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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WEB WATCH: How U.S. Out-Pirates Russia




Everybody seems to think that Russia is a haven for software pirates unique on Earth, a wild and amoral place worlds away from the law-abiding land of milk and honey across the Atlantic that produced Microsoft, Lotus, Oracle and other industry titans. After all, you can get the entire Microsoft library on a $6 CD in any self-respecting Moscow kiosk, and even some of the country's biggest and richest corporations required a personal visit from Microsoft's Bill Gates before they would shell out a few measly millions for licenses.


However, some brushes with homegrown Yankee pirates during a recent trip to visit my parents outside Chicago helped to put this hype about the wilds of Russia in perspective. Whatever the statistics say about the overall incidence of illegal software here and there, Russia's pirates are at least straightforward and comparatively less venal about their trade.


I was home for just over a week during the Christmas holidays and my father wanted help buying and configuring a new desktop PC to replace the old 386 unit he'd been using since 1991. We found a small chain of stores in the Yellow Pages which assembles custom machines from client-specified components and set off to place an order at their respectable-looking outlet in a nearby strip mall. I told the salesman what we wanted and then started wandering around the store while my dad completed the transaction.


At the same time, he also purchased two separate copies ("install one, copy none," as they say) of Microsoft Office -- one for himself, and one for my sister, a starving veterinary student with a new laptop.


The whole operation took less than 30 minutes, and my dad's computer would be ready in 24 hours at a great price. I was floating in a some kind of jet-lagged stupor, infatuated with my new immersion in American customer service and convenience.


Later that evening, I sat down to install MS Office on my sister's laptop. Hmm, I thought as I peered into the bag, just a CD enclosed in cellophane -- no manuals or oversized shrink-wrapped boxes any more. Microsoft must be bending in the environmental winds by eliminating superfluous packaging and paper.


But doubt started to nag at the back of my mind. I peered closely at the CD case, and decided that the printing looked suspiciously like a color laser copy made on an overworked machine. The texture of the CD itself felt like a rough silkscreen job. I started to suspect that we'd paid more than $300 for the illicit $2 product of some guy's garage.


To confirm my suspicions, with a certain amount of search effort I unearthed the Licenses and Piracy page of Microsoft's web site (http://www.microsoft.com/piracy). Sure enough, I learned that Microsoft products are never sold without shrink-wrapped manuals, license agreement and a hologram-watermarked certificate of authenticity, or COA.


When we returned to the store for my dad's computer, we took a nonconfrontational approach over the software and simply requested that they provide us with the accompanying manuals, license and COA, as if they might have "forgotten." But they didn't get the hint, and insisted that manuals are now contained on the CD and that they receive the CDs this way from a legitimate distributor -- at a significant discount, which they pass on to their customers! I didn't have the heart to explain that for a real "discount" like theirs, I could buy a round trip ticket to shop in Moscow and still save money over their price.


The next day my dad called Microsoft's anti-piracy hotline, and we await new developments.


The following week, while emerging from a shoe store in another suburban strip mall, a storefront labeled "Used Computer Software -- Buy and Sell" beckoned. Inside, row upon row of shelves were lined with boxes of apparently legal software, but all opened and previously owned. Maybe I'm missing something, but most consumer software licenses explicitly prohibit resale. And how many people who sold products to the store actually removed the copy from their own computers first? The sheer brazenness of a place like this in America's heartland rivals the worst excesses of Moscow's "Radio Rynok," I think.


According to statistics compiled by the Business Software Alliance (http://www.bsa.org), the software industry's main anti-piracy advocate, in 1996 about 91 percent of all software in use in Russia was illegal, with a retail value of about $383 million. While the U.S. piracy rate for the same period was just 27 percent, the estimated retail value of the illegal products in America's huge market dwarfed the Russian total at more than $2.3 billion.


Maybe Russia isn't such a wild and wooly place after all. At least the pirates are honest and don't gouge profits exceeding 15,000 percent of their production costs. Software piracy is illegal and wrong, and Bill Gates can charge as much as he wants for his products, no question about it. But someday an enterprising economics Ph.D. student will write a dissertation about the net effects of piracy on the growth of the Russian computer industry and economy, and the conclusions could prove surprising.


Bill Fick welcomes any tips on interesting web sites or questions concerning the Internet for this column. Fick is co-founder of Samovar Internet Consulting, LLC. Web: http://www.samovar.ru; e-mail: bill@samovar.ru; tel/fax: 233-2261