Software piracy a serious issue – Microsoft

Software piracy and the sale of illegal copies of various programmes is an increasingly growing problem in South Africa. Anti-Piracy, Legal & Corporate Affairs lawyer for Microsoft Middle East & Africa, Marius Haman, spoke to IT News Africa about the problem – not only a local level, but also internationally – and what can be done to minimise the impact on the consumer.

In 2011, the estimated loss due to piracy was $564-million (image: Shutterstock)

How serious is the piracy situation in South Africa?

In South Africa, the BSA (Business Software Alliance) piracy rate hovers around 35%. It has been hovering around there for some time, and people tend to think that its not so bad. That rate is for all software piracy in South Africa, not just Microsoft; and people tend to think that it is not that bad when the world average sits around the mid 40’s.

The problem is really growing in South Africa, and in 2011, the estimated loss was $564-million. So it has increased since 2007, and there is a definite problem on the rise. As people gain access to broadband and peer-to-peer sites, the problem will only increase if nothing is  done.

What can be done to minimize piracy?

It is something that will probably never be eradicated. However, from a Microsoft perspective, we focus on three key areas, the three E’s – Engineering, Education and Enforcement. In engineering we try to make our products safer and more difficult to copy; Education is a critical piece because I think there are a lot of consumers who are being caught out because they do not know the software that they are using is pirated or from illegal copies.

And here we are not talking about just the street seller who walks around with copies of a programme. It happens when a consumer buys a PC from a reseller and they are not aware that the software they are being sold is illegal. Microsoft is putting more and more effort into creating awareness.

Consumers need to be made aware of where they can buy genuine copies and they also need to be taught the risk involved with installing illegal copies. And then the last pillar, Enforcement, is where a lot more has to be done in terms of working together with the private sector, rights holders such as Microsoft and law enforcement officials to clamp down on the people who distribute the software to consumers.

What risks are involved with running pirate software?

Very often, the people who are involved in this sort of thing are not necessarily interested in making money off the sale of the copy. The software that makes the PC vulnerable is then used to gain access to their personal information, banking details and much more. So where they make the real money is that they gain access to your PC, to confidential information and either sell that information or perpetrate commercial crimes.

In 78% of the cases of test purchases and case studies conducted, web-based programmes installed tracking cookies or spyware on PCs. That is a phenomenal amount, and the study also showed that 36% of the cases web-based programmes installed trojan horses or adware, and 28% of cases the programmes downloaded system performance issues. It is really high, and you would not even play Russian Roulette with those odds. Also, in 26% of the cases an actual virus was detected, and in 17% of the cases it caused the harddrive to be formatted, so that means data loss.

In a lot of cases, software piracy has often been seen as the soft underbelly of organised crime. The people who perpetrate these sort of crimes, are very tech savvy, run very sophisticated operations and do it with the ultimate goal to access PCs. It is a difficult crime to police, it is a growing crime, and its one that is seen as lucrative.

Where are all the pirate software copies coming from?

The origin of a lot of these high-quality counterfeit is, and has been for some time, from China – and that is a reality. Increasingly we have seen one or two other countries, but that is predominantly where it comes from.

Where it goes to, is the African countries, who are a prime target – not only in Africa, but this is a worldwide problem. But certainly in Africa, the piracy rates were quiet high, as Nigeria is at 82% of the BSA rate, while Kenya is 78% and Botswana 80%. It’s incredibly high when you think around 80% of all software in a country is pirated. That represents a huge financial loss not only to software vendors.

What is Microsoft doing to fight piracy?

In terms of what we do in South Africa, we have a number of programs running concurrently, and some of them are as informal as education and awareness pieces directed at consumers and some of those are more formal and often joint partnerships with the Intellectual Property Office in a particular country. In South Africa we work very closely with the companies and the CIBC. So there is an outreach to consumers and an outreach to government as well.

We also work very closely with law enforcement officials and agencies across the continent. Typically, in each country, the IPO will have a division that deals with the enforcement of intellectual property rights.

On the engineering side, programmes like Office365 – that require a download from the Microsoft site, is certainly one way to fight piracy.

Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor