Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 77 / OCTOBER 1986 / PAGE 104

Computers and Society

David D, Thornburg, Associate Editor

A Nation Of Thieves?

Judging from articles appearing in some of the trade magazines these days, software piracy is becoming a big business. The most conservative estimate I've seen suggests that piracy cost the industry $168 million in 1984 alone. Estimates for 1985 losses are in the $800-million range.

According to industry observers, piracy is largely restricted to software that runs on personal computers, and the bulk of the loss comes from individuals who make copies as "gifts" for others rather than from organized counterfeiters who operate their thievery for profit.

Reasons For Copying

In the past few months I have corresponded with many people who make illicit copies of software. In many cases, these people feel that software is not "property" in the normal sense of the word, and that making a copy doesn't hurt anyone. "Sure I use copied software," one person wrote; "I wasn't going to buy it anyway, so who loses?" Another common argument is that the copy is merely for "testing," and, if the program is any good, a legitimate copy will be purchased from the manufacturer. Still another argument arises: "Most software is overpriced, and I paid enough for my computer, so why should I have to pay for software too?"

One of my favorites among the arguments is: "When I make copies, I am giving free advertising to the software vendor. They should thank me!"

Computer software is not the only victim of this mentality. The popularity of dual-bay tape recorders with "auto-dubbing" features is taken by many to be an indication that we have become a nation of copiers. The copying of audio recordings is thought to be so pervasive that the U.S. Senate has proposed a bill (S. 1739) that would impose a 5-percent royalty tax on all tape recorders, a 25-percent tax on dual-bay recorders, and a $1 (per cassette) tax on blank tapes. It is possible, if software vendors were to form a powerful lobbying organization, that similar legislation would be proposed for computers as well.

Imagine having to pay a special tax when you purchase a second disk drive, or whenever you buy blank disks!

I don't like this proposed legislation for two reasons. First, it penalizes those who do not copy, and second, it provides legitimacy to those who do. Once such a tax goes into effect, it will be easy for people to justify copying by saying, "I already paid my copying tax, so why shouldn't I do it?"

Industry's Response

If the software industry hasn't gotten special legislation enacted, it has tried many other ways to cut down on illicit copying. The most popular method involves copy-protection of the disk.

By making disks hard to copy, vendors hope to cut down on the number of "free" copies floating around the user community. In fact, virtually every copy-protection scheme can be broken within a half-hour by anyone who wants to take the time to do it. The real consequence of copy-protection is that legitimate users are burdened with problems when they make legitimate backup copies of a disk, or when they try to install their product on a hard disk. Many vendors allow their product to be copied to a backup disk or to a hard disk, but then require that a master disk be inserted each time the program is booted. This penalizes the honest user who wants to reconfigure the computer system, or who wants to place software on a hard disk drive. The person who makes illicit copies has no such penalty since, once the copy-protection is broken, new copies have no protection at all.

New schemes are being proposed weekly to solve this problem, but I think that copy-protection approaches the problem from the wrong angle.

A Different Approach

Call me naïve if you wish, but I'd like to think that people could be kept from copying software because it is wrong to do so, not because it is too difficult to do. Rather than invest time and energy in copy-protection schemes that are expensive to implement, that penalize honest users, and that can be broken in a short time anyway, I'd rather see the industry launch an educational effort to let the public know that software can be protected under Federal copyright law and that the unauthorized copying of this software is a Federal offense.

Quite simply, it is against the law to copy software.

A second prong in this educational effort would be to help the public understand that software theft is not a "victimless crime," that the loss of revenue can lead and has led to the bankruptcy of software developers. The real tragedy is that, since it is the good software that gets copied, it's the good, innovative developers being driven out of the business.

I feel certain that, once people come to realize the negative consequences of their copying, copy-protection can become a thing of the past. And if it is not enough to say that software copying is a violation of Federal law (which it is), it should be enough to say that we shouldn't copy software simply because it isn't fair to the people who created it in the first place.

David Thornburg enjoys hearing from readers and may be reached in care of this magazine.