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Unformatted text preview: PIRACY AS STRATEGY?
A REEXAMINATION OF PRODUCT PIRACY* IE Working Paper David B. Balkin DE8-108-I Dean A. Shepherd Univ. of Colorado at Boulder Univ. of Colorado at Boulder
Leeds School of Business
Leeds School of Business
Boulder, CO 80309-0419
Boulder, CO 80309-0419
David.Balkin@colorado.edu firstname.lastname@example.org 30 / 03 / 2004 Julio De Castro
Instituto de Empresa
Research Dpt .
To explore the impact that piracy has
on demand for legal versions of a
product and firm performance, we use the literatures of information
economics and strategic management to expand the analysis of piracy to
markets other than software. Our paper helps clarify the nature of customer
demand for legal versions of products, and gain a deeper understanding of
the way that piracy can enhance the performance of those firms that own
the intellectual property. We contend that
although piracy represents
unauthorized imitation of a firm’s intellectu
al property, there are some
circumstances when piracy can improve the
value of the intellectual
property, such that there is a net increase in demand for the legal versions
of the product, a reduction in the firm’s expenses in obtaining its sales, and
the erection of barriers to producers of (potential) competing legal
products. * The authors wish to thank Mat Hayward and Juan Santaló for his valuable comments on an
earlier version of this paper. All errors and omissions are the responsibility of the authors. IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 INTRODUCTION
The phenomenon of product piracy has received increased attention in recent years from both
scholars and practitioners. Product piracy is the misappropriation of inte
llectual property by a
party different from the rightful owner resulting in the making of unauthorized copies of a
product (McDonald & Roberts, 1994; Conner & Rumelt, 1991). Product piracy violates
copyright or patent law that protects the rights of owners
of intellectual property in products
such as software, films and books (Burgunder, 1995). The consumer who buys a pirated
product is aware that the product is not a legal version of the product but chooses to buy it often
because it is less expensive.
One reason for the greater threat of piracy nowadays is the use of digital technologies for
software, audio and video content. For example,
it has been reported that the software industry
loses billions of dollars of revenues each year from pirates who make
illegal copies of software.
It has been estimated that 5 percent of software used in the U.S. is illegal while in China and
Russia the rate of illegal copies approaches 90 percent (Horowitz, 2003; Givon, Mahajan &
Muller, 1995). Moreover, copied CD music
in a digital format has no reduction in quality due
to the ease of reproduction of digitally recorded sound. This was not the case when audio tapes
were the technology standard not too long ago
(Conner & Rumelt, 1991; McDonald & Roberts,
1994; Globerman, 2001). Technology advancements that make piracy easier and the quality of
the pirated products better has forced global public examination and discussion of this
phenomenon. Previous research on piracy has focused primarily on its costs (Globerman,
2001; Wagstaff, 2002), especially in terms of direct sales losses (Givon, Mahajan & Mueller,
1995; Lowry, Yang & Edwards, 2003), costs of brand image erosion (Keller, 1993; Mc
& Roberts, 1994), and the costs of enforcement (Rice 2002). For example, loss estimates due
to piracy for the software industry alone have been conservatively pegged at $1.5 billion a year
(McDonald & Roberts, 1994; Givon, Mahajan & Mueller, 1995).
Illegal music downloads due
to piracy were blamed for a $2.6 billion loss in the worldwide music industry in 2002 according
to PriceWaterhouseCoopers (Lowry, Yang & Edwards, 2003). For enforcement, Microsoft
maintains a staff of 250 in
its intellectual property protection department to operate as a
“worldwide police force” (The Economist, 2002).
Only recently have researchers begun to examine the possibility that product piracy might
improve overall customer demand for legal versions
of the product and thus result in benefits to
the owners of that intellectual property. For example, Conner and Rumelt (1991) challenge the
argument that software piracy harms producers (through reduced sales) by reasoning that piracy
could act to increa se the customer utility of a software program, thereby increasing demand and
firm profits. Furthermore, they contend that “piracy, because it increases the size of the total
installed base, may raise the value of the program for all users.”
Using a diff usion modeling
approach on a sample of two types of software in the United Kingdom, Givon, Mahajan and
Muller (1995) found that though six out of seven software users utilized pirated copies, the
pirated software was responsible for generating more that 80
% of new software buyers,
therefore greatly influencing the legal diffusion of the software.
1 Of course they also state that piracy causes direct sales loses. The net effect of piracy depends on balancing
piracy’s value enhancing effects against the sales that are lost and other costs associated with piracy. IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 These studies use theory on network effects to examine the sales of software products and have
provided a strong starting point for rethinking the costs and bene
fits of piracy. To further
explore the impact that piracy has on demand for the legal version of a product, we use the
literatures of information economics and strategic management to expand the analysis of piracy
to markets other than software, to clarif
y the nature of customer demand for legal versions of
products, and gain a deeper understanding of the way that piracy can enhance the performance
of those firms that own the intellectual property. In doing so, we make a number of important
contributions to the literature.
First, whereas previous examinations of this phenomena have
primarily focused on the costs to
firms of having their products pirated, in this article we argue that there are conditions under
which piracy can increase dema nd for legal versions of the product, i.e., when product piracy
generates and/or increases network effects, reduces the costs of search and/or information
processing, generates a positive signal to the market, as well as encourages both bandwagon
and herding effects.
