Is Software Piracy a Victimless Crime?

Category: Software

An AskBob reader asks: “I know some of my friends are using commercial software without paying for it. They say it's no big deal to get pirated versions of games from 'warez' sites, and that I'm a fool to pay for Windows, Microsoft Office, and video games when I can download them for free. Software piracy seems like one of those 'victimless crimes', so why is it illegal?” Read on for my analysis...

What is Software Piracy?

Let's start with a fact: software piracy is theft, plain and simple. Dressing it up in the pseudo-romantic connotations of "piracy" doesn't change that fact. Making excuses for theft diminishes the harm that it does. Pardon the unpleasant analogy, but excuses are like flatulence: everybody has some and nobody wants to hear it. Read on, and I'll explain the harm that software piracy causes, the dangers it can pose, and why it's really pointless. (Read all the way to the end for the really good news.)

In general, software piracy is the unauthorized use of software. "Use" may have the ordinary meaning of using the software for its intended purpose, or it may mean making and distributing copies of the software. If you don't have the copyright owner's permission to use the software, you're committing piracy. You are taking the copyright owner's property - the right to control the sale or use of his software - without permission or compensation. That is theft, obviously.

Is Software Piracy a Crime?

The harm done by software piracy is done to the rights owner and to society. The rights owner (the software developer) is deprived of money that would otherwise be available to help him earn a profit from his labor, distribute his software and develop new software. Of course the "him" in the preceding sentence could be an individual man or woman, a small business, or a huge corporation.

Rail against greedy corporations all you like, but piracy costs jobs at every link in the software development and distribution chain, from programmers to retail clerks. The money that those unemployed or underpaid people would have received is not spent to support other people's jobs. About the only jobs that piracy creates are for lawyers, police, and judges.

The Business Software Alliance, an anti-piracy group funded by software developers, estimates that 37 percent of software installed on personal computers is unlicensed (pirated), and 57 percent of all computer users admit to pirating software at some time. There's also a growing malware threat related to the use of unlicensed software. In their 2018 GLOBAL SOFTWARE SURVEY, you can find these and other interesting stats:

  • annual losses due to piracy amount to over $350 billion
  • malware infections are tightly linked to the use of unlicensed software
  • there's a one-in-three chance of encountering malware when installing unlicensed software.

Examples of Software Piracy

That report from 2018 is the latest software piracy survey from the BSA. The world is not becoming a kinder, gentler place, so it seems reasonable to assume that the problem is only getting worse. Some argue those figures are meaningless or excessive because some stolen software would not have been purchased anyhow. But stealing something that hasn't been sold is still stealing. The BSA identifies five types of software piracy:

  1. End-user piracy: - A company employee makes unauthorized copies of software. Examples include
    • Using one licensed copy to install a program on multiple computers;
    • Copying disks for installation and distribution;
    • Taking advantage of upgrade offers without having a legal copy of the version to be upgraded;
    • Acquiring academic or other restricted or non-retail software without a license for commercial use;
  2. Client-server overuse: - Allowing too many employees on a network to access a central copy of the software. Client-server software is typically sold with a license to have a limited number of simultaneous users. Each user over that limit constitutes an instance of theft.
  3. Internet piracy: - Downloading unauthorized copies of software from websites or peer-to-peer networks. Buying unauthorized (stolen) copies of software from auction sites and other online venues is also Internet piracy.
  4. Hard-disk loading occurs when you obtain a computer with free software pre-installed, if the seller hasn't obtained a license to reproduce and distribute the software in this way.
  5. Software counterfeiting is the unauthorized duplication of software and packaging of it to mimic the legitimate packaging. Counterfeit software may include user manuals and even end-user license agreements.

Caveat, Pirator!

You may find "too good to be true" deals on software at eBay or Craigslist. Not long ago, I saw "Microsoft Office 365 (Office 2021) Pro Plus" advertised for $3.97 on an auction website. It should be obvious that this is a scam, given that no product with that name exists, and a legit copy of Office Home & Business 2021 retails for $249.

You may even see free or "cracked" versions of popular software titles on file sharing or Bittorrent sites. I advise people to steer clear, to avoid the dangers of installing pirated software, and guard against look-a-likes that have embedded malware. By installing one of these freebies, you could be opening a backdoor to your computer that allows hackers, viruses, and identity thieves to wreak havoc. This seems to happen frequently with video game titles, and expensive software used in academic/research settings.

Last year, nasty Ryuk ransomware found entry into a bio research institute, requiring a complete rebuild of the server software, and ruining a weeks' worth of vital research. The “attack vector” was a student who downloaded a “cracked” (free/unlicensed/pirated) version of a data visualization software tool, which turned out to contain malware. Oopsie.

