By Mark Ward
BBC News technology correspondent
Few people would find it acceptable for a quarter of consumers to steal, rather than buy, their new car from a dealer's forecourt.
Piracy is rampant in many nations
Yet, says Robert Holleyman, president of the anti-piracy trade group the Business Software Alliance (BSA), this is what many people seem to be happy to do when it comes to software.
In the UK and US about 25% of those using business software do so with an unlicensed, counterfeit or pirated copy.
"There's something about a digital product that allows very smart, rational people to come up with seemingly good reasons to make a copy," he said.
Mr Holleyman speculated that it was the intangibility of software that convinces people it is okay to make and distribute copies.
In some respects you would expect Mr Holleyman to take such a line because, as head of the BSA, he is charged by its many members to do something about software piracy.
Most often, he said, the BSA tackles companies that do not have enough licences for the software they use. Though, he added, there are plenty that have bought pirated programs too.
SAMPLE PIRACY RATES
UK - 27%
France - 45%
Romania - 74%
Mauritius - 60%
South Africa - 37%
Nicaragua - 80%
Colombia - 55%
USA - 21%
Australia - 32%
Singapore - 42%
Vietnam - 92%
In such cases offending firms cannot escape punishment just by agreeing to buy the missing licences or by purchasing legitimate copies.
Instead they must erase the offending software if it is pirated, pay a penalty fee and buy the software legitimately. They also have to put in place tools to make sure they have enough licences for their users.
In the past some have argued that the low rates of piracy in many developed nations is the "price" of innovation. The argument runs that software makers must tolerate a certain amount of misuse to give the market a taste of their wares. It is a kind of viral marketing.
Unsurprisingly, it is a viewpoint that Mr Holleyman rejects.
"I unequivocally oppose any notion that any level of software piracy is or should be tolerated," he told the BBC News website. "In every other industry people do not just tolerate the theft of their products."
He also rejects the idea that all those people either using software illegally or using illegal software are buyers in waiting ready to plonk down the cash for a proper copy.
China has pledged to enforce anti-piracy laws
Most are just trying to get something for nothing, he says, and there is no doubt that people do get significant value from the unlicensed software they run in their businesses.
But convincing people to buy instead of try is not easy in nations were piracy rates are stubbornly stuck around the 25% mark. It is far more difficult in nations such as China where piracy is running at 92%.
Thanks to this rampant piracy, China is now the world's second largest market for PCs but is only the 25th largest market for software.
But, said Mr Holleyman, lately China has pledged to improve its record on piracy. The first step is a commitment to ensure all government departments are using legitimate software by the end of 2005. In 2006 this policy will be extended to cover all government controlled companies.
Alongside this goes the creation and enforcement of laws that impose tough punishments on software pirates.
China has made this commitment, he said, because it realises that it cannot build a vibrant technology industry if everything it produces is stolen.