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Dialog Box /
Jeff Byers

It's Okay To Steal Software
Software vendors see today's pirates as tomorrow's customers.

The U.S. software industry lost $2.9 billion to software piracy in 1995. Pirates selling illegal copies at cut-rate prices and companies installing single-user versions onto multiple machines or a network server accounted for most of the lost revenues.

Also included in the figure are individuals who might not consider themselves pirates-home users who copy friends' software, or high school kids who swap programs via bulletin boards, the Internet, ftp sites or newsgroups.

The pirate population is so great that prosecuting them all would be virtually impossible. Most companies simply send "cease and desist" letters, and some will pursue the matter further (including prosecution) if they don't get a written agreement to desist or if the recipient denies wrongdoing.

But there's another reason many vendors won't prosecute: It's bad for business. Many software pirates are people who would pay for the product if they could afford it. This may sound like a poor rationalization, but many of today's software companies are run by individuals who were once in the same boat. Most kids eventually outgrow their plunder phase and become good consumers as they mature, and many of the adults who can't afford software will pay for it once their finances allow. The software community considers these acceptable losses because they often lead to long-term gains. In this sense, some forms of piracy can actually benefit the software industry in the long run. Today's pirates may be tomorrow's high-tech consumers.

Companies themselves give away betas, software, demos and shareware via the Web in hopes of hooking users into buying upgrades or other products. The message users get, though, is software should be free.

The Software Publisher's Association (SPA) disagrees. Recently, the SPA took legal action against an Internet service provider whose clients posted pirated software. SPA reached a settlement with the ISP.

My company, an ISP and software vendor, refuses to police clients' Web pages out of respect for their rights to privacy and free speech. However, if the authorities request help in catching someone using our service for illegal activities, we offer our full cooperation. It's the same position UPS would take if someone were using its service to ship stolen merchandise, and it's the same position most of the ISPs took.

Confessions of a former pirate

This isn't something new. I myself was a teenage member of the Midwest pirate scene. In those days (the mid-1980s), that was often the only way to obtain software. You could dial lots of pirate BBSes, but there were few software stores. You had to buy most software from magazines or the limited supply at Radio Shack, unless you were lucky enough to live near Silicon Valley.

Eventually, my pirate friends and I grew up and got jobs, most of us in high-tech positions.

My guess is well over half of the 20- to 35-year-old software professionals who come from a background of home computer use have, at some point, on some level, pirated software. At least three-quarters of those I've worked with since I joined the business have admitted to pirating software in the past, and I strongly suspect most of the rest have as well. Like me and my old mates, though, they now realize piracy is theft, and pay for their software.

Even the loudest among those who once shouted the pirates' battle cry ("Information wants to be free!") now pay for their software. Over the past few years I've spent well over $2,000 on software, much of it titles I'd originally used illegally. I might not have purchased many of these products had I not had the chance to give the software a trial run. I don't expect future generations to behave differently, and neither do software companies.

That's why most vendors don't take serious action against the occasional individual pirate. Most offenders would get a slap on the wrist and end up harboring a grudge. The industry gains more by letting them go, in hopes they'll eventually turn away from their thieving ways as those before them have. And until we can find a way to end or at least significantly reduce software piracy, I expect it'll always be this way.

Jeff Byers is the director of customer services at deltaComm Development. The opinions he expresses in this column do not necessarily reflect those held by his employer, nor do they reflect those of WINDOWS Magazine. Contact Jeff in the "Dialog Box" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the e-mail addresses here.

Copyright (c) 1997 CMP Media Inc.

Windows Magazine, March 1997, page 51.

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