This might work in time, except there is still old versions of the applications still out there for download.

    Just a thought...

  9. Laraine said:

    Well, I know who's being robbed when someone pirates my books. To me, these scumbags have essentially dipped their hands into my pay packet. That's robbery in anyone's book!

  10. Brian said:

    @Laraine:
    This is the crux of the debate around damages due to piracy: Copyright holders assign a value to every copy of their work, but most ignore the fact that many of those who pirate the material would not have otherwise paid for it, so it is not necessarily a lost sale.

    You only need to look at who are the current giants in software to see how successful that actually is. Photoshop, Office, and even Windows were widely pirated, and that helped to spread the idea of the product and cemented them as the de-facto standards in the industry. Seth Godin is an author who writes frequently about how the free spreading of ideas applies to other authors.

  11. Laraine said:

    Yes, it's a shame the piracy has turned the likes of Adobe into monopolies. I notice Adobe has lowered its prices slightly. Once, if I wanted their Master suite, it would have cost me NZ$4,500 (and there are still some retailers asking this) but now the price is more around $2,500. I use mostly Photoshop, with occasional forays into InDesign and Acrobat. I'd probably manage to pay their "Student/Teacher" prices but their new prices are well beyond my budget. So I buy second-hand--which inevitably means a much earlier version than the latest. Pretty soon this will no longer be an option; Adobe will sell only downloads. I'm not sure what will happen to users like myself--ones with very low incomes. Maybe some of us will turn to piracy.

  12. Baghead Kelly said:

    As a general observation I have noticed over the years that the the internet itself has become less usefull and more proprietry. Which I think ultimately is a loss for mankind and education in general.

  13. Average UK Guy said:

    People pirate PhotoShop because it so well supported in terms of books, magazines and tutorials. It is THE standard for photo editing, after all we don't say 'Why don't we Gimp his head on a donkey?".

    Many people want to be able to use it but it is priced way out of the range of probably 90% of home users/students. Most people who pirate it will never sell anything they make with it, so buying it would see no return on the investment.

    The whole rental thing is a farce as if yuo bought your software you'd use it for a few years not just the year that the rental price costs. Also the price is still to high for most home users.

    Most people who criticize people are journalists and tech experts with high paying jobs (even if they appreciate that they are well off compared to most).

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