IT industry at least partly to blame for piracy problem

You have to wonder. There have been floods of reports over the past year about the dizzying spread of pirated software on the Web – and how it has caused a substantial drop in the sales of computer games and applications (as well as music CDs and even DVDs).

But what is missing from those reports is any discussion of the industry’s own participation in setting up the conditions to encourage piracy. Confusing and evolving software licensing provisions, poor education of both corporate and consumer users on the problems created by piracy – and a lack of attention to the “added value” of owning legitimately licensed applications are all issues that could usefully be addressed in this regard.

IT systems managers throughout the country tear out their hair at the prospect of trying to properly police the licences that sit on corporate computers, yet users are always entirely to blame for allowing their company’s licences to fall outside the law. There are cases, for example, of companies that expect their employees to work on documents at home – either on notebooks or desktop computers – and do not supply the employee with a new, licensed copy of an application such as Microsoft Office to do so.

The result is that employees will sometimes take the matter into their own hands and get a hold of the Microsoft Office installation CDs from the office – and put a copy on their home machines or notebook computers. And the company will sometimes turn a blind eye because it has no more of a desire to pay for an additional licence than the employee does. But the company wants the extra work from the employee – and the employee wants to keep his or her job.

As with any industry that goes through this problem, the answer usually lies in making it more attractive to pay for something than get an illicit copy of it. Remember that many industries have been here before. Music companies have railed against “home taping” for years. Pirated videos have been the subject of much shrill and bellicose ranting by the television and video companies.

But, through trial and error, each has managed to move through the problem created by technology. Look at the movie rental business, for example. Back in the early days of videotape rental, movies actually sold for $100 or more and rental rates were as high as $15 a night – and you would actually have to allow a deposit for that full sale value amount to be authorized on your credit card in order to rent one. As the cost of VCRs and blank tapes dropped, it became attractive to exchange movies with friends – and make your own copy of a movie when you rented it – in order to get around the high cost of renting.

After a few years, the price of buying movies on videotape dropped dramatically – as did the cost of renting them. Video stores re-oriented themselves around huge inventories, high volume – and making up any shortfall through steep “late charges” on rented videos.

It is definitely fair to say that the Internet presents significant challenges in fighting piracy. So-called “perfect copies” of digital products can be passed around at will, globally and quickly and relatively anonymously.

Above and beyond that, the computer industry seems to be contradictory in its approach to the issue. While decrying the growth of piracy, companies such as Apple, Intel and many others get in on the market by producing MP3 players by cautioning users only to load up music from their own CD collection – or for which they have purchased a licence. Yeah, right. The people at whom these products are aimed – teenagers and 20-somethings – are part of a “Napster generation” which feels as comfortable with downloading songs, books and movies as earlier generations may have felt about home taping or photocopying.

And the broadband industries don’t help. Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Bell and others often extol the ability to download songs and movies as one of the virtues of their respective high-speed services.

Even retailers get in on the act. Not too long ago, I overhead a sales guy in the computer department of a major chain store tell a customer that “you don’t need to buy any software, you just download whatever you need on the Internet.” I didn’t get the sense that the guy was actively trying to promote piracy – he just wanted to close a sale to a wavering consumer. But you get the idea.

The industry can’t have it both ways. You can’t decry piracy on the one hand, yet be making fistfuls of cash from the sale of MP3 players, blank CDs and so on without looking like a little bit of a hypocrite. Perhaps if a few more people spent time thinking about that, rather than launching yet another anti-piracy publicity campaign, the most piracy questions would be answered in a more creative way.

Wheelwright is a freelance journalist, author, sometime broadcaster and interactive media industry executive. He most recently served as editorial director of StockHouse Media Corp.