IT'S A STEAL - software theft

Written by David Tebbutt, Mensa 01/90 - scanned

This month's column is for users and prospective users of computers. It's about theft or, as it's more glamorously known, software piracy. The fact is that software is being copied and used by thousands of people who have no intention of paying for it. It's easy to do and, like making cassette copies of compact discs or records, the risk of detection is low. I suspect that some software publishers use this as a justification for their high prices.

One software publisher, Lotus, reckons that for every 100 personal computer sales, there are only 67 software sales. It believes that the software figure should be nearer to 300. After all, the average computer user is supposed to run between two and five programs. If you're already a user, ask yourself how many programs you use regularly.

With my writing hat on, I tend to use a word processor and an ideas organiser as my two main programs. But I also make daily use of a communications program and fairly regular use of two disk organisers. That's five programs, my writing needs are fairly simple. I think Lotus makes a valid point.

Of course, some new computers are bought to replace old ones and others are used to run specially-written programs. Neither of these situations explains the huge gap between sales of hardware and sales of software though. If the old computers are beyond repair then there would be no need to buy a fresh set of software. But, if the old ones are passed on to new users, you would expect Lotus' suggestion of three package sales per machine to hold up. And, given the reliability of today's electronics, I would guess that most supplanted machines continue in use somewhere. Those using only specially-written (or `bespoke') software are a small minority of personal computer users.

The very day that I read the figures from Lotus a neighbour called me to say he was having trouble installing a particular package. I asked him to pop round with the program and I'd take a look. Within minutes this very frustrated man turned up saying, ``I had this program specially couriered from Scotland so l could start work on it immediately.'' But the situation was as I had suspected. The disks were copies of the originals and he'd been given no documentation.

I couldn't help feeling rather pleased that this particular program had been protected from illicit copying. Normally, copy protection drives me crazy. Like most people these days I use a computer with an internal, high capacity hard disk and having to specially install copy protected software is just a darned nuisance. If anything goes wrong with the hard disk, getting a fresh copy of the program from the publisher is a time-consuming irritation I could do without. I prefer to buy programs without copy protection so that, in the event of a disaster, I can recover as quickly as possible.

However, in the case of my neighbour, I was presented with a wonderful opportunity to point out the error of his ways. He wanted the program to help in the running of an already profitable business. And the program was widely available for £110. Not only that, but the publishers do a demonstration disk which helps potential buyers assess it before buying the real thing. He went away armed with the publisher's telephone number. (I learned this morning that he'd parted with the cash and is now an extremely satisfied user of the official version of the product.)

It's perfectly understandable to want to see a program before committing to it. And I know that not all dealers are prepared to spare the time for a demonstration, especially of a low cost package. Many users find that they can get better deals by buying mail order but still want to see the program first. `Borrowing' a copy under these circumstances is understandable, although illegal. Whatever the reasons for having illicit copies of programs, the fact is that users ought to pay for proper copies of those they end up using on a regular basis.

The reason is very simple. Users are benefitting, often commercially, from something in which a software developer invested a huge amount of time. This time cannot be paid for until the program is published and is being bought in reasonable quantities. To take an example close to home, a friend and I wrote a program several years ago. The first version cost us approximately £50,000 in development time and it cost the publisher many thousands more in launch costs. This money had to be recouped from sales.

With royalties of around ten per cent and retail prices ranging from thirty to one hundred pounds, it doesn't take a genius to work out that we needed between 5,000 and 16,000 sales simply to break even. (We've actually sold about 7,000 units so far.) It would be nice to see some real profit from the exercise, although we're not really complaining. We enjoyed writing the program and we get a lot of satisfaction from the fact that so many people have shown an interest.

We, the authors, have probably just about broken even but, if Lotus' figures are correct, then I guess we should have sold at least 31,000 units. The proceeds from this level of sales would have helped fund the development of some brand new products which could have brought even greater benefits to our customers. As it is, we continue to develop the program, but this has far more to do with pride than with profit.

Now apply this principle to software publishing generally. Leaving aside the moral issue, if users don't pay for all their programs they must be reducing the number of future good products which will be developed. In the end everyone suffers - those who paid and those who didn't.

People pay out good money for their computers. It seems stupid to avoid paying for the stuff which transforms it from a lump of plastic, glass and metal into something useful.