Is protecting shareware against pirates worth the expense?

Software piracy is rampant. As the owner of a software company, it is in my best interest to protect our software from being pirated, used illegally, or used past the trial expiration date isn’t it? Every copy of software that someone pirates is money that we don’t receive. That is money that we could have used for additional research and development of new products. It is money that we could pour back into our products to make them better. It is money that could be used to market our products, to increase our sales and market share. Most of all, it is money that could be used to expand our business. So we should do everything we can to prevent our software from being copied and make sure everyone pays for it, right?

The answer is not necessarily yes. While forcing people to pay for your software is typically the most powerful incentive for using strict copy protection schemes, there are often opposing incentives, alternatives, and consequences which are overlooked in favor of this quest for cash.

Market share is by far the most meaningful and most powerful reason for not strictly enforcing copy protection. One prime example is WinZip. Everyone knows what this is, what it does, and why it is important. With a few mouse clicks, it can reduce over four hundred megabytes of log files to under thirty. The price tag is a mere $30. How many times have you used this software, and have you ever paid for it? Chances are you’ve used it plenty and never paid for it.

Can you name three other commercial software applications that perform the same function as WinZip? If you can, then you’re in the minority. The zip file format has become so prolific and widespread that very few people are even aware that WinZip is just one of a handful of applications which can handle zip files. This is especially true when it comes to people just learning how to use a computer for the first time. The makers of WinZip hold a considerable market share over their competitors, and it is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. It is a direct result of their policy of not enforcing copy protection on their software. The ability to zip a file is built directly into Windows XP, yet people still use WinZip instead of XP to zip their files.

An alternative to a strict copy protection scheme is to simply not distribute the full version as shareware. Many customers are leery of purchasing software from a small, internet only company because if it goes out of business, they have nowhere to turn for support. Their investment is gone. If they change machines, they need help moving their license from one machine to another. Distributing an unprotected executable after the sale is becoming more and more popular as a distribution option. This allows the customer to freely install the software to any computers he wishes, putting the power back into his hands. He feels honest because he has purchased it, can install it freely, and you’ve still been paid as a developer. This is slightly different than the typical licensing model, but many end users seem to appreciate this.

The third powerful reason for not strictly enforcing copy protection is end user complexity. If the copy protection scheme is too complicated, many users simply won’t understand how to activate their software and will become frustrated enough to search for alternatives or demand a refund. Questions from users result in tech support calls, which cost the company money. In an application which sells for several hundred dollars per license, it is worth the time investment to support many calls. For a product under $30, it is not.

It is important to realize that you have three customers: those who will pay for your product, those who will not, and those who might pay for it. The first group is guaranteed income. The second is guaranteed to pirate and never pay for your software. The third group should be your target. Copy protection does not need to be difficult or involved. It should discourage casual copying, encourage people to register, and above all, make the customer feel good about paying you for your hard work.

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