Ryan posted earlier last week about Apple’s growing pains. Yes, Apple has approved over 100,000 apps, and we’re long since past the 2 billion download milestone, which is great. But alongside the explosive growth in the App Store has come explosive growth in another, not entirely unexpected direction: piracy.

1005462_treasure_chest_1I’m not going to pretend that piracy is a new or even an unusual phenomenon. Grabbing the latest album or movie off of the internet takes about as much effort as wiggling your pinky finger. But App Store piracy is a bit unique. First of all, we’re hearing a lot more indie developers speaking out about it. And secondly, those developers are extremely restricted in what preventative measures they can take, thanks in no small part to Apple.

The real power is in the numbers. Recently, Fishlabs reported that they experienced first-day piracy rates of 95% for Rally Master Pro. This is far from unusual; Smells Like Donkey claimed to experience rates as high as 90% in the week following the release of their newest game, Tap Fu, and ngmoco regularly experiences first-week rates of 50-90%. These rates decrease over time as pirates lose interests and more legitimate customers download the game, but indie developers are hit the hardest, with many enduring lasting piracy rates around 50%. Worst of all, hotly anticipated apps are cracked not within hours, but within moments of their release.

Needless to say, many are frustrated. Smells Like Donkey wrote that they felt “totally screwed over” after seeing just how rampant piracy was. And who can blame them? There aren’t many viable ways to protect applications.

Developers can attempt to check for pirated apps, but they often feel compelled to tread lightly. There’s nothing worse for PR than blocking a legitimate customer after a piracy check generates a “false positive.” (I.e., a genuine buyer gets mistaken for a pirate.) In the App Store, word of mouth is often what makes or breaks a game. Some insert pop-up notifications when a pirated app is detected, asking the user to buy a legal copy of the application, while others revert their games to a “lite” mode; most are loathe to permanently disable the apps.

The problem can largely be traced to the technical side of things, and the limitations enforced by Apple. As one blogger notes, “You can’t issue (or revoke) serial numbers, implement an activation scheme, or provide any other fully independent copy protection.” That’s right: it’s up to developers to implement their own code, which could start generating false positives if Apple alters the way they handle DRM. Piracy doesn’t have to exist (look at World of Warcraft as an example of a relatively piracy-free game) but so long as developers don’t have access to preventative measures, it will continue.

Apple has positioned in-app purchasing in free applications (“Free+” apps) as a solution. Still, some developers are skeptical, both because of the complex code required to properly implement IAP and because it’s not a foolproof fix. Personally, I think that Free+ as piracy protection is unrealistic. The basic security on paid applications hasn’t changed at all, and most applications are consistently cracked days after being released while big-name apps are cracked in moments. There’s been some progress: Apple has been actively fighting jailbreaking and is apparently continuing to hire employees to help fight it, and Free+ is a good step. But jailbreaking is legal, and Apple has been consistently defeated by the hacker community; Free+ is meant to generate revenue, not protect developers. We need more.

To be frank, Apple has been too slow to act when it comes to piracy, and if anything, marketing half-hearted gestures like Free+ as anti-piracy measures prove that it’s a low priority for them. They’re still selling devices, after all. But while the App Store is a juggernaut for now, piracy could eventually deter developers from making good products and leave us all worse for the wear. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that nobody wants that.

Well. Maybe Nintendo.

Photo courtesy of sxc.hu.

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