'Casual piracy' undercuts shareware concept

How honest are people when they think nobody's looking?

The Internet is a fine place to find out: The near-frictionless ease of sharing files online means that if you want to download something without paying, nobody's going to stop you.

This can be bad for record labels or movie studios (though not necessarily individual artists). But in the shareware industry, which can't function without Internet distribution, this freedom of theft can be much worse.

Shareware is try-before-you-buy software, distributed directly from developers' Web sites and usually sold for much less than comparable software in stores. This often makes it a wonderful deal for consumers.

But for shareware to survive, consumers have to pay for it. Do they?

Most shareware authors can only guess. But Ambrosia Software, a developer of Macintosh games and utilities in Rochester, N.Y., could stop guessing after it revised its payment system last year.

The new system aims to stop people from using pirated registration codes in two ways.

First, after a user buys a program, Ambrosia e-mails him or her a personalized registration code stamped with the date of purchase. Entering this code into the program activates it and ends any trial-period limits -- but the software won't accept a code older than 30 days. (Once the code checks out, Ambrosia programmer Matt Slot said, the program won't run any further tests.)

Second, although customers may renew an expired code online, they may do so only by providing the original purchaser's name. Ambrosia also keeps a blacklist of registration codes and user names that it's seen posted online, as well as codes renewed under odd circumstances -- for example, Slot said, those ''renewed from five different countries in a single day.''

These measures don't make piracy impossible, but they can slow the rate of it -- especially ''casual piracy,'' the kind perpetrated by people who don't want to work at theft.

So, how many people tried to use a pirated registration code, anyway? In two typical days at the end of January, more than half of the users attempting to renew registrations for one Ambrosia utility tried a stolen code -- 104 out of 197.

News source: SiliconValley.com

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