In my four years in China I’ve yet to see a legitimate version of any software here. Generally when purchasing apps and games in the Middle Kingdom you have two choices – pirated software that looks pirated, and pirated software that looks real.

Like pretty much every other media, most notably DVDs, the software industry suffers greatly from the blatant distribution of pirated products in China – and most Chinese don’t give a damn.

Scratch that, most Chinese likely don’t have any real concept of what the difference is between paying for legitimate software or pirated software.

Don’t believe me? Check out a recent article in the China Daily, Microsoft accused of hacking attack, in which a Dong Zhengwei, a lawyer in Beijing, has lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Public Security, which accuses Microsoft of invading personal computers without user permission.

What is Microsoft’s invasion? The infamous Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) – a bit of code that checks to see if your PC’s OS is legit, which for the majority of users in China, it isn’t.

The WGA will then force you to suffer some popups indicating your criminal behaviour and periodical desktop “blackouts”.

Now, I am an unabashed critic of Microsoft and avoid their products whenever possible, however (ding) Dong is a dork if he thinks he can steal software and then complain when it doesn’t work properly. It’s a bit like a robber returning to the bank and asking for a bag of money that isn’t covered in dye.

The article says, “Chinese law stipulates that a party will be considered guilty of illegal intrusion if it disrupts the normal functioning of computers by altering their operating systems.” But it’s not hard to see the grey area here in that the operating system is not really “theirs” if it is stolen.

Now WGA is nothing new, and WGA cracks (sources tell me) are about as easy to download as last night’s Daily Show. However, it says a lot of how entrenched pirated goods are in China when a man, a lawyer no less, will stand up and accuse the company protecting their product as criminal for catching him.

Obviously if Microsoft wants to make inroads for legitimate software purchases, they’re going to have to make concessions – much like the movie studios have with their 20RMB ($3) DVDs for the Chinese market. But more than anything else, they’re going to have to work extremely hard at changing the Chinese consumer’s perception of “fair value”.

My wife, who’s Chinese, rather succinctly summed up the problems software companies face in China. After explaining what Microsoft is doing she said, “How is it wrong, he paid the software shop [pirate] for it.”


  1. I nearly posted about this. I’ve also heard Chinese people express immense surprise that Windows is a paid product. But since it costs more than a month’s wage here in china, MS is clearly being short-sighted and inflexible. Is it not better for MS to charge and get, say, 250rmb to turn tens of millions into paying (happy?) customers?

  2. @Philip: It’s no coincidence that after (the tougher to crack) Vista became the de facto “pre-installed” MS product on new machines, Chinese computer retailers began advertising many/most machines with Linux as the pre-installed OS.

  3. Anyone needing an operating system, office productivity or graphics package should look into using open source software instead of complaining about the cost of the license to use something from Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk etc.

  4. I have started using open source stuff for most of my software needs. There is no question that the quality level of many products is still not the same as paid for products. However a lot of them are usable by people who are willing to spend a bit of effort to learn them.

    I really can’t wait until ubuntu gets that little bit more user friendly then I will start the migration.

    Although I don’t use pirated software anymore, I have absolutely no sympathy for companies who charge extortionate prices for their software.

    The worst part is when they say that piracy is the same a physical theft which it very clearly isn’t.

  5. When someone steals an object from you they now have it and you don’t. You have lost it forever and can’t use it.

    When someone installs your piece of software without paying for it, you still have your piece of software and all of the rights to it. A majority of people still pay for it. It just means that person has gained something and in all probability you don’t even know they have it.

    I am not saying that I think copyright theft is by any means is OK. But the way the copyright holders have gone about trying to get people to stop is totally wrong. The argument that stealing a CD from a shop is the same as downloading it just doesn’t work for most people, for the simple reason that the shop paid for that CD and can no longer sell it if it is taken from a shop.

    Also in many media’s (admittedly generally not software), it has taken them a huge amount of time to come up with any type of acceptable alternative to piracy for many of us. Movie & TV Show companies are still a long way away from this.

  6. Sir Stingley,

    This argument that ethics is based on tangible widgets is old-fashioned. The key question is whether someone has labored to create something of value and someone else has robbed them of that value. Ask yourself what will happen if most people steal creative product – then who will bother to create anything?

  7. @Jay: Open source developers? 🙂 I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I also see Stingley’s point about there being a difference.

    That there’s a difference between stealing a thousand MP3s and stealing a car doesn’t make stealing a thousand MP3s guilt free – it just means there’s a difference.

  8. i particularly enjoy the debate since every time i get on my office computer there’s a popup telling me it’s likely pirated and i should do something about it. and then the IT guy tells me it’s my mac that’s spreading the viruses around the network. riiight…

  9. @Jay

    As Ryan said, all I am saying is there is a difference, I’m not trying to justify piracy, quite the opposite. I just think the way the copyright holders have gone about trying to deal with the problem has been largely ineffective.

    I found it amusing when an official Dell technician told me to turn windows update off because it caused problems and infected my friends computer with viruses.

    He also installed a cracked version of Vista even though we had a license stuck on the bottom of the notebook.

  10. At least there is some talk about this topic now. I think it´s a strange idea to try selling lots of pretty expensive products to mostly pretty poor people. In this way you have to consider that most of the folks find a way to get it without too much cost.

    But if you talk about other issues like over priced farming seeds or meds this becomes kind of ugly.

    Last comment from Microsoft I read: “We lowered the price recently.” Ha Ha

    Interesting discussion and great site! 😀

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