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Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Is Casual Software Piracy Really Casual?
11:05 AM | IMG News | Comment on this story

Among the various topics gamers across the world frequently debate, few can start a rousing flame war more than the subject of software piracy. Some gamers abhor it, others swear by it, and many more field it somewhere in between.

In an attempt to raise awareness of one publisher's perspective on software piracy, Matt Slot of Ambrosia Software recently submitted an essay to TidBITS. Titled "The Plain Truth about Casual Software Piracy," the essay provides a unique view from the eyes of Ambrosia, a shareware company that is entirely dependent on registration fees in order to stay afloat.

The essay covers Ambrosia's ever-evolving shareware registration policies, starting all the way back from their humble beginnings:

A few years back, Ambrosia's software was distributed on the honor system. You could download the software and use it forever, scot-free except for the friendly reminders that you had the software for 1,500 days and still hadn't beaten level 6. This was obviously a big leap of faith on our part, but it built up an almost cult following among Mac users. What we lost in sales, we made up in good will. As a business model, the honor system wasn't ideal, but it certainly was idealistic, and it helped put Ambrosia's founder, Andrew Welch, through college and kept Ambrosia's employees supplied with pizza and beer. (I think there's a law of conservation at work there.)

This was all fine and good - except that eventually Andrew graduated and everyone else got sick of pizza and beer. Ambrosia grew from an interesting sideline into a full time place of employment. The company became an entity with its own purpose, its own office space, and its own gravitational pull. It also developed an insatiable appetite for cash, because as any MBA will tell you, the lifeblood of business is green.

The essay then goes into Ambrosia's exploration into more stringent ways of enforcing the registration process, including having to deal with hackers determined to foil those enforcement policies. Slot makes the relevant point that most people will be more than happy to register their products, unless they're given an easy way to get around registration.

Slot proceeds to give an example:

You see, to renew a stolen code, Joe User must contact a computer in our office. There's nothing nefarious about it - he sends us the user name and expired code and gets back a new license code or a suitable error message. We don't encrypt the data, we don't grab any personal information, and we don't even open a connection without explicit permission. But when Joe User clicks that bright shiny Renew button, our server records the product, user name, and the Internet address he came from.

For the first two days after we posted the latest update to Snapz Pro X, our server was busy. Of the 194 different hosts that tried to renew a license code, 107 of them sent in pirated codes. Incredibly, more than 50 percent of the people installing the update entered one or both of the pirated codes we've known about for months. Some of these people even tried several different variants on the names when the server refused them access ("maybe I misspelled it"), and one guy got so frustrated he pounded the Renew button over and over every four seconds ("WHY click IS click THIS click NOT click WORKING???") until our server blacklisted him for flooding.

You don't have to remind us that the sample isn't statistically valid. Nevertheless we think it's a reasonable approximation of reality - if not a little conservative. It certainly reinforces our perception that casual piracy is both significant and widespread.

While Slott doesn't go so far as to make the often implied but patently false claim that every instance of piracy represents a lost sale, and while his description of the statistical analysis used does indeed raise questions about its usefulness, the figures are interesting.

The rest of the essay covers technical aspects of Ambrosia's various methods of registration protection as well as more thoughts on how software piracy can affect a company. The article can be found via the link below.

Ambrosia Software
TidBITS: The Plain Truth About Casual Software Piracy

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