Second, previous research has primarily attempted to quantify the costs of product piracy for
the owner of the intellectual property in one industry (software) and at one point in time (static
research designs). In this article, we re
-examine the costs of product piracy by accommodating
market heterogeneity- -heterogeneity in terms of the (1) the extent of overlap between the
populations of customers for legal products and that for pirated versions, and (2) the degree to
which customers value brands. Without such consideration, the negative impact of product
piracy on the demand for legal versions of a product could be substantially over
Thus, we extend the examination of the effects of product piracy
to the firm from the dominion
of software and network effects, to the application to all products and include theory of
informational economics, branding and signaling effects to the analysis.
Third, previous product piracy research has focused on the effect of
piracy on demand (or the
dollar equivalent of diminished demand). Although we follow this lead, we also use the
strategy literature to link changes in demand to firm performance, acknowledge the impact that
the costs of defending against pirates has on firm performance, and explore the role tha
product piracy has in building barriers to entry, which in turn enhances the sustainability of a
firm’s performance advantage.
Fourth, piracy provides an interesting context to explore the inter
-relationship between the
sources of a firm’s sustaina ble competitive advantage. Resource -based theories of strategy
(RBV) have argued that firms that possess resources that are valuable, rare, inimitable, and
non-substiutable have the potential of achieving superior performance (e.g. Barney, 1991;
Wernerfelt, 1984). A branded product can be a source of competitive advantage if the
organizational and strategic processes
of firms facilitate the manipulation of
value-creating strategies (Eisenhardt & Martin, 2000). When all else is held
imitability means a more sustainable competitive advantage and it is therefore not surprising
that resource-based scholars have placed considered importance on a firm’s ability to maintain
the inimitability of its intellectual pr operty. 2 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 However, using the information economics literature we argue that the sources of a firm’s
competitive advantage are inter
-related such that there are circumstances when less
inimitability may have a positive impact on a firm’s sustainab le competitive advantage because
it enhances other sources of sustainable competitive advantage. Specifically, piracy represents
unauthorized imitation of a firm’s intellectual property but, we argue that in some
circumstances piracy can improve the
value of the intellectual property such that the firm’s
sustainable competitive advantage is enhanced. In this context, value is represented by a net
increase in demand for the legal versions of the product and possibly a reduction in the firm’s
expenses in ob taining its sales. The context of piracy also highlights two populations of
(potential) competitors- -those that produce pirated products and those that produce competing
legal products. Although piracy reflects imitation by one population, we argue that
circumstances when piracy can reduce the level of imitation by the other population by creating
barriers to entry for potential competing legal products.
We believe that this paper helps address inconsistencies between theory and observed
phenomena in the area of intellectual property misappropriation. For example, in the case of
software, the pirating of Windows operating system software and Microsoft office products has
helped cement Microsoft’s dominance in the PC software industry in devel
oping countries in
Asia and Latin America, bringing customers into the fold that could not afford legal versions of
the products. In a recent example, Microsoft declared an amnesty to software pirates in
Russian cyber cafés because it has recognized that
(1) under the present economic conditions in
Russia, these businesses could not afford to pay the “legal” price for the software, (2) the power
of Russian police to prosecute these crimes is limited and (3) most importantly, they recognize
that users of th ese pirated products might in the future buy legal upgrades of the software that
they are most familiar with (Meredith, 2003).
The case of prestige goods is also illustrative. The Louis Vuitton
brand is the single most
pirated leather goods brand in th e world, yet is the largest contributor in sales (30%) and profits
(50%) to parent LVMH as indicated in its 2001 annual report. Traditional theory on branded
goods would argue that the signaling effect would not occur because the referent group
(affluent buyers of upscale leather goods) in this case would be in fact repulsed by the fact that
non-elite consumers are wearing a similar product acquired at a much lower price.
piracy should result in brand erosion and lower sales and profitability for th
However, net sales of these prestige goods have increased 37% in the last two years.
Moreover, in Hong Kong, one of the largest markets for upscale goods in the world coexists
with one of the largest pirated product markets in the world. Si
gnificant sales of inexpensive,
fake Rolex watches are sold in close proximity to upscale jewelry stores selling price legitimate
Rolex products. Apparently, the market for pirated watches
can operate symbiotically with the
legitimate market and is therefo re tolerated. We believe our theoretical arguments help make
sense of these apparently contradictory phenomena.
The article proceeds as follows: First, the construct of product piracy is introduced and
distinguished from other forms of intellectual prop
erty infringement. Second, we challenge an
existing assumption in the literature to re -examine the costs of product piracy. Third, we utilize
the literature on information economics to extend previous work on network effects and
propose other situations when piracy can enhance demand for legal versions of the product. 3 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 Fourth, we utilize the literature on strategic management to explore the relationship between
product piracy and firm performance. Finally, we discuss the implications of our model and
offer a number of concluding remarks. PRODUCT PIRACY
McDonald and Roberts have defined piracy as “when products have been copied and sold
without the permission of the rightful manufacturer” (1994: 55). They further differentiate
between counterfeiting, piracy and knock offs. They argue both counterfeiting and piracy
result in illicit products, but that a counterfeit product is one which the manufacturer produces
with the intention of deceiving the consumer, while in the case of pirac
y, the consumer is aware
that the product is fake, and that in this case it constitutes a conscious act of the consumer to
purchase a fake product. MacDonald and Roberts argue that the consumer is aware that he or
she is buying a fake because of the price
, purchase location, or obvious differences in design,
quality and features. Knock -offs they define as a similar product that is designed to ride the
brand or trade dress of the leading product in this category.
