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Inside a $59 Billion Heist: The Contradictory Opinions and Behaviors of the World’s Software Pirates

Earlier this year, BSA reported in its annual Global Software Piracy Study that the commercial value of PC software theft leapt 14 percent worldwide in 2010 to $59 billion. Behind all that theft, of course, were millions and millions of computer users installing unlicensed software in homes, businesses, government agencies, and other enterprises.

What were they thinking?

In the past, we haven’t known very much about them. But now, thanks to the most extensive research effort ever undertaken on the subjects of software piracy and intellectual property rights, we do.

BSA commissioned Ipsos Public Affairs to survey roughly 15,000 PC users in 32 countries. Ipsos conducted between 400 and 500 interviews per country, in person and online. Today, based on the findings from those surveys, we are releasing an in-depth analysis of the attitudes and behaviors of the world’s software pirates.

Click here to download the white paper. (PDF)

The conclusions are striking:

  • Nearly half of the world’s computer users (47 percent) acquire their software by illegal means most or all of the time, even though more than seven in 10 (71 percent) profess support for intellectual property rights and protections.
  • In developing countries, the figures are even higher. In China, for example, 86 percent of PC users are regular software pirates. In Nigeria, it is 81 percent. In Vietnam, it is 76 percent.
  • Business decision-makers are just as likely to be pirates as other PC users, which is troubling because enterprise settings account for a disproportionate share of the dollar value of global software piracy.
  • Many of the world’s software pirates may not even realize they are breaking the law and betraying their own principles, which underscores the importance of concerted public-education and enforcement campaigns.

The survey makes it clear that the global software piracy epidemic is spreading fastest in China, which is now the world’s biggest market for new PCs. The 86 percent of computer users in China who are regular software pirates accounted for approximately 206 million PCs last year. That was twice as many pirate PCs as were running in the second-placed United States, even though America still had 40 percent more PCs in use overall — and it was an astounding seven times as many as were running in third-place Brazil.

Taken together, the survey data paint a statistical portrait of today’s archetypal software pirate: He is likely to be an 18- to 34-year-old man who lives in China, works at a company with less than 100 employees, and uses a computer in his job. In his attitudes and behaviors toward intellectual property rights and software, he is a walking contradiction, supporting IP principles and preferring legal software in theory, yet getting most of his software illegally because he doesn’t understand what’s okay and what isn’t. He also appears to be affected by his surroundings. For example, he believes software piracy is commonplace, and he thinks it is unlikely people who steal software will be caught.

It is shocking that nearly half the world’s PC users are regular software pirates. But it is also encouraging that most regular pirates acquire their software legally at least some of the time, because it suggests they can be persuaded to do it consistently.

Never before have we had such clear and convincing evidence of the need for industry and governments to redouble their public-education efforts and send stronger deterrent signals to the marketplace with vigorous enforcement of IP laws.

Robert Holleyman


As President and CEO of BSA | The Software Alliance from 1990 until April 2013, Robert Holleyman long served as the chief advocate for the global software industry. Before leaving BSA to start his own venture, Cloud4Growth, Holleyman led the most successful anti-piracy program in the history of any industry, driving down software piracy rates in markets around the world.

Named one of the 50 most influential people in the intellectual property world, he was instrumental in putting into place the global policy framework that today protects software under copyright law. A widely respected champion for open markets, Holleyman also was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations, the principal advisory committee for the US government on trade matters.

Holleyman was a leader in industry efforts to establish the legal framework necessary for cloud-computing technologies to flourish. He was an early proponent for policies that promote deployment of security technologies to build public trust and confidence in cyberspace. And he created a highly regarded series of forums for industry executives and policymakers to exchange points of view and forge agreements on the best ways to spur technology advances and promote economic growth.

Before heading BSA, Holleyman was a counselor and legislative adviser in the United States Senate, an attorney in private practice, and a judicial clerk in US District Court. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, a J.D. from Louisiana State University, and has completed the Stanford Executive Program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

4 thoughts on “Inside a $59 Billion Heist: The Contradictory Opinions and Behaviors of the World’s Software Pirates”

    1. Good question. The answer is both — at work and in schools. Mexico offers some great examples. There, government and industry are starting with a concerted effort to lead by example. (See Jodie Kelley’s recent post on the topic.) Government agencies such as the country’s industrial property authority, its internal revenue service, and its public attorney’s office are first ensuring they have their own houses in order. Working with industry, they are then raising public awareness with advertisements on billboards and in magazines asking, “Do you know what’s on your computer?” These advertisements are aimed at people in enterprise settings — and that carries over to home users, because there is a big overlap between the population of people who have computers at home and those who use computers at work. Meanwhile, Mexico’s biggest university, Universidad Nacional de Mexico, is following suit with an effort to ensure it is using only legal software, and it is communicating that to students. Finally, industry and government sponsor a digital animation contest for Mexican university students that promotes awareness of intellectual property rights. Students use legal software to create their own original works, such as Flash animations or movies. In the process, they learn about the value of those original creations and understand the implications of having them stolen.

  1. This is an quite interesting research, although you have a quite wrong base and you know it. The existance of the so called “ilegal” comes from the impossibility of aquiring it in “legal” ways. If you sell your software for a price people are not willing to buy it for, therefore you are overpricing it, law of market, isn’t it?
    The software industry will only reduce the piracy(which is in concept have profit selling software from someone else for yourself, without paying the proper intelectual property) and the ilegal sharing of software(which is completely different, and also should be reviewed) when the product become affordable, when it costs what it really has in value.

    There are always 2 sides for the same story. Don’t forget that software is made for customers and your profit depend completely on them. Keep them happy.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It is important to understand that a substantial share of software piracy occurs in companies that are doing business in the global economy. These companies invest in plenty of other capital assets, such as plants and equipment, and then cut corners on software. The fact is the most common form of piracy is when people buy a license to install a program on one computer and then ignore the terms of the license by installing it on other computers, too. In a large company, that can quickly multiply into hundreds or thousands of illegal copies. It is against the law, and it is unfair to other companies that pay for their software the way they are supposed to.

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