Why People Pirate Software

By Josh Catone
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Cliff Harris, the man behind one-man UK computer game development shop Positech, wondered recently why people were pirating his games. So a few days ago, Harris posted on his blog asking people to tell him why they downloaded his games without paying. Harris said his only motive was to learn about why people do it, and promised to “read every single [email], and keep an open mind.” He promised not to rat anyone out for pirating.

Harris’ blog post got 206 comments and hundreds of emails — long ones, he said. “Few people wrote under 100 words. Some people put tolstoy to shame. It seems a lot of people have waited a long time to tell a game developer the answer to this question,” he said.

Today, Techdirt noticed that Harris had posted his promised summary and response.

So why do people pirate software (specifically games)?

  • Money – “A LOT of people cited the cost of games as a major reason for pirating. Many were kids with no cash and lots of time to play games, but many were not,” wrote Harris. Positech’s games are priced between $19-23, and Harris said that he was surprised that so many people thought that was too high.
  • Quality – “Although there were many and varied complaints about tech support, game stability, bugs and system requirements, it was interesting to hear so many complaints about actual game design and gameplay,” Harris said. Many people agreed that though today’s games look fantastic, they “got boring too quickly, were too derivative, and had gameplay issues.” Another quality complaint: Demos are too short and people feel that they’re often not representative of the final product.
  • DRM – “People don’t like DRM, we knew that, but the extent to which DRM is turning away people who have no other complaints is possibly misunderstood. If you wanted to change ONE thing to get more pirates to buy games, scrapping DRM is it.”
  • Ease – Writes Harris: “Lots of people claimed to pirate because it was easier than going to shops. Many of them said they pirate everything that’s not on [Valve’s] Steam. Steam got a pretty universal thumbs up from everyone.” (Harris said that he would love to get his games on Steam, but it’s not open to everyone.)
  • Because I Can – 5% of the replies, said Harris, came from people who admitted that stealing games online was easy to do because it was easy to get away with.

To his credit, Harris did just what he said he would and considered the responses he fielded. He plans to make a number of changes, including ditching DRM completely, creating longer game demos, considering a drop in price (though he seems most hesitant about that change), and working harder to create higher quality games. “I’ve gone from being demoralized by pirates to actually inspired by them, and I’m working harder than ever before on making my games fun and polished,” he wrote.

One of the lessons to be learned from Harris, beyond the interesting look into the reasons why people pirate software, is the value of having a good corporate blog. We wrote last week that properly done a corporate blog can have tremendous value. Harris’ Positech blog proves that. By opening the channels of communication with his customers and users, Harris was able to get honest feedback that he is putting to good use to make himself more money and make his customers happier.

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  • I find the cost aspect a little ridiculous. Everyone wants everything for iTunes money.

    However, I think a “pay-as-you-go” option might just be the magic wand. I would assume that a number of kids aren’t willing to spend $20 on something they might not like – so if they were asked to pay by the hour (or pre-pay an few hours’ worth), then at least they only pay for the time they spend on it – and if they wish to purchase it in full, the accrued cost can be deducted from the full price.

  • It’s been a while since I’ve played video games myself, but unless they’ve changed things in the past 5 years, just the fact you have to buy it as a hard copy from a store would be enough of a hurdle for me and my busy lifestyle. With software in general, almost everything I pay for is immediately available as a digital download. I’m happy to shell out for something I can download and use immediately.

    DRM. Well yeah, I have to wonder if Yahoo!’s recent kick in the teeth as a result of employing DRM will change the way companies think about it.

  • Radoslav Stankov

    Before 3-4 years and more in my country ( Bulgaria ), the games and software was pirated because You can’t buy it from anywhere and it was more easy to download them freely. The above reasons are very true also.

  • “Stay on target, stay on target”

    Web development website innit?

  • Stevie D

    I don’t bother much with illegal copies of computer games (I don’t bother much with computer games at all) but I will rip off music from time to time, and I see the justification as the same.

    If I like a CD and expect to listen to it a lot, I will buy it.

