Vietnam: Where pirated apps match personal budgets

Many Vietnamese view pirated software as the only way they can afford the apps they want and need. Considering their wage scale, they aren't necessarily wrong.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
5 min read
The bootlegging in operation at a store in Hanoi, one of many such shops that sell pirated goods. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

Editor's note: CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo is spending part of December in his homeland of Vietnam and is filing occasional dispatches chronicling his impressions of how technology has permeated the culture there. Click here for more of Dong's stories from abroad.

HANOI, Vietnam--You say you can't afford the $699 price tag on Adobe Photoshop CS4? How about a $698 discount?

That's the kind of deal you'll get here in Hanoi, where pirated software--and virtually any other kind of digital content--is sold indiscriminately at many local shops for about $15,000 dong (90 cents) per DVD, or half of that for a CD.

These shops are open, just like any legitimate business. I checked one out and was impressed by the number of software titles it carried. While there, I also learned a thing or two about the piracy industry here in Vietnam.

The store I visited is a small shop facing a busy street, with walls covered in CD and DVD sleeves--all black and white copies of those found in the original software package.

"I hate having to use some sort of hack for them to work, but it's worth it. It's a no-brainer, really."
--Trung, college student,

Virtually any PC software application I've ever heard of can be found here: Windows operating systems, popular Office suites, and high-end professional software such as Photoshop, AudoCad, and Corel Draw, are available in any versions. I even found different builds of Windows 7, which is currently still in pre-beta and is supposedly available to only a limited few.

These software applications, of course, come with "crack"--a hacking application that allows for bypassing the vendors' antipiracy mechanism. All are guaranteed to work; if not, you'll get another copy that does or get your money back.

Out of curiosity, I asked one of the shop's two operators, Nam--a friendly 24-year-old man--where this copious amount of software comes from. He said there's somebody who gets his shop the "master" copy of any titles he wants, and the master copy costs just about $5.

I made up a fancy name of a nonexistent software title and asked for it. After searching his large database to no avail, Nam indeed picked up the phone and made a quick call. After that he told me to come back the next day. "They don't have it now, but they probably will soon, don't worry!" he said, sounding very sure.

Of course, not everything in this shop is bootlegged. There is also stuff you can legally download for free, such as OpenOffice, Linux distros, and service packs. It's a good way to save time and Internet bandwidth at home.

The shop's business is going very well. Nam said it sells about $100 worth of discs a day, which comes to about $3,000 a month. However, Nam himself gets paid only $150 a month, which is a little above average for a Hanoian.

A short list of what you can get at one Hanoi store for less than $1 per DVD. Dong Ngo/CBS Interactive

It's interesting to note that Nam, if he ever wanted Photoshop SC4, would have to save for months before he could afford it at the full retail price. Maybe that's the main reason bootlegging is so rampant here in Vietnam.

I talked to Trung, a college student, who stopped by the shop to fetch the latest revision of Medal of Honor. Trung is an avid gamer whose knowledge of video games could easily land him a job at GameSpot, even in these tough economic times.

He told me there's no way he could afford any of the games he's played--and he's played a lot of them--at the retail price. "I hate having to use some sort of hack for them to work, but it's worth it. It's a no-brainer, really," he said. The truth is that getting even one game legally could easily cost a student like him a whole month of food and rent.

According to the Business Software Alliance's and International Data Corporation's Fifth Annual Global Software Piracy Study (PDF), 85 percent of all software currently used in Vietnam is pirated. In 2007, piracy in Vietnam accounted for $200 million in losses for copyright owners.

I wonder how they came up with that number, however, as it is hard to calculate what the real "loss" would be if antipiracy laws were strictly enforced. Most people here would stop using a lot of software applications at all. They simply could not afford them.

The truth is the law doesn't seem to be strictly enforced here. Asked what would happen if the police found out, Nam said that he knows all the officers in the local unit and that they know what the shop does. He hinted that there was some sort of arrangement and the shop would close on those days, several times a year, when antipiracy inspectors head out to clean up bootlegged software.

In the event that the owners get caught and their equipment is confiscated, it's not hard to start anew. All a software shop needs are a couple of computers equipped with fast burners and large hard drives.

It seems bootlegging and using bootlegged software have become so common that nobody here considers those practices illegal or even "bad." They don't even seem aware of the fact that the software might come with malicious code designed to compromise their computer's security. It's going to take a long time for people here to change this mentality, if that's even possible.

In the meantime, it would probably be helpful to price the software differently for low-income parts of the world, such as Vietnam. After all, it's better for software vendors to have their products used for less than for nothing. And I would think that it's still better to have them used for nothing than not used at all.

The good news is that there are vendors that are making just such price adjustments. BitDefender, for example, has been using separate pricing for the Vietnamese market. Its Total Security 2009 suite, for example, costs $59.95 in the U.S. but only 399,000 dong ($24) in Vietnam. Kaspersky is doing the same thing.

While these two won't change much about the piracy landscape in Vietnam for now (and I think their prices could still go a little lower), they will hopefully raise awareness that legitimate software can be affordable, help create jobs, and come with benefits that are worth the price. Now that's a start.