How to Not Be a Software Pirate

On April 18, 2008, in Computers, by peterb

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, occasionally I’ll read a thread at some internet forum or other. Often in game forums, but also in more surprising places like this, the topic of software piracy comes up. These threads inevitably result in 20 pages of back-and-forth involving hundreds of people which reduce, in the end, to this exchange:

Person 1: “Hey, stop stealing software. That’s wrong.”

Person 2: “Don’t call me a thief! Copyright violation isn’t theft. Anyway, I really need to use this software, so that makes it OK.”

Beyond the obvious observation — that Person 2 is a dickhead — there’s something more subtle going on here. Today, it dawned on me. The Person 2s of the world aren’t just pirating software because they are bad people. They’re pirating software because they haven’t learned how to not pirate software. It’s not simply an ethical issue, it’s a personal failing, sort of like not knowing how to stop after one or two drinks.

Therefore, today, I’m going to teach you how to not be a software pirate. Let’s call today “Come Clean Friday”. Today’s the day you’re going to become a better person. I’m going to help.

Step 1: Take Inventory

Take a look at the list of programs you have installed on your machine. For each application, ask yourself: “Was this commercial (or shareware)? Did I pay for this?” Jot down the names of any (commercial) software that you haven’t yet paid for.

Step 2: Do You Need It?

For each unpaid program on your list, ask yourself: “Have I ever actually used this, other than starting it up once after downloading it to make sure it works? How many times have I run it? Do I use it on a regular basis?” On your list, mark down “Yes” next to each program that you actually use.

Step 3: Delete What You Don’t Need

For every program on your list that you didn’t actually use, delete it. Should the need arise for that program some day, you will have an opportunity to purchase it then. In the meantime, deleting the program not only improves your life ethically, it saves on disk space and organizational clutter as well.

Step 4: Make Right What You Do Need

Now you’re left with a (hopefully small) list of for-pay programs that you haven’t paid for but that you really, honestly need. For each of the programs on your list, do one of the following things:

Option A: Search for a free alternative to the program in question. Download that alternative, delete the commercial program, and use the alternative instead. For example, if you’ve pirated Photoshop, download the GIMP instead and delete your illegal copy of Photoshop.

Option B: Order a copy of the commercial program in question. Now you have every right to use the program, and can stop acting defensive on internet message boards.

Option C: Delete the program even though you feel you “need it”. Go without. If you don’t actually want to pay $19.99 to some shareware developer for his game, then you should seriously consider not playing it, for reasons I’ll go into in more detail below.

“But I really need Photoshop, and I don’t have the money to buy it!” some people say. For those people, I offer options D and E:

Option D: Seek a cheaper version of the program. If you are a student, you may qualify for an educational discount. If you have a friend who works at the company, they may be able to get you a discounted copy at the company store. You may be able to find older versions of the program in question on eBay.

Option E: Delete the commercial program in question. Start saving money each week; set a budget, put away a specified amount of money, and when you have enough, buy the program. There’s a hidden bonus to doing this: you may find, after you’ve amassed the $1999 necessary to buy Autodesk Maya Complete 7, that you would rather use the money for something else, like a mortgage payment, or a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. In this case, you’ve not only improved your ethics, but you’ve learned something valuable about the meaning of the word “need”. Sometimes learning to do without presents us with valuable opportunities for personal growth.

Stupid Arguments That I Absolutely Guarantee Will Be Made In The Comments Section, Below

“Copyright violation isn’t theft!”

When someone makes this technically true but completely-missing-the-point sort of argument, I can only assume that they’re the sort of dickhead who will argue “Lo, but I am not actually the glans of a penis!” when someone correctly informs them that they are a dickhead.

“I only use this because the Evil (Microsoft/Adobe/Apple/Beagle Bros.) Monopoly forces me to do it.”

We are each, all of us, responsible for our own actions. No one made you do anything. To the extent that there is any justification that drives me up a wall, this one is it. (To the extent that there is any justification that I’m almost willing to say “OK, at least you’re honest”, it would be “I pirate software because I don’t feel bad about taking things that aren’t mine and I’m pretty sure I won’t get caught.”)

