Why do people pirate software?

Economics and Software Piracy

In a symbolic event, Peruvian officials ordered 250,000 pirated CDs, DVDs and software disks destroyed.
In a symbolic event, Peruvian officials ordered 250,000 pirated CDs, DVDs and software disks destroyed.
AP Photo/Karel Navarro

If software were less expensive, would people pirate less? Perhaps if economic factors were the primary cause behind piracy, lowering prices would be an effective solution. Software providers could compensate for the lower profit margin by making it up in volume. But it turns out the situation isn't that simple.

Experts in disciplines ranging from economics to sociology to psychology have examined the motivations behind software piracy. There's no globally accepted explanation for software piracy. But experts in multiple disciplines have suggested a host of factors that contribute to a person's decision to steal software.

Let's get the money issue out of the way first. It's true that some people will steal software based on what it costs. If the price is higher than what the person is willing to pay, that person might pirate the software. A common justification for this kind of behavior goes something like this: The software company is enormous and makes billions of dollars. One stolen piece of software wouldn't be distinguishable for an organization that large and profitable. In other words, since the victims can't feel the loss, stealing from them isn't wrong.

Another common justification weighs cost against perceived value. The pirate might think that a piece of software is overpriced. This doesn't change the fact that the pirate wants access to that software. But rather than pay the asking price for the program, the pirate steals it. In the pirate's mind, the company is to blame for setting the price of the software far above its actual value. But would the pirate pay for the same piece of software if it were more reasonable?

Research into the matter suggests that many software pirates steal programs regardless of the software's price tag. The economic factor provides the pirate with a means to justify his or her actions but it isn't a real motivator. Studies suggest that people view digital property differently than physical property. They don't place as great a value on software as they would a physical object like a car. In addition, they think that stealing software isn't the same as taking a physical object because they're making a copy of a program rather than taking a physical object. Because they perceive software to have less value than physical objects, stealing software doesn't raise the same ethical concerns as grand theft auto [source: Crowell, et al].