This post is a response to a blogpost on tudor g’s blog about software piracy issues in Romania, and as such it might not be of interest to you, dear international reader. If this is the case, feel free to skip this post.

Disclaimer: arguments are very emotional things. As much as we would like to think that they consists of logical statements and counter statements with the “best” arguments winning, in real life the acceptance or rejection of a given argument very much depends on the frame of reference of individual persons. With this in mind, I believe that Tudor and me have very different frames of reference (him being a Microsoft employee and me being an open-source enthusiast) and as such I’m quite sure that nothing written by me here will change his mind (and conversely, nothing written by him will change my mind). Still, I think that this is a useful exercise to get things off my chest and to document arguments for more open-minded people :-)

  1. His first argument is that installing and using pirated software is harder that legitimate software because mechanisms like WGA - I don’t think that this argument holds water, since most people (the “average user”) can’t install an OS, regardless if it is pirated or legitimate. Just ask yourself the following question: how many of the non-technical people you know installed themselves the OS on their computer? I would bet you that the number is very, very close to 0.

    If the OS is installed by the “neighbor kid from the 2nd floor”, then this argument doesn’t hold. Even more, many geeks pride themselves with being able to perform complicated tasks, like disabling the WGA, and as such, for them the existence of protection element is a positive thing (a challenge to be solved).

    Finally, the inverse of the argument (that legitimate MS software is easier to use than pirated one) isn’t true either in my experience. I had numerous occasions where (completely legitimate, bought with the computer OEM) Windows failed to validate, a (again, completely legit, boxed version) Win 2k3 SBS suddenly refused to work because it needed to be a DC (and it told me after 3 months!), the Windows 7 beta deactivated itself periodically, VM’s deactivated themselves after moving from one machine to the other for purely technical reasons (even though the one-machine / one-owner / one-copy rule was always observed), etc.

  2. The second argument is that there is no peer-pressure to pirate in Romania (that not “everybody is doing it”) – I would suggest him to visit any campus in Romania and check out the (pirated) software which can be found on the network. And not only that, but music, movies, books, etc. Or to go to repair shops and ask for MS Windows / MS Office being preinstalled on the computer – the answer will almost always be positive. Even more, the next generation feels entitled to these freebies (and it isn’t something specific to Romania either, thanks to the abundance of the freemium business model on the Internet).

    In the long term (IMHO) less and less people will be willing to pay for things which they perceive as basic needs. The only options for old-style software companies (like Microsoft) are to include more and more technical measures to try to prevent this (even though the current measures already make MS Windows annoying to use) or to raise the level of punishment associated with piracy (which shouldn’t be possible in democratic countries because of public backlash)

  3. Piracy doesn’t help the software companies by making their product more well known – if this would to be true, why do you think that there are associations in people’s mind like Microsoft – Windows, Office – Microsoft, image editing – Photoshop, CD burning – Nero and so on? Most people use whatever is already installed on the computer to accomplish their jobs. This is why OEMs get big bucks from software companies to preinstall their product.

    I don’t buy the “starving programmer” argument either. The cost of copying software is minuscule. Which means that over 80% (this is of course a number pulled out of my rear, but I’m quite sure that the real number is somewhere in the ballpark) of each sale is pure profit. Which means that (a) a freemium type model can easily be sustained and (b) that even a few sales mean that the company makes a nice profit, and excessive focus on this part (ie. “we are loosing X billion of USD to piracy” – which BTW is not true for at least two reasons – first because the method to determine the number of pirated copies is questionable and second, because it assumes that every person who “pirates” would buy the product if s/he didn’t have access to the pirated version) is pure greed – which, let us remember, is one of the seven deadly sins.

    Also, as a programmer, you don’t have to write commodity software. Let me tell you, there is very good money to be made from writing custom software for a small number of clients.

    A final point I would like to make with regards the relation of piracy to innovation: remember that all three “big” powers (USA, Russia and China) started out (and some are still) by rejecting patents to bootstrap their industry. Something worth thinking about…

  4. That people buy because somehow they are convinced that it is “the right thing”, not because of fear – I’m not seeing it. At least at the individual level I don’t know anybody who bought a single Microsoft product (including myself, I’m living off my MSDN AA licenses). At a company level the motivation (arguably) is mostly fear. They buy licenses for the same reason they pay taxes. Also (as I’ve already said at point 2), the willingness of people will only go down, not up.

  5. Software is not overpriced, especially when considering the income level of Romanians – this is IMHO the best example for the “pink sunglasses” Tudor is wearing and how his frame of reference distorts his perception. The average (net) income per month in Romania for 2008 was somewhere around 400 USD (this would mean 4800 USD per year for those of you who use this frame of reference). Given this figure, is it reasonable to expect that people give more than half of their monthly income (or even all it, if we consider that a computer would need MS Windows + MS Office + AV) for software? May I venture a guess that (a) Tudor has at least five time the average net income and (b) he has free access to all of Microsoft’s software, and as such, he might not see the real situation? My challenge to Tudor would be: how much of the software he has right now on his personal machine did he pay for?

My conclusion is that software piracy is here to stay. Especially in more poor countries like ours. To give Microsoft what is due: they do really excellent software (not that they don’t do mistakes, like Vista – which is abysmal – I’m speaking from a first hand experience, having played with it on two “Vista certified” laptops and in VMs). Even so, their expectation is unrealistic at a minimum and even unethical. Also, as a developer, if you develop using a technology (OS, libraries, components, etc) for which you don’t have the source code, you will hit “undebuggable” issues sooner or later.

PS. Vista is the new ME – just worse:

Update: fixed some typos and errors in expression – thank you to my dear readers.