Every day here and in dozens of other Russian cities, pirate dealers sell copies of the world’s most popular software titles at $5 per CD-ROM.
Despite fears about the economy, small and medium-sized businesses are flourishing in this elegant northwestern Russian city - and pirated software is installed on almost all of their computers.
Nearly all high-end computer games, Encyclopaedia Britannicas and other educational and reference CDs are distributed through illegal sources.
Bootlegged software use is certainly not limited to Russia.
Industry analysts say that 27 percent of the software running on American computers is pirated.
And the Business Software Alliance, which monitors business software piracy, says 43 percent of PC business applications installed in Western Europe are illegal copies.
In Russia, however, the piracy rates are a stunning 91 percent for business applications and 93 percent for entertainment software, according to Eric Schwartz, counsel to the International Intellectual Property Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies internationally on behalf of the copyright industry.
Schwartz said that piracy in Russia costs American entertainment software manufacturers $223 million a year and business software makers almost $300 million.
The Business Software Alliance estimates worldwide revenue losses to the software industry from piracy at $11.4 billion.
Under the 1992 agreement with the United States that guaranteed Most Favored Nation trading status, Russia is required to effectively enforce anti-piracy laws, but actual enforcement is virtually nonexistent.
Meeting the Dealers
The dealers, who operate in stalls and kiosks around major transportation hubs or in full-scale markets usually 15 minutes from the city center, offer an enormous range of titles, usually bundled in a form their manufacturers would never dream of.
“That’s Windows 98, Front Page 98, Outlook 98, MS Office 97 SR1 and, uh, yeah, Adobe 5.0,” said Pyotr R., a student at St. Petersburg Technical University, of a single CD-ROM. “On the disk there are files, like ‘crack’ or ‘serial’ or something, and that’s where you’ll find the CD keys,” he said, referring to the codes that unlock CD-ROMs and allow users to install the programs.
Pyotr (who spoke, as did all others interviewed for this article, on condition of anonymity) sold that disk, plus a second one containing Lotus Organizer 97, several anti-virus programs and some DOS utilities, for 60 rubles or about $10.
Another dealer was offering Windows NT 4.0 for $5, and Back Office for $10.
According to Microsoft, the recommended retail prices for these products are $1,609 and $5,599.
Many Russians, who during the days of the Soviet Union bought most necessities through black market sources, think nothing of buying their software this way.
They even defend the markets as providing a commodity that had been long-denied them.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, inexpensive computers began to flood into the country from Taiwan, Germany and the United States, increasing the importance of these illegal software markets.
Spending at least $800 on a computer was an enormous investment for Russians, even relatively well-paid St Petersburgians who earn an average salary of around $350 a month.
Those who did buy one were in no position to consider purchasing software legitimately, even if it were readily available, which it often wasn’t.
These days, though, legitimate outlets for hardware and software are popping up everywhere in Russia; computer magazines offer licensed versions of everything available in the United States and Western Europe, and software makers advertise in the city’s well-established English-language media.
The markets continue to thrive with an alarming degree of perceived legitimacy.
Outside the Sennaya Square metro station in St. Petersburg, a police officer approached a pirate dealer (who offered, among other things, Adobe Font Folio and QuarkXPress) and angrily chastised him for not prominently displaying his license to operate the stall.
When the dealer complied, the policeman moved on.
Customers feel secure that the pirated copies will work and that belief appears well-founded.
Bootlegged titles come with a written guarantee - good for 15 days from the date of purchase - that they’re virus-free and fully functional.
And files on the CDs themselves boast of high-quality, code-cracking techniques: “When so many groups bring you non-working fakes, X-FORCE always gets you the Best of the Best.
ACCEPT NO IMITATION!” boasts one.
“There’s a lot of viruses around in Russia,” said Dima V., a system administrator who runs several small company networks in St. Petersburg using bootlegged copies of Windows NT 4.0, “but most of the disks you buy in the markets are clean.
The guys are there every day and if they give you a virus you’ll come back - it’s just easier to sell you the real thing.
Foreigners get in on the action
Russians are not by any means the only people installing the pirated programs. While employees of multinational companies or representatives of American companies would never dream of risking their job by violating copyright laws, self-employed Westerners, or ones who have established small Russian companies have no qualms about doing so.
They also pose a question software manufacturers find difficult to answer: Who would buy a network operating system package for $5,000 when it’s available for $5? “Nobody,” said Todd M., an American business owner in St. Petersburg, whose 24-PC network runs a host of Microsoft applications that were all bootlegged.
“There’s just no financial incentive for me to pay the kind of prices that legitimate software costs,” he said.
“I mean, it would be nice to get customer service right from the source, but we have really excellent computer technicians and programmers in Russia and they can fix all the little problems that we have.
“Customer support and upgrades are just what the manufacturers point to as advantages of licensed software, even in markets like Russia.
“There are enormous incentives,” said Microsoft’s Mark Thomas, “to buying legitimate software, and they start with excellent customer support and service and upgrades.
We spend $3 billion a year on research and development and the money that we make goes right back into making products better and better products.
The pirates don’t make any investment in the industry.
“And local industry, Thomas pointed out, suffers disproportionately in the face of piracy. “A huge amount of our resources are put into making sure local industry builds on our platform,” he said.
“When a local company creates packages for, say, accounting firms, and somebody can come along and buy it for $5, these local companies can lose their shirts.
Piracy getting worse
Despite heavy lobbying by industry representatives and government agencies, piracy has worsened.
As CD copying technology becomes cheaper, large factories in Russia and other countries, including Bulgaria, churn out copies of software copied by increasingly sophisticated groups in countries around the world, especially in Asia.
Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote off Malaysia as a market effectively destroyed by pirates, who sold 98 out of every 100 copies of its flagship Encyclopaedia three-CD set for a fraction of its recommended retail price of $125.
The same disks, which have not officially even been offered for sale in Russia, are readily available in the St. Petersburg markets for $10.
“For Encyclopaedia Britannica, the cost of piracy is millions a year,” said James Strachan, EB’s international product manager. “One hundred percent of the value of our product is an investment in the authority and depth of our content,” he said.
“Piracy causes us extreme concern and we do everything we can to root it out and prosecute.
Todd M., the businessman with the 24-PC network, offers little hope that the situation will soon change in favor of manufacturers.
“With all the problems I have running my business here in Russia, from armed tax police to Byzantine procedures and customs duties, software piracy just doesn’t register with me,” he said.
“It’s the one thing about doing business here that’s somebody else’s problem.