Pirates Plunder the iPhone App Store

Thursday Apr 9th 2009 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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The extent of illegal, free distribution of iPhone apps may be surprisingly large. Developers need to take steps to protect themselves.

Apple is currently spending lavish quantities of ad money on promoting the App Store and telling customers how there’s an app for just about anything on the iPhone. It all makes it seems like a fantastic time for developers to jump on board the App Store bandwagon and start developing new apps like mad.

However, there is a dark side to the App Store that Apple will not acknowledge, or, it seems, do anything about – piracy.

The piracy of digital content is nothing new, and there was no reason to believe that Apple’s App Store would somehow be immune to being boarded by pirates and plundered. However, the extent of the piracy is staggering.

According to Wired.com some 20% of all apps contained in the App Store have been pirated. That is such a staggeringly high amount that I initially had trouble believing it.

However, after spending a little “quality” time roaming the darker streets and back alleyways of the Internet I think that it could be an underestimate. If you apply the 80/20 rule to the App Store (that is, that 80 per cent of the apps are little more than junk) then a very high number of the high quality, highly desired apps have been cracked and made available for free download.

In other words, the pirates appear to be targeting the most popular apps. In my travels I came across hundreds of individual apps that were cracked and ready for download, but more worrying I found archives containing hundreds of cracked apps freely available. The value of such a bundle must be in the thousands of dollars.

Before we go any further, I want to get a few things clear. First, I don’t buy any of the nonsense spouted by the apologists who claim that piracy leads to sales. Piracy is theft and it’s not often that you come across an honest thief. None of the studies I have come across show that developers benefit from piracy.

Second, cracking apps has nothing at all to do with fair use. It’s stealing, plain and simple. Also, the whole argument that software piracy doesn’t matter because it only takes a few crumbs from the table of nameless, faceless multinational companies with millions (or billions) of dollars in the bank is bunk. Most of the developers with apps in the App Store are small companies or individuals trying to make a few bucks.

This isn’t a case of “sticking it to the man” and App Store thefts seem to me like they are harming the little guy far more than they are harming the big guys.

I know guys and gals who have spent a lot of time putting together iPhone apps who expected fair remuneration for the time they invested. Some of these developers have paid others for music, artwork and coding and are therefore out of pocket right from the start (let’s ignore the fact that they need to pay Apple in order to become registered developers, and need to buy devices to act as test platforms).

Finally, the “poor me” argument. This is the defense where someone justifies using a cracked app because they are strapped for cash.

Gimme a break. You are using a cellphone that costs hundreds of dollars, and are tied to an expensive monthly contract for two years. If you can’t afford to pay a few bucks for an app, then you’re not “cool” enough to own an iPhone in the first place.

Next Page: Combatting iPhone app piracy

Piracy is theft. And Apple App Store piracy is hitting the little guy harder than most. Leave the BS moral arguments at the door.

So, what can be done?

Well, there is no doubt that the App Store’s high profile means that it’s a big target for pirates. On top of that, the iPhone platform has received a lot of hacker attention for jailbreaking purposes. It’s a small leap to go from jailbreaking the OS to cracking apps.

To make matters worse, according to people I’ve spoken to, the mechanism used to bind apps to an iPhone or iPod touch is pretty basic and offers little in the way of protection. The protection mechanism that Apple uses to secure iTunes audio and video purchases is far superior.

Given that Apple takes a 30% cut on each App Store sale, I’d expect the company to do more to protect developers. I’ve heard from semi-reliable sources that Apple is planning to make things more difficult for pirates, but given that Apple hasn’t managed to make the iPhone jailbreak resistant, if I were an app developer I wouldn’t be holding my breath.

If I were developing apps for the App Store I’d be doing two things.

First, I’d be keeping an eye on the piracy situation. If an app was cracked I’d want to know what sales were like pre and post the release of the cracked app. Who knows, I might be the lucky one who benefits from piracy.

In addition to keeping an eye on the piracy situation, I’d be taking proactive steps to make my apps harder to crack. Maybe a registration mechanism, or a key, or maybe just a mechanism that checked whether the iPhone was jailbroken (it has to be possible).

One thing’s for sure, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting back and doing nothing while a bunch of freeloaders was ripping me off.

ALSO SEE: 64 Seriously Cool iPhone Applications

AND: Cool iPhone Apps: 65 Free Downloads

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