Software Piracy: A Victimless Crime?

Category: Software

An AskBob reader says: “Some of my friends are using commercial software without paying for it. They say it's no big deal to get pirated (cracked) 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 both 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 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 (still the latest version) 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.

A 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 "Software Piracy: A Victimless Crime?"

Posted by:

izzy goodman
22 Mar 2024

There is a site called productkeys which sells downloadable copies of office 21 for 16.90. Each downloadable copy comes with unique product key which you have to register with microsoft. If these keys are pirated, why does microsoft accept them? If they are legit, how can office 21 be sold for $16.70?

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
22 Mar 2024

I learned my lesson about pirated software in my MS-DOS days, back in the early 1990s, when I downloaded a "free" copy of a program I wanted to try out from a BBS site. It was the one time any computer I own/use has ever been infected with a virus. Fortunately, I had all my important data stored on floppy disks, so I was able to format, and re-install MS-DOS without any significant data loss.

Today, there's no valid 'excuse' for pirating software, when free, and legal copies of work-alike software's available. For example, I don't want to pay Microsoft for the right to use their Office suite, so I download, support, and use LibreOffice. When something untowardly happened to my Windows 11 digital license on my Microsoft account, the OS began to report that it needed to be activated. After contacting Microsoft support, and learning that my only option was to purchase another product key, I removed it, and used GNU/Linux until I found a price I could afford for a valid Windows 11 product code. Before making that purchase, I did my research, and determined that the deal was legitimate, and that it was a limited time, promotional offer from the seller, who was a relatively large, well known although new-to-the market entity. I was once again able to download Windows 11, then install and activate it with no issues. As far as I know, that was a legitimate purchase, and if at any time in the future, I learn otherwise, I'll once again remove Windows 11 from my desktop PC, and return to using GNU/Linux, exclusively, on that machine.

If you think software piracy is a victimless crime, put yourself in the position of the software vendor for a few moments. How would you feel if someone stole your care, TV, or computer? Those crimes are no different from stealing a copy of a program, then using it without paying for it. I never want to knowingly take, or use anything that doesn't belong to me, without the owner's permission, and that includes computer software.


Ernie (Oldster)

Posted by:

23 Mar 2024

This is another great article. There is a lot of hucksterism, fakery, and malware out there! When I need some software, I will always go to legitimate and trustworthy sites to obtain the software, whether I need to pay for it or if it is free. Here I am thankful to Bob's great advice on finding the right software. Thank you for another informative article!

Posted by:

23 Mar 2024

It's certainly illegal, and it's probably immoral.
However, surely there is only a victim if the "pirate" would otherwise have paid for the software.

Posted by:

23 Mar 2024

I wonder, is using a ad-blocker "Piracy?"

Are you are reading content without paying the price of seeing all the advertising that paid for that page to be published?

In the old days, what I just said would be considered a "Troll" - deliberately stating something controversial just to stir people up. It used to be a favorite pass time of Snopes before he turned to the other side to debunk trollers.

That said, ad-blockers are a serious concern of advertisers and some content providers. Indeed, this page is funded by advertisers. (Don't count click-bait pages whose only purpose is advertising.) For me, it has to be a balance, I'll either contribute by patreon or a membership, usually to individuals trying to make a living doing this.

Posted by:

Margo S.
24 Mar 2024

Piracy is in the eye of the beholder. Ask yourself this: if freeware is available, why would anyone buy it from microsquish, etc? I view piracy as a legitimate way to defend yourself against the monolith monsters who want to control my/your life/world. If MS, e.g. can keep "improving" windows with more features no one will ever use, and make my current edition obsolete, and, force me to buy new hardware, what is my alternative? (Linux I know)
IMO all monopolies must be crushed into dust.

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