To catch a (software) pirate


“As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll figure out how we correct sometime in the next decade,” said the former Chairman of Microsoft Bill Gates when asked about the problem of software piracy.

Copyright infringement of software, often referred to as software piracy, refers to several practices which involve the unauthorized copying and use of computer software.

While piracy is outright robbery as it involves using someone’s trading rights without authority and for one’s own profit, illegal copying of software is seen by some software producers as a lesser evil than actually copying a competitor’s software by a rival.

Microsoft admits that piracy of its Windows operating system has helped give it huge market share in China that will boost its shares when these users “go legit.”

“It’s easier for our software to compete with Linux (a free operating system) when there’s piracy then when there’s not,” added Gates.

A global phenomenon

Geographical boundaries continue to be broken down as more and more business is conducted over the Internet. The pace, at which all this is taking place is unprecedented in world history. Super-fast connection paired with the development of file-sharing programs such as BitTorrent has enabled computer users to share and download all sorts of intellectual property.

It works like this. A user with an authentic copy of a piece of software copies the install file and compresses it along with a text file containing all the necessary passwords and cracks. He then uploads this file to a file-sharing server.

All you need to download it, enter the password and off you go. And each time a company tries to implement a program to stop the piracy, a hacker or programmer somewhere around the world uploads a few lines of code that will keep the program running smoothly. It is cat against mouse with the mouse usually winning.

May countries have copyright laws which apply to software, but the degree of enforcement varies. So is the case with Uganda; although the copyright law is in place and the cyber crime department set up in the Police, there is an overall lack of enforcement. Because of this, many people dealing in computers and software are fleecing the public.

One man having bought a laptop at a shop on Kampala road, was shocked to discover two months later that the Windows version was to expire in a month’s time. And it did expire! He had paid the full price of $150 for an authentic copy of windows but the store had just installed a trial version and pocketed the cash.

Pirate country

Kenneth Ojok, an IT specialist told KD that there are three major types of software pirates.

“There are those who are in it for money. And this is where majority software pirates in Uganda fall. There are those who are jealous of the achievements of the software architects. The last category is of those who are out to prove their technical prowess,” he said.

Kenneth goes on to reveal some of the methods of bypassing the mechanism of protection for software. One of them is reverse engineering. The software is reverse engineered and the particular option for expiring time replaced or removed.

The other method is to make a copy of the software and install it on many different machines. This is also known as ghosting or cloning.

Other pirates get a copy of the software and upload it to the Internet so that anyone can download it.

Commenting upon the victim of the pirates, the IT specialist said that the dealers either want to make quick money or they want you to go back to them so that they get more money for fixing the problem.

“It could also be due to your failure to comply with the terms of use of the software. It so happens that the software architect wants the user to authenticate whether the software is the licensed version. This is supposed to be done in a specific period, and when you fail to comply it locks,” he said.

Another IT specialist, told KD that apart from demotivating the architects that develop the software, he sees no benefits of criminalizing the trade.

“Is the anti piracy law out to make Microsoft richer at the expense of Ugandans? The software architects we have in Uganda are not commercially competing with Microsoft and so, why the fuss?” he asked.

Just too expensive

Open source software is free but commercial ones go for some really big money. Professional programs like those used to layout the Kampala Dispatch go for over $1,200. There is no special pricing for developing countries and this can put buying such software out of reach for most small business owners in Uganda.

The Industrial Development Corporation in South Africa recently released a report on software piracy in Southern and East Africa. According to the report, rampant software piracy, weak legislation and poor regulatory enforcement has denied sub-Saharan African countries a chance to increase employment, tax benefits and GDP growth.

“A reduction of 10 percentage points in software piracy can lead to substantial results in terms of new job creation, GDP contribution, increased local IT industry revenues, and increased tax revenues,” the report said.

In Kenya the piracy rate is estimated to be at 80 per cent and one can assume that Uganda’s rate is similar. But the high prices of authentic software remains prohibitive. Until a more equitable pricing model is put into place, the practice is likely to continue.

“Asking a local NGO to spend $300 per person for a collaboration software is impossible. It would wipe out their IT budget,” said one IT consultant who preferred not to be named.

“They still need to do their jobs so we are forced to find “creative” means to get around it,” he added.

And with the Internet evolving from being an obscure playground for the technically-initiated minority and academics, the war on software piracy has just began. So has the urge to get well-equipped to take a share of the global technology cake.