For African consumers hurtling head-long into the digital age, software licenses — which can cost hundreds of dollars — can often seem like an unreasonable expense. A licensed copy of Microsoft Office can cost nearly as much (if not more) than a low-end laptop, for example.
Billa Coetsee, who lives in Pretoria, knows all too well how easy it is to come by cheaper alternatives.
"Everybody knows somebody that can get a hold of any software," he says. "In most cases no fees are involved as it usually involves a form of bartering, where software you want is exchanged for software you already have. Established IT shops won't typically sell pirated software off the shelf, but you'll still be able to obtain pirated software from them via interaction with their employees."
Coetsee is managing director of Noctranet, a software company specialising in cloud. He says it isn't uncommon for him to find people, even clients, pirating his own software.
"A couple of years ago for every two legally licensed organisations there was one using our software without license," he says. "We are definitely losing money as a result."
Yet Coetsee's 33 percent piracy rate is comparatively low. While the global rate of software piracy stands at around 42 percent, in Africa it is closer to 80 percent, according to the Business Software Alliance (BSA). The highest rate of piracy is in Zimbabwe, where 92 percent of software is being used illegally.
"You could call it a developing world phenomenon," says the BSA's legal affairs manager Warren Weertman, who points out that a similar problem exists in Asia. Nor, he says, is it hard to understand why it happens.
"What you see is a proliferation of counterfeit or unlicensed copies of software being made available, often at a significantly reduced price," Weertman says. "So people will often feel, 'why buy a copy of Microsoft Office for what could be a couple of hundred dollars when you can pick up a bootleg copy for a couple of dollars?'."
In recent years those in the industry, including the BSA and Microsoft, have been campaigning hard to convince both consumers and governments that software piracy doesn't just hurt tech multinationals. It's an uphill battle; in Africa, as Weertman points out, intellectual property (IP) rights are rarely enforced even when they are enshrined in law.
But from an economic perspective, he argues, it behooves African governments to work harder on the issue, Weertman believes. Along with generating tax revenues, buying licensed software also creates jobs, says Weertman. "When people are making use of licensed software, chances are that there will actually be in increase in jobs to support that legitimate IT infrastructure in markets," he says. "It's not just about lost tax. It actually goes to the heart of the issue of employment."
Pirated software can also cost a customer or business more when it stops working or works slowly, Weertman says, and comes with security risks."We find that in most copies of counterfeit software a lot of the security features have been disabled."
One of the most crucial steps towards enforcing IP rights is for African governments to update their legal frameworks, Weertman says, which in some cases can be decades old. South Africa's copyright act, he says, dates back to the 1970s, and although it has been modified several times since then, "it's still not up to date with the digital economy that exists in the world today".
Feeling the pinch, software giant Microsoft has mounted a campaign to fight piracy across the continent. Monique Ferreira, Microsoft's anti-piracy manager for South Africa, says the company focuses on educating the public about the security risks of piracy and the consequences of being caught — many consumers, she says, aren't even aware they're breaking the law. But they also work closely with the police and governments across the continent, trying to boost enforcement.
A focus on law enforcement has yielded results in the past. Piracy rates in Russia fell from 73 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2011, says Weertman, largely due to rigorous prosecution of IP offenders by local police.
But, he admits, many African consumers are simply unable to afford software licenses. "It can be a tricky debate, because ultimately it is important that people do get access to software," he says.
Recognising that with high prices come greater incentives to pirate, Microsoft has been finding ways for cash-strapped consumers to access legal versions of its products. These include offering pared-down versions of its Office suite at a reduced price, and a program allowing schools and universities licensing Office for their staff to install it free on students' computers.
But, Weertman says, Africa's technological future ultimately depends on its citizens' willingness to pay for products like software. The continent has the creative potential to produce IT innovations the world has never seen, he says, but "it's going to require Africans investing in IT companies for themselves. And if you're not going to have that legal framework in place to enforce your rights, what's the point?"