App Piracy Stifles Innovation, Harms Consumers

Mobile applications – the fun, useful programs that tell you how to get home, give you awesome bunny ears, introduce you to the love of your life, and let you text your friends across the world, and are cheap (maybe 99 cents) or even free – are being pirated like crazy.

But why? And if the prices range from free to cheap, who’s getting hurt anyway, right? Simple: The thousands of creatives who make the apps that make our lives easier or more fun.

Here’s an example: 95% of Android users who play the puzzle game “Monument Valley” downloaded the game without paying for it.

Imagine how this makes a game developer feel. Can you imagine spending months, or even years, building a fun game that thousands of people love and spend countless hours playing only to realize that people aren’t even willing to pay less than a buck for all that fun!?

Why do people do this? Don’t they realize they are actually hurting themselves as consumers by harming innovation and forcing developers to focus their efforts elsewhere?

Sadly, the developers behind “Monument Valley” concluded there’s no point in implementing piracy protections on the game since hackers would be able to crack it within a day or two.

Try to look surprised when I tell you Google is partly to blame. Come on. Try.

By design, the “open source” aspect of Google’s Android operating system makes it remarkably susceptible to piracy. Consumers can easily install apps from outside the Google Play Store – while iPhone users, by contrast, have to jailbreak their phones to install apps not purchased directly from Apple’s curated app store.

Since many people aren’t willing to pay for something they haven’t experienced yet, in-app purchasing has become Apple’s primary paid model. It gives customers a partial experience so they get a taste for the app, and it permits them to buy more features later. Apple’s approach helps to fight piracy. The number of apps in Apple’s ecosystem that suffer from piracy is drastically lower.

Additionally, it doesn’t even matter if an app is free – pirates have managed to find a way to screw over hardworking people who just want to give their product away, and instead sell advertising on it to support themselves. Pirates do this by stealing the content from an ad-supported app and reselling it through a different ad network. It really sucks that the app developer winds up paying for the bandwidth being used by the guy with the pirate app – they are essentially paying their thief to steal from them.

And we haven’t even gotten to the weirdest part yet.

Once an app reaches a certain popularity level, “me too” apps – also known as copycat apps – start appearing alongside the original, legitimate versions in app stores and siphon revenue away from the developers of the “real” version. They are mostly piece-of-crap knock-offs written by shady opportunists without an ounce of concern for consumer satisfaction. They just want the initial transaction (the app purchase) and then you’re most likely on your own: no upgrades, no bug fixes, no add-ons.

Google has created a user-base that is highly accustomed to “free” services. After all, Google makes its money from advertising. But the only developers who make enough money from advertising are those who enjoy an enormous volume of transactions. The rest can barely make enough to buy a large pizza with their earnings, much less support a family or hire employees. Of course, Google wins every time, by selling ads around everything.

Engineers and app developers vary in their opinions about how best to combat piracy domestically, but they all feel the need to find realistic solutions to combat the international problem of mobile piracy.

In the United States, app developers find it easier to determine whether or not your application has been hurt by piracy. App developers using American distribution platforms can see the number of downloads versus the number of payments and confidently estimate, “That looks like it adds up.”

However, piracy numbers internationally are so high, that developers have a hard time tracking the number of people who use their apps and determining how many users downloaded their apps legally. This is important because legitimate businesses need to track how their products are performing – both for marketing purposes and to determine how to develop future products.

For example, it’s not uncommon for an app to “sell” 10,000 downloads internationally and only process 10 payments. The game “Goat Simulator” sold 190 copies on Android in China. Not exactly a “hit” if you were to believe the numbers. But analytics revealed that thousands of people in China were enjoying the game for free. So, while the international market presents a huge opportunity to sell an app to billions of people, what’s the point of entering it at all if developers don’t get paid for their work?

Faced with this dilemma, ACT | The App Association – which represents more than 5,000 app makers and connected device companies in the mobile economy – advocates for an environment that allows its members to leverage the connectivity of smart devices to create innovative solutions that make our lives better. Many of its members have been hit hard by piracy, and the App Association President Morgan Reed has advised developers to try other business models, such as in-app purchasing and freemium models, to profit from their work.

If you’re hearing about this problem for the first time, there might be a reason for that. Often, app developers are reluctant to speak out when it comes to piracy. According to the App Association’s Morgan Reed, “Piracy kneecaps app developers at the very edge of something that allows them to grow, hire more people, build new products, or put another level on their game. An unfortunate side effect is developers lose the opportunity to raise capital to bring their ideas to market, and consumers are robbed of the new and innovative apps they have come to expect.”

At CreativeFuture, we work every day to build a world in which everyone values copyright because they appreciate the hard work that goes into creating and innovating, and because we know that if creative people can make a living, they will create more. At a time when apps are revolutionizing our everyday life, it would be a shame for developers to focus on something else simply because it pays better. It’s up to people like you and me to shell out a couple bucks for the apps we value until the tech behemoths do more to mitigate piracy at home and overseas.

Or else, how the hell will I take my bunny ear selfies?