Friday, May 13, 2011

App Piracy Is a Huge Problem

Mike Cohen:

I noticed something very interesting: the number of users in Game Center and the number of users reported by Flurry Analytics were at least 3 times the total number of sales reported in iTunes Connect. At first I thought the iTunes reports were delayed, but a google search revealed that there are lots of pirated copies available. If the numbers are accurate, this means there are at least 3 or 4 times as many pirated downloads as we had legal sales.

This is after only two days of sales, and it’s a 99-cent app. Remember when people were saying that an advantage of the App Store model was that Apple would be able to prevent this? Instead, the enforced monoculture has enabled piracy and prevented developers from trying to stop it.

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Joshua Ochs

Yes, it's the monoculture! Because Android certainly doesn't have this problem.

@Joshua I’ve read that on Android it is possible for the app to contact Google’s servers and verify that it was purchased. Are developers using this feature? Or is there a problem with it? Aside from in-app purchase, I don’t think there’s a way to do this on iOS.

@Don Human nature is what it is, but I think the extreme ease of pirating on iOS makes a difference. There are essentially alternate app stores where you can get everything for free.

Well, actually, it's your customers. H. sapiens includes a significant (but not majority) population that are just immoral.

Couldn't this be due to the fact that apps are licensed to be used on more than one device - for example my iphone, my wife's ipod and my ipad?

Yeah, like Chris says, I'm not sure this is (only) a result of piracy. It's how iPhone apps work; they're tied to an account, not to a single device.

Also, even if we had a 2:1 piracy to sales ratio, I don't think we could conclude that piracy is actually a problem. This sounds harsh, but it's not uncommon to have a 20:1 piracy to sales ratio for PC games. It doesn't really matter how many people pirate your game; the only thing that matters is whether you make enough money from the people who pay.

Who are these "people" who were saying that the App Store model would stop copyright violations? Are they aware that the iTunes Music and Movie stores haven't stopped people from using bittorrent? How exactly do they remember to breathe at night while they sleep with those tiny tiny brains? :-)

@Chris I'm sure that happens in some cases, but there's no way every purchased copy is being shared with 3 family members.

DRM is Apple account based so, for example, apps can be purchased by one individual in a house hold and installed on everyone's iPhones and iPads. Game center then sees he individual Apple accounts from the device. This might well explain the issue you see. Piracy? Perhaps. Morally wrong? Perhaps. Permissible? Yes. In fact I think a well understood selling point. The Apple account can only be authorised on 5 computers preventing wholesale piracy.

@Chris @Lukas @Henry I’m not sure whether Mike’s stats account for multiple devices on the same account. That could certainly explain some of the difference, but it seems very unlikely that the average purchaser is using it on 3–4 devices within the first day or two.

@Jemaleddin I wish I had been keeping a “claim chowder” file from when the App Store was announced. I recall there being a ton of people saying that it would prevent piracy, eliminate the need for marketing and a Web site, etc., and that this was why it was worth 30%. Here’s one example. I think the iTunes Music Store proved that you could prevent a lot of casual piracy by making it really easy to buy. Lots of people don’t know how to use BitTorrent, or want to. The App Store has taken the same idea in the other direction: it is now so much easier to pirate software that more people will do so.

@Michael I think that you can defend Apple's cut (especially when comparing it to retail markets) without claiming that they're solving problems of copyright violations. That's just dumb.

(Every time you equate piracy [murder and theft on the high seas] with copyright violation [making a copy of a file without the consent of its creator] a RIAA/MPAA lawyer gets a bonus.)

@Christopher Thanks for the link.

@Jemaleddin Yes, there are certainly reasonable arguments one could make that Apple is earning its cut. I’m not saying I agreed with those people, just that it was a common argument. Although, I must say, I expected that Apple would do more to prevent jailbreaking.

FWIW, I think the only way to avoid the problem is to tie a free iOS app to a paid OS X app, or some other such strategy like a web service.


I think it's highly likely true that you generally get less piracy from a fragmented distribution system than from a monoculture distribution system like Apple's.

And that's made especially so in this particular case because Apple has always been tolerant of software piracy given that they sell gear. You can't pirate their high profit margin gear, and if their customers are happier this way...

