Software pirates beware?

Free T-shirt giveaway doesn't exactly draw a crowd for the cause of legal software.

Published October 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's not easy to get people to care about whether their software was legally obtained or not. After all, if you got your software at a discount price, you probably aren't going to be interested in asking difficult questions like "Why did I get such a bargain?" -- at least, not until it crashes. And if you bought it from the trunk of a car, copied it from a friend (who had, in turn, copied it from her friend) or downloaded it off an obscure FTP site, you probably knew it was illegal in the first place and just didn't give a damn.

So it's not surprising that the celebration of "No Piracy Day" in San Francisco Friday was a bit of a dud. Conceived by Microsoft, Adobe and ASAP Software -- and signed and decreed thusly by none other than the Honorable Mayor Willie Brown, Esq. -- "No Piracy Day" was supposed to inspire hordes of computer users to march down to Justin Herman Plaza in downtown San Francisco, counterfeit software in hand, and hand it over to representatives from those benevolent firms.

As a mailing that showed up in our mailboxes last week explained, "Last year alone software piracy cost the California economy $819 million in lost wages, nearly $245 million in lost tax revenue, and cost more than 18,000 lost jobs ... If you suspect that you possess counterfeit software, bring it along with your proof-of-purchase to Justin Herman Plaza between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 15. Your receipt may already tell the story."

At lunchtime on Friday, however, there were no software-toting consumers in sight -- although one event representative insisted that a few people had come by with boxes of illegal software. In fact, there was hardly anyone around at all, outside of the throngs of polo-shirt-wearing software company representatives brandishing pamphlets about piracy costs and prevention.

The only popular feature of the demonstration was a few tables covered with copies of a survey titled "Ask, is it licensed?" This questionnaire posed multiple-choice questions like "Is it legal to loan software to your friends?" and "Which is worse, stealing a candy bar or loaning your best friend a copy of your software to load on his/her computer?" A dozen passersby -- many wearing name tags from the Hyatt hotel next door, and conversing among themselves in languages other than English -- were haphazardly filling these out in exchange for a free T-shirt emblazoned with a "Be sure it's legal!" logo.

"We want to find out what consumers think about piracy, and what they think is legal," one of the software industry representatives cheerily explained when I asked her what the surveys were for. I posed the same question to one of the women filling out questionnaires, who appeared to be randomly checking off boxes on the survey. "I have no idea," she shrugged. "I just want the free T-shirt."

As those T-shirts ran out, the Hyatt hired help quickly disappeared, and the plaza was deserted. The software company representatives were left with piles of pamphlets and a cameraman from ZDTV, who was trying desperately to find something to take pictures of. The only consumer remaining was a skinny man in an oversized suit marching stiffly around the empty tables, waving a placard that said, "Impeach Clinton: 12 Galaxies Guiltified to a Technitronic Rocket Society!"

Perhaps that's a movement that consumers can get more worked up about.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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