Islamabad, Pakistan: Muhammad Ramzan is running a computer and CD store at the famous Rainbow Centre in Karachi; one of the busiest software centers in Pakistan. While I was visiting his shop, I was startled to find it stuffed with pirated CDs, DVDs and other illegally-copied copyright software. After I asked for for legal copies of software, Mohammad looked puzzled and irritated, before replying “Are you a foreigner, or is this your first visit to buy any software from around here?” I persist, and so Muhammad explains, with a hint of exasperation in his voice,
“On the one hand, security concerns in this country have threatened foreign investment in Pakistan and, on the other hand, the constant price hike of daily items has made the life of a common man miserable. Now, if a poor man wants to have a computer, how can he possibly purchase legitimate software, when he is unable to even earn his daily bread?”
Other shops in this same market, one of the busiest markets of Pakistan’s largest city, were also engaged exclusively in the same illegal business. I left the market still hoping to find genuine software in some of the other famous markets of the metropolis, and so I then paid visits to the Imperial market, the Hafeez Centre, and a few other well known software shopping centres. Despite approaching a large number of shopkeepers, software engineers and hardware retailers, I failed to find a single legal copy of the software I was looking for (which, as it happens, was a Windows OS).
The few legal copies of Windows I found floating around in the market were already preinstalled on laptops and branded computers. Unfortunately I couldn’t buy them in order to get the legal copy of Windows, because it’s apparently illegal to transfer them according to the Microsoft license. Somewhere in the End-User License Agreement legalese, it says you may not sell or rent your copy of Windows.
The Scope of the Piracy Problem
During my search for a genuine copy, I came into contact with many different people with a range of opinions on the subject of software piracy. The majority were in agreement that the open trade in pirated software I discovered was impeding progress in our society and preventing Pakistan from benefitting from a huge investment opportunity in software development. Manzor Ahmad Qureshi, a software engineer, makes no excuses for those who are linked with piracy, and according to him this is a curse for any modern society:
“Approximately 84% of the software being used in Pakistan is pirated. If that were cut down to just 66% in the next few years, many new jobs could be created in the IT sector. The productive sector in Pakistan is bearing the brunt of the financial impact from widespread use of pirated and untaxed software: A mere 10% decrease in piracy in this country could contribute $163 million to GDP, and raise $23 million in additional income for the government. Increased use of legitimate software would promote a better environment for foreign companies to invest in Pakistan. It would also inspire entrepreneurship in IT sectors, resulting in higher software exports as well as a greater market share in the business process outsourcing industry. However, when we use illegitimate software, the situation is quite different.”
While the street traders such as Mohammad Ramzan weren’t able to make an articulate case for the pirate software industry, the same wasn’t true of Siraj, a software engineer with famous Hashoo Group. He told me
“Piracy is a blessing for the poor of Pakistan, as they simply can’t afford to get genuine copies of software. This is an era of IT revolution and we need to compete with other developed countries, and so every Pakistani, particularly those who are poor, has the option to buy the pirated copies which are available in the markets at affordable prices.”
Naturally, I replied that if people buy pirated software because they can’t afford to buy the licensed versions, why don’t they use the free alternatives, such as Linux, which are easy to use, readily available free of cost and more secure? Siraj replied,
“No doubt most software is available for use on Linux, and that platform is flourishing day by day, but it will take time to convert people as only a few know about such open source solutions and services, and even fewer can take the full benefit from it.”
it seems that, whilst the use of Linux and free software would help, it is not enough to solve the problem. Pakistan needs to participate in the commercial world of IT, and that means Windows. I’d already put the same question to Manzor Ahmad Qureshi, who explained
“Yes, the solution lies with free and Open Source Software. Nevertheless, Microsoft could reach an agreement with the government, whereby the people are encouraged to buy proprietary software instead of pirating it. This can only be achieved if Microsoft sells these pieces of software at rates which are affordable to the average local consumer, instead of at international rates. Microsoft is already selling software at a very discounted rate in Far East Asia, and it can do the same here. In my opinion, Rs. 250 for the Home Edition of Microsoft Windows and Rs. 200 for Microsoft Word and PowerPoint would not be too harsh.”
Microsoft Windows and Office together are available for 40 dollars in Thailand, yet the Pakistani government hasn’t woken up to the fact that they can follow this precedent and can bargain with Microsoft. So, sooner or later, things are going to come to a head, because people here earning a typical wage can only dream of buying legal software for a hundred US dollars.