You can help stop software piracy by reporting it via the BSA's website, where your report will remain anonymous. If you think you may have inadvertently acquired illegal Microsoft software, you may want to read Microsoft's How to Tell page to find out if your Microsoft software is genuine and licensed.

What About Free Software?

The irony is that most of this software piracy is pointless. There are many excellent FREE programs that rival the quality and features found in their expensive commercial counterparts. Did you know you can download a free office suite, with word processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation modules? It can even open and save files in Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint formats. And that's just one example. You can find free software for accounting, productivity, image/photo/audio editing, anti-virus, password managers, games and much more.

Check out my articles
Free Microsoft Office Alternatives
Seven Free Software Downloads
Seven More Free Software Downloads
and Replace Your Paid Software with Free Alternatives.

Your thoughts on software piracy and free software are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Software Piracy a Victimless Crime?"

Posted by:

JJ Sanders
11 Jul 2022

I have worked for many years in Asia. Software piracy was the normal way of life there. I was shocked until I realized that retail costs there were like a month's wages (or more) for many and there was no other solution. McDonald's adjusts their prices to float with the local standard of living. The software makers need to do the same. I have used non-legal software in the past, but it was something I would NEVER have purchased, so I felt I was not stealing it. And you are right - there are many GREAT substitutes.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2022

I have used Linux with its various distributions since 2008.As most of the common applications I used are available on the distro repositories,there is no need to look for pirated programs.The one-stop solution for most wanted software is a good arrangement for me.

Good move for Bob to add those suggested articles for free alternatives for many Windows OS versions.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2022

After using Microsoft Office for years at work, I switched to LibreOffice at home when I retired. The transition was painless, and LibreOffice is a full-featured office suite. Thanks for the recommendation, Bob.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2022

An illustration of the cost problem. I owned an Amiga 3000 for many years. Before the 3000, I owned an earlier model which I bought used along with a whole raft of software, most of it pirated. One of those was Brilliance, a very nice paint program. The original price was something over $500, back when $500 was worth a lot more. That was far too much for most people to pay so it got pirated and eventually folded. They would have been better to charge much less but sell legal copies. I'm not justifying theft; people should have done without rather than steal. But the original cost contributed to the problem.

And, yes, I still have the program; I couldn't bring myself to destroy it. But most of the rest of the programs weren't worth much. I gave away the 3000 a few years ago but I use an emulator called Amiga Forever and I have legal copies of DeLuxe Paint and Personal Paint.

Posted by:

Cold City
11 Jul 2022

Thanks Bob! So many freebies, I wonder why some pay for software.
Being legit is always best even if we get mad at the greedy overpaid CEOs.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2022

Is it victimless, look at a small developer that is trying to make a living and ask them. Now in some cases, Zorin OS a Linux distribution, the standard version is free. If you are a business, they ask that you buy the pro version, but it is only $49.00 US. The developers are 2 brothers and it is a very polished operating system.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2022

Interesting topic: clearly, software piracy is theft and it is a crime, but is it "victimless"? If the offender would have otherwise paid, yes, everyone in the chain has lost out, but if not, as JJ Saunders points out, who is the victim? And aren't the same people suffering to the same extent when we follow Bob's advice, quite legally of course, and opt for free substitutes? An ethics tutor could debate this for hours...

Posted by:

11 Jul 2022

Why when we use a category like GAS CARD do we get all the other cards like credit and bank cards in that category and not just what I ask fore, I just want a gas pump card to use when traveling ,I already have bank credit cards.
Thank you Bryan in BC Canada

Posted by:

12 Jul 2022

1) Pity no mention of the obligation to make a donation when good SW is made available free. Even $5 or $10 can make a difference.

2) What irks me is SW touted as free but turns out to be time limited or cripplware. This works against the genuine & very often excellent SW.

Posted by:

13 Jul 2022

Fair should work both ways. Software use and ownership is not that simple. Not for me to defend pirate use - but there is another side to this. I know of zero consumers who paid for software and never got burned - missing functions and hidden limitations - and every sale had hidden or forced legal restrictions by way of a one-sided "I accept terms of use" legalese. Fair? it should go both ways. Yes I use alternate ware such as Libre Office - but see ,any naive users buy useless products and get spyware and irritating "renewal" messages when they switch to alternate products.

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
14 Jul 2022

The only valid reason for using (or pirating) commercial software is if there is no Open-Source / Linux version available.

Posted by:

15 Jul 2022

I have never been a fan of Software-as-a-Service, or Subscription-based-Software. But what I detest the most is Substandard-PAYware, which require costly updates and upgrades.
It is rather difficult to resolve the answer to a (one-bit) digital decision...

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