by Alex Rozanski

The 90/10 rule of piracy

Dec 15th 2009Published in Software

I have talked about piracy before, but I was inspired by Matt Gemmell‘s take on it in Episode #9 of the MDN Show:

Piracy is pretty much an unsolvable problem. That’s a controversial thing to say, but I don’t mean it’s absolutely technically unsolvable, but it’s one of these situations where you have diminishing returns. The better your protection, the better your solution to the problem of cracking and piracy and so forth, typically the more it ends up hurting your users.

I completely agree with that point, with something I like to call the 90/10 rule. That is, that a large percentage – hopefully the larger percentage – of your users are legitimate, but that there are always going to be a small percentage of users who will pirate your software, and no matter what you do, they won’t pay for it. And as Gemmell said, the more you try to prevent piracy, the more it hurts the 90% of your users who are legitimate.

The people who are going to pirate your software are split into two main categories:

  1. The hardcore pirates. These people aren’t going to pay for your software. Period. No matter how good your anti-piracy implementation, they’ll try and get around it. And if they don’t crack it, they’re not going to pay, because they just don’t want to pay you.
  2. The casual pirates. These people often don’t actively seek to harm you, but they may need to use your software immediately but can’t pay for it straight away. Perhaps they work for a company and need to go through some admin to pay for it, but they need to use your software right now.

For the casual pirates, this is where your basic anti-piracy enforcements come into play, such as serial numbers, for example. They aren’t actively seeking to harm your business, but they may do so to get the software immediately. But they are unlikely to persue the case to the end of the Earth to pirate your software if the methods to do so aren’t immediately available. If your anti-piracy methods are just good enough, they’re probably going to become legitimate users because it’s not worth their effort to pirate your software and will expend that effort paying for it.

However, the hardcore pirates are likely to go to the end of the Earth and beyond to pirate your software. These are the 10% and they don’t want to pay. Perhaps this is a moral decision, perhaps they just don’t like you. Perhaps they just don’t like companies. But the bottom line is that they are not going to pay you. If they can’t get past your anti-piracy methods, they’re not going to pay you, and if they successfully pirate your software they’re not going to pay you. Either way it’s a lost cause.

Hopefully less than 10% of your users are actively pirating your software to cause you harm. But instead of focusing on the 10% of your users who just aren’t going to pay, you should look to the other 90% of the people who are paying for your software, and think about them.

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