Four out of every ten programs used in the world are pirated or unlicensed, a loss of revenue to the software industry of $63.4 billion (£39.5 billion) a year, the Business Software Alliance’s (BSA) latest annual survey has claimed.

The worst offending markets during 2011 are the same as they have been since the organisation started its survey in 2007, with China a predictable and steady problem with a piracy rate of 77 percent.

Other developing countries such as Venezuela (88 percent), Indonesia (86 percent), and Argentina (69 percent) scored poorly. By contrast, the world's largest software market, the US, had a rate of of only 19 percent.

"It could be argued that Chinese businesses have an unfair advantage because they’re getting the same software without paying for it," said the report.

Some European countries do surprisingly poorly with Italy a trouble spot on 48 percent, with Spain not far behind on 44 percent.

The UK piracy figure was $1.94 billion, giving the UK a relatively low piracy rate of 26 percent – the same as Germany - a level that has remained static since the survey started five years ago.

The overall global piracy rate is 42 percent, a figure extrapolated from a survey of 14,700 business and consumer computer users across 33 countries by analysts IDC and Ipsos Public Affairs data.

“IP theft is a global economic drain, stifling not only IT innovation, but job creation across all sectors of the economy,” said BSA anti-piracy vp, Jodie Kelley.

“Governments, especially in emerging markets where most of the theft is taking place, must take steps to modernise their IP laws and expand enforcement efforts to ensure that those who pirate software face real consequences.”

The BSA publishes its survey every year and the figures always look dramatic, which fuels the view in some quarters that its methodology for calculating losses exaggerates the scale of what is really going on.

As influential Computerworld UK columnist Glynn Moody pointed out at the time of the BSA’s survey last year, the global figure of losses assumes that every pirated or unlicensed program would have been paid for which is not realistic in developing countries with low wage levels.

The organisation's use of the term 'piracy' includes unlicensed software as well as programs copied and illegally sold. 

In the UK, the theme of enforcement – specifically the policy of ‘naming and shaming' companies caught using unlicensed software - has proved equally controversial.

“The BSA is used as a bit of an attack dog by its larger funders to go after smaller companies,” said Matt Fisher of license management vendor, License Dashboard. “I don’t think there is much wilful piracy.”

Companies were as likely to be under-licensed as over-licensed which meant that what was needed was better software licensing management. This could be bought by smaller companies as a standalone package or as a managed service from resellers, he said.

Virtually all of the firms named by the BSA for license infringement in the UK were small companies who needed support more than punishment, said Fisher. “Is the BSA actually getting anywhere?”

A summary of the BSA’s global survey can be found on its website.