What Loot Do the Software Pirates Crave?

Every search engine, Internet portal, and social network that's big enough to matter will run into legal issues from time to time. In some cases, users might post objectionable or illegal stuff in discussion forums. Elsewhere, search engines exist to help you find things -- but some websites contain illegal materials. There's a fine line between completeness and censorship.

It should come as no surprise when Google (NAS: GOOG) says it often has to erase search results that mess with other companies' intellectual property rights. Big G has a handy point-and-click tool available to report illegal or inappropriate search results, after all.

The devil's in the details
But you might be shocked to learn that Google handled 1.2 million such requests last month alone. What's more, this flood of copyright-related removal requests doesn't come from record companies or Hollywood. No, Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) is the owner of nearly 40% of the allegedly violated copyrights.

Mr. Softy casts a very wide net: The company has requested 2.6 million search result takedowns over the last 12 months, touching 23,500 different sites. The top-20 list of copyright enforcers otherwise includes a number of record companies and movie/TV studios as one might expect. The only obvious software name on that list, apart from Microsoft at the top, is the Entertainment Software Association. So if we can assume that the efforts to track down illegal links is at least somewhat in proportion to the actual infringement, I suppose that pirates are mostly looking for entertainment and, well, Microsoft tools.

Why isn't anyone stealing my stuff?
I dove deeper into the list of 7,662 copyright owners to find some of the supposed usual suspects. The results were not exactly what I had expected. It was actually hard to find any familiar names outside the entertainment industry. Those guys pretty much rule the roost below the absolute top spot. Add up all the complaints from a zillion known and unknown entertainers, and that long tail probably does outweigh Microsoft's superstar contribution.

Language-learning software wrangler Rosetta Stone (NYS: RST) clocks in at number 44 on the 12-month list with 25,000 requests. Swedish furniture giant IKEA, of all things, showed up in slot number 158 with 3,000 takedown requests. I ran out of patience when the company names started showing up in Korean and Japanese around the 700-request mark. By then, I had not yet seen Apple (NAS: AAPL) or Adobe Systems (NAS: ADBE) -- two companies I would have thought would pursue pirates with gusto.

Of course, Apple, Rosetta, and Adobe might be sending third-party services to do their dirty work, making me gloss over the unfamiliar names. Microsoft sure employs that tactic with a handful of independent organizations doing all the clicking. If not, I suppose Adobe's Photoshop and Rosetta's language courses just don't have the piracy mass appeal of a Microsoft Office suite or free copies of Windows 7.

As for Apple, Cupertino likes to keep its secrets secret and lock down everything else in the iTunes ecosystem. Maybe that's enough to keep the swashbuckling scallywags at bay.

Cloud computing could be another sinecure for piracy problems. After all, you can't simply publish illegal copies of something that runs on a tightly controlled enterprise server rather than your laptop. The cloud model is like Apple's iTunes on steroids. Some of these tools are even beefy enough to handle the torrential data streams it takes to run a modern enterprise-class business. It's a growing trend in the tech arena that you can learn more about in our special report on the boom in big data. It's available for free (and legally so!) but only for a limited time, so grab your copy today!

At the time this article was published Fool contributorAnders Bylundowns shares in Google but holds no other position in any of the companies mentioned. Check outAnders' holdings and bio, or follow him onTwitterandGoogle+. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Microsoft, and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Google, Microsoft, Rosetta Stone, Apple, and Adobe.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft and another bull call spread position in Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended creating a diagonal call position in Adobe. The Motley Fool has a strictly enforceddisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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