Why Can’t the Poor just Pirate Software?

We all admire your moral stance regarding finding subscriber’s passwords etc. and for your belief that we should pay for software and not use pirated versions. But how do you feel about folks who are desperately poor with no chance in their lifetime of ever reaching even American poverty level income?

A reader posed this question some time ago.

As you may know, I do take a fairly hard line against piracy and theft, but this reader wants to know if poverty might qualify for an “exemption” of sorts.

Poverty and theft

His note continues…

A computer friend of mine originally came from Kashmir, an Indian state which he visits every few years to see his remaining relatives.

He told me that on his last visit he took with him several software programs such as XP, Office, CAD and Publisher, which he bought at the local computer store.

He gave them to a techie friend who duplicated hundreds of copies which were sold for no more than $5. The buyers, young people who had become computer literate on old cast-off PCs, were then able to use the programs, especially Excel and Access, and improve their knowledge using the vast resources of XP.

I asked him if he did not consider the use of pirated software a form of theft from Microsoft, and he replied that the average annual earnings for the people of Kashmir might be $200, that the price they paid for a burned disk was often a month’s pay, especially for women who might earn a few rupees a day weaving carpets or decorating shawls.

I have given it much thought and have concluded that most of us in America live so well that such practices do not really impact our standard of living. In other words, if we demanded strict adherence to the laws, those Kashmir users would never be able to save the $125 or so to purchase legal copies. And if they did, it is unlikely they would ever be able to avail themselves of the “support advantage” since there are no ISPs in many areas of the world.

I have two reactions to this scenario:

  • Theft is still theft, no matter how you look at it.
  • This kind of theft is simply no longer necessary.

Robin Hood was still a thief

The “Robin Hood” argument says it’s ok to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

I suppose there’s a case in which that becomes true — food, perhaps — but computer software isn’t it, in my opinion. It’s still theft, no matter how much the recipients “deserve” it. And that’s part of the argument: that somehow, because they are impoverished, they are entitled to cheap or free copies of software others pay dearly for.

I don’t agree with entitlement.

The argument is also much like the argument against the record companies: “They’ll never notice” or “They’re not losing any money because they wouldn’t have gotten any, anyway.”

That’s not the point.

Theft is still theft. Wrong is still wrong. Stealing is still stealing.

It’s not your right to do, or justify doing, what you want with something that belongs to someone else.

You wouldn’t apply your logic to, for example, automobiles, would you? Software is no different.

Well, there’s one difference: it’s not that easy to copy a car.

Why bother?

My question back to you is simply this: why bother?

The scenario you raise is incredibly important. There are millions of people worldwide whose quality of life could be improved by better access to the information and education that these technologies enable. In fact, I believe it’s key to humanity’s future.

Not only do I believe that theft is not the answer, I also believe it’s not even necessary.

There are plenty of totally free alternatives that enable the same level of education and opportunities that more expensive commercial software does.

Heck, assuming they’re running on less-than-current hardware, many of the free alternatives would be a better fit, given their typically lower hardware requirements.

For anyone in this situation, be it here in the U.S. or elsewhere on the planet, there are so many serviceable free alternatives that I can’t see needing to resort to piracy as a way to provide the education that would benefit those many folks so inclined.

The motive

I’m not going to accuse your friend of anything, because I simply don’t know, but in the majority of situations such as you describe, the individual doing the copying and distribution is making a profit. “Hundreds of copies which were sold for no more than $5” quickly adds up. For someone making a one-time purchase of a package such as Office for, say, $400 in the U.S., illegally selling 200 copies at $5 each doubles the investment. All of a sudden, the effort doesn’t look as altruistic as we think.

In fact, I would go so far as to consider whether someone doing this, when there are totally free alternatives, might not be taking advantage of the very people he claims to be helping.

Again, I’m not accusing, but I am saying that the reasons to resort to piracy have diminished so greatly that I’d carefully question the motives of those who persist.

For those who believe that the pricing model of commercial software vendors is somehow “unfair”, using the free alternatives instead is a great way to make a statement as well.

Originally published as Why Can’t the Poor just Pirate Software? on Ask Leo!