For the purpose of this paper we will con
centrate on piracy. That means that the intent in this
case is not to deceive the consumer as would be the case with counterfeiting, and that the
consumer is a willing participant in the transaction. This definition is important because
mounting evidence, in particular in the case of technological content, that consumers do not
perceive the acquisition of pirated products to be a crime or
that they perceive it to be a
“victimless crime”. Furthermore, we assert that pirating occurs when the final price
of the legal
version of the product includes a component of the cost of creating the intellectual property
Two classic examples are first software and pharmaceutical products, where the price of the
final product reflects the investment in resear
ch and development, and second prestige goods,
where the final price reflects branding costs and snob appeal. PIRACY AND LOSS OF DEMAND
Pirated products as substitutes for legal products
A key theme of earlier studies of piracy consisted of attempts to analyze the costs for firms in
terms of lost sales (Globerman, 2001). A critical assumption that was made in these earlier
piracy studies was that the sales of pirated prod
ucts directly reduce the sales of legal copies of
the product. However this zero sum assumption can only be made if both buyers of pirated and
legal products come from the same population of likely buyers and users of the product. If the
buyers of legal and pirated products come from different populations then we can not consider
all pirated copies as lost sales. Therefore, we will look at the implications of holding two
different assumptions about the populations of legal and pirated products and the
affects on piracy costs to firms.
First we will assume that buyers of legal and pirated products come from the same population.
This means that the buyer of a pirated product could have paid the price for the legal product
but chose to pu rchase the less costly pirated version of the product. The loss to the company 4 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 from product piracy would be directly in proportion to the loss of sales attributable to the
substitution of pirated products for legal products. Therefore, when buyers of legal
products come from the same population, the sale of each pirated product represents a loss to
the firm that is the victim of piracy, and so the accounting for such losses can often amount to a
substantial cost to the firm.
Now we relax our fi rst assumption and assume that buyers of legal and pirated products come
from different populations. This is often the case in the situation where a product is marketed
on a global basis and one set of the buyers come from developed countries with
high levels of
disposable income, and other potential buyers come from third world countries with low levels
of income. There could be income barriers that keep buyers from pirated products distinct
from buyers of legal products. For example, a student
in China may be able to pay one dollar
for a pirated software program but does not have the resources to pay the legal price of one
hundred dollars for the software from the company that owns the intellectual property rights to
market and distribute it. Wh en legal and pirated product buyers are distinct should
all sales of a
pirated product be considered a loss of sales to the company that has the legal rights to market
this product? The answer is that with distinct buyer populations
fewer buyers of pirated
products would be in a position to buy the legal product. Therefore the cost of piracy in terms
of lost sales to the owner of the intellectual property could be overstated if we do not consider
the extent of overlap between the
population of buyers of legal products and the population of
buyers of pirated products. Thus,
Proposition 1: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which buyers of legal and pirated products come from different
populations. The more independent the population of (potential) buyers of legal versions of the
product is from the population of (potential) buyers of pirated versions of the product, the less
negative the impact that piracy has on demand for legal versions of the product.
Pirated products and the erosion of brand equity
Brand equity can be a significant contributor to increased demand for a product and enhance
firm profitability (Aaker, 1992), but it can be adversely affected
by product piracy. Brand
equity refers to “the marketing effects uniquely attributable to the brand
--for example, when
certain outcomes result from the marketing of a product or service because of its brand name
that would not occur if the same product or
service did not have that name”
McDonald and Roberts have argued that the “existence of pirated versions of a brand detracts
from the intangible assets placed on the brand by the consumers” (1994: 57).
McDonald and Roberts (1994) raise a
number of interesting points with regards to the
deterioration of brand image that can occur due to product piracy. First, there is the erosion
caused by the loss in terms of the intangible assets that the customer places on the brand. A
consumer of Loui s Vuitton bags is also paying for the exclusivity attached to the fact that only
a few people can afford the brand. This allure and exclusivity is eroded by the presence of
pirated copies of the product at a reduced price. Second
, the presence of pirated products of
lesser quality then the originals, in particular in industries such as the pharmaceutical industry,
can obviously create harm to possible consumers and can lead to negative attributions to the 5 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 original brand.2 Finally, although piracy can ope
rate as a form of vertical extension of the
brand into a different market segment (Aaker, 1972)
,downward stretches in brands can also
result in brand dilution (Kirmani, Sood, & Bridges, 1999). Thus,
Proposition 2: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which buyers value branding. The less value placed on branding,
the less negative the impact that piracy has on demand for legal versions of the product. PIRACY AND ENHANCED DEMAND
Traditionally, researchers have concentrated on the cost of piracy (Wagstaff, 2002; Nascimento
& Vanhonacker, 1988). Only recently have researchers begun to examine the possibility that
pirating might improve overal l customer demand for legal versions of the product and thus
result in benefits to the owners of that intellectual property. Advancements in our knowledge
of the benefits of piracy for the firm that owns the intellectual property have come primarily
from a “network effects” investigation of the software industry (e.g., Conner & Rumelt, 1991;
Givon, Mahajan & Muller, 1995). In the section
s that follow, we extend the “network effects”
perspective to explore the potential benefits of piracy more generally
(beyond the software
industry), we complement this perspective by using the broader literature on information
economics to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between piracy and customer
demand for legal versions of the product, and we use the
strategic management literature to
better understand piracy in terms of its implications on the performance of the firm that owns
the intellectual property.
