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Hoisting the Jolly Roger Over Your Hard Drive

Attacking Software Piracy at the source

By Jim Bray

Computer software makers seem to have chosen some pretty strange ways to combat piracy.

Manufacturers claim that software piracy costs them billions, so I can understand why they’d be upset. Yet as I was installing some software the other day, something I do all the time in my line of work, it hit home just how silly and counterproductive some of these anti-piracy methods are.

The application I was unleashing onto my hard drive was one for which you have to type in an interminable and confusing ID code. You’ve probably seen them yourself – long combinations of numbers and letters you have to enter into a little onscreen box during the setup program, and if you don’t key it in exactly as written (in tiny little print that makes your eyes hurt) you have to start all over again from scratch.

What a waste of time, and what a needless bother for the law-abiding people who actually spend their after-tax dollars on the software!

I’m willing to bet it doesn’t do much to fight piracy, either.

After all, these codes are usually printed right on the CD-ROM’s case, so when you lend the disc to aunt Mabel, the code goes with it.


Even if the code isn’t printed on the case, it’s probably on a card or inside the manual, so it’s simple enough to write it down and pass it along with the disc.

Duh again!

I certainly can’t blame software companies for trying to fight these modern day Blackbeards. It’s their intellectual property and their livelihoods that are being ripped off, and I know exactly how they feel. I get upset when people copy my scribbled rantings, too, and for exactly the same reasons.

I often wonder, however, if these companies have ever thought to ask themselves why people pirate software.

I’m sure some of it’s the work of organized groups out to make a few quick megabucks off the backs of honest developers, though I’ve never run across it personally, but I’m willing to bet that most software – whether it be computer or audio/video – are copied because consumers can’t justify paying the retail price.

Look at Microsoft Office as an example. Office – and its competition – are really “must have” productivity applications and are worth their weight in, well, silicon. If you can’t afford a suite like Office you can get by with stripped down applications like Microsoft Works, but you lose a lot of features and your files may not be compatible with what your friends, neighbors, and co-workers are using.

Yet even the basic version of Office costs hundreds of dollars – and probably has many, many features the ordinary consumer or office user will never use in a million years. So you’re stuck between a stripped down suite that may not be enough – or is incompatible – and an application that’s so powerful it’s like going after a mosquito with an elephant gun.

Many applications don’t even give you much in the way of owner’s manuals any more, the printing of which was always one of the major production costs. The tutorials or other “help” files they deign to include are often on the CD’s now, and CD’s cost virtually nothing to stamp out compared with the cost of a book.

I realize that Research & Development is a huge investment and that companies need to make this back. I don’t begrudge their profits, either, because that’s why anyone goes into business in the first place. Nor am I advocating piracy: I don’t want these companies to stop sending me all the nifty stuff with which I get to play!

I wonder, however, how many more copies of an application like Microsoft Office would be sold if they went for, say, fifty bucks a pop. Especially if they’re going to hit you up to buy a brand new version a year or so down the road anyway!

Or how many more millions of copies of the latest hit CD would be sold if you could pick it up for $7.99?

Some thrillseekers would probably pirate anyway, but I have a feeling many more people would buy the straight goods if it didn’t cost them a pound of flesh.

So listen up, manufacturers. Maybe if you give your consumers a break, you’ll reap the benefits.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006