We’ve heard of the legend of Robin Hood, the lone vigilante who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The right being done by the granting of provisions not available to the poor from those who have more. Right or wrong, this same ethical issue faces many people in the digital and technological world. There are thousands of hackers, even underground groups, that pirate software and distribute it through torrents and news groups to the world at large. Software IT giants such as Microsoft are unable to keep up with the rate of how their software is being pirated, and small companies like RAR Labs are facing a harsh stream of cuts in profits by hackers who hack and distribute their software.
Is It Stealing?
For centuries stealing was considered an act where a physically tangible property was robbed of from someone else. Item X belonged to person A, but person B unlawfully and physically obtained item X. This was the classical notion of stealing. Now, in the digital age, we have intellectual rights and laws that are meant to protect a person’s idea, a physically intangible item. Physically intangible material X is now the property of person A and person B cannot copy or use it in any manner unless granted permission by person A. So this raises the question, does stealing only apply to physically tangible materials? Some think so – the hackers. There are many people who freely distribute software and use it because they hold the notion that “stealing” only applies to physical things. Software to them is immaterial and therefore doesn’t qualify as “stealing”. I’ve heard the argument from a religious leader who stated that if a person has the ability to reproduce a patented item, it is not sinful or “immoral” as that person used his or her intelligence and skill to make it. He or she did not physically snatch something away. This can turn into a long argument as you can see, but it does leave us with a poignant dilemma: is software piracy “stealing”?
Taking From The Rich and Giving to The Poor
If piracy is stealing, what does that mean for the millions of people worldwide who depend and rely on pirated software to write their homework, their reports, listen to music, watch movies, and run their businesses on pirated software? Many of these people cannot afford to buy a $400 Microsoft Office suite or pay $30 for a Blu-ray movie. I know of small business start-ups that need graphic software to run their design business, but can’t afford the expensive licensing fees that range from $500 to $3000. From operating system costs to making PDF documents, licensing fees are expensive and are limited to a certain amount of workstations, usually one. The fact is, that it wouldn’t have been possible for businesses and normal underpaid workers to carry on had it not been for pirated software. In effect, software piracy makes businesses, and businesses make software companies. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Does Pirated Software Help Software Makers?
There are people who seem to think that pirated software actually helps propel proprietary software forward by giving it the mass following it needs to succeed. Legitimate questions arise in this case that ask “Would Microsoft Word be so ubiquitous if it wasn’t for piracy?” A statistic from Microsoft puts software piracy at:
“According to Microsoft business group president Jeff Raikes, speaking to the Morgan Stanley Technology conference in San Francisco , they estimate that 20% to 25% of software is pirated in the US alone.” (1)
Some estimates place that as having upwards of 50 million Americans using pirated software. Certainly software makers know this, and among the pirated users are some who actually end up paying for the software. According to some, Bill Gates has even hinted to the fact that ‘software theft can help build market share more quickly’. Charles Piller of Los Angeles Times shares an interesting perspective about how software piracy actually helps in making Microsoft a standard:
“The proliferation of pirated copies nevertheless establishes Microsoft products as the software standard. As economies mature and flourish and people and companies begin buying legitimate versions, they usually buy Microsoft because most others already use it.” (2)
Microsoft has even admitted that software piracy prevents free, open-source alternatives such as Linux from chipping away at Microsoft’s monopolies, especially in developing nations. (3)
I leave the question to you. Is software piracy ethical?