The economics of software piracy

One year ago this time was World Cup season and Mondial fever put a lot of regional conflicts on the back burner for a month – not to mention put a dent in a lot of family budgets (husbands buying the latest 60 inch Sony Bravia and wives on retail therapy while the guys are watching football)

It is ironic that the FIFA 2010 World cup computer game doesn’t run on Ubuntu.  It would have been a huge marketing coup and poetic justice if the game software was released for Ubuntu in a GPL license.

This got me thinking about open source licensing and it’s advantages for developing countries, which really got my hackles up  after reading the Seventh Annual BSA and IDC Global Software Piracy Study – that screams:  Software Theft Remains Significant Issue Around the World

The rate of global software piracy climbed to 43 percent in 2009. This increase was fueled in large part by expanding PC sales in fast-growing, high-piracy countries and increasing sales to consumers — two market segments that traditionally have higher incidents of software theft. In 2009, for every $100 worth of legitimate software sold, an additional $75 worth of unlicensed software made its way onto the market. There was some progress in 2009 — software rates actually dropped in almost half of the countries examined in this year’s study.

Given the global recession, the software piracy picture could have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. But progress is being outstripped by the overall increases in piracy globally — and highlights the need for governments, law enforcement and industry to work together to address this vital economic issue.
Below are key findings from this year’s study:

  • Commercial value of software theft exceeds $50 billion: the commercial value of unlicensed software put into the market in 2009 totalled $51.4 billion.
  • Progress on piracy held through the recession: the rate of PC software piracy dropped in nearly half (49%) of the 111 economies studied, remained the same in 34% and rose in 17%.
  • Piracy continues to rise on a global basis: the worldwide piracy rate increased from 41% in 2008 to 43% in 2009; largely a result of exponential growth in the PC and software markets in higher piracy, fast growing markets such as Brazil, India and China.

I would not take the numbers IDC and BSA bring at face value. The IDC/BSA estimates are guesses multiplied several times. They start off by assuming that each unit of copied software represents a direct loss of sale for software vendor – patently a false assertion.

If it were true, then the demand for software would be independent of price and perfectly inelastic.

A drop in price usually results in an increase in the quantity demanded by consumers. That’s called price elasticity of demand. The demand for a product becomes inelastic when the demand doesn’t change with price. A product with no competing alternative is generally inelastic. Demand for a unique antibiotic, for example is highly inelastic. A patient will pay any price to buy the only drug that will kill their infection.

If software demand was perfectly inelastic, then everyone would pay in order to avoid the BSA enforcement tax. The rate of software piracy would be 0. Since piracy rate is non-zero, that proves that the original assertion is false. (Argument courtesy of the Wikipedia article on price elasticity of demand )

Back when I ran Bynet Software Systems – we were the first Microsoft Back Office/Windows NT distributor in Israel. I had just left Intel – where we had negotiated a deal with Microsoft that allowed every employee to make a copy of MS Office for home usage. Back in 1997 – after the Windows NT launch, the demand for NT was almost totally inelastic – Not There, Nice Try, WNT is VMS + 1 etc. We could not give the stuff away in the first year. Customers were telling us that they would never leave Novell Netware. Never. But, NT got better from release to release and the big Microsoft marketing machine got behind the product. After two years of struggle and selling retail boxes and MLP for NT, demand picked up. Realizing that there IS price elasticity of demand for software – Microsoft dropped retail packaging and moved to OEM licensing, initially distributing OEM licenses via their two tier distribution channel and later totally cutting out the channel and dealing directly with the computer vendors like HP, Dell and IBM for OEM licenses of NT, XP and 2000, 2003 etc. Vista continued with this marketing strategy and most Vista sales were not retail boxes but pre-installed hardware. After Windows 7 released – users have been upgrading en-masse, proving once again the elasticity of demand for a good product.

Microsoft (who are a major stakeholder in BSA) probably don’t have a major piracy problem with operating system sales. Let’s run some numbers. In 2008 –  Microsoft Windows Vista sales were at about a 9 million unit/quarter run rate. Microsoft June 2008 quarterly revenue was $15.8 BN. Single unit OEM pricing for a Windows operating system  is about $80 and in a volume deal – maybe $20. Let’s assume an average of $50/OEM license. This means that the operating system  accounts for about 50*3*9/15800 = 8.5% of Microsoft revenue.

The BSA Global Piracy Study states that the “median piracy rate in is down one percentage point from last year” – 1 percent of 8.5 percent is meaningless for Microsoft – in dollar terms – BSA work to reduce piracy is less meaningful than a 7 percent drop in the US Dollar rate in 2009.

Microsoft might have a problem with their cash cow – Microsoft Office. Microsoft Office 2007 retails for $450 but is available in an academic license for less than $100. Open Office 2.4 runs just fine on Windows 7 and XP and retails for $0. At those prices, sizable numbers of users are just sliding down the elasticity curve – calling into serious question the IDC/BSA statistics on software piracy.

But there is more to software piracy than providing software at a reasonable price. In poor areas of the world – assuming that the BSA efforts at combating software piracy are successful – only the very rich would have access to applications like Microsoft Office. The middle and lower class people won’t have the opportunity to become MS Office-literate because the prices would be too high. For that I only have three words –download Open Office – the free and open productivity suite.

Finally – I can only anonymously quote a senior Microsoft executive who told me a number of years ago that off the record, Microsoft didn’t mind people copying the software and using a crack because it was a good way of introducing new users to the technology and inducing them to buy the new, improved and supported release a year or two later.

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5 thoughts on “The economics of software piracy

  1. Have you ever considered SSuite Office as a free alternative to MS Office or even OpenOffice?

    Their software also doesn’t need to run on Java or .NET, like MS Office and so many open source office suites, so it makes their software very small, efficient, and easy to use. :)

    http://www.ssuitesoft.com/index.htm

  2. I downloaded the software, there seems to be a lot of extra stuff that you install like games. The Word application itself is pretty basic and I will grant you that it would serve the needs of many people but it is not by any means a replace for OO or Office 2007

    My humble opinion anyhow
    Danny

  3. Hey, I just hopped over to your site via Stumbleupon. Not somthing I would normally read, but I liked your thoughts none the less. Thanks for making something worth reading.

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