Network effects and piracy
Katz and Shapiro (1985, 1992, 1994) and Farrell and Saloner (1985) have
provided the basis
for discussion of network externalities in the context of product piracy. Katz and Shapiro have
described a product with network externalities as one “in which the utility the user derives from
consumption of the good increases with the
number of other agents consuming the good”
(2001: 424). In the case of products with network externalities
, the fact that other individuals
are consumers of the product increases
product utility. These authors give three main cases of
network externalities for products which can be generated by: (1) direct effects of the number
of purchasers on the quality of the product; (2) indirect network effects, when the number of
customers of the primary product increases the number of customers for complemen
products; and (3) when the quality and availability of the post purchase service is related to the
size of the service network, which in turn is related to the number of unit sales. An example of
the direct effect of network externalities is when the
number of mobile phone users increases
2 For example, the consumer of a pirated version of Viagra, a drug for male impotence, may experience harmful
side effects that do not occur when using the legal version of this drug. This problem, however wold be more
salient in the case of counterfeiting, in which the consumer does not know that the product is a fake, than in the
case of piracy, when the consumer does know that the product is a fake and yet chooses to acquire it. One can,
however, imagine s ituations in which either in developing countries, or when customers with low acquisition
power decide to knowingly acquire a cheaper and unauthorized pirated version of a pharmaceutical, and in doing
so take risks to their health. 6 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 the value of the phone network to each additional customer as the number of users gets larger.
An indirect effect of network externalities occurs when consumers of a Brittany Spears music
CD also purchase a music vid eo made by the same artist. A post
-purchase service example of a
network externality occurs when a software user also purchases a technical service manual for
the software in order to better understand how to operate all the software functions.
Both Conner and Rumelt (1991) and Givon, et al. (1995) have utilized the notion of network
effects to argue that piracy might result in benefits to the manufacturer of software that ends up
being pirated. Conner and Rumelt in their study argue that piracy could
increase firm profits
due to increased sales . The justification is that piracy supports the formation of network
externalities and consequently increases the real number of product users who are attracted to a
more valuable product. Network externalities occur for software products because consumers
have an incentive to economize on post -purchase learning and customization costs.
Givon, et al. (1995) contend that pirates play an important role in helping convert potenti
users into actual users of the software, and that many of those users of pirated software
eventually acquire legal copies of the product. Using a diffusion modeling approach, they
found that this shadow diffusion has a significant impact on the legal
distribution of the
software. In their study of spreadsheets and word processors in the United Kingdom, they
found that even though six out of each seven units were pirated, pirates influenced the potential
users to adopt this software, and contributed to
generate more than 80% of unit sales for these
types of software. The authors attribute this diffusion to word of mouth interactions that
influence the potential buyers of the products. Thus,
Proposition 3: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which product piracy generates and/or increases network effects.
The more that product piracy generates and/or increases network effects, the more positive its
impact on demand for legal versions of the product.
Even though Givon, et al. (1995) do not directly discuss the issue of search and information
cost to new buyers, we can infer that one of the benefits to potential consumers is a significant
reduction of their costs in the gathering infor
mation. Diamond (1985) differentiates between
information gathering for opportunities, which makes the consumer aware of the possible
choices available, and information gathering for the arrangement of individual trades, which
centers on the acquisition products. Piracy could help in both accounts, by making prospective
customers aware of the product, and by making them aware of the base price for the product.
For example, Merlo and Schottner (1994) found that as complexity of the decision increases,
subjects employ simpler learning rules, and that individuals learn better in low cost learning
environments. They argue that this is a result of how much individuals process the information
they generate and not of the type of information they generate. Pi
racy results in simpler
learning rules that indicate which products are favored by others, and the information generated
by piracy tends to be low cost. In a similar way, piracy could also affect significantly the
learning costs of prospective buyers and
thereby influence the acquisition of legal products.
Thus, 7 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 Proposition 4: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which product piracy reduces the costs of search and/or information
processing for potential users. The more that product piracy reduces the costs of search and/or
information processing, the more positive its impact on demand for legal versions of the
Signaling and piracy
Piracy can play a beneficial role for the
demand of legal versions of the product through
signaling. Based on signaling theory from information economics, Erdem and Swait (1998)
analyzed brand equity from a signaling perspective and found that brands are important to
consumers because they can signal product positions credibly, inform consumers about product
attributes, and increase customer confidence on brand claims. Contrary to the cognitive
behavior approach on signaling, Erdem and Swait (1998) argue that an informational
economics based per spective, in particular, addresses the imperfect and asymmetrical
information structure in markets.
