The Technium

Why People Pirate Stuff

[Translations: Japanese]

In the universe of the free (“free” as in beer), getting ripped off is the norm. Yes, many products and services are deliberately priced at zero these days, but a significant portion of consumers will gravitate to illegitimate free versions of not-free stuff. Free versions of pricey digital products are not hard to find on underground file trading sites, or in bits and pieces on above ground aggregators like YouTube. Most high-priced wares like expensive commercial software can be had for literally nothing. But very cheap things are widely pirated for free as well. 


Why do people pirate inexpensive digital goods? Why steal candy? This was the question game developer Cliff Harris asked the online world. His games were priced at what he thought was a very reasonable $20. Yet, his games were being pirated constantly. Why? He really wanted to know if he needed to alter his business practices so he simply asked the Great Hive, “Why do people pirate my games?” No judgement — just asking. His query was replicated deep into the blogosphere making it to Slashdot, Digg, Arstechnica, and so on. He got hundreds and hundreds of replies, none of them shorter than 100 words. “It was,” he said, “as if a lot of people have waited a long time to tell a game developer the answer to this question.”

He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got — even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines  — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route.  Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.

Much to his credit, the sincere responses to his question changed Harris’s mind. He decided to alter his business model. He reduced the price of his games in half (to $10), he removed the little DRM copy protection he had, he promised to make his web store easier to use, maybe even with one-click checkout, he decided to increase the length of his free demos, and most importantly, he had the revelation that he needed to increase the quality of his games — even though they were only going for 20 bucks. He wrote:

My games aren’t as good as they could be. Ironically, one of the things that reduces your enthusiasm to really go the extra mile in making games is the thought that thousands of ungrateful gits will swipe the whole thing on day one for nothing. It’s very demoralizing. But actually talking to the pirates has revealed a huge group of people who really appreciate genuinely good games. Some of the criticisms of my games hit home. I get the impression that if I make Kudos 2 not just lots better than the original, but hugely, overwhelmingly, massively better, well polished, designed and balanced, that a lot of would-be pirates will actually buy it. I’ve gone from being demoralized by pirates to actually inspired by them, and I’m working harder than ever before on making my games fun and polished.

A final note is trying to make it easier for people to buy my games. I’m really hassling my payment provider to support amazons one-click method. For me, I think that’s even more convenient than Steam. I’m always doing what I can to make buying them as quick and easy as possible.

Harris’s article “Talking to Pirates” is only one page long, and worth reading. It will be most interesting to see if his modifications actually help his sales. I hope he follows through on this most excellent exercise by posting next year what happened.

(Thanks, Rebecca Blood.)

  • Jason Nelson

    I think a big part of it, at least at the root of piracy, is that many people feel they don’t have talents and are forced to work in the office, or an environment they don’t like. So, they instinctively don’t care very much about pirating because the people writing the songs are supposedly getting alot of money for just making a cd with ten or eleven 2 to 3 minute long products(the songs). People ask in the deepest part of their minds, “why should I have to give money to someone who is living the dream? Who’s going to pay ME for expressing myself?” Song writers cheat the system, they don’t work at a place where no one gives a crap about them, song writers are famous and enjoy their work. If someone gives money to make someone else happy and therefore make themselves poorer, they feel they have been cheated.

  • Carl

    He is got it right, his, is a friendly and refreshing actitud for a sofware devenloper, I appreciate that. I use to play democracy for free wich I think is one of his but I’ll be buying the next version, in my case is not really about the money is more about the challenge and the hassal of so many restrictions. He tuck DRM off the game and only for that he has my support, put on top of that the price reduction and increased quality… I can’t crack that, it would be definitlely not cool if I do. I’ll be talking to people, I hope you’ll see a big reduction of free copies on your next release.

    Thanks for asking Cliff

  • just fyi,

    the talking to pirates article was written by cliff harris, not chris (he even mentions in it that people think his name is chris).

    “Some people thought my name was chris, or that I developed Braid. But that doesn’t matter :D”

    • Kevin Kelly

      You are correct. His name is Cliff.

  • He might have mispriced the content, and it is good that he learned some insights by talking to users. But that does not justify piracy. The right response to mispricing should be ignorance, not piracy.

    I think people will steal even offline when the conditions are similar to the current online contents.

    1. There are free alternatives. If you know that there are free apples somewhere in your town, you will be likely to forego shopping at a supermarket.

    2. If the free apples are very close to where you live (meaning it does not cost much to use), you will be more likely to go for the free stuff.

    3. If people who provide free apples (though they somehow got the apples illegally) argue that they are entitled for free apples, and there are quite a few people who agree on that opinion (and the police is debating whether they should punish on this), you will be even more likely to choose free. Your moral standard and the external legal standards are both loose enough to justify your behavior.

