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Editorial: How piracy changed my life

There have been many discussions lately about piracy and how to combat it, including some pretty radical measures. But I believe most people glance over some of the positive effects that piracy has. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging it and I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just saying that it’s not all black and white. Piracy is only a symptom of something more: whether it’s bad business models, restrictive markets, or economic problems. And I think my own story proves this point.

I was born in Romania, a country that had just gone through a revolution and was re-becoming a democracy. We, as a society, were just remembering what democracy was and how a free market works. We were just seeing what major technological breakthroughs had happened in the last 30 years in the west while our own country and populace had remained uninformed and technologically inept.

My first PC was a Pentium MMX which had an amazing 166 Mhz processor, 2 GB hard drive and 64 Mb of RAM if I remember right. At this time most of the folks around had 386 and 486 machines running DOS, so the blueish background of Windows 95 was kind of a big deal.

Now here’s the twist: that copy of Windows 95 I used was pirated. It came from a family friend who had it on a few floppy disks. It’s not because my family was cheap or wanted to commit a crime, it was because there simply wasn’t any alternative. Windows wasn’t sold anywhere in the country – at least not legally.

A few years later when Windows 98 came out the same thing happened all over again. The family friend came by with a bunch of disks and installed the OS on our PC.

By the time XP was rolling out, Microsoft had finally taken a real interest in our country, not to mention the fact that the free market was finally in full swing, so there were a lot of legitimate ways to buy the new OS. But here’s the catch: often times it was at least as expensive as the PC itself, so buying it would literally double your costs. Oh, and in case you are wondering, that would amount to about 3 months worth of salary. To give you a better idea, imagine Windows costing about $2,000.

I was pretty lucky as I got an original copy of XP bundled with the new PC my family had just bought. However, one year later when the motherboard went up in flames and we had to buy new hardware, we went back to the family friend.

For the next 5-6 years I used that PC with that pirated version of Windows to download an infinite number of games and software – all illegally. From the most basic Half-Life and Warcraft to the full-blown Creative Suite from Adobe. Again this happened not only because of price, though shilling out a few thousand dollars for Adobe’s CS would have been absolutely insane and would have sent any family into poverty, but rather because most of this software wasn’t even available on the market.

It is because of piracy that I had access to information that would have otherwise been impossible to find. It is because of piracy that I learned how to use Photoshop, how to edit movies, how to install an operating system.

And I am not the only one. All of my friends that have ended up working in the IT field began by using pirated software. How else would a 15 year old learn to use software that costs thousands of dollars, when the average monthly income was about $200? How else would an average kid in this country have learned stuff that’s price restrictive even in the US or the UK?

And here’s the thing: it’s because of piracy that most of us have jobs today. Without all those hours spent learning the software, my friends and I would not have become graphic designers, or game developers, or technology writers. I daresay we would have been much less productive members of society.

I know I’ve said some pretty incriminating things, but the catch is none of us pirate anymore. Why? Because we always knew pirating wasn’t right, but we never really had any other choice. But now when we all have jobs, when the content is finally available, and when the companies have changed their business models to give cheap access to students and teaching institutions ($39 Windows anyone?) we all choose to buy our software, music and movies. Oh, and that family friend that always had hacked operating systems for us? Well he’s now a manager at IBM.

Most people pirate out of need not out of greed. And pirated software can be of vital importance to the development of a generation in under-privileged regions. Of course cheap and accessible software would be a lot better, but there’s so little of that going around.

As for the people who do pirate out of greed, well they’re just bumholes but luckily for us there’s not that many of them out there. I'm really curious what your own thoughts are, and hopefully we can get a real intelligent conversation going.

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