“I would buy this software if it was cheaper, but it’s just too expensive!”

The first response to this is: it isn’t true. You wouldn’t buy it if it was cheaper. The second response is to observe that life is full of difficult ethical choices, and in our world it’s generally sellers who have the privilege of setting the price of a product. Not buying a product that’s too expensive is a perfectly reasonable way of applying market pressure to encourage the seller to lower the price. Stealing the product is not reasonable.

“I pirate programs to decide if they are worth buying. I need to try them out first.”

This response is especially poignant when it’s offered to justify copying applications and games for which the publisher already offers a free demo. The claim then morphs to “Sure, there’s a demo, but it doesn’t support all the features”, or else “The time limit wasn’t enough to evaluate it properly,” at which point we’re clearly in the land of ex post facto justifications for bad behavior.

But let’s say the publisher doesn’t offer a demo. Surely, there are programs out there for which that is true. Is stealing the product really your only response? Off the top of my head I can think of other, less ethically challenged responses. You could write to the publisher, explain the situation, and ask them for an evaluation version for a limited time (and yes, I’ve found that many software developers and publishers are happy to do this.) You could find a friend who has already bought the software, and ask to try it out on their machine. Stealing something just to “try it out” is, in my mind, the pinnacle of lame justifications.

Why This Matters

Neither I, nor anyone else, can force you to not pirate software. The odds are good that the Software Police are never going to break down your door and bust you for stealing something that you don’t have the right to use. At the end of the day, the issue is purely one of personal ethics: do you want to be a good person, or do you want to be a bad person? Good people pay for the (commercial) products they use. Bad people don’t.

Paying for all the software you use may seem like a hardship, especially if you’ve spent years becoming used to, as they say, “riding in the black”. I grew up at a time when pirating Apple II games was the norm, so I’m not unsympathetic to the feeling of wanting to “collect” every cool program in the world, but not having enough money to buy them all. But in the end, each day we wake up and ask ourselves “What kind of a person am I?” I want to suggest to you, dear software pirate, that being the sort of person who pays for what they use is a better kind of person to be.

I’m not saying you should pay for your software because it’s better for the software industry.

I’m saying you should pay for your software because it is better for you.


22 Responses to “How to Not Be a Software Pirate”

  1. Nelson says:

    Do you feel the same way about music?

  2. peterb says:

    I’m not a musician, so screw them!

    Seriously, I have come around to feeling that one shouldn’t pirate music, my many teenage mix tapes notwithstanding. With the advent of the iTunes and Amazon music stores, I’ve pretty much run out of reasons to steal music; if I want a song, it’s a buck, and I pay it happily.

    The more difficult question surrounding music, in my mind, is in mash-ups and the like (eg Santastic). There doesn’t seem to be a reasonable way, yet, for stuff like that to get to listeners in any way that makes the listeners, and the mash-uppers, and the copyright owners happy. I don’t have any good answers for that.

  3. Nelson says:

    I stopped stealing software a few years ago when I realized that, hey, I make my living writing software! And that work has value! Kind of a “duh” moment. And while I don’t make music I try not to steal it, either. The Amazon MP3 store has definitely made a big difference there.

  4. rmitz says:

    I pretty much agree at this point, though I don’t really see any ethical problems not paying for a bit of shareware sitting around that I never actually use.

    That said, it’s not like I’m hurting for cash.

    Of course, I might feel differently if I wasn’t covered by a microsoft site license for most things…and that actually brings up a good point.

    When it becomes impossible to legally by a license for XP anymore, what does that mean, ethically? A lot of abandonware has similar arguments, but XP is going to be far bigger than most of what’s already gone by. People are likely going to prefer using XP for virtual machines for quite a long time.

    As for music, I pretty much agree as well; I can listen to legal free streaming sites, or I can download albums from Amazon (I prefer it to iTunes for lock-in reasons; no, really, I DO have devices that are not iPods.) I don’t buy *much* music these days, but I don’t listen to much new music these days either.

  5. Greg says:

    I reached the same conclusion as Nelson with regards to software. As for music even in the days of the original AudioGalaxy, *sigh*, any music that I listened to more than two times I bought on CD. I found a lot of good music I never would have found otherwise. Way to ruin the best marketing tool ever music industry!

