Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 08/84 item 01 - scanned


By popular request, as they say, I'm going to make two statements about software theft and then return to the normal (or abnormal depending on your point of view) approach to Reflections. In this issue I will cover the various players in the game and in the next issue I shall look at strategies for tackling the problem.

Authors and publishers have a refreshingly simple view of things: they just want to maximise the legitimate sales of their programs. Ordinary private users of software want to spend their money effectively and not end up with useless programs. School children and students want to glean maximum enjoyment and usefulness at minimum cost. Teachers want to extract the maximum educational value within ordained budgets. A person running a small business wants reliable systems which match the company's needs with access to assistance if things go wrong. A large business will want the same things but with the possibility of repeating the same system throughout his organisation.

To my mind, theft starts at the point where more than one person has concurrent use of a program. Software theft can be regarded as either casual or for profit, although at times the boundary can be quite blurred. The general opinion is that casual copying accounts for 90 per cent of all software theft and counterfeiting for 10 per cent. This may be true for games but I suspect that, in the UK, counterfeit business software accounts for less than 10 per cent. By counterfeit, I mean the whole package from disk labels to outer packaging. A product would have to be very successful and the chance of detection vanishingly small for anyone to take the risk. On the other hand, I'm certain that some dealers photocopy manuals. It must be quite a temptation at times to throw in a popular software product 'for nothing' to clinch a sale.

I am sure that neither the dealer nor the purchaser has any real consciousness of having done anyone any harm. It doesn't seem like 'real theft' such as stealing a car or picking a pocket. Even harder for some dealers is the need to insist on the customer buying a separate copy of a software package for each machine (or, in some cases, each terminal) purchased. Fortunately, the sort of dealer who makes such sales is usually the sort of dealer who trades ethically. It doesn't, though, stop a customer buying a single copy of a package 'for evaluation' and then taking it back to the office to duplicate and share around.

Employees of large corporations often copy manuals and disks and hand them around to their colleagues but the weird thing about this sort of behaviour is that nobody directly involved actually profits from the exercise. The employee may save the employer a few pounds and he may crank up his productivity as a result of using the program, but does he care for the company's bottom line that much?

Ignoring the hysterical claims being bandied around, I hear that about seven copies are made of each games program sold. This does not mean though that the software publisher has lost seven sales. It's probably more like two. I'm sure there are schoolboys with hundreds of programs but, like matchbox tops or stamps, they probably have them more in order to brag about how many they have rather than to actually use them.

Many distributors and publishers avoid the education market like the plague. Schools are desperately short of money and the teachers are on the horns of a moral dilemma. On the one hand they want to give the children the best possible exposure to computing. But this would involve a high expenditure on software, especially if there are many machines in the same school. The temptation to buy a single copy of a program and use it on every machine is almost irresistible. The reason for all this is not because teachers are criminals but because their funds are inadequate for what they'd like to achieve. Once again there is no feeling of doing anyone any harm and, unlike business users, there is not even a financial benefit accruing from the use of these programs. The sad truth is that many people who could develop excellent educational software won't tackle it because they know the rewards will be so feeble. In many cases they would actually lose money.

So much for the main participants in the software supply and purchase chain. In the next Reflections I'll look at the options available to counter software theft.