    If I’m not sure about a CD, and don’t expect to listen to it all that much, I won’t buy it. But I might make a copy of it. And if I do, no-one is losing out. The music company isn’t losing any income, because they weren’t going to get any from me anyway. but now they might, because if I find that I do like the album, I’m more likely to go out and buy one from that artist.

    I have some CDs that I copied that I’ve listened to so many times that they have worn out, and I have replaced them with genuine copies!

  • 2 major elents count for all consumers; Quality, Price (and in that order).

    I believe if your product provides extreme quality for the consumer, then you will see it moving off the shelf legitimately. The next element is the price. In line with the quality, if your product is set at the right price, then it will also assist the product to move off the shelves legitimately.

    An example I will use relates to a recent thread I posted about the cost of software. Adobe want to charge $3000 for a product that in the US costs $2000. Overall, I believe the US price is defeinately more reasonable for the product, however ,for some reason they are charging 150% times that here is Australia. It is for reasons like this that may temp some to pirate software.

  • Roger

    What a joke…those arguments are complete cop outs. Software piracy drives prices up, and the DRM thing is there to avert piracy. Ease is a joke as well. What could possibly be easier than going to Amazon.com and paying for it to shipped to your front door? It’s not like the 1700s or something and you have to wait to make your yearly trip to the city. Look at IGN’s Direct2Drive or Valve’s Steam that let you buy and download major software titles legally. “Because I can…” is the only honest response. Everything else is just the same line from pirates trying to justify an illegal act.

    The best example I can think of is Photoshop. Photoshop is an expensive piece of software. However, for professionals who actually need it the price is a tax write-off. It’s not like landscapers are stealing lawn mowers from John Deere retailers! Hobbyists who don’t actually need the power of Photoshop have high quality free alternatives like GIMP that they are intentionally ignoring to steal software. Whether or not you agree with the pricing strategy of Adobe, their work revolutionized the standard for digital media production quality.

    DRM is Digital Rights Management. If there weren’t so many pirates stealing software or music then we wouldn’t need DRM! Quite simply, until developers began taking piracy as seriously as they are now DRM wasn’t even a topic. I love how Pirates complained about a situation they created! The vast majority of games, applications, and music didn’t have any DRM. The internet created greedy pirates who just collected stolen goods and DRM was a good way for companies/producers to defend their work and try to recoup their investment.

    I don’t understand the indignation that pirates feel toward content producers be it musicians, developers, or whatever else it is they want to steal. The bottom line is that if you won’t break into a store and steal the software then you shouldn’t electronically do it because it’s the exact same thing no matter what spin people try to give it.

  • Anonymous

    The blog fell flat in one important aspect: if failed to address anything about free software games. The fact is if you are loading code onto your locally controlled computer, it makes sense to have access to all the code, for all the fundamental reasons.

  • Anonymous

    While directly related to the DRM complaint: One thing that irritates me to no end with large commercial games is that they require the disk to play. Often times the pirated versions of this game have no such restriction – after it’s installed, you can play it directly off your hard drive with no disk requirement. If the game isn’t actively reading data off the disk, don’t make me insert it. It’s a pain in the ass to juggle a number of disks and cases when there is zero legitimate reason to do so. This is especially true with my laptop: There’s been a number of times that I’ve been out and itching to play a quick game to pass the time, only to realize that I didn’t cart a bookshelf worth of CD/DVDs with me.

    People have the right to complain about DRM because it does little to curb piracy while punishing those who legitimately buy the product. Fighting piracy by making it technically impossible is an impossible task; every DRM system created is promptly broken. Instead, developers should take the same approach as Harris, fighting piracy by making it less attractive to pirate his products.

  • Arkh

    I think these guys got it : http://forums.sinsofasolarempire.com/post.aspx?postid=303512
    Don’t make games for the pirate market, make games for the game buyers market.

