Economic Confusion

Stories like this, about how much owners of intellectual property are losing to piracy, always bug me, because the industry press just accepts the figure without criticism or comment.

They claim that they lost almost thirty billion dollars last year to pirated software. They derive this number by estimating the number of pirated software installations, and multiplying by the price of the product. But it’s almost certain that their losses aren’t that high. The only amount of money that they’re out is the amount that the people using the software would have been willing to pay if they hadn’t been able to get it for free.

This kind of disingenuous story occurs because people don’t understand the difference between price, cost, and value. For software, the marginal cost (resources required of the seller to produce it) for the software is almost zero, while the price (the amount asked by the seller) may be very high relative to its actual value, which varies from individual to individual. No rational person will pay more for a product than they value it, so if they can’t get it for free, the only amount of money that the vendor is out is the sum of the value of it for all potential buyers. Clearly, it wasn’t worth the full price to many of those individuals, or they would have paid it, and I think that the amount of loss is vastly overstated–many of them would have simply gone without, rather than pay full price, so the revenue in that case would still be zero.