Playing the Software Pirates at Their Own Game
In the last post I prattled on about how Microsoft et al didn’t get it when it comes to dealing with piracy. So what should they do?
I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see a more creative approach. After all, these pirates have an extraordinary delivery mechanism that is much more efficient than anything else I’ve seen. Why not try an experiment whereby a user who buys counterfeit software, either knowingly or unknowingly, has six months’ grace period in which to ‘activate’ a legitimate version? This could be done online by a key download and a credit card. No big software downloads — prohibitive in a country where Internet speeds are glacial — and no shipping (time-consuming, and often not possible from most suppliers). Instead, a downloaded widget would scour the program the user wants to ‘activate’, check its version and integrity (I’m not talking values here, I’m talking software) and install whatever patches are necessary (hopefully done without need for a full upload.) After that, the software is legit.
Software vendors would argue that this encourages piracy. I would argue: if the user can’t buy a legitimate version of your software in the country they live in, either online or offline, should they just not use your software? Or
Secondly, I would argue that this approach is not far removed from the shareware try-before-you-buy approach whereby users get to play with software for free for 30 days or so before buying. Of course, if they want to, the user could just not pay and continue using the software. But I suspect that they weren’t the kind of customer who was going to pay anyway, so you can hardly count them as lost business.
Lastly, it may be possible to use this approach to disrupt the economics of the pirate software network by embracing the shareware model. Instead of restricting distribution of your product, you flood the market with shareware versions of your software, allowing users a grace period in which to try out the software. If users can find trial copie of OneNote or PhotoShop or whatever free in every computer shop they visit, why would they bother buying a dodgy pirate copy that may or may not work? Sure, the free version needs paying for at some point, but that’s the point. The piracy market exists in part because people don’t have access to legitimate software — certainly not the range of legitimate software — in these places.
OK, that’s not always true. There will always be pirates, and there will always be people who buy from pirates, even if the legitimate software is available next door. But I suspect a lot of people who buy pirate software buy it to experiment, to try out software. Indeed, someone living in a place like Indonesia is likely to be familiar with many more software programs than someone living in a non-pirate-infested country. It’s not that these people want this software desperately, nor that they would buy it all full price if they had to. They buy it because the price is so low, they may as well buy it and try it. Do they keep it installed? In most cases, probably not. But the calculation for Microsoft et al should be: How many of these people would buy this software if, after trying it, they liked it?
Finding the answer to that question will give you an idea of the real losses Microsoft and co are incurring in lost business. It should also make them realise that not doing a decent job of making their software readily available in a place like Indonesia — at a price that reflects the purchasing power of the local consumer — is creating this highly efficient, but highly parasitical economy in pirated software. If they can reach their customers through that economy, or bypass it with widely available shareware versions of their programs — then they may stand a chance.