My Turn

Theft in the Computer World

Andrew W. Hill - 2001.08.13

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

Do you consider yourself a thief?

Have you ever stolen something that you wanted so badly you just couldn't wait to afford it? Have you ever been so hungry that you had to steal a loaf of bread or helped yourself to an apple on a farmer's tree? How about needing a particular software program for school or work, but balking at the several hundred dollar price tag or upgrading your version of Mac OS without paying the fee Apple wants? Kept your shareware program longer than 30 days (or whatever) without paying?

How about Napster? Ever felt that buying a CD was too expensive or took up too much of your time to go down to a retail outlet?

Face it, most of you who are reading this are thieves.

I'm not trying to be judgmental here, just pointing out something most people do not realize. Most people would never consider stealing food or a new toy. But something they can get electronically is seemingly much different. Almost everyone I've talked to says that they don't feel like they stole software, only that they were using their wits to beat the system.

The biggest place people fall down with computer theft is Napster.

Everyone loves music; Friedrich Neitzche once said, "Without music, life would be a mistake." Due to the high level of media coverage, Napster gained a huge user base. There are Napster clients for virtually every platform, and many college students have better speakers on their computers than on their stereos. In less than three months, most of the entering freshmen at my college amassed 1-5 gigabytes of MP3s via Napster, which corresponds to over 1000 songs. This is easy inside a college residence hall, as high speed Internet lines are frequently available.

Think about 1000 songs. Let us suppose a CD has 15 tracks and costs $10. By that estimate, these 1000 songs are over $650 worth of music. Suddenly that time you stole a candy bar when you were 12 doesn't seem quite so bad, does it?

Let's look into shareware now. Shareware is a system by which software is distributed on the honor system. You get to try out the software for a set period of time, usually 30 days, and if you like it you send the author a small fee for it. This is much cheaper than most commercial software packages, as there are no costs involved in packaging or storing the merchandise, or in hiring people to sell it or a venue to sell from. Yet most people try to find a way around it.

I feel shareware is the best way to sell software, as you generally get to test something out before you buy it. Many people and businesses have bought a program such as Adobe Acrobat and discovered that they have no idea how to use it, and after talking with tech support from various places they discover they would have been much better off with something like PrintToPDF.

Adobe Photoshop is another example. Don't get me wrong, Photoshop is an excellent program that has very powerful tools for graphic designers. However, many people - especially businesses and research institutions - go into a Photoshop purchase with the aim of viewing images, doing some scanning and maybe some light cropping, and editing work. For those people I would recommend GraphicConverter. GraphicConverter is one of those programs people talk about. It's only $35 and can handle the same workload many people put into Photoshop. It is much easier to use, has lower disk and RAM requirements, and updates are almost always free.

How many people do you think actually pay for Graphic Converter. The only downside to not paying is an irritating 5 second wait at startup right? Fortunately, some people must be paying for Graphic Converter, or else the author would stop writing updates. People not paying for shareware is the leading cause for shareware's decline in recent years.

In the 80s and early 90s, the user community was brimming with shareware. The Internet wasn't in full force yet, but those BBSes were distributing shareware all over the place, and people were dutifully paying for it. Now people justify not paying by saying, "it works fine without the registration," or "$15 isn't going to help this guy."

How about other programs? People balk at the $200 price to upgrade Office 98 to Office 2001. They ask me, "Is it good? Is it worth it?" My response is usually, "No, but get it anyway." The software companies made a very smart marketing choice in changing from version numbers to year numbers. Suppose if it was called "Word 8" and "Word 9." That's only one number different, whereas their are three whole years between Word 98 and Word 2001.

When the new version is released, the large company or university makes the switch. To stay current, so do all the students and workers. Resistance is futile. People will constantly say, "Your computer is out of date" or "Macs are incompatible." I've said it before and I'll say it again - the only improvement that I have noticed in my every day use of Word 2001 over Word 98 is that the autobullet feature actually works. That's it. I'm not saying there aren't other features that are nice, but that isn't the issue.

So what does an underpaid employee or an in-debt college student do? I have heard stories of people all putting in some money and buying one copy as a group - and of people buying such software at educational prices and then selling it on eBay for a profit. Do they consider this stealing? Of course not. They're surviving. For many financially burdened people, taking a $400 computer program is no different than a $1.25 loaf of bread.

Now let's look at that $1.25 loaf of bread. I'm guessing almost none of you have stolen a load of bread because you were hungry. This doesn't include pranks or dares. I'm guessing at least half of the readers have either not paid for shareware or been involved in software piracy. I would go on to say that probably 75% of everyone that reads this article has used Napster or has no problem with others using Napster.

Pay those shareware fees. Buy that CD. Support shareware authors and musicians so they don't have to steal loaves of bread.

Andrew W. Hill (a.k.a. Aqua) has been using Macintosh computers since 1987 and maintains that the Mac SE is the perfect Macintosh, superior to all - including the Color Classic. He is on the verge of being evicted from the family home due to its infestation of Macs (last count: about 50). Andrew is attempting to pay his way through college at UC Santa Cruz with freelance web design and Mac tech support.

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