Software Piracy: trouble on the high seas


As over a million Xboxes are rendered obsolete after being modified to play counterfeit games, Sean Mc Kernan asks if the war on software piracy has gone too far

On paper the debate over software piracy is a fairly black and white issue: stealing is wrong. But in practice the opposite is true with nearly ninety per cent of music, and practically all software in the developing world, being downloaded illegally.

This illicit downloading costs the music industry approximately $10 billion, and the software industry $50 billion, every year.

piracyIn response to the modification of over a million Xbox consoles, Microsoft last week decided to permanently ban all modified – or ‘chipped’ – consoles from using the Xbox Live online service, effectively making the consoles worthless. But are users wrong in using counterfeit software?

Both the music and software industries have been fighting back against this in recent years but rates of software piracy are still very high in many parts of the world. Eighty per cent of software in China is illegal, while a third of programs used in Western Europe have been pirated.

Never has it been so easy to illegally download either music or software. With less than five minutes searching on the internet, one could find the latest version of Windows or download a newly-released album. Very few of us could claim to be completely innocent in this respect, with half the average music collection being acquired illegally.

Most music or software is illegally transferred in one of two ways: either in person, using a CD or other storage device, or – more commonly – via torrent sites. Torrents are an example of peer-to-peer file sharing and account for half of all internet traffic. Data stored on one computer can quickly be transferred to many others using any number of simple programs that are freely available online.

In the past, music was protected by only allowing it to be installed on a certain number of computers, but this became a problem if switching computers when music couldn’t be transferred over, and is believed to have caused many to switch to illegal downloads. Some modern games have been programmed to be playable only if their authenticity has been verified on the internet.

Another more controversial method of preventing downloading of data is to monitor torrents, given that they are the main method of piracy. Organisations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) monitor internet traffic and have sued individuals guilty of serial copyright infringement.

The UK and France have decided to take a more hardline approach, with persistent file sharers having their internet connections cut off entirely. Iran, on the other hand, has decided to make Western software copyright free.

The issue of piracy has become a major political one in the last few years. Iran removed its copyright restrictions in retaliation for a trade dispute with the US. In the recent European Elections the Pirate Party gained one seat in the European Parliament, and will earn a second when the Lisbon provisions come into effect. The party plan to lobby for reform of copyright ownership and intellectual property laws, and an Irish sister party is currently recruiting.

It was easy to see both sides of the argument in this problem. Software developers want to make a profit from their hard work, and piracy is a considerable drain upon them. But people, on the other hand, are still interested by the word free. Why pay for software when it’s freely available on the internet? Until laws are reformed, the problem of copyright infringement will continue to exist.