  • Dearon

    See the fun thing about DRM is that it hits the wrong people.
    The “major releases” come with DRM that sometimes even manages to kill your pc (Starforce for example), so legitimate customers have to suffer software that does highly suspicious things to your pc, does not run if certain software is present (no matter what you use it for) and maybe even regularly checks the internet if your are allowed to play (which means that the day the servers go down you can not play the game anymore).
    Pirates on the other hands have to rip the DRM out, so people who download the game are not bothered by cd-rom/internet checks, suspicious third party code (see Starforce) or the fact that you use Daemon tools to mount your backed up games and/or movies.
    So while DRM is a nice idea you annoy the people who pay you and the people who don’t pay have to wait 1/2 days for a version that is superior to the retail one.

  • vbalakri

    Well, there’s really (as has been pointed out before) a price/quality issue. I don’t want to pay $60 for a piece of crap game–I don’t know, let’s take “Random FPS number 3”, but at the same time, I’d be willing to put down that much for a great game (I’m the proud owner, because of lack of foresight, of NWN, NWN: Gold, and NWN: Platinum). I’m going to pay $60 (well, maybe a smidge less by the time I get my new machine which can play it) for Mass Effect. I’m not going to complain about it one bit. On the other hand, as the owner of one Madden Game, well, that’s going to be my copy for three-four years. The other years will be pirated with no remorse, because they’re for all intents and purposes the same game.

    Of course, my solution to this would be more variable pricing on games. Simple economics, sort of. Make Sports Clone/FPS clone/Other Clones cheaper. Make “Critical Success” Games cost more. Certainly, it makes there be a trade-off, and allows the customer to more appropriately use a wider range of their utility function: I can then ask the question “20 bucks for a mediocre game or 50 bucks for a great game,” much as I do with everything else under the sun. From a developer’s standpoint, this forces trade-offs, too. For example, does a developer *really* want Far Cry competing with Half-Life 2 on nothing but quality of experience? I don’t really think so, even in the minds of such games’ developers.

    But this leads to budgets for those types of games being cut, and everything that follows from that happening, right? Well, yes. But there is a level of quality that people really expect. No game can be unplayable in every way at any price, I’d hope (though, unfortunately, there are exceptions). It means that “oooh shiny” engines can’t be developed, except for a game that a company really thinks is going to be a blockbuster (of course, they could be mistaken). The fundamental idea that I’ve proposed is really basic economics: lower price=higher quantity demanded.

  • Regarding DRM,

    As an IT professional I contend that DRM only hurts the folks that pay for legal software. I work at vocational school where I manage and use a variety of software from 25 different career fields. I spend a large percentage of my time juggling licensing issues for Windows XP & Vista, AutoCAD, Quark, MasterCAM, OrCAD, and the list goes on. These are all software packages bought and paid for with taxpayer money, and yet I have to spend hours reading documentation, configuring licensing server applications, corresponding with sales people to obtain license files, or talking to tech support just to make our LEGAL software work.

    Yet I can go home, download and crack an illegal copy of any of these software packages and have it working in a few minutes. DRM makes about as much sense as Lawn Darts. Both seem designed specifically to hurt the very people who pay for the product.

    The only company with a sane response to software piracy is Adobe. To this day I still just type in a product key, accept the license agreement (or automate the install to do it all for me!), and Adobe never again hounds me about the legitimacy of my software. Adobe seems to accept that their software is going to be pirated, and maybe even consider it “free advertising.”

    The software/music/film industries all want to count each pirated copy of their product as lost revenue. So where’s the study showing that–in the absence of a pirated copy of their product–pirating consumers would buy them with their own money? Every teenager with a broadband connection has a copy of Photoshop and not a single one of them would buy it if they had no alternative. This is probably why Adobe doesn’t get their panties in a bind over the fact that they have some of the most pirated software on the market.

    IMHO the same argument applies to games. Given no free alternative, most people can’t afford to buy all of the games that they might have installed on their home PC. As was already stated, they do it because they can. If there wasn’t a pirated alternative, they’d save their pennies and only buy the games truly worth buying.

    If you are a game developer and cry in your Cheerios each morning over piracy, follow these simple steps. First, develop a quality product (see Valve). Second, distribute it in a way that doesn’t bite the hand that feeds you (see Valve).