Pirating may act as a signaling mechanism that could serve to increase the credibility of the
branded product (legal versions) in markets with asymmetric
and imperfect information. We
extend their arguments on brand equity to the realm of piracy, and argue that pirating also
reduces imperfect and asymmetric information to the consumer, by giving the consumer a clear
indication of what other consumers in
the market value. Piracy would then work to reduce
uncertainty, and to reduce information gathering and processing costs for prospective
customers of non -pirated products. Thus, when shopping for an upscale leather good, out of all
possible choices, by exa mining the brand that is the most pirated, the customer could easily
determine which brand is most valued by other customers.
Thus in the same manner that advertising would provide a credible signal about the product,
Erdem and Swait (1998) would argue
that the presence of product piracy would increase the
credibility of the branded product and signal to the prospective users of non
-pirated versions of
the product that this is the “most credible brand”. Furthermore, piracy would signal to
prospective consumers that out of all possible alternatives to the product, the one that gets
pirated the most is the one that produces the most utility to the customer. That customer utility
is such that individuals pirating the product are willing to run significant
legal and financial
risks in order to capture some of that utility.
In addition, pirating, by providing market information as to which products are valuable to
consumers, would decrease the information costs and perceived adoption risk of the consumer,
thus increasing the product utility for the consumer. Finally, the presence of pirated products
that users can compare might enhance the credibility of quality claims about the product and
might increase the “snob” appeal by highlighting the difference in
price between legal and
pirated product. Thus,
Proposition 5: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which product piracy provides a positive signal to the market. The 8 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 more that product piracy generates a positive signal, the more positive its impact on demand
for legal versions of the product.
A different perspective on external effects on consumer utility involves “bandwagon effects”
and piracy. Leibenstein (1950) defined bandwagon effects as
The extent to which the demand for a commodity is increased by the fact that others are
consuming the same commodity… It represents the desire of people to get in the swing of
things; in order to conform to the people they are associated with; in order to be fashionable
or stylish; or in order to appear to be one of the boys (1950:189).
Leibenstein’s perspective countered traditional economic theory and arguments that the
consumption by one individual is independent of the consumption
of others. At the center of
our piracy argument is that since an individual’s consumption is not independent of the
consumption of others, the phenomena of piracy can help alter consumption patterns of
individuals in such a way that the result could be t
he increase of consumption of legal versions
of the product.
Bandwagon effects in the context of piracy would serve to inform prospective buyers of legal
versions of the product about the appropriate product choice made by other consumers from
their referent group, given that these are the ones that pirates perceive to be the referent
products. For example a pirated video game may signal to a customer that the game is “cool”
and should be selected over other games. In the context of bandwagon effects,
by acquiring a
product outside of what pirates signal are the appropriate ones, a customer risks acquiring a
product that is inappropriate (outside of referent groups choices of products). Thus,
Proposition 6: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which product piracy hastens bandwagon effects. The more that
product piracy hastens bandwagon effects, the more positive its impact on demand for legal
versions of the product.
Herding effects and piracy
Banerjee (1992) has defined herd behavior as “social and economic situations in which our
behavior is influenced by the behavior of others” (p. 797). In herd behavior, individuals make
product choices to mirror or emulate the choices and b
ehaviors of others. Herding is related
to, but distinguishable from signaling, in
that herding relates to individuals willingness to
conform to social or group norms , and unwillin gness to depart from the herd, even in situations
when it would be advantageous to do so.
The main difference between the two is that s ignaling
is associated with information arising from the
pirated product whereas herding is linked to the
behavior of those that acquire it. Choi (1997) has examined herd behavior in the context of new
product introductions in the technology arena and asserts that the interaction of informational
externalities and payoff effects could produce herd behavior on
consumers of new technology,
who would want to avoid choosing technologies alternative to the leader because they would
not want to be left out. As he states: 9 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 I demonstrate that in the presence of network externalities, once a technology is adopted and
its true value is revealed, it has a significant advantage over another technology whose value is
uncertain in the subsequent technology-adoption process. More specifically, the proven
technology can be sequentially chosen by everybody even when it is common knowledge that
the unproven one has a higher expected value. Thus the consequence of handicapping the
adoption of the other technology is the prevalence of herd behavior in the technology adoption
process. (1997: 408)
Piracy can be an important driver
of herd behavior, both in the case of digital products as in the
case of other consumer products. When a product has a first mover advantage and is pirated,
the herd effects can be deployed which act to raise barriers for other technologies or products to
enter the market, even if the technology or product is suboptimal. The herd effects discussed
by Choi (1997) could be accelerated if the product is pirated, which would in turn intensify the
network effects, and the perceived product value for prospectiv
e consumers of the legal
Piracy could also provide herding effects for prestige goods by providing information to
prospective buyers as to which prestige good is more desirable and appreciated by others.
