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Last Updated: Monday, 7 July, 2003, 14:31 GMT 15:31 UK
Why is it 'OK' to nick software?
By Stephen Tomkins

What's the difference between ripping software and shoplifting? None. Yet millions of us twist the arguments and kid ourselves we are not hardened criminals.

Call me prejudiced, but from what I know, I'd say you could well be a criminal.

If you're computer-literate enough to be reading this, there's a strong chance you will know how to copy expensive design software from your friends, or download alien-shooting games from the net without paying. And if you know how to, then the chances are you've done it.

Am I wrong? Don't worry, I won't tell.

The likes of you and me wouldn't normally like to think of ourselves as thieves. We don't pocket CDs in HMV or triple chocolate muffins in Tescos. So why are we happy to steal electronically?

According to the industry, it's because we're a pack of immoral cyber bandits. Developers across the world lose $11bn a year in business software alone, says the Business Software Alliance. It estimates nine out of 10 programs sold on auction sites are pirated.

Adobe Photoshop 7 - 535
Microsoft Office XP - 295
Macromedia Dreamweaver - 325
Through peer-to-peer file-swapping - FREE
Copies to mates - 15p per CD

The booty on your hard drive cost Americans 111,000 jobs in 2001, $5.6bn in lost wages and $1.5bn in unpaid tax. If that doesn't make you feel a twinge of guilt, you're obviously a hardened crook and should consider becoming a career criminal or an oil executive.

Admittedly, the figures may be inflated. How do they know you would have bought the software if you hadn't half-inched it? And how do we know that if you'd paid for it they would have spent the money on creating new jobs, rather than on executive jacuzzis or a new laser corkscrew for Mrs Gates?

Deflate the figures if you like, deep down they still remind us of what we always knew: our virtual shoplifting may feel safe, respectable and innocuous, but that doesn't stop it harming anyone.

When you make it out of the doors of cyberspace with your Mac bulging, someone somewhere loses out.

Stubborn little icons

All of which is terribly obvious and brings us back to the question why do we feel so comfortable with our theft?

Bill and Melinda Gates
Are you stealing from the Gates family?
Because it's virtual? We haven't taken anything solid or physical, so we don't feel we've taken anything at all. I'm sure that's part of it, although the icon stubbornly remains on the desktop, reproaching us every time we use it.

Another reason is our uncertainty that we've stolen anything. How can we have, when no one has lost anything they used to have? A valid philosophical question to be sure, though the law doesn't see it that way.

But the most important reason is also the most depressing. We don't feel bad because there's no risk of our being caught and punished. If I pocketed a bottle of whisky in the supermarket I'd be so anxious about the security guards grabbing me, plagued with visions of shame and humiliation, police cars and magistrates, that even if I got away with it I'd feel horribly guilty.

That doesn't happen with computer applications, even though they tend to cost much more than the kind of whisky I buy.

Ill-gotten games

This isn't a flattering thought. It suggests the main reason I tend to behave decently and honestly (in my own way) is not that I am decent and honest, but that I know bad things will happen if I don't.

26% of business software in UK is illegal
That's down from 42% eight years ago
Last week Briton Bilal Khan was jailed for a year for selling pirated software over Ebay

There's one more reason why we're not more troubled by our ill-gotten games, I think. It's that we don't really mind ripping off huge fat-cat corporations, which would probably do the same to us given half the chance.

The ethics of intellectual property are not only about individuals. If companies charge extortionate prices because they can, perhaps they ought to get their own house in order before suing customers. And if they package their software in sweatshops, who's ripping off whom?

Consider the cautionary tale of music CDs. Everyone, bar the music industry, agrees they've been sold at vastly inflated prices since the 80s. Along come CD writers and MP3s and the market collapses about their ears. Who's surprised?

If bootlegging acts as a safety valve to keep software prices sensible, might that not be such a bad thing after all?

So what are we to do? Perhaps "trial piracy" could offer a reasonable compromise between us and the marketers. The unconventional software billionaire Kai Krause suggests this rule of thumb: "If it's still on your hard drive after a year, pay for it.'

And if you can't manage that much, you can just relax in the knowledge that you are simply a Bad Person. At least you're not alone.

Some of your comments so far:

No sympathy whatsoever for the greedy corporations and monopolies who must be made to reflect on their own morals. Bootlegging can never be seriously interpreted as a criminal activity while these corporations continue to exploit customers and their own workforce and suppliers.
Mike, UK

Software piracy is still morally and legally wrong. People who write software have the right to charge for the use of that software and expect payment. However, there is a large and growing free software movement and software for most purposes can be obtained legally at little or no cost.
Iain Nicholson, UK

As someone who does not own any pirated software I can understand why people do it. Certain software is vastly over priced and can only be purchased at "special rates" to businesses leaving us poor consumers paying through the nose for personal copies.
Niki, UK

Exactly. If you could buy a DVD or Office package for 5 would you bother going to the effort of finding a pirate copy? I'll stop using pirated software and DVDs when they have an honest price.
Adam, England

Peer-to-peer distribution is one of the best ways to try software before you buy it. I regularly try a CD or piece of software by obtaining it "illegally", with the intention of buying it if it becomes useful.
Mick, Ireland

A good example of people paying reasonable prices is Apple's online music store - 99 cents is a reasonable price for a song. In the UK you can pay 3.99 for a single.
Anon, UK

What about the increased productivity gained by the people using pirated software? If owning this software increases the productivity of individuals/businesses then maybe there is an macro economic benefit of pirated software.
Ian Walford, UK

Illegal software allows people in the games industry, and others, to train in order to get a job. Once you're in a job, and the company buys the software for you to use, the makers get their money.
Larry, Scotland, UK

The solution is simple. Don't use proprietary software. Need a word processor? Use OpenOffice. A graphics viewer? Try Irfanview.
Phil, UK

When you pirate a program you like, especially from a small company, that company loses the incentive to make future versions (they aren't making as much money) and so it's you who loses out.
John, England

If you go in to a book shop and read a chapter of a book without paying for it, are you guilty of theft?
Sonny, UK

Large vendors like IBM and SAP are already moving to a free / open source software model where customers pay for software as a service, rather than a product.
Richard Jones, London, UK

Under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 section 107 it is only an offence to make a copy for sale or hire. Otherwise it is unlawful but not criminal. There are plenty of unlawful acts which we commit without any guilt (eg. walking across a field you don't own, unlawful (trespass) but not a criminal offence).
Piers , UK

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