Software Piracy & The Genuine Customer

Piracy will always exist. Get over it.

An idea, however smart and new, is going to spread. A better method of doing old things is going to be used by people who recognize the value of it without wanting to pay for that realization. The only thing that might not necessarily get plundered is a way to present things, because there’s no accounting for taste, and besides, it’s a little bit too blatant.

I know, I know. You’ve just spent a couple of years developing that piece of software that’s new, cool, hype, awesome and altogether the whole source of your pride. And just one week after you publish it, that’s that miscreant who takes it all and presents it as his own. But, surely everyone in their right mind knows that it’s just been taken from you, right? I mean, come on! Apart from these two inverted text fields, it’s the same thing… Even the logo looks the same! It might be acceptable, maybe even flattering, if the Other One didn’t make more money than you do out of it…
You are so pissed that you swear that next time, you’ll make it really hard to copy, or understand, or use without your explicit consent. If there’s a next time because right now, there seems to be confusion in your mind as to whether you should be depressed or angry.

My advice is “just drop it”. It’s not worth the outrage. There is a lot of clever people out there. Ultimately, if your idea is a profitable or just downright awesome, someone will figure out a way to put it to better (or more profitable) use.

After all, you came up with the idea, right? So why spend time and energy making it less usable because of these .01% of the human race who are going to screw you in any way you can(‘t) think of? Wouldn’t that be better to actually improve on it, and make it so perfect that 99.99% of the population will think “What the hell, I know I could spend a month and come up with an alternative, but it’ll never be as good as this one, so might as well just use it as is (and pay the somewhat small fee involved)”?

The reason why I write about it today is because, for once, I’m in the position of the customer (or customer’s aide), and I despair of all the silly measures against piracy some “fellow developers” have taken to prevent me from a fair use of their technology.

A charitable organization is holding a gathering to promote their overall goodness (and they are good people, embarking on quite a noble voyage), and to attract attention to a very real and very important problem. I might talk about that sometime later.

Trouble is, the venue doesn’t have internet access, and their website is something they are proud of and the main way to contact them, making it indispensable. So, the solution surely is to make a copy of the website (which was paid for) onto a computer inside the venue, to give access to the visitors.

I was tasked with that small request, and after a few days of talking a lot on the phone and waiting even more, I end up with the relevant files. Turns out most of them are using a custom engine (that hasn’t been included in the package), and some of the vital files are stored encoded, to be decoded on the fly by the engine when needed. Unusable.

So let me get this straight: a customer paid for a website, and they can’t show it in a private gathering for fund raising and general awareness.

This would be like owning a car for which you have to phone the manufacturer every time you want to start it up.

Now, smarter people than me have debated that field ad nauseam but the question still remains: is a piece of software a manufactured good or an idea?

In many ways, since we buy “a software”, have a copy on our hard drives, can put it where we want, and delete it on a whim, it’s akin to a piece of furniture. Instinctively, it’s “ours”.

What makes it less obvious is that it’s so easy to copy it and to give it to someone else. If you buy a table, and give it to somebody else, you don’t have a table anymore. With a piece of software (including movies, music, etc), you can give it away while keeping a copy at the same time.

The worst part in it is that most people don’t do it maliciously: it’s more out of goodness than greed. “Hey I found this program that does coffee just the way I like it, want to try it out?”. The other party, being given the goods doesn’t see it as stealing, not really. They are just trying it out, or they don’t think anyone is being robbed by this act, or that the software is being paid for by other people, given the outrageous price tag.

As with most things, I think it’s a question of education and message. If the recipient is aware that it’s wrong to accept, they will make it right in their own way, and in their own time.

I have a friend who has 10000+ CDs at home. If he likes a band, he buys the album. I have more than once got a copy from a friend of a piece of software to look at. If I ended up using it for real, or if I used it to make money, I paid for it.

How do we educate people to understand that this is someone else’s work and that it should be rewarded as such? The easiest (and to me worst) way is to be repressive about it. The current campaigns about anti-piracy in regards to music and movies makes it obvious: if you participate in the plunder, you’ll end up in jail. I think it doesn’t work, and I think it even pushes people who were “moderates” to more extreme reactions.

Come on, we’ve all been teenagers. Authority (especially faceless authority) doesn’t work half as good as Authority thinks. Besides, they don’t think they are doing anything wrong when they share something they like with their friends. If anything, they are doing the author a favor by promoting the work. Authority therefore is brutally stupid, and should be ignored.

So, how do we get these “confused” people, who think they’re not doing anything wrong, to understand that they are actually depriving us good developers (and artists) of our living? My view of the field is a little biased, as I do freelance job and know quite a lot of artists who get a reasonably big chunk of the retail price. I guess things are a little different when the middleman (major, editor, etc) takes the biggest share of the sale, but here goes:

  • Be somewhat transparent of the proceedings. The price tag has to fit the instinctive value of the software. Who the hell pays 4000 euros for a piece of software they will use once? That sounds too much like preying on desperation.
  • Make sure the end customer knows who you are. Faceless implies meaningless. I think it’s a lot harder to be robbing you if they think they know you.
  • Make sure you know who your customers are (in at least a general way). Reply to their emails, thank them for their feedback, make it clear you work for them. It’s your work, but you didn’t do it for yourself. No one likes a selfish and greedy bastard.
  • Don’t force your customers to do something they don’t want to do. If they don’t want to pay for your work, they shouldn’t profit from it, that’s agreed. But if they put some effort in it, they’ll be able to, anyway. Being hostage doesn’t automatically evolve in a Stockholm Syndrome… Most of the time it just brings resentment.
  • If it doesn’t cost you a lot, you should be flexible. The example of the above case is an obvious one: there shouldn’t be any problem exporting a “degraded but working” website that can be used offline. The customer (me, here) is usually not asking for much in their own opinion. Bowing to their small request makes the relationship more cordial and personal. Next time you tell them it’s difficult or not possible, they will understand, since you were understanding of their own problem the previous time.

Granted, this way is slow. And by doing this, we are competing with the Big Boys out there who are repressive and seemingly more efficient (at making money, if nothing else) than we are. It all depends to what kind of overall result we want to have…

I’d feel much better in a world where people understand my need to get paid for my work, and gladly submit, than in a world where they do indeed pay, but try knowingly to screw me over because they think I’m not worth being paid. We’re far from there as of today. And as I said numerous times here, I suffer chronically from it. But I think it’s a dream worth having, and worth working for.

What do you think?


Already got a couple of replies. No it doesn’t mean I think all software should be open sourced. Flexible doesn’t mean giving away what you’ve worked so hard to accomplish. I’m just talking about means to distribute and get paid for it.


Now that the feedback has abated slightly, there seems to be two major schools of thoughts: OpenSourcists (everything should be open source, that way it puts everyone back on an equal footing) and LOLYouAreSoNaive-ists (the world is unfair, accept the rules and make the best of it).

To the first ones I’ll say: I agree, it’s a good dream too. Unfortunately, a customer usually isn’t able to evaluate the quality of your work. Therefore, it’s not necessarily the best that will reap the benefits, but the ones best able to convince the customer to pay. Back to square one, I’m afraid.

To the second ones I’ll say: Yea! welcome to the Dark Ages v2.0.
Ethics should NOT be context-dependent. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Should we also abolish laws? They can be so tiresome, too… Or are they a way to keep score?
Just remember that evolution is not only “survival of the fittest”, but also about symbiotic relationships that bring a balance.
And that everyone else might take it as normal to screw you too. Including your own children.

I’m sorry, I still think there can, and should, be a better way to do things.



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