Piracy Testimonies, Causes and Prevention
We’ve talked plenty about how Android often gets less developer focus than iOS and other platforms, and how the system as a whole often sees slower updates, missing functionality, delayed releases or an absolute lack of support. Some popular apps never make it to our green robot OS in the first place, and many users are often left wondering why. While some industry-leaders like Facebook gives us sub-par experiences consciously and willingly, there’s many independent developers or smaller companies that simply don’t see Android as a platform where they can have their app thrive to bring them the profit they deserve for their work.
Despite the Playstore growth closing the gap with iOS in many ways, and despite Android apps becoming more and more profitable as the years go by, there’s been a rampant problem that hasn’t been stopped yet, and that is piracy. Android claimed over 80% of the mobile marketshare in 2014 by shipping over 1 billion devices, and it already counts with several times the amount of users its competitors have. Yet the fact that Android piracy is as easy as it is, and becoming ever more available means that these numbers don’t bring the revenue they should as the piracy percentages remain strong.
Piracy is a very touchy subject on all platforms, and something that often divides internet users. Many even hold different stances depending on the device piracy is referring to. Last year there was a major crackdown on The Pirate Bay, and the web saw a lot of controversial debates over the legitimacy of this development, and what the outcomes could imply. While some might enjoy not paying for media, this particularly hurts software developers who invest thousands of hours into a product that is only distributed digitally and sees few ways for monetizing.
Google is very conscious of the damages piracy brings to the platform, and while some app makers think they are slacking in their actions to prevent it, they do raid the playstore from piracy-enabling apps every once in a while. The problem is the distributors – that is, torrent trackers – see a lot of heated debate because piracy law is still not all that mature in many key regions and it remains a legally gray subject that the owners of these sites thoroughly exploit.
How bad is it?
We could focus this piece entirely on data analysis, looking at the graphs and numbers many research companies provide to keep developers up to speed. But I think real-world developer testimonies would help us understand the degree and causes of piracy a little better, at least for their particular segment:
Yesterday we saw an announcement by the popular Today Calendar Pro app’s developer that stated that close to 85% of his app’s downloads were illegal copies. On a reddit thread he commented further saying that “a quick search for “Today Calendar Pro apk” will make it easy to find, there’s not really much that can be done about it”. When prompted to notify Google to take it out of the index, he commented the harsh truth circumventing the nature of piracy: “It’d only be replaced by another site anyway – it’s not worth the resources it’d take to try and fight it”.
“To us, piracy is a general contemporary problem. It is so easy to get a pirated copy everywhere for free that people don’t even think about buying it” is what a Dead Trigger developer told Gamasutra regarding their decision to change the price of their popular game from $1.99 to $0.00 dollars. “This is the norm nowadays. It’s normal not to pay for anything you can have for free and nobody cares. All developers are tackling this problem, and so we are.”
Developer Simon Joslin’s game Train Conductor 2 had a rough first day thanks to pirates: he sold 200 units, while that day there were over 35,000 pirate downloads. To this he comments “Piracy is a very unhelpful practice, and it does sadden me that people would rather steal 18 months of my creative efforts instead of paying 99 cents for it”
Lucky Frame studios made an excellent duelling game called Gentlemen! that was released on both iOS and Android. He hoped to sell 2,000 copies, but the early results of his app’s release surprised him. The Verge covered his phenomenon in 2013, where he had just sold 144 copies but at the same time, over 50,000 people had already stolen his game. In his Gamasutra blog he talked about the problem, saying that “About 95% of the pirated copies are being installed in Russia and China (and of those, mostly China). We didn’t even translate our Google Play store into Russian or Chinese, so it’s almost certain that the pirates just found our app on localized pirate sites.”
Finally, there’s Monument Valley’s famous case, in which the developers tweeted that only 5% of the installs on Android were paid for. While this data didn’t take into account Amazon Appstore downloads and the like, it’s still a pretty staggering result, and it gives an arguable degree of justification to their decision to charge for their expansion pack, which caused some controversy. Producer Dan Gray told re/code a little bit about the piracy problem, saying “we made a decision in the past — obviously, we’ve all made games in the past — not to implement piracy protection on Android. It usually gets cracked within a day or two anyway. We can’t respond to it in any way”.
How does it get this bad?
An extremely myopic answer to this question would be “people like free stuff”. But the reality of the situation is way more complex than that. It involves multiple regions, with multiple demographics that behave under different moral systems, cultural norms and actual Law. While it is true that people in first-world countries still pirate apps, an overwhelming about of testimonies and hard data point towards other regions being the main culprits, and not simply out of poverty or greed like many would initially think.