When asked about the government of Pakistan was doing about the problem, the Federal Minister for Science and Technology Mohammad, Azam Khan Swati, replied in a traditional politician’s way,
“Yes, we do monitor all of this illegal business, and the government of Pakistan will deal with anyone involved in it with an iron grip”.
When I pressed him to give details of the steps the government had taken so far to provide affordable legal software, the minister added,
“Yes this is something difficult that needs to be solved, and the new democratic government is working hard to provide a friendly environment to both the customer and the vendor.”
I wasn’t convinced, so I expressed my doubts to him about the real extent of the government’s resolve to sort this problem out. After all, I explained, almost all government departments are exposed to Microsoft piracy in their own offices, as all their computers have pirated versions of Microsoft Windows and all documents are prepared on pirated versions of Microsoft Office. He merely replied that the situation will be sorted out in a high-level meeting in near future. Notwithstanding, the Country Manager for Microsoft Pakistan, Kamal Ahmad, said:
“we signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with Pakistan Computer Association (PCA) last November to counter software piracy and develop a framework to educate software sellers in promoting sales of licensed genuine software. Software piracy has always been a menace for developing countries, and as the number of ordinary consumers grows, it brings a higher number of users of pirated software into the field. Microsoft has always been committed to making proactive efforts to curb software piracy; we along with the PCA are committed to reducing software piracy by creating awareness about the use of licensed software and the legal risks of using a counterfeit.”
However, independent experts are of the view that, in the five month period since the Memorandum of Understanding was signed, nothing of what has been promised on paper has been reflected by action on the ground . Both sides maintain that no one is asking for a 100% piracy-free country, but the problem of the current high piracy rates need to be tackled if there is ever to be a viable domestic software industry.
The problem of windows licenses is a particularly interesting case. Many users in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi, have second-hand machines which have been handed-down from somewhere in the West. Most of these machines come with fully-licensed Windows already installed, along with a sticker of the original product key, and occasionally even the cubicle number and company they were in. Most of them weren’t even sold, but given away. We even have innumerable licenses lying around in the form of old computers thrown away and rotting in containers and dumps. Most of them should still be valid, as the operating system was thrown away along with the computer.
There’s obviously no doubt that software piracy is a big challenge for the software industry throughout the world. Developed countries are much more worried about the issue because they are getting little or no return from the less developed nations on the investment in effort, time and cost they put into creating and testing the software. There is therefore little incentive to produce multilingual and multicultural versions of their software, and support it locally.
Now the problem is how to cope with this situation. To answer this, a software engineer from Karachi, Shabih-ul-Hasan, suggested a legal framework that could be put in place by the government to govern the purchase of software licenses:
- Software can only be bought from the authorized franchises, dealers and agents
- There must be an authentic key for the software
- There should be a record of the anticipated uses of that software, along with the purchase date
Worthy as it is, this approach will face an uphill battle, given that software pirates would, by definition, ignore these restrictions. The only way it will gain traction will be if the software vendors recognize the root cause of the piracy problem, and take steps to help alleviate it. Software engineer Siraj was of the view that…
“…Microsoft could arrange with some local ISP to have windows update servers running locally, which provide fast updates for registered users. There are lots of financially cheap incentives which MS could use to easily grow the local market. And yes, government should encourage free alternatives, but as I said earlier it will take time.”
After listening to comments from all the relevant sectors, I drew the conclusion that the country is in danger of growing towards being a labor powerhouse instead of a solid industrial power.
To shift that balance, the alarming 80% piracy rate should be reduced to a more manageable level. At the same time the government, and Microsoft, must recognize that, currently, many of these commercial software products are just unaffordable. At present, Microsoft Office, per processor, is approximately Rs. 30,000 (about $350), which represents the entire annual income of the majority of families. For most people, there is no alternative but to purchase pirated software for Rs. 100 (about $1).
In addition, free Linux-based alternatives to Microsoft products need to be encouraged and supported by the government, and actively promoted as a viable, and legal, business alternative to Windows. This will, at least, encourage foreign investors, and put the country on the right track to develop into an attractive and competitive industrial power. Hopefully, it will also serve as an example that software piracy really isn’t necessary.