    Like many other things, I think people are acting based on incentives. Compare the cost of legal buying (the price + the transaction efforts, which he identified correctly) with illegal getting, and you reach a conclusion. Plus, people seem to over(under?)value when the price is zero – advantage to free illegal stuff.

  • What would be interesting is if he tried to get past the fog of .

  • Remember that these issues do not pertain to the honourable exchange of material goods (something mankind’s been familiar with for millennia), but the choice of whether to recognise a merchant’s state granted monopoly over the reproduction of their published works.

    The mercantile privilege of monopoly suspends the public’s cultural liberty, thus it is not surprising that when the public fail to recognise such privilege and enjoy their liberty, the merchants term this as piracy or theft.

    If copies can be made without cost, then plainly, their market price is zero. This is why people don’t pay for copies – not because they believe they’re stealing them.

    What people are not inclined to pay is a toll to the privileged publisher.

    It is thus time the artist recognised that the same device that renders copies so inexpensive is the same device that make communication with their customers inexpensive – they no longer need a monopoly over copies, and can sell their art to their audience directly.

    Set your audience free, and let them haggle with you over your art. Your audience knows how to make copies. Only you know how to make your art. So don’t sell copies, sell your art.

    The value is in the art, not the copy.

    The exchange is obvious: art for money, money for art.

  • I would pirate if:

    the material was overpriced
    the material was unavailable for any kind of trial, meaning that I’d have to purchase “sight unseen”
    the material was out of reach somehow- i.e., I had no credit card or paypal

    I wouldn’t pirate material that I was sure I wanted and that was priced appropriately. If an artist is giving their work away I will also often donate to them. But I find it sad that so many useful things are out of reach for people.

    Simply put, if you’re too poor to buy bread, or if the bread costs twice what it’s worth, you’re gonna have to steal it.

  • please excuse the formatting error! oops.

  • I believe the answer to why people pirate games or any software, even the cheap ones, is pretty simple:

    Because paying 0 $/€ is cheaper than even 10 $/€.

    Don’t forget:

    People who pirated a game ≠ people who would pay for it if they couldn’t get it for free

    The game was interesting enough to pirate but not good or popular enough to pay for.

  • Phil McThomas

    The concept that the “copy is zero cost” is ridiculous. It overlooks the development costs.

    If copies are free, then the first sale needs to recoup the investment plus the expected ROI. That idea is just as silly as saying that copies cost nothing.

    Also, the analogy to stealing bread falls down badly when you’re talking about a friggin’ computer game.

    I admire Harris’s earnestness, but I fear the real reason is “because I can”. No matter how cheap or how great the product is, “because I can” doesn’t look like it’s going to go away.

  • I believe that convenience is the real driver of piracy, and consumerism in general. Thousands of people downloaded Radiohead’s In Rainbows ‘illegally’ on P2P networks, even though it was available to download for free from the official site.

    If an official retailer has a website or security features that makes it awkward for someone to buy or use their product, then many people will prefer to get it for free, even if they might be prepared to pay for it… a cracked version of a game/song/software might be more convenient than the official version. For example, I bought the Orange Box with Steam, but couldn’t use it for several days because I didn’t have an Internet connection…and for software authorisation, an iLok uses up a USB port…

    • Kevin Kelly

      @dan foley says: “Thousands of people downloaded Radiohead’s In Rainbows ‘illegally’ on P2P networks, even though it was available to download for free from the official site.”

      Didn’t know that! For some folks picking it up on bitorrent is easier; for others going to Radiohead’s site is easier. It does seem that convenience is key.

      @gmoke. I’ll have to check out Rogue Economics. Thanks.

  • Reading _Rogue Economics_ by Loretta Napoleoni and in her chapter on China she talks a little about piracy. Her take is that brand protection and strong intellectual property rights make the both the genuine and the pirated versions more valuable.

    Haven’t finished the book yet and she might have more to say. Interesting companion to _Shock Doctrine_ although Napoleoni hasn’t yet formulated a doctrine of rogue economics for me yet. It is still a collection of behaviors. Gradually, she seems to be explaining the emerging differences between the dying nation-state and the emerging market-state.

    In the market-state, we may all be pirates. (In which case, climate change will no longer exist – if you can believe the Pastafarians.)

  • I agree with Phil above. They may point to greedy corporations, or make noise about evaluation copies, or say they want “try before they buy” (and never do), but in the end those are just convenient rationalizations.

    They’re simply cowards who would never dream of attempting to shoplift a game from a store. Why? Because they might get caught.

    But they then download the same exact game from a torrent in the safety of their parent’s basement. Why? Because the chances of getting caught are effectively zero.

  • John Beeler

    This article examines why bittorrent downloads of Radiohead’s In Rainbows outnumbered legit downloads:

    and suggests that looking at these online spaces as “venues” with brands all their own might explain why people actually trust Pirates Bay more than, say, Harris’ site.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Thanks, John.

