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Commentary

A Firsthand Piracy Experience

Limited government support of intellectual property helps, but not the strong protections in SOPA/PIPA
Much has been written about SOPA/PIPA today, but I thought I’d give a personal perspective.

Thirteen years ago, I created the “BlackICE” products: “BlackICE Guard” was the first network IPS and “BlackICE Defender” was (one of) the first personal firewalls. My ability to sell these products depended on the government’s protection of intellectual property. I experienced exactly the problems targeted by those laws.

For example, foreign sites would crack the license key and sell pirated copies of the personal firewall, whose users would then come to us for software updates and support. This is the reason for Microsoft’s “Geniune Advantage” program targeting "victims of software piracy." It doesn’t target the casual user who pirates his own copy of Windows and puts it on multiple machines. Instead, it’s copying the foreign resellers of pirated CDs selling them on the streets of Shanghai.

However, while piracy was a problem, it was also an opportunity for BlackICE. Our target market was corporations, not home users.

Corporations might pirate software in order to try it out, but eventually they have to pay for it. In one memorable incident, the CSO of a Fortune 500 company admitted to pirating a few copies of our personal firewall to test it out in his lab -- as he signed the check for 10,000 legitimate copies for the company. Indeed, most security professionals in our industry who got their start in the late 1990s pirated my software at one point or another.

So why not simply make a free trial version available, or a shareware version? Mostly, it was perception. When you give something away for free, customers expect it to be free. It’s hard convincing customers to pay for something if you are already giving it away on the Internet. Conversely, when your software becomes the most pirated software on the Internet (as BlackICE was for a time), it creates a perception of value.

The moral of this story is that, yes, we need limited government support of intellectual property. Without such support, we could never have sold any product and never would have developed it. But on the other hand, we neither needed nor wanted the strong protections in the SOPA/PIPA bills. We didn't want these laws then, and since so much cybersecurity content is created by collaboration, such laws will be damaging to our future.

Robert Graham is CEO of Errata Security.

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