  6. Doug says:

    Can I think that pirating software/ music isn’t stealing but is still wrong and not be the glans of a penis? I’ve had stuff stolen from me many times and each time I was left without my stuff anymore and that hurt a lot more than having someone choose not to pay me for something I did that they should pay me for.

    What is your recommendation for an alternative to the orcad suite for someone trying to start a small business on a shoe string? because it costs $20,000 for the whole schematic drawing & pcb layout package. I’ve never heard of a free or even low price option. Do you consider “I’m going to make some money hopefully then pay for the software” to be evil? Our current solution is to still run the old dos version of orcad in a dosbox emulator.

  7. Stewart M. Clamen says:

    You could take out a small business loan, or arrange an installment payment plan with the orcad folks. If things don’t work out you can declare your company bankrupt and then not pay the rest of the debt.

    That’s how capitalism works!

  8. Chris C. says:

    For the expensive CAD programs, it is not uncommon for vendors to make special arrangements to sell for things other than cash. For example, I have heard that during the bubble Cadence made a bunch of money by giving small companies their software in exchange for equity or a cut of the profits of the new company. This way if the company makes money, Cadence gets paid more than they otherwise would have — and if the company fails, Cadence doesn’t get paid. So before throwing up your hands and deciding the pirate the software, it makes sense to give the makers a call and see if they are interested in other terms…

  9. Piracy is largely a symptom of the failure of software pricing models. One size pricing clearly does not fit all. Professional graphics artists can justify the costs of Adobe products in days… I doubt I ever could. Not only is Adobe losing out on potential revenue (from pros who would pay more and from amateurs who can only justify a little.) They are also missing an opportunity to eventually gain a loyal customer, who may encourage other users. (I believe piracy is largely tolerated for this reason.)

    I am not using any of the above to challenge the belief that piracy is unethical. And some people would steal even if the pricing models were more “fair.” However, even though I’m a software engineer, I honestly don’t care about the ethics of software piracy. I only care about the failure to extract maximum value from my efforts. Viewed in that light, the pros using my software might be getting a considerably better deal than many pirates.

    Tiered pricing, pay per use, subscriptions, ad/help/donation supported software, runtime licensing, maybe writing software that appeals more to paying customers than to thieves, or simply vigilant anti-piracy enforcement.

    Doug, I’d say way the weighted business/criminal risks of using pirated software, plus the value you place on your moral/ethical standing vs. the additional earnings gained from using pirated software… if you can quantify those unknowns your decision is easy. The only thing you can’t buy is absolution.

    That’s how capitalism works!

  10. Doug says:

    like I said, we simply use something that was purchased back in oh, something like 1990. It has taken some wrangling to keep it working but that works for us. We’ll upgrade when we can afford to. Trading away a large part of your business for a single tool seems a little extreme to me. Taking large loans out for equipment for production makes sense. But for development, well who knows how long that takes? Who knows if you can pay it back before it comes due? But the idea of actually trying to make a deal with a software company is intriguing and I wonder if they’d bite?

  11. Christian says:

    Bonus points for Beagle Brothers mention (why no sweet inverse flash letters?).

    I buy software I use and music I listen to more than twice.

    @Doug – it never hurts to ask. Many companies when faced with the choice of: 1. Something or 2. Nothing, will choose #1. (Make sure you’ve gotten someone with the authority to make a deal, though.)

  12. Ben says:

    @Mark Denovich

    Sure, PS CS3 is very expensive – that’s why Adobe sells PS Elements, which has a large part of its functionality but is targeted at lower-end users. Surely ~$80 isn’t too much?

  13. Alex says:

    Arrg I have been resisting posting but alas. Doug, sorry but the “hey my business would be profitable if only I didn’t have to pay for stuff” simply doesn’t fly. How would you feel if the stuff you designed on said “free” software were stolen by a Chinese company and you were put out of business anyway? Still feel good about loose intellectual property rights?

    The single price argument doesn’t fly either. You are talking about price discrimination which companies do try to take advantage of to an extent, see some software pricing models, airline tickets, etc. Would you agree to the converse? That once you start making a whole bunch of money, their software charge increases proportionally?