One of the countries mentioned in a previous testimony was China, and that is in fact one of the main pirate regions of the world in more platforms than simply Android. But as much as the film and music industry like laying slurs towards chinese plagiarism, the reality on Android is a little similar yet very different. While China’s living standards are one of the fastest growing in the world, many Chinese smartphone users still can’t afford to buy the applications. But even if they could, there’s a big problem – there’s no actual way for them to do it. This is due to Chinese phones not usually coming pre-installed with Google services, nor the Google Playstore, as it is not supported nor properly implemented. If you look at Google’s list of countries that support paid-apps you’ll see that China is nowhere to be found. This has another side-effect that encourages piracy, modding and cracking which is the fact that in-app billing services that use the Playstore’s system do not work either, leaving Chinese users without that option. Considering China is a huge market for smartphones – and Android – these piracy numbers start making a little bit more sense. And sadly, this problem is on Google’s end, but reports say it might soon be a thing of the past… although we still don’t know just when. And while these pirate copies might originate in China as well, they usually find their ways back to the West too, so Chinese piracy ends up spreading across the world.
Another country mentioned was Russia, which is also a pirating giant in many other platforms. Russia and many countries, however, see a quintessential limitation that excludes them from purchasing applications altogether: credit cards. While Russia in particular has reportedly seen quite an increase in credit card owners, US sanctions in 2014 made the plastic pay-buddy recess in use and form. But according to Euromonitor International, there’s only about 30 million credit cards in circulation in the country of 143 million, and Russian culture conditions them to not be too fond of credit cards anyway, perhaps one of the strongest Cold War anti-capitalist traditions that remained post the fall of The Wall. While Russian culture might not promote the use of credit cards, the low circulation is also present and even lower in other countries. Importing Google Play gift cards is typically very expensive as well.
And finally, the other geographical reason is terrible exchange rates. This does not necessarily imply poverty, however, as many countries have a strong middle class but a loose economy that results in imported goods – being physical or digital – ending up too expensive. My country is one of these cases, as Argentina’s dollar to peso ratio has shot up in the past few years; close to doubling, in fact. Furthermore, my country and many others add an additional tax to credit card transactions of foreign purchases, which further mitigates possible spending on Playstore applications and contributes toward people’s desires of piracy. However, I strongly look down upon this practice, and despite the expensive app prices, I personally pay for all my apps because it is Android, a platform where almost every functionality is covered by a decent free application, if not thousands of them. There is simply no reason to pirate apps like Today Calendar, in my eyes, because there’s just an overwhelming amount of free solutions – and in this calendars’ case, built-in.
While there are just too many (and too complex) socio-economical reasons for piracy to cover, which we realistically can’t do in this single article, there’s also some reasons inherent to the platform that show just how different the OS and its users behave in comparison to the competition’s. The main reason iOS doesn’t see as much piracy is that the system is closed down in ways to prevent that, which earns iPhones their “walled garden” tag. To easily pirate iOS apps, you need to “jailbreak” a device which is a process that, like root, removes limitations on the device. Doing so voids the user’s warranty, however, which deters potential jailbreakers and thus, pirating on this system. But on Android, you can side-load any APK regardless of root privileges or other modifications, as all you have to do is tick “allow third-party sources” in the settings. It’s straight-forward and simple, and anyone can do it. What not everyone can do, however, is find the applications or learn about how to load them – even if only because of tech illiteracy. But Android being an open platform that thrives on tweaks and customization means the tech-savvy naturally gravitate towards it, and these are the people who would have no trouble getting pirated apps on the phone. While this is just conjecture, I’m sure many of you are informed enough on the demographics to believe it is a reasonable claim.
I’m a developer, what can I do?
Luckily XDA and Google offer many resources to combat the issue. Here we host an immense amount of guides and documentation on how to apply proper security on your devices. A good place to start would be this legacy thread by XDA Recognized Contributor Quinny889 that will cover some methods to implement. If you find it informative please leave him a “thanks” for his contribution.
The guide will also point you to some very handy resources and documentation featured on Google’s developer site branch, like ProGuard to help you obfuscate, shrink and optimize your code to produce an APK that is much harder to reverse engineer. ProGuard is integrated with Android’s build system, so it doesn’t have to be manually invoked either, and it only runs in release mode ensuring the actual app development is not obstructed by element re-naming and the like.
Google also has documentation on security and design focused towards app billing implementations, with guidelines for you to follow for a secure system. This document has some handy suggestions such as using remote servers to deliver content, or real-time constant feeds to do so which allows to keep the content fresh. It also contains further tips on how to obfuscate your code, and redirects you to helpful resources on copyright and trademark infringement in case you need Google to take action.
This problem doesn’t have an easy solution and it could remain for a long time. The best you can do is stay informed. If you are a user, please stay on the legal side of the market. To our developers, we hope to aid you in your struggles against pirates and wish you the best; the community at XDA will always be willing to help you!
Featured image from the game Dev Tycoon where developers trolled pirates.