iPhone App Piracy

Today's topic is iPhone software piracy. No, I'm not talking about jailbreaking (although jailbreaking is typically a required element). And I'm not talking about unlocking an iPhone to work with unauthorized carriers. Rather, I'm talking about stealing software, the same software that you would otherwise purchase from Apple's App Store.

I was dismayed to find just how rampant iPhone app piracy is. I don't mean to sound naive. I am all too aware that piracy exists. It has long existed for computer software, where unscrupulous users share pirated copies of the latest programs from Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and others.

Digressing a bit, I found it ironic that Intego recently posted information about a Trojan Horse embedded in pirated copies of iWork '09. They offer protection against this threat via the latest update to VirusBarrier (so as to make it safer to pirate the software?). Anyway, in the course of their alert, Intego noted that at least 20,000 people had already downloaded the illegal iWork '09!

So yes, I am well aware that software piracy exists. Still, somehow, I wasn't prepared for what I discovered about iPhone piracy. Much of the pirated software would only cost 99 cents to buy. Are these crackers really so hard up for cash that they would rather steal 99 cents, sometimes from a lone developer trying to make a few bucks, than pay for the product? We're not talking about Adobe Creative Suite here (not that it's okay to pirate this either). We're talking about software as silly as Mood Touch or Amazing X-Ray FX. Indeed, iPhone app piracy centers on games and other entertainment software.

I can see one potential rationale here, weak as it may be: Try before you buy. Before you spend ten dollars on an app, you might want to give it a try. Currently, the App Store offers no options for this. But this rationale only works if you either buy or delete the app after pirating it. I doubt this is the common end result.

It's even harder to understand the piracy motivation when you consider that the time and hassle involved in acquiring the pirated software can exceed what most people would find worth the bother. Here briefly (without going into detail) is what is involved:

First, someone has to crack the iPhone app. This means modifying the app so that its DRM protection is removed. This is a fairly technical procedure that most people will not be inclined to do. Unfortunately, recognizing this obstacle, iPhone crackers have posted an assortment of pre-cracked programs on their Web sites.

Even after you obtain the cracked software, you still can't use it -- because iTunes will not recognize it as an authorized program and will refuse to install it on your iPhone. The solution here is to make a modification to an iPhone OS file, a modification that turns off the authorization check. Doing this requires that you first jailbreak your iPhone, which means that the change will likely be wiped out the next time you update to a new version of the iPhone software.

For pirate-wannabes, there are Web sites that offer tutorials on how to crack and obtain pirated software, complete with screen shots. You can even go to YouTube and watch videos that show how it's done. This is yet another aspect of iPhone piracy that surprises -- and dismays -- me. Does YouTube monitor its site to check for such videos? If so, does it permit them to remain online after they are discovered? If so, why? These videos are the equivalent of ones that would, for example, explain how to defeat alarm systems in banks. I assume YouTube would remove such videos. At least I hope they would.

Similarly, do ISPs knowingly permit sites to post cracked software -- especially sites that openly advertise what they do in an apparent attempt to attract traffic?

Now, in most free speech debates, I come down on the side of opposing censorship. But cracking iPhone apps and posting them for others to download, or publicly providing step-by-step instructions on how all of this is done, crosses the line for me.

I have long argued in support of jailbreaking iPhones in order to obtain useful software that Apple has chosen to exclude from its App Store. I recognize that some (especially Apple!) may find this position to contradict what I have said here. To me, there is a difference. It's the difference between making a modification to my iPhone that permits access to software that the developer is freely offering vs. stealing software that would otherwise require a purchase. Jailbreaking allows me to do on my iPhone what I can already legally do on my Mac. Maybe you draw the line in a different spot. Regardless, I hope we can all agree that iPhone app piracy is on the wrong side of the line.