Geek / Technical Marketing/Business Politics/Government

2008 Global Software Piracy Study

The Business Software Alliance, which is made up of mainly larger software companies and claims to be the “voice of the world’s software industry and its hardware partners on a wide range of business and policy affairs”, sponsored research by IDC. Their findings were released in the 2008 Global Software Piracy Study.

I take issue with a few parts of the 25 page report. For one thing, there is still a claim that every illegally downloaded piece of software corresponds to a “loss” for a software vendor. The report itself uses quotes around the word “loss”, which indicates to me that even the IDC can’t just outright claim they are real losses. A simple mental exercise will demonstrate how false it is. Do you know someone who downloads software illegally? If not, pretend you know someone who has downloaded hundreds of games, productivity software, and office software illegally. Now, tell me, if this person had to pay for each and every piece of software, would he or she have the money to do so? Most likely, the answer is no. Software isn’t like a physical product that can be returned, such as a car, so if this person were to be caught, I have a hard time believing that uninstalling the illegal software would restore these supposed “losses” to the software vendor.

The way they legitimize the claim that each pirated copy is a loss? By showing a strong correlation between piracy rates and the strength of the software industry in a country. Except I don’t think anyone doubts that losses occur overall, which is all that correlation shows. You could look at it as each pirated copy of software contributes to the whole, and the whole correlates with a weak software industry, but it is hardly a 1:1 causation.

But what’s even more bizarre is how software piracy “losses” seem to go up or down depending on currency exchange rates! Yes, the BSA claims that because the USD went down, piracy “losses” went up. Can we use triple quotes on that word?

It is fascinating to see how Russia, China, and even Brazil are lowering their piracy rates by a large margin, which corresponds with job increases, although it isn’t clear if there is a causation one way or another in those cases. It seems that developing countries are the ones where the largest increase in software piracy is occurring.

There is a section in which the study lists factors that help to lower piracy. A couple of these factors are described using words like “have been paying off” to indicate that we should expect that such factors were being used and were measured in their effectiveness. Most, however, use words like “will lower piracy” or “can have an impact”, which indicates to me that these are more wishful thinking and not necessarily based in any numbers. Most telling: one of those latter factors is Technical Advances, specifically Digital Rights Management (DRM).

At the end, the BSA lists their blueprint for reducing piracy. Most of the items are about stronger copyright laws and better and heavier enforcement of the laws. I’m not so sure I like a group of the larger, multinational software companies dictating how copyright laws should work better for them and less for smaller indie shops and micro software vendors, or for citizens at large. We live in a world where thousands of unique videos are created and uploaded to YouTube every minute. People create and have the protections of copyright, and haven’t had to worry about stricter enforcement, and I fear that stricter enforcement will be like trying to hold onto water more tightly. The bigger companies will survive if people are pushed to pirate software and other media more often, but the smaller companies and individuals might not. The BSA doesn’t have as much to lose, or “lose”, as the smaller companies do, yet they act as everyone’s voice. It worries me.

The one item I agree with and would love to push for: increase public education and awareness. Except I don’t like where the BSA’s focus lies. They seem to want to focus on educating the public about how valuable software is so that they won’t pirate it. They want to inform people that they should only obtain software legally. Basically, let’s teach the “consumers” how to consume the right way.

I want to see more people understand what copyright law is and how it helps them as creators. Again, more people create more new copyrighted works per minute today than they did decades ago. And most probably don’t even realize they own the copyright! Why? Because copyright law isn’t set in a single statute. It’s distributed through court case decisions, and only larger companies that can afford expensive lawyers can even hope to wield copyright effectively. It’s way too confusing for the average person, even though the average person is holding more copyrights than they know what to do with. THAT’s why there is a perception that copyright is a tool used by big business. Because only big business can hope to understand it well enough to use it! I think if more people understood how THEY can wield copyright to their advantage, they’ll respect the copyrights of others. If the BSA wants to treat smaller copyright holders as if they don’t count as anything but the general public of years ago, they shouldn’t be surprised when there is some grumbling from public’s ranks. We’re creators, too. You don’t hold a monopoly on copyright law. It’s ours, too, and it is not there to protect you or your business models.

Efforts by the Creative Commons to simplify copyright licenses is more of what I would like to see software developers do. I’d also like to see more focus on smaller companies and the effect of illegal downloads on THEIR bottom lines. Most people don’t care about the “billions” of “losses” that they can’t comprehend. They care about Joe Software Developer, who they see shopping with them at the grocery store. Let’s see his face in interviews, rather than some guy in a suit representing Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe.

If you would like to learn more about what copyright is and how it affects you, please see my article on What an Indie Needs to Know about Copyright