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Monday, August 27, 2001

In defence of piracy
Jagmohan Singh Khurmi

"BEHIND every great fortune there is crime"—Balzac

The recent landmark decision of some top e-mail giants to stop free service has worried many of us. This was an unexpected turn. (The increase in competition should rather have made such services more fast and reliable.) Now the users, especially in our country, are expecting another disaster to fall on their head — the long delayed fear that the software companies might take some solid steps to curb piracy. There is a popular belief that the leniency of authorities in dealing with pirates has made the India an IT power.

This may be true to some extent. But piracy is going in all nations. USA (not India) is the leader in producing illegal software. A major intellectual property sub-committee has calculated more than $ 1-billion in lost revenue, and about $ 5-billion of lost wages. That means loss is far more in the USA than in developing countries. One out of four programs sold out there is illegal.

The law-keepers are surprised that why should piracy be actually accelerating when the USA is the leader of information marketplace. The reason is that the USA itself is the source of pirated software for the world. A major part of its programming skill is going into breaking locks and barriers set by its own authors and publishers.


The reason for popularity of pirated software is clear. Packages published on CD-ROM can easily be copied be on to other blank CD media, without changing the original. A man who spends Rs 40,000 on buying a PC after taking bank loan and using his provident fund has already paid enough. How can we imagine him to pay another Rs 3 or 4 lakh in buying software?

Many top IT persons give absurd and childish reply to this: one person (editor of a popular Indian computer magazine) said that one should buy software from the USA; it costs 20 per cent less there! Another fellow suggested one should spent life searching for free software on the Net! These are purely silly solutions. How the hell can you load a full-fledged program with bandwidth like in most part on India? Moreover freeware like Star Office is nothing compared to MS Office. It cannot be. Most freeware, as a matter of rule, will always be inferior to paid software.

The announcement of Microsoft to make its new products (XP class) network controlled scared all of us. Microsoft, though, has always made fuss about piracy, but till now they didn’t take any solid step in this direction. Microsoft is important because its products are perhaps most used and most pirated. In one way or the other, most small and medium businesses depend upon them. If they manage to withdraw the carpet from under our feet it will be the greatest disaster imaginable. But most who know how the cogs turn in real world know the actual rules of this business.

Actually, real money to these persons does flow in from top-level bodies. Rather than collecting small fees from Tom, Dick and Harry, they go in for big fish. This not only guarantees prompt funds but also keeps the company’s collective spirit high, as they have to be constantly in research mode. In their world if they stop growing they are dead. When we wonder at the loss we cause to them, we forget that that by learning their programming language (illegally though) we are actually doing them great honour, because we provide them a developer, who may tomorrow or day after become a pillar to their structure.

People, especially in software development, are a company’s real asset. On the surface it seems that our government does not take software piracy seriously or does not understand it. It is easy to think of software piracy as a mere technical violation unlike murder or rape, and infer that it is not really a crime.

But the reality is that the intention of the software mammoths is to spread their product as much as possible, even if they have to let it loose to pirates. This gives them a chance to train people their own way, making their cult shine and spread. Do you think the Windows OS and programming could have produced such a work force if all of us would have been registered users? As far as money is concerned the loss is not at all considerable in comparison with breath of life that is put into the package by so many brains working with it, using it in their own original and fresh ways.

Since enough money is already coming from those engaged in big business and mission-critical operations. But the software makers have to constantly pretend that they are not letting it loose, that would be a blow to their reputation and the product’s value. And most importantly, the big clients, those engaged in mission critical operations — the real source of money, would feel difficult to pay for software that everyone is using freely. The business with a big B is done when they work on customised packages for research tycoons etc.

If a firm determines to put an end to piracy it really doesn’t need the help of government. It is not like a music company or a film distributor bribing police to raid on pirated CDs. The story of software is far different. There are enough ways to stop it. Along with CD-ROMs, hardware locks can be provided to the registered user, that go into a port of your PC, making it impossible for the software to work unless this thing containing a microchip is firmly in a certain port of computer (some small-timer software companies do it,that’s why they are what they are –small timers!). Now you can copy a CD-ROM though but you cannot reproduce a chip for your neighbour. This will stop the piracy but will also be a sure way to limit its experience to a few who could pay.

Many of the major companies just make their CDs install on a ‘key ‘ which is a number written on the CD cover. They know the pirate is smart enough to copy that number also. If pirate can afford a CD-writer worth Rs 15,000, he can also afford a pen that costs just Rs 2.

Adobe, the great image-manipulation expert, has no matches in its class. They have a very long experience and work on imagery. All of us must have used their remarkable Photoshop. But suppose you need to work on a thousand images per hour, doing a certain thing on them following a certain algorithm. Now the regular edition you pirated from the market for Rs 50 won’t help, because your whole enterprise depends upon speed with which you can do it. You go to them, pay them a king’s ransom, they have almost every component ready on shelf, and lo a package especially to fit your exact needs! Now you understand that the normal build, though so efficient, was just a kind of advertisement for their actual prowess, perhaps that’s why they deliberately let us steal it! This is more or less true about all in production. It is like a street show — they won’t stop you from sitting on ground if you have no money, since the rich on sofas are paying more than enough, and the actors want more and more audience to applaud!

But no respectable person or publication can openly advocate piracy, so we have to think up impractical opinions whenever the question is raised. But the users know the scene too well to be fooled.