I find it odd that people think piracy should be higher in a monoculture. Witness the growth of big box retail stores and omnibus online retailers like Amazon that sell everything under the sun. Why shop at 7 different places to get 7 different things when one location has everything you want?

To me fragmented distribution is a pain in the ass that's best avoided by finding one source to rule them all. So instead of visiting dozens of websites users will naturally gravitate to one familiar place to get what they want: either a central app store or their favourite alternate distribution site (BitTorrent tracker, RapidShare, etc.)

Speaking directly to game developers I think gamers generally have a counter-culture attitude that says all their buddies should be able to play with/against them for free. Such people are unlikely to ever pay for a game and will go to great lengths to protect their "right" to play for free. If you're trying to get rich selling games you're in the wrong business.

Or maybe people use the apps with multiple devices. I, for example, have two iPhone and two iPads in my household all of which use many of the same apps, no piracy at all.

@David The monoculture is like a master key. There’s no need to figure out how to crack each (version of each) app individually.

@caustic You really think enough people are doing this to make the average 3–4x? And keep in mind that there’s a 5-device max, which limits how much one household can bring the average up.

It has enabled piracy. Haha, that's a good one. Do you have numbers to back it up, like showing that Mac games suffer less from piracy than this 4:1 ratio? I doubt it. I don't have numbers to back it up either, but then again, I don't go saying things like "the enforced monoculture has enabled piracy".

The limit of five is the number of instances of iTunes that can be authorized for an account. There is no limit to the number of iOS devices that may be synced with any given iTunes. The iOS device does not need to use the same Game Centre account as the iTunes account that iTunes is using.

So there is no limit to how many Game Centre accounts can play the game with a single purchase.

It does seem unlikely that there's a few 100+ iOS devices using different Game Centre accounts with a single purchase, but that would be enough to skew statistics a lot. This isn't a good metric of piracy. (I have no idea about Flurry Analytics).

Very tangnetial, only in that it is also about the AppStoreMonster, but I think Lodsys is being quite smart in their tactics. Assuming they do have valid patents, and Apple was expecting to stage a legal battle later over compensation, Lodsys' move, if legally sustainable, puts immense pressure on Apple to settle on something closer to Lodsys' terms. The hit from the attack on use of the mandatory API's would be pretty chilling.

In short, they're playing hardball. And if I thought Apple were infringing on me, I'd want to play hardball too, since I know Apple would play hardball with me with their semi-infinite resources behind them.

Obviously, one's heart goes out to the innocent indie developers caught up under the godzilla / mothra fighting. But that's just drawback #47 to developing for the AppStoreMonster, no?

Engst does a wonderful job at detailing just how many Catch-22's Apple built into the AppStoreMonster for indie developers.

Note that many families have kids who have iPod touches. At least here in Australia. In this household, we each have an iPhone, there are three iPod touches used by kids and was one iPad, but not there is a shared one and my partner and I each have one. One child has two game center accounts because he likes the name of both.

Anyway, that's far from typical, but these all sync with one Mac, so it's only 1 machine on the 5 machine limit.

We don't have all the apps on all devices (with 80gb+ of purchased apps, they wouldn't fit!) but the total devices are:
2x 1st Gen iPads
1x 2nd Gen iPad
2x iPhone 4's
1x current iPod touch
2x 2G iPod touch
8 devices, and you know that checkbox 'auto sync new apps'? Apps anyone downloads get synced to devices with that option on.

But I wouldn't have spent many thousands on Apps had I not known I could across multiple devices. I know this doesn't help individual devs though.

So I honestly think that a lot of the figures shown are due to the licensing model, and less so the piracy. I know one person who pirates apps, and about 5 families who have multiple devices.

Again, not typical, but with the 'auto sync new apps' checkbox I think there is far more multi device app installation that people are aware of.

@Ölbaum Regardless of the numbers of people doing it (which we don’t know for sure), at a technical level I think it’s easier to crack iOS apps. Isn’t there even a utility that does this?

@Tony I don’t know how he’s using Flurry, but that’s a good point about the numbers of Game Center accounts, devices, and Macs/PCs all being distinct.

@Jason Seems unlikely that it would propagate to all these household devices (and be used on them) in the first two days, but point taken.

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