Sales of legal goods would drive up th
e rate of piracy, which would also drive up sales of legal
products through herding, creating a virtuous circle between legal and pirated copies of the
products. This effect would help explain phenomena such as markets in Hong Kong, where
vast numbers of sellers of pirated copies coexist with a great number of stores selling legal
copies of the same consumer products, such as Gucci handbags or Rolex watches. Thus,
Proposition 7: The relationship between piracy and demand for legal versions of the product is
moderated by the extent to which product piracy provides hastens herding effects. The more
that product piracy hastens herding effects, the more positive its impact on demand for legal
versions of the product. PIRACY, DEMAND , AND FIRM PERFORMANCE
Piracy, demand, and firm profitability
Above we have proposed that under specific circumstances the loss of demand for legal
products from the presence of pirated products is diminished and piracy can enhance the
demand for legal versions of the product. When piracy increases net demand for the legal
version of a product, the firm that owns that intellectual property can benefit through improved
firm performance. Increased demand for a product can enhance firm perform
ance in three
ways: the firm can charge higher prices for the legal version of the product and sell the same
quantity (improved profit margin and absolute profit), the firm can charge the same price and
sell a greater quantity of the legal version of the
product (increase market share and absolute
profit), or some combination of the two.
While piracy can improve performance through increased net demand for the legal version of
the product, firm performance can also be improved by reducing current expenditu
re on direct
costs in enforcing property rights and defending brands against piracy. Firms employ 10 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 international law firms, private investigative organizations and lobbying firms to activate public
action and force customs and police organizations in many
different countries to act against the
piracy of their products. McDonald and Roberts (1994) have argued that under those
circumstances there are higher probabilities of a case of alleged infringement being identified
and acted upon. Yet, the cost of le
gal and political action can be significant, and persecution
and prosecution can be time consuming. For example, Cartier declared that they spend in
excess of $3 million dollars a year protecting the intellectual property rights of their products in
over 125 countries (McDonald & Roberts, 1994). Microsoft maintains a staff of 250 in its
intellectual property protection department, which operates as a “worldwide police force”
In digital media, technological advances have further incr eased the costs of enforcement while
reducing the likelihood of persecution and prosecution. Cameron has stated that:
a significant essential economic problem of digital crime is that the impact of technological
progress has made transactions costs of enforcement potentially too high, partly because of the
low costs of copyright infringement due to technological advances for there to be substantial
amounts of deterrence from punishment. (2002:15).
Furthermore, in developing countries the courts may
indeed be more sympathetic to nationals
who create local jobs by pirating the intellectual property of organizations situated in wealthy
Therefore, reducing resources allocated to fighting pirates can have a positive impact on
demand for the legal version of the product and reduce the firm’s costs, both of which enhance
firm performance. Thus,
Proposition 8: The relationship between piracy and firm profitability is moderated by the
extent to which product piracy enhances net demand for the legal version of the product. The
more that product piracy increases net demand, the more positive its impact on the
performance of the firm that owns the intellectual property.
Piracy, barriers to entry, and firm profitability
Above we have argued th
at although piracy represents unauthorized imitation of a firm’s
intellectual property, there are some circumstances when piracy can improve the
value of the
intellectual property such that there is a net increase in demand for the legal versions of the
product and possibly a reduction in the firm’s expenses in obtaining its sales. In these
situations the reduction in one source of competitive advantage
- -inimitability- -is more than
compensated by a gain in another source of competitive advantage
- -value- -such that the firm
may be able to increase its sustainable competitive advantage.
However, piracy also highlights the need for a more fine
-grained assessment of inimitability.
In this context, there are two populations of (potential) competitors
- -those that produce pirated
products and those that produce competing legal products. Although piracy reflects imitation
for one population, we argue that there are circumstances when piracy can reduce the level of 11 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 imitation by the other population by creati
ng barriers to entry for potential competing legal
products. Specifically, piracy can help generate barriers to entry through standard setting and
Farrell and Saloner (1987) have shown the benefits of technology standards for competition
within an industry. The presence of technology standards commits producers to compete on
price or service, protecting adopters from being orphaned by a losing technology, allowing
them to reduce uncertainty and information gathering costs and thus encoura
adopters to buy earlier. Farrell and Soloner contend that standardization can replace regulation
and accelerates network effects by contributing to the increase in the number of adopters in the
This view is consistent with research
by Gandal and Greenstein (1999) who have argued that
firms can facilitate setting the standard by extending the market, and looking for ways to create
network externalities. Piracy goes beyond extending the market by having adopters experience
sunk and learning costs as part of an installed base of a product (Shapiro, 1999). Later all
adopters can be converted into legal users of new generations of the product due to the penalty
from experiencing switching costs. Furthermore, piracy provides a signal to
of the likelihood that a technology will become the standard so they can avoid the costs of
adopting the wrong technology which may end up being abandoned, a costly mistake. Having
one’s technology as the standard
could represent a substantial barrier to entry
Saloner,1987; Church & Gandal, 1992).
Givon, et al. (1995) also suggest that the size of the pirated market could serve as a barrier to
entry to potential competitors, who might delay and even cancel the
introduction of new
products because of the presence of piracy, and the implications it could have for its own firm’s
profitability and ability to conquer the market. Thus,
Proposition 9: The relationship between piracy and firm profitability is moderated by the
extent to which product piracy builds barriers to entry. The more that product piracy builds
barriers to entry, the more positive its impact on the performance of the firm that owns the
intellectual property. DISCUSSION OF PIRACY AS STRATEGY
Piracy and diminished demand for legal versions of the product
Previous research on the costs of product piracy has
made a substantial contribution to the
literature. It was not their purpose to provide a generalized theory of
piracy; rather they were
focused on explaining the costs of piracy in a particular industry (software) at a particular point
in time. We were interested in developing a more generalized theory
of product piracy and
therefore considered market heterogeneity.
