When theft isn't theft

Yesterday I wrote a letter to the Guardian. Originally I put quote marks around the word “Theft” in the phrase “Federation Against Software Theft”. In the context of the letter this was unexplained and was as as immature as replacing the “s” in “Microsoft” with a dollar sign (a sure sign of an impending knee-jerk response). It did me no favours and I removed the quote marks (and, for what it’s worth, shamefacedly re-sent the email) but I thought I would explain my aversion to the word theft in this context.

When industry bodies like FAST, RIAA, MPAA et al describe the illegal downloading of software, music, movies, etc. as “theft” they hugely simplify a complex problem. Theft involves taking something from a party and depriving them of the item. But obtaining software (or whatever) without paying is not so simple.

Here’s an example, in which you could replace software and FAST with a different industry and body. Let’s say Company A sells a piece of software, the industry standard in its field, for £1,372 (no, really). I would like this software but there’s no way I can afford the cost. So I’m considering a similar, but simpler, product from Company B which sells for £38. In the end, instead of spending any money, I download Company A’s software for free, illegaly. I now still have the £38 I was going to spend and I end up buying an unrelated item from Company C (I might spend it on something other than software, but the point is that I still have the money to spend).

In FAST’s simplistic model of theft I have “stolen” £1,372 from Company A and deprived the country’s economy of the same amount. The story ends there, shocking press releases are issued, and newspapers blindly print the industry statistics.

In reality the only company to lose out in any way is Company B, to the tune of £38. This is a shame for Company B. Company A, the victim in FAST’s scenario, has in fact lost nothing — I was never intending to buy their software, but if I’m going to download something it might as well be the most expensive and “best”. You could even say Company A has benefited: they haven’t lost a sale but they have gained another user. A user who will become familiar with their product and, one day, might buy a legal copy. Company C, entirely ignored by FAST, has gained a sale of £38 they would otherwise not have had. The country’s economy has not gained or lost a thing — I have still spent the £38 I was planning to spend in the first place.

This is not to say that obtaining software (or music, movies, etc.) without paying is a good thing and legally or morally right. While there will always be some software that is produced to be given away for free, in practice there is always going to be software that requires money to produce and so should be paid for. But calling the sharing of these products “theft”, and mechanically adding up the imagined “cost” to companies and economies, only distracts us from ever finding a better solution.

(I’ve just noticed the Guardian has printed someone else’s response to the letter that got me worked up in the first place. Good.)


  • This is similar to a point I've been making about mp3s. Because I downloaded, say, 50 albums for free this month off of various servers, etc. the companies involved would like to say that I deprived them of $500 or more. But I was not going to spend $500 in the first place. My budget (if I have one) for buying albums is perhaps $25. And that will probably go to buying vinyl at a concert by an artist I heard...previously, in another month, when I downloaded their album.

  • Expanding on the "gained a user" point: firms hire people in the assumption that they have experience and skill using Company A's products, even though Company A essentially prices those products to be corporate purchases that can be accounted as expenses and thus written off at tax time. To gain experience using Company A products, one presumably must own or have extended access to copies.

    That's to say, Company A is pretty much aware that its revenue stream depends upon new generations of users that only pay for its products -- either as freelance write-offs or on the company balance sheet -- once they start making money from them. It's not going to do anything that absolutely locks out new users from access to those products, because the "cost" of having a user base migrate elsewhere will really hurt the balance sheet.

    As a result, I have limited moral qualms when companies set a price structure that indicates a product is not really for individual retail purchase. Yeah, there are "student licences", but that's mainly window-dressing. And the industry's "loss" numbers are about as convincing as the price-tags attached to drug hauls.

  • I agree with your thoughts that the word "Theft" is not particularly accurate. Many people prefer the term "Bootlegger" or "Pirate", although that might also be misleading. However the fact is that anyone who uses any chargeable service without paying for it is dishonest, and deprives the provider of that service with the money they deserve. Although many people find software overpriced (which it often is), the advent of open source means that there are often cheaper or free solutions that provide the same functionality. Don't want to pay for Microsoft Office? Use OpenOffice. Adobe Photoshop too expensive, try the GIMP software. Windows Vista a bit pricey? Try one of the many Linux variants. I don't think there is a real excuse anymore for using illegal software (and remember it is illegal)

    From our experience as providers of software asset management (SAM) solutions, software vendors are stepping up their use of the audit right they have in their software license agreement. This is probably fuelled the current financial crisis which is affecting companies spending on software, putting pressure on software vendors to retain their turnover and profit (and value for shareholders)

  • Thanks for the comment, but I think you're just as guilty of simplifying the problem as those I'm criticising. One of my points is that if I downloaded Company A's software, but would never have paid for it then I'm not depriving Company A of "the money they deserve". In fact I''m depriving Company B, whose product I would otherwise have bought.

    Most people discussing this problem simplify it and assume that ever piece of software (or whatever) that is illegally obtained is a direct substitute for a sale of the same piece of software. I expect this is rarely the case.

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8 Jun 2009 in Photos

8 Jun 2009 at Twitter

  • 6:21pm: @ianbetteridge Am I going to have to click a link to read the final few words of all your tweets from now on?
  • 5:10pm: Watching the Apple Keynote in slow-page-refresh-o-vision. YouTube would be like this if moving images had never been invented.
  • 4:01pm: Just bought my first Rolling Stones album, Beggars Banquet. I wish more modern music sounded so clear. Instruments are so stereo separated.
  • 7:39am: My 1st retweet, sorry but: RT @samuelpepys: I do find great reason to think that we are beaten in every respect, and that we are the losers.