  • xposed

    Cost is never the issue. 10% of your market will make a decision based on price. The rest will not. If someone says price is the issue their brain is lying to them, they just don’t want it bad enough.

    I would try doubling your price. You want more profit right? :-)

    The price point of your game puts you in the walking over pennies to pick up dollars crowd. PS3 games sell for $60 to $70 and they sell just fine.

    I hope I’ve been a little helpful.

  • tehgamecat

    So everyone is 100% clear here, and this must be said….any reason other than “because I can” is simply not true. If you couldnt pirate you wouldnt go into a shop and steal it…This poor sap is going to extend his demos, ditch drm, blah blah spend more time and his money and in the end people will still rob his games. It’s going to be a harsh lesson for him.

  • I live in the mostly pirated market of “Bulgaria”, and I must say price is an issue here. After it, it comes the “Because I can…” factor. Quality is rarely a reason, or at least it appears it isn’t.

    I work at a PC shop and the moment people hear that every single game costs at least 60 BGN (~€30) it usually seems too much to them. Note that €30 in eastern european countries is more than the same €30 in a western european country.

    Then, after a day of internet surfing with their new PC, they come back to the shop and ask “OK, I saw this ‘torrent’ thingy. How do I download games with it?”. Needless to say I help them out by installing Daemon-Tools and FlashGet and explaining in details how to crack games.

    Then there’s the “Because I can…” factor. There are some games here that cost 20 BGN (~€10). Too few unfortunatly, and all of them are not that good. Still, that’s not so much when you consider the fact you get a licenced game with a CD, a book, a cover and everything. I bought such a game (“RC Cars” anyone?) and tried to sell it. Every person that ever asked for “any game” (I have these here a lot) got asked if he wants that game… I wasn’t able to sell it to anyone of them for about 3 months. I finally sold it to a person that needed it for a gift immediatly, so he didn’t cared what he got and how much its worth. He just needed a game he can wrap up in something and say “happy birthday” or whatever.

    I haven’t had enough experience with legal software to say how much DRM really hurts legitimate buyers, but from what I see, it does hurt. One thing I can say for sure is that I too hate games that require the CD to be played. Some pirated games can’t force this part off, and I hate those parts too. If I had payed for the game, I imagine I’d be even more annoyed.

    I am a proud owner of the Guild Wars games though. And Yu-Gi-Oh! ONLINE too. Those games have revenue models I’m comfortable with, and are by definition online, meaning they couldn’t possibly get pirated… not properly anyway.

  • Oh, forgot to say… (isn’t there an “edit” button here?) about the PS3 games… they may sell well, but that’s only because PS3 has a built in DRM protection of a sort, i.e. it can’t run pirated copies.

    Still, its firmware can be modified to allow this, but most people don’t know this. They usually learn that once they start asking on forums or at PC shops like the one I’m in. And no, I don’t modify PS firmwares myself, but I used to know places where they sell modified PS2’s. They seem to have closed since then unfortunatly. Probably because consoles aren’t as popular here as PC games (again, because PC games are more easily pirated, and also because for the money you pay for a console you can get a “decent” PC and do more than play games).

  • chameleon

    The price issue depends on which country you live in. What i’ve fouond is that people nowadays can’t really be bothered going to the shops to buy a copyof a game or a piece of software, and don’t want to wait for it to be delivered either. I feel that this is where the success of Valve comes in, as well as EA’s Download software. You simply log on, pay and download. You can be playing very soon after paying, so long as the price is right.

    It’s like these pay-as-you-go games like World of Warcraft. Yes i can see why they do it, but ipersonally find it offputting. What’s the point in paying to buy the game, and then pay more every month just to be able to play it when you want? I can’t see how cash strapped teenagers can afford to do this, and still feed their desires to get the “next big thing” that hits the market.