First, we proposed that markets (across industries and over time) differ to the extent that the
population of (potential) customers for legal versions of the product overlap with the
population of (potential) customers for pirated versions of the product, and that these 12 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 differences matter in understanding the negative impact of piracy on demand for legal versions
of the product. For example, the results from early studies on the impact of p
iracy on demand
for software would likely differ to the results of later studies of software (when the
product/market was more mature). We speculate that in the early days of software, the
population of legal users of the product was highly independent of the population of (potential)
customers of pirated products, although as the product/market for software matured there is an
increasing overlap between the two populations. In such a situation, we propose that
of piracy in terms of diminished customer demand are greater when the product/market is more
Stated differently, if we assume that there is considerable overlap between the populations of
(potential) customers of legal versions of the
product and pirated products, when in fact there is
little such overlap, it is likely that there will be an over
-estimation of the negative impact of
product piracy on customer demand for legal versions of the product. This approach of
accounting for pir ated sales as lost sales at the regular sales price of the product would only be
appropriate if in the absence of pirated products those customers would be likely acquirers of
the legal versions. This is not the case
for a significant number of customer s in developing
countries, and a number of customers in developed countries. In fact the vast majority of cases
of pirating occur in developing countries such as India, China and Latin America. As the
populations in developing countries become wealthier,
consumers will then be in a financial
position to purchase legal versions of a product. Thus the consumers of pirated goods in a
developing country may be perceived as a latent market for legal product versions for the future
waiting to be tapped once an ec
onomic threshold of wealth has been achieved by this
Second, we proposed that markets (across industries and over time) differ to the extent
customers value brands, and that these differences matter in understanding the negative impact
of piracy on demand for legal versions of the product. If market differences in the value
customers place on brand are not taken into consideration, then there could be a significant
over- or under -estimation of the negative impact that piracy has on the demand
for the legal
version of a product.
After re-examining the costs of piracy to the firm that owns the
intellectual property, we acknowledge that costs are only on
e side of the equation- -next we
discuss the implications of our propositions regarding the positive impact that piracy can have
on demand for the legal version of the product.
Piracy and enhanced demand for legal versions of the product
In this article we proposed tha t there will be situations where the benefits of piracy outweigh its
costs. Specifically, the more that product piracy generates and/or increases network effects,
reduces the costs of search and/or information processing, generates a positive signal to the
market, hastens bandwagon effects and hastens herding effects, the more it can overcome its
costs and enhance demand for the legal versions of the product.
These proposed relationships
make an important contribution to the
literature. By offering situations when piracy can have a
positive impact on demand for legal versions of a product, we offer an important counterweight
to the dominant perspective in the literature that has focused exclusively on the costs of piracy. 13 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 We are not the first to offer such as a counterweight. There have been a few studies that have
begun to investigate the positive impact that piracy can have on the demand for legal versions
of the product (e.g., Conner and Rumelt, 1991; Givon et al., 1995)
and these studies have made
an important contribution to the literature. In this article, we extend their contribution of
network effects in the context of product piracy of software products, to provide a model that is
generalizable beyond the software industry by exploring others aspects of network externalities
and to accommodate other important constructs consistent with an information economics
perspective. In this article, we proposed that markets differ (across industries and over time)
and these differences matter in determining the extent that piracy has a positive impact on the
demand for legal versions of the product. For example, the network effects in the software
industry might be stronger than in other industries and therefore to
generalize the relationship
between product piracy and its positive impact on the demand for legal versions of the product
found in Conner and Rumelt (1991) and Givon et al. (1995) to other industries would likely
over-state the positive aspects of produc
t piracy. The same challenges likely arise in
generalizing results of the software industry in the late eighties and early nineties to the early
Based on our model, we argue that reliance solely on the network effects arising from
piracy will likely understate the positive impact that piracy has on the demand for legal
versions of the product because it does not sufficiently capture other information benefits, such
as reducing the costs of information gathering, providing po
sitive market signals, hastening
bandwagon effects, and hastening herding effects.
Piracy and its strategic implications
Should management always enforce its intellectual property rights and actively fight piracy or
should it sometimes be passive? Using
an information economics and a resource
perspective the short answer is no. In this article
we have argued that the sources of a firm’s
competitive advantage are inter -related such that when a product is pirated (imitated), there are
circumstances when the firm’s sustainable competitive advantage can be improved because
piracy has a positive impact on the value of the legal version of the product and/or piracy can
erect barriers to entry for potential producers of competing legal products.
Therefore, we contend that rather than the “defend at all costs” strategies proposed in the
received literature, product piracy and intellectual property misappropriation should be
managed by the firm. That is, through careful calibration of enforcement, legal ac
lobbying, and the use of anti
-piracy technologies, firms should be able to extract some of the
benefits of network externalities, herding effects, and signaling, while keeping within
reasonable parameters lost sales and brand erosion. tion, This strategic approach to piracy management should result in higher long term profits for the
firm. Management of the misappropriation of intellectual property should not be a knee jerk
reaction against all types because product piracy might be helpful to the firm.
