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?
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?