Tech Pirates in Saudi Arabia

WARNING: The information you are about to read is strictly confidential, you shouldn’t share it with anyone you know, and you will even forget any encounter of reading this article.

I had written an article about pirated software, movies, and video games in Saudi Arabia. during the time of writing that article, I was listening to one of MyMac’s podcasts, where Chad and Tim were talking about pirated movies, which encouraged me to give you a picture about the situation in Saudi Arabia.

According to a report by an US industry body, nine out of ten software packages used by government organizations in Saudi Arabia are pirated. The same report also claims that over half of all business software used in the Kingdom is illegal. I don’t want to stretch this side of the story further, simply because it might get me in hot waters, but I have seen a lot.

The piracy rates runs at over 90% for entertainment software products alone. I remember the days where you could just walk in any computer store and ask for any pirated piece of software, simply pay for it and take it back to your home or office. It was so easy and widely spread that Saudis never thought that what they were doing was wrong, and that they should buy original copies instead of pirated. To make things even worst, in most cases it was so hard to find original software, but even if you did there was no real reason to buy them.

This was caused by a lot of factors which are covered thoroughly on the original article, but one of those factors was that most of the software dealers, who have exclusive rights to sell software, placed inflated mark-up prices, since they had a monopoly on those brands, adding up shipping, marketing, PR, sales, storage, and under-table customs lubricating expenditure on the average customer’s back. This leaves the every day joe thinking “Why would I pay so much, when I can get the latest and greatest software for US $2.70”. The buyer would think “Since it works like the original, why would I pay so much for an original?”.

Although software developers have created ways to prevent crackers from running their software, crackers have developed smarter ways to crack the new software. In the old days you would get a floppy disk or CD-ROM that contains a copy of the software with a serial number to install and run it on your computer. Nowadays software developers have came up with ways to prevent pirated software users from doing so, such as having a user has to register that copy on the internet or by phone to generate a key that the software requires to run on the machine. Crackers have developed softwares that would provide you with the generated key once the software prompts you to get it. I personally saw that in action when a user successfully installed a full version of Adobe CS2. I thought it was amazing how software’ crackers came up with this easy method.

I remember running Windows Longhorn (AKA Windows Vista) in mid 2005. I got the DVD from an Indian IT magazine that I bought from a magazine stand. When I popped the DVD in, I thought I was getting a sneak-peek of Longhorn. I was surprised to get the whole (beta) OS! When it was booting the screen read “Windows Longhorn Copyrights 2006”. When I dug around, I found out that hackers in Malaysia managed to get the copy off Microsoft’s servers somehow, and distributed it fearlessly. And in case you’re wondering, Microsoft is outsourcing their own bread and butter OS. I sat with a young programer in India once who told me all about this, so you could imagine how thing could get out of hand.

I thought that those rules applied only to the Windows platform, but I was shocked when I switched to Macintosh, to discover that because we were a minority around here, some Mac users would provide the latest pirated software to other Mac users for free. “Here’s my cell phone number” offered a guy who works at one of Apple’s distributors in Saudi Arabia, “Call me anytime you need a free copy of any software”.

Today when you buy pirated software you will get it on a CD with a text file that contains a serial number and a key generator software. After you generate the required key, you place it where the software’s dialogue box or installation wizard asks you to, and you have a full functioning registered software, that can even be updated from the internet.

But you might wonder where would a “normal user” find such pirated software. If you imagined dark alleys and back streets you’re wrong, the irony is that it is widely sold wherever computers are sold. The Saudi government is trying to crack down on those stores, so instead of selling it openly in front of walk-in costumer’s eyes, the customer would flip through a graphical catalog, choose what they want and the store’s clerk would phone a hidden back room where they make you a fresh hot copy. If you look at this procedure from a business perspective, the store managed to eliminated the cost of storing hundreds of pirated copies, as making a copy on CD would take them less then five minutes. While the customer waits, he or she might fancy buying a flash drive, or even decide on getting another software title.

I wish the problem stoped at computer software, but it extends to video games as well. A copy of the latest Playstation 2 or Xbox 360 titles can range between US $2.70 to US $5.30, and when I say latest I mean as soon as it hits the US market, and in most cases even before it does, people here get to enjoy the latest games at least a month before their American and European counterparts.

But in the case of video games, it is a little different then computer software. Video game console manufacturers, develop hardware that prevents pirated software from running on their machines, and here is where creativity kicks-in full fledge. Stores sell you consoles that are modified with a cracking chip hidden inside the console’s case. Those chips are manufactured, mostly, in China. The modification process is so easy all the seller needs to do is open up the case, attach the chip on the device’s motherboard, then screw the case back shut. You can’t even tell if that device has that chip running on it or not.

The added advantage to those modified devises is that the chip won’t only enable the device to run pirated video games, it enables the hardware to run Japanese, European, and American games on the same machine, and it barely costs the thrilled gamer an extra US $26.

Gamers would never even think of buying original games unless the title is a keeper, and the game developer offers a bonus pack. Otherwise a cheap pirated copy would do the job, and the selling store would even provide the buyer with a one year warranty on the hardware and a guarantee that the software will work flawlessly.

So if you live here and would like to find a game for your Xbox, Xbox 360, Playstation 1 or 2, or even Nintendo 64 or Cube you will find all the titles whether they are imported from the US, Europe, or Japan.

Now we reached the last part of the pirated underworld in Saudi Arabia. People here can buy the latest movies right off the streets literally, since the internet connection is too slow. People can decide whether they want a copy stolen off a movie theater or a copy from the original DVD. These are widely available on the streets, or under-table in stores that sell original VHS movies which no one buys or even rents any more.

I remember once in Istanbul, Turkey, observing a guy who managed to smuggle a camcorder and was recording a movie right off the screen in front of my own eyes.

The Saudi government is enforcing everything it can to stop all this, but the whole thing has been rooted deeply into the regular buyer’s minds. A psychological approach should be taken, aided with realistic original copy prices. I saw a DVD movie once that had an advertisement in the beginning telling people that buying pirated DVDs and CDs is a crime, on a pirated DVD!

Copyright © 2006 Mazen Al-Angary, All Rights Reserved.


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