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Why are you stealing that software
piracy in South East Asia

Ubiquity, Volume 2004 Issue July | BY Louis Jezsik 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Boon Chuthaporn, a Thai in his mid twenties, is buying software in Bangkok. He doesn't need to shop around too much, the mall he is visiting is five stories of small, privately owned shops dedicated to computer hardware and software.

The mall is as bustling as any outdoor market in South East Asia. Hawkers wave the latest titles at customers as they walk past, buyers haggle for the best deal. Speakers blare a cacophony of pop music and movie soundtracks.

For Boon, it's a matter of finding a vendor he likes, one who has a good selection. He buys software for less than $4USD per CD. He makes his selection, pays a deposit, then waits around for twenty minutes while a runner goes to collect his order. The software in not kept on site in case of a police raid. Boon takes the wait in stride, but explains how he used to be able to pick it up right away. The raids are a government attempt at controlling the piracy. He also mentions that the price of CD's has gone up by about a dollar as a result.

Software here is a commodity. A copy of the latest Microsoft Office sells for the same price as a multi-CD collection of shareware fonts and clipart.

The software comes in a cellophane envelope with a color photocopy insert that looks just like the CD jacket of the original. The only exception is when a software activation number is printed across the bottom. The CD inside is usually an unmarked generic disk, but some have disks printed much like the original. They don't bother with plastic jewel boxes, choosing instead to use a simple binder to hold the disks and inserts.

When asked if he's concerned over the fact that he is buying pirated software, Boon shrugs it off. Why should he buy software for twenty times the price he pays now? With regard to supporting the software developers and encouraging them to continue their good work, he would like to help but thinks they are just a bit too greedy. If they sold their goods at a price he could afford, he'd certainly consider it.

Legitimate software is available here. A businessman examines the prices for MS Office. The prices listed are the same as that in Europe and North America. When asked why he doesn't buy the copy versions, he explains that the government mandates that companies must own valid licenses. He admits that many still use pirated versions, but anyone doing business with the government or with foreign firms strive for legitimacy. Getting caught means losing face and losing contracts.

The few ex-patriots and tourists in the mall are buying small stacks of software, music and DVD's. Their attitude is much the same as Boon's, "Why pay more?" Many are buying up software titles they freely admit they probably won't use, but argue that at these prices, they buy them just in case.

Further south, in Malaysia, you can buy the finest duplicates anywhere in South East Asia. The CD labels are exactly the same as those found on the legitimate titles, the paper insert is produced on a printing press. The only thing missing is the little booklet found in most packages. You would be hard pressed to tell the copy from the real thing except that the DVD's sold here are set to region 0. That means that they will work in any player in the world.

Here, as in Thailand, you will find the latest releases, including films that have not yet opened in theatres. An ex-pat explains that you have to be careful when buying current movies. He picked up a few that were shot with a video camera in the theatre. He figured it was just a crummy copy until someone stood up in a row in front.

Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown is where most of the tourists do their shopping. In the evening, traffic is rerouted and market stalls fill the street. In addition to music, software and movies, you will find Rolex watches, Prada shoes, Louis Vuitton handbags, DKNY t-shirts, and a host of other knockoffs.

For about fifty bucks, you can buy a luxury watch. A tourist compares his Rolex to a copy. At a glance, they look to be the same manufacturer. Examine them closely, however, and you will note the difference in the sheen of the metal, the duplicate's edges and lines are a bit muted, the imprint of the characters on the watch face not as sharp.

Software, of course, remains sharp when you duplicate it.

There is a sudden commotion at the far end of the street. Vendors pause, look around and call out to friends. Watch dealers, music, movie and software vendors hurriedly pack away and conceal their goods. A military-looking truck slowly rolls up to the end of the street. A score of policemen descend and casually make their way through the market. A local explains how spotters alert the merchants to the raid. Several minutes later, the cops return with a few boxes of CD cases. They managed to nab one of the dozens of pirates operating in the street.

It is obvious that no serious effort is made to stop the piracy. This raid was more for show, to demonstrate that the government is catching pirates. Once in a while, they put on a big raid for visiting foreigners. Within days, after paying a small fine, the merchants are back on the street — making money to support their families.

Singapore, the most modern country in South East Asia, is actively involved with international efforts to stop software piracy. They are not paying lip service either. Pirates exist, but they play a cat and mouse game with the authorities. If you want to buy software here, you'll be hard pressed to buy anything but the real thing. Singaporeans can well afford to pay the full price for software. They have a standard of living on par with the USA and Europe. Interestingly many of the tourists buying CD's in Malaysia and Thailand come from Singapore.

Indonesia has plenty of pirated CD's, but not nearly as many as Malaysia and Thailand. The government blusters about their effort to control piracy, but the situation here is much the same as their northern neighbors.

Few people can afford software because few people can afford the hardware. Most of the music you see here, for example, is distributed on inexpensive audio cassettes, not CD's.

Cambodia and Vietnam have the cheapest counterfeits in South East Asia. While the price is low, so too is the quality. The Cambodian government isn't troubled by pirates, it has more important concerns — namely rebuilding the country and disposing of land mines. Vietnam, on the other hand, fails to see why it should support the West's efforts to make more money (while the US has gone out of its way to hamstring Vietnamese industries such as catfish farming).

You don't find much CD pirating going on in Myanmar or Laos, however. In fact, it's difficult to find a store selling any kind of software. There's simply no market in countries with few computers. Albums here are generally sold in tape format, not CD's.

If you look for local music, chances are you'll find audio tapes. Local artists on CD are rare. Interestingly, you will have a hard time finding counterfeit versions of these artists. Instead, they sell for the full price. Retailers insist that there is not a large enough market to bother duplicating regional music.

There's more to it then that, however. A couple of years ago, Thailand's queen inspired the making of a big budget historical epic, the Legend of Suriyothai. When asked why cheaper versions could not be had, vendors claim pirating the film would dishonor the royal family. They fail to mention that the police are on the look-out for duplicates of the film and crack down hard on anyone pirating this particular movie.

With the exception of Singapore, the average income of families in South East Asia is a mere fraction of that in the West. Yet, the price of software, movies and music remains the same. There is little wonder why anyone would pay full price for the privilege of owning a legitimate license.

The West demands that South East Asian governments put an end to piracy. Billions of dollars, they claim, are lost every year. Will Asian governments see any of that money if they could crack down on piracy? Would any financially strapped government dedicate resources to an effort that has virtually no payback? In fact, such an effort might well have negative consequences.

Suppose a third world nation was able to totally eliminate counterfeit software. The only people able to afford it would be the upper class and businesses. If you want to work in an office, you need to know how to use software. If you are lucky enough to own a computer, you probably can't afford to load it with software. Companies looking for new talent will have to contend with candidates with little or know software experience, thus reducing their effectiveness and their competitiveness in a global market.

The Thai government worked with computer manufacturers and vendors to come up with a budget computer that Thais could afford. The effort has been successful. Thais are buying the hardware. They've also worked with software creators to develop Thai language versions of their software, and worked hard to make sure the price is in keeping with Thai salaries. These too can be purchased at the mall. While inexpensive, they still cost considerably more than the English titles Boon has acquired. "Not so popular," the merchants explain when asked about the higher price.

Boon collects his software and examines it to make sure it's what he ordered. He's applying for a new job and wants to make sure he has some hands-on experience with the software he may need. "If I can do more," he says, "I can get better job and make more money."

That's really what it comes down to: money. Western businesses make a legitimate demand for compensation. It's the size of that compensation that causes potentially legitimate consumers to seek out cheaper alternatives.

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