It’s hard to go anywhere online without hearing about piracy. Everyone in the PC space is doing something with it, whether that’s implementing a hidden trapdoor into your game or trying to enforce an always-online connection, developers are trying damn near anything to cut down on the rate of piracy.
And yet among all this chaos and DRM and consumer protest, we can’t help but wonder. What do they really think of all this? Do developers really see piracy as a hydra to be beheaded? Does everybody believe in DRM? Do they prefer always-on services?
We talked to a few developers we know. We’ve written about their apps in the past. Most have at least one paid product. All have an opinion about piracy. Here’s what they thought, in their words.
They’ve done it, too
A common theme in developers’ responses was that they’ve pirated in the past. They’ve stolen apps, music, and programs just like the rest of us.
“I pirated everything until I got a job,” Smart Launcher developer Vincenzo Colucci said. “I used to download MP3s,” Jaku creator William Szilvester told us. “I did it in the past to check music albums,” Knock2+ developer Kevin Nivek revealed.
Developers are subject to the same temptations and pressures that any savvy internet user faces. When you know how to use Bittorrent, using it to torrent that new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album is tempting.
This one surprised us. Sentiments varied from developer to developer, but we encountered a surprising amount of understanding on the topic of piracy.
“I think everyone pirates, sometimes. And it is OK,” Nivek said. “Piracy is not always a bad thing,” Colucci said. “Some people can’t have a credit card. How can they get an app?”
“Piracy is just part of the game,” Szilvester told us. “I think it stems from people’s desire to increase their quality of life. I have a harder time with people that not only steal my stuff, but try to sell it.”
Developers we talked to understand that too often piracy is the resort of potential customers left with no viable legal method of purchase. For example, Android Police smartly pointed out that a significant amount of Android piracy is driven by Chinese consumers who lack access to the paid Play Store. They literally can’t pay for apps.
Consumers often resort to stealing when they feel that there is no viable legal alternative for buying a product. More convenient legal ways to get apps and music and movies tends to cut down on piracy. Netflix found when they launched in a new country, Bittorrent traffic dropped.
They’re not fans of DRM either
Opinions about DRM (digital rights management) ranged from negative to vitriolic. Cydia founder Jay Freeman had by far the strongest reaction, comparing anti-piracy measures to a loss of internet freedom. Developers were pessimistic.
Colucci attempted to put DRM into Smart Launcher once. “I spent about a week to implement it, then I published the protected version and the day after I found it cracked on every site. The only result that I got was that some people complained because the app, regularly purchased, stopped working on their devices.”
Szilvester had similar thoughts. “I was never a fan of punishing my supporters with ridiculous anti-piracy tactics.”
However, unlike other developers, he took the time to email Jay Freeman asking for “blacklist filters for known pirate repos.” Szilvester said, “There are things that could be implemented, but I don’t think the jailbreak guys really care to run Cydia like a business, and are probably more interested in tinkering and rooting iOS.”
We emailed Freeman and received a strongly worded response. “Blacklists fundamentally make no sense, because jailbroken devices are an open platform… anyone can just modify Cydia to not have a blacklist. Meanwhile you can just keep changing your hostname over and over again, so the blacklist would be pointless.
“The only way this would be enforceable would be locking down the device so only I had the keys… [sic] I have spent too much of my time in this community making certain that no one party has unilateral power like that: I’m not going to start it now.”
Freeman raises a good point. Open systems (like jailbroken iOS and Android) are great because they allow the user the freedom to decide what is best for him or herself. However, they also afford the user the opportunity to misbehave and do things like downloading apps from pirate repos.
This brings in a fundamental question of whether it is better to give people the power to decide for themselves (as open systems do) or remove the choice entirely (as stock iOS does). That question is a deeper debate for another time and article.
Szilvester said he appreciates that Cydia exists, warts and all. “I am just thankful that the [jailbreak] guys do what they do and I can make my iPhone (and those that run Jaku as well) pretty. At the end of the day, I think it’s best to just be thankful jailbreaks even exist.”
They really hope you’ll support them
This was another nearly universal trend. Although developers understand that piracy happens, they like to think that those with the means and opportunity to legally purchase their work will do so.
“Apps I always buy,” Nivek said. “Pirated apps are too unsafe and I want to support the other developer.”
Colucci had a similar point of view. “If you like software and you can spend that money, you should absolutely do it.”
Szilvester reminded us of a reality most pirates would rather not consider. “I’m friends with a fair bit of developers that publish for iOS and OS X and all of them are just really great guys that have families and are just trying to make a living. I couldn’t sleep at night if I stole their stuff.”
One of the best things you can do for an app is to support it monetarily. Whether that’s buying a paid version or sending the developer a donation over Paypal, money rewards clever people for creative work. It also keeps them in business so they can make more of the creative work we enjoy.
Ultimately, there is no easy way to look at piracy. Even this article is simply anecdotal evidence that won’t solve a much larger problem.
We don’t have a moral for you or a quick answer that will justify or condemn pirating software and apps. All we can say is to choose wisely.