Too much piracy
obviously could result in brand erosion, (which is detrimental when customers value brand) and
in reduced sales (when the acquirers of pirated products and of legal products are
part of the
same population). Firms should be able to de
termine, given the unique characteristics of its 14 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 products, the optimal space where pirating can lead to network effects, reduced costs of
gathering information, positive market signals,
hastened bandwagon and herding effects and,
the generation of barr iers to entry such that firm performance can sometimes be enhanced by a
strategy of “tolerating” rather than “fighting” pirates.
It is interesting to note that Microsoft, has slowed down on anti
- piracy initiatives in Russia and
China (Meredith, 2003). This action appears to be the result of both the difficulty of
persecuting piracy crimes in those markets, but also because they understand that piracy can
improve firm performance through increasing demand for legal versions of the product
(possibly at a later date) and generating barriers for others considering entry into these markets.
Apparently they are taking a long
-term view that customers of pirated versions of current
products may in the future turn into users of upgrades of legal software products.
Givon, et al. (1995) also suggest that whether to fight pirates or not is a strategic decision.
They suggest that the protective devices be introduced later in the product life cycle stage. At a
later life cycle stage customers
(both paying customers and those who received pirated version
of the software) would be familiar with the software, product piracy would have already helped
establish a standard for the product, and customer switching costs would be higher, so they
would be more inclined to buy the software.
However, it is not our intention in this paper to promote product piracy. We understand that
even though intellectual property regimes differ from country to country, piracy is an illegal
activity in many countries.
Our analysis only deals with the reality of piracy and a better
understanding of the role it can play in crafting the strategy of the affected firm.
A comment on unit of analysis
Even though in this article we have only examined the problem of piracy
from the perspective
of the firm, it is important also to recognize that there are a number of societal issues
surrounding piracy with strong implications for both firm and public policy. Direct effects on
society from piracy include a reduction of tax re
ceipts that can contribute to a reduction in
public funds to pay for services that benefit the society. Indirect effects from piracy include
providing a context for higher incidences of criminal behavior such as in the way that “broken
windows” theory wou ld predict (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). Consistent with this argument, an
increase in piracy and its lax enforcement would result in societal costs in terms of increases in
other types of crimes. For example, lack of enforcement on piracy could lead to grea
frequencies of other white collar crimes such as embezzlement, insider securities trading and
fraudulent financial reporting to shareholders, leading to economic losses to the society because
financial markets could lose their credibility with investor s.
Therefore, and on the one hand, the fight against piracy from this societal perspective would
entail mobilizing government resources to enforce the intellectual property rights of firms.
While our paper has focused at the level of a firm that is act
ing in its own economic interests to
deal with piracy, we recognize that fighting piracy may be perceived as a social goal and that
government resources may be spent to enforce the rights of firms who are victims of piracy.
Furthermore, this social perc eption should also be taken into account when
piracy strategy. A firm using piracy as a strategic tool should be careful to not be tarred as
“soft 15 IE Working Paper DE8-108-I 31 / 03 / 2004 on crime” and or socially perceived as encouraging piracy. The advantages gained by strateg
use of piracy could be lost due to changes in the public perception of the firm. ic On the other hand, not all governments are going to view piracy as a serious infraction worthy
of using government resources and staff to prosecute the perpetrators. In
Italy and Spain, for
example, local and federal governments are less interested in persecuting and prosecuting
piracy, which they perceive as a minor crime, for fear that strong persecution and prosecution
of misappropriation of intellectual property would
result in higher incidence of violent crimes
such as robbery and assault, which are perceived to be more dangerous to society. In this
context piracy is seen as the lesser of two evils, and it is less likely that government resources
will be used to fight
piracy leaving the burden of piracy enforcement to be left to firms who
decide on their own to fight it. CONCLUSION
While the literature on product piracy has emphasized its disadvantages, the potential benefits
of piracy have by and large been overlooked. This paper applied the lens
es of information
economics and strategic management to provide a balanced perspective of both the costs and
benefits of product piracy to the firm which has had its products copied by pirates
examining product piracy in terms of
network effects, signaling, bandwagons, and herding
behavior we find that piracy in some specific situations is likely to be
less costly and/or more
beneficial to the firm than in others. In
other words, we suggest that there will be situations
where the costs of piracy outweigh the
benefits and other situations where the benefits
outweigh the costs.
Two important additions to received theory should be addressed at this point.
We argue that
product piracy and intellectual property misappropriation should be managed by the firm. That
is, through careful calibration of enforcement, legal action, lobbying, and the use of anti
technologies, firms should be able to extract
some of the benefits of network externalities,
herding effects, and signaling, while keeping within reasonable parameters lost sales, and brand
Second, even though prior researchers had argued the benefits of network externalities in the
context of product piracy of software products, our model introduces the analysis of signaling
and herding effects to the examination of piracy, and more importantly, extends the discussion
to all pirated products. Within our analysis, all firms, not only sof
tware firms can examine the
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