  • aorto

    I download music for free frequently. I will say I have purchased a few CDs and vinyl version of stuff I’ve downloaded as I would never have heard it otherwise.

    This doesn’t necessarily justify the downloading wholesale but as an audiophile I’d rather have a better sonic version of something I truly enjoy then the compressed version of the mp3 (FLAC or other lossless format notwithstanding which takes up too much HD space and can’t fit on a regular CD).

    Because of this I’ve actually expanded my musical horizons and have increased (from zero) the number of artists I’d pay way too much money to see in concert.

    The other option? If this stuff weren’t so freely available I wouldn’t know about it and would probably be now worse off. But it’s there, it’s available and I download it.

    In my defense, I never sell something I’ve downloaded and it is way beyond rare when I copy it for someone else (and this usually onto another’s mp3 player rather than a hard copy of some kind).

    It’s available, it’s free and it’s convenient. I’ve got no agenda with the music industry (though I certainly feel no allegiance to it either). What I will certainly pay money for is vinyl, though, again with the economics, not the $20 or more for new releases. I simply can’t afford it.

    When I buy my used CD on ebay, the artist doesn’t see a dime of my money and certianly not a dime beyond the initial purchase of that CD.

    Is there some moral or ethical reason not to download something for personal use that is freely available? How is this any different, aside from scale, than copying an LP onto a cassette tape or CD?

  • The most important thing to me is what this insights and the process of getting this insights did to Cliff himself:

    “I’ve gone from being demoralized by pirates to actually inspired by them, and I’m working harder than ever before on making my games fun and polished.”

    I think not enough people in the industry are doing this. Talking to pirates. Understanding pirates. Seeing them as potential customers instead of judging them, fighting them.

    There is a huge potential in having a closer look on the customer type “pirate”. Not just in optimizing your own product to get more value so they don`t pirate anymore, but also in motivation your own team and getting a deeper customer relationship with your target group. And pirates are definitely your target group.

  • Just read about this about music piracy so I thought you may want to read what Nick Hornby had to say while exploring the Naked Economics book.

  • Hi Kevin, I enjoy reading all you stuff on-line, thanks for taking the time to write it. I do feel that the discussion on piracy tends to avoid the base line question that we are often trying to compare apples with oranges or at least what one person sees as oranges with what another person sees as apples.

    Combine this with the fact that one person may like oranges or apples more, we are already in complex waters.

    We can look at music as an example as the whole DRM issue has been mauled over in public by some of the biggest corporations but at the end of the day the questions are.

    1/Do you like the recording of the music?
    2/Do you think you will want to hear the recording of it again?
    3/Would you prefer to hear the musician/s play it for real/live?

    At best the recording of the music is a residual representation of the ‘real thing’ that only existed in the moment of it being played. In the same way that these words are only a record of thoughts that were in my head a few minutes ago.

    I think I read on your blog a while ago about some early field recordings made of musicians in Bali(?). When the engineers played the music back to the musicians they said “why would anyone want to listen to that when it is so easy for us to play some more music”

    We all value our own work when we first ‘publish’ it. With time it becomes validated by other people (or not). But in reality our thoughts and skills have already moved on to other and better things…

  • Blackbeard

    Pirating is generally a way of trying out an actual product– vs. the hamstrung “demo” version which claims to be 20x better if you pay for it. 99 times out of 100, the actual version really isn’t worth it, and gets erased immediately; also it’s crazy to buy an entire program just to use it once or twice. However if something’s good, I think that most people will become hooked and buy the sequels etc. For example, I downloaded certain games and other software, and found them so impressive that I ended up purchasing hundreds of dollars worth of the company’s other products; meanwhile I deliberately pirated Microsoft Office because I paid for the standard version, only to be told that I couldn’t install it on more than three of my own computers– and had to go through endless hassles with “Megasoft” whenever I wanted to simply re-install etc. It’s just a way of beating the system when it gets ridiculous.
    It’s the same thing with music; the giants of industry have suffered the wrath of their own greed coming full-circle on them, and they can either adapt or die whining about it. It’s just a form of protest.

  • Brad Armstrong

    As a lawyer, I think the question of intellectual property is legitimate, since software is more of an invention than a writing– and writing is generally subject to “fair use” as long as you don’t plagiarize it. The extension of copyright laws to software is really an abuse of the law by big business to get what it wants, and so the lat poster was right that pirates are just beating the system in order to fight the big corporations who own the corrupt legal system. If the law was enforced properly, then copyright-law wouldn’t apply to software.

  • As a lawyer, I think the question of intellectual property is legitimate, since software is more of an invention than a writing— and writing is generally subject to “fair use” as long as you don’t plagiarize it. The extension of copyright laws to software is really an abuse of the law by big business to get what it wants, and so the lat poster was right that pirates are just beating the system in order to fight the big corporations who own the corrupt legal system. If the law was enforced properly, then copyright-law wouldn’t apply to software.