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Blessed By Piracy?

Having grown up in a country where piracy has remained the reigning norm for decades in every discernible industry – be it films, music or software – I have seen enough to say with confidence that our nation owes piracy a great deal. It is safe to say that we would not have come where we are if pirated software and entertainment did not exist so openly in the local market. Almost every computer in Bangladesh runs a pirated copy of some version of Windows with great aplomb. Microsoft Office is ubiquitously available, as is Adobe’s entire gamut of productivity packages, which would cost thousands of dollars if obtained legally. If you go to buy a new computer, the vendor only asks which version of Windows you want on it, and nonchalantly installs it off a well-worn disk image, and throws in a share of popular software, games and music on the second hard drive partition to boot – all without asking you to pay an extra cent. None of the original creators of said software and content get even a cent out of this.

Does this make us a race of thieves? The question of ethics regarding piracy is a debate best left for another day, but its impact on our lives is a sure one. Piracy has enabled countless people of our nation to have access to facets of modern technology and entertainment that would otherwise have indefinitely remained off-limits to us. They and their very lives have been shaped by piracy in a myriad of ways. For example, every graphic designer in our country has had access to a variety of high-end professional design tools from the infancy of their careers that most people in developed nations can’t even dream of until making a good bit of headway into their professional lives, not even with subscription-based models. This goes on to apply to all other pirated content, be it software or entertainment features. The dream of a digital Bangladesh would have been far away from our reach had it not been for piracy.

And now, in the advanced age of the internet, piracy is easier than ever. There are massive hubs dedicated to piracy on the web – entire forums devoted to sharing pirated software and contents, BitTorrent databases that are veritable archives of theft-worthy digital content, innocuous-looking blog sites laden with regularly updated links of pirated content (and also countless strains of malware awaiting careless wanderers). Piracy isn’t restricted to just computer programs either – even apps for mobile phones and tablets see a massive degree of illegal distribution, and the option of jailbreaking means that not even closed platforms like Apple’s iOS can prevent privacy from taking place.

Console games have also faced a large amount of piracy for several generations through unauthorized hardware modification of consoles which rendered them capable of running illegally obtained copies of games which would be rejected by unmodified hardware. The rising popularity of e-books ensures that literature is not spared from piracy either, and it is a common practice even in developed nations for financially challenged students to download illegal copies of expensive textbooks – or maybe even the next new Dan Brown novel.

The battle against privacy has endured as long as piracy itself. Attempts to get users to verify the legitimacy of their software through the entry of serial numbers and verification codes continue to remain commonplace. Many modern programs (especially games) often go the extra mile by forcing an online verification of their legitimacy on a periodic or per-run basis, and refusing to flat-out run if an internet connection is not detected. Many programs also come loaded with some form of DRM (digital rights management) mechanism integrated into them in order to stave off attempts at illegal duplication.

The sheer talent and tenacity of software pirates, however, is not something to be underestimated, as it has been proven over and over again. Many pirates are highly skilled programmers and hackers capable of dissecting software code on a deep level and discovering exploits which can be used to ‘fool’ the software into recognizing itself as legitimate, foregoing any online or offline verification, or disabling the time limitations of fully functional trial versions of certain programs. Over the past few years, a complex new DRM system called Denuvo was baked into many programs, particularly games, to prevent them from being illegally distributed. It took the pirates longer than usual to break through it, and many developers made bold claims in the meantime about its uncrackable nature. However, once Denuvo was torn apart, the tables turned rapidly.

It is interesting to note that pirates have no particular philosophy to abide by. Some hackers crack software to show off the might of their formidable coding skills, some do it for fun, and some do it because they believe all software should be free, and everyone should have access to all software. However, it is not at all uncommon for pirates to often leave little notes along with their cracked programs (or films, books, etc.) which politely ask the downloader, “If you like this, please consider buying it and supporting the developer.” While this may sound inherently bizarre and hypocritical, it is indeed interesting to note how many people actually follow this advice. In fact, many people download pirated software or entertainment content to check if it is worth buying – almost like an illegal demonstration of its abilities and/or qualities in a way, which is not always readily available.

I personally know a good number of people who have downloaded pirated copies of games and ended up liking them so much that they bought the legitimate versions afterward as a form of gratitude. In a fascinating turn of events, many developers have actively taken to shunning DRM measures and releasing their software without any anti-piracy protection whatsoever. According to CD Projekt RED, the developer of the massively popular Witcher series of video games, the best way to beat piracy is to create something even pirates would want to pay for. The incredible popularity of the best-selling Witcher series, which is proudly shipped DRM-free, is a bold testament to this statement.

It should also be noted that many people who download pirated software or content have no intention of buying any of them in the first place anyway, so their actions do not necessarily hurt potential sales, them being not part of the content’s target demographic. Unlike the theft of a physical object, piracy of software or content merely involves duplication and dissemination of the product instead of it being misappropriated and taken away from others. Furthermore, if someone intends to buy the product and support its creators, they would do so regardless of whether they try it out first in pirated form or not. There surely are many people who would readily pirate something only because they don’t want to spend money on it (despite being capable of doing so), but they do not comprise the market on their own.

If anything, piracy has allowed software and other digital content to penetrate entirely new demographics which they would otherwise not even come across. In a glorious turn of events, many developers are studying patterns of piracy around the world, and actively working to decrease the prices of their creations to make them more affordable for people in said markets, so that they can legitimately own the programs and enjoy official support and updates. For example, the online software distribution platform Steam prices its wares much lower for Russian and Indian markets, which are far refer with piracy, and as a result, this unprecedentedly generous move allows them to enjoy a great degree of sales in markets that are now warming up to the use of genuine software. Some developers even consider piracy to be a form of free advertising, and even encourage people to pirate their releases and spread them far and wide, while requesting them to buy the titles if they wish to. It works surprisingly well.

Ultimately, how digital piracy should be handled remains the choice of the individual developer. However, a comparison about this should put this matter further into context. When the world-renowned American thrash metal band Metallica discovered that the content-sharing platform Napster was facilitating illegal distribution of its songs, it sued Napster and caused it to shut down, but that did not keep its songs from being pirated anyway, as pirates simply moved on to more decentralized platforms such as BitTorrent over time. On the other hand, when British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden learned about the piracy of their music, instead of retaliating with fruitless legal action or DRM measures, they carefully studied where such piracy took place the most and scheduled live concert tours of said locations, including the likes of Chile and India. This not only allowed them to earn the respect and love of their fans but also brought in considerable amounts of revenue from these previously untapped markets. It is quite clear from this and other similar observations that the carrot works much better than the stick when dealing with pirates, and it can go on to spell win-win situations for everyone involved far more easily than one would believe to be possible.

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