  • bpool_lee

    You look at big games such as GTA, COD, FIFA, Football Manager etc… They all sell on the masses because they are games of quality, kids are more than happy to save up so they can get them, when you get something like bejing 2008 people think whats the point as they won’t be playing it much and the life span of the game is rather short.

    I think it is obvious that if the game is quality(which comes first) then people will pay for it, if it is not quality then people will either get it free or refuse to pay the sums of money expected, if you get the balance of quality and cost right you will have a hit.

  • Anonymous

    Steam? Valve? Are you mad? That was the engine that made me STOP buying games and start pirating! The mere concept that I had paid for the use of a piece of software then got home to discover that I was going to have to pay per meg. (that’s how we do things in my country) for a 100Mb+ ‘activation’ download pissed me off too much. I took it back to the shop, retrieved my money and downloaded a pre-cracked version for less than the purchase price.

  • Yet another nail in the coffin of DRM. Hopefully more publishers follow this game developer’s footstep and drop DRM altogether.

  • “The mere concept that I had paid for the use of a piece of software then got home to discover that I was going to have to pay per meg. (that’s how we do things in my country) for a 100Mb+ ‘activation’ download pissed me off too much. I took it back to the shop, retrieved my money and downloaded a pre-cracked version for less than the purchase price.”

    Point well taken. In the US where we take most things for granted, including our bandwidth, I think Steam is a good thing. It automates keeping your game working (with patches), keeping your games fresh (new episodic content), and yes, keeping your games legitimate. Perhaps this is just a bait-and-switch tactic on their part, so I don’t feel like they’re getting “something for nothing” by making me jump through hoops to activate my software, but to me it seems worth it.

  • doodle

    how about the ‘other’ can of worms… How many out there have downloaded sitepoint books from torrent sites etc… Now that’s a discussion…

  • OneBitWonder

    I really don’t get it. Companies want us to buy their products but annoy and disappoint us with many little or not so little obstacles like DRM, region codes, geo-IP restricted services, copy protection, hidden spyware/root kits, shameless overstatements in marketing etc…

    This must be some strange interpretation of ‘market orientation’ I’m not aware of.

    There’s no way consumers are willing to rebuild their trust and happily spend their money if companies keep rolling out products equipped with ‘weapons of annoyance and mistrust’ (like DRM).

  • Anonymus

    I can still remember the day I pirated my last software. I downloaded the keygen & when it didn’t match, I sent my email to their update page. In about 5 minutes, I received an email that contained my IP address & a notice that stated they were going to contact local authorities. I was so paranoid I couldn’t sleep all night!

    The following morning, I bought the serial. I knew if I didn’t buy the serial within 24 hours (note: 24 hour notice was NOT on the statement), they were going to press charges. Then I had to email my purchased serial to the administrator so they could drop the charges. That will be the last time I ever pirate software again!

    Now I think back & I realized how stupid of an idea it was. I didn’t have a job (nor credit card). Instead of pirating the serial, I could have just asked to borrow my mom’s credit card. My mom was perfectly fine with it. Let’s not forget the serial cost $20 USD, just another reason to feel imbarrassed. I will never do that again.

  • Looreenzo

    To respond to those deffending Valve… STEAM SUCKS!!! Sorry guys but I don’t see why I should have to go through all the hassle of activating and downloading to play a game I legally purchased. When I get home I want to be able to put the game in and play. I recently purchased Portal and after a week of BS on the part of Steam i can’t play yet if I had found an illegal copy I would have probably finished the game by now. I only have access to a 56k connection because broadband is unavailable where I live so basically I am being held hostage by Valve. I have gone through endless hours of waiting just to play and I still can’t play. I even let Steam run all night in hopes that this morning I would be able to play and no I still can’t. Many people say too bad and that it’s not Valve’s problem I can’t get broadband well I think it is their problem because they are preventing me from enjoying something I purchased. There is absolutely no reason why it should take hours upon hours to install a game. I usually prefer legal genuine copies but after going through all this frustration I have made a decision to never ever purchase any software that runs under Steam again. Never will I even consider purchasing any Valve software again. The protection has done the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. It has now pushed me too look for illegal copies.