  14. Doug says:

    Alex, you missed my point. I was describing a situation we’d be in if we didn’t have a perfectly legal copy of an ancient orcad (which you cannot buy now).

    The only versions that I know of are so expensive that they block the idea of a garage-startup. This is stupid in my opinion. The only way I know around this for said startups is to pirate the software until you make some revenue. I was asking for other ways of doing it.

    Also, your analogy is wrong. If I was starting a small business and pirated orcad, I would not be selling copies of it in competition with Cadence. There would be no change in Cadence’s profit based on my actions. If a chinese company copied my product and started selling it they would be reducing my revenue. This is different. I am not saying that justifies the action of pirating software, I am just saying they are not the same thing.

    I was asking for other peoples opinions on where not paying for software until you can afford the price they charge would sit in their ethical meter amongst stealing, pirating, and playing good. I believe it not as bad as pirating in general, no where near as bad as stealing, but worse than playing well. However if someone claims that is what they would do but never gets around to paying for it then that is worse than pirating because it also includes dishonesty.

  15. Alex says:

    To answer your question, yes it is still stealing and is morally just as bad as stealing anything else. The amount of your revenue does not determine what ethical rules apply to you.

    The market doesn’t care what you think is stupid. The market ruthlessly sets prices and allocates capital to the highest return projects.

    If it’s really true that there are all these projects out there begging for a low cost copy of orcad, maybe that’s really the biggest asset your company has? You could grow by taking on all these projects?

  16. Chris says:

    I can’t resist saying: copyright violation *is* theft, but that doesn’t necessarily make it *wrong!* (he he!) :)

    Seriously, though, there’s a wealth of information coming together that pretty much confirms the viewpoint that most pirates (of any media) are not paying customers anyway, and so copyright violation isn’t really “shrinkage” (what shops call shoplifting). This may be less so in the music space, though – I note that Country as a genre has excellent profits because of the abundance of Christians in the fanbase, and most Christians don’t pirate! :)

    With one exception (that I won’t name), I try to make all of my software legal. The remaining exception I steal because (and this is a dodgy justification to be sure) of the pain and suffering the software company caused me during the 1990s. Rather than tie up the courts in a trivial lawsuit about my pain and suffering, I prefer to steal their software for reparations. I don’t defend my actions in this regard, however, merely report them!

    One instance in which I regular commit copyright violation is the downloading of old black and white Doctor Who serial reconstructions. I can’t buy these, but they are shared via torrents. It really doesn’t feel like stealing to download something so roughly construed that it is barely of saleable value – more like participating in a grey market library. And, crucially, I would happily pay for the service to download these if it was available. In the absence of that availability, I commit “theft”. And I don’t see it as immoral, in this case.

    Similarly, if people in Australia have to pirate videogames because no publisher will release them in their territory, I see this as fair game. Which brings me back to my opening remark: copyright violation *is* theft, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. ;)

    Best wishes guys!

  17. KFW says:

    No one has offered me any good reason why “intellectual property” SHOULD be protected in the first place.

    1. You DON’T automatically have the right to get paid for something just because you did it.

    2. Our patent law, for example, clearly articulated its purpose – the public good, not private profit. It ALLOWED private profit only to the extent necessary to see potentially valuable devices got BUILT, not just dreamed of.

    3. Historically, “intellectual property” has NOT always existed – it’s a new concept, and new laws, and currently they’re being written almost exclusively by a fanatical special-interest group – corporations.

    4. It would be reasonable if all intellectual property protection ceased as soon as the creator stopped providing and updating their “property”, i.e. keep it in print or it goes public domain. Build and sell your invention, or someone else gets to. Support your software, or stop complaining when it enters the world of garage sales, giveaways, and hand-me-downs.

    5. If you want work you do while young to support you when you’re old, get a retirement fund or petition your legislators to make Social Security work – but don’t expect people to pay for your whole life for some disposable pap you whipped out when you were 21. Slinging words or images isn’t any more valuable than slinging groceries or drywall. Do I get a royalty from every house I’ve put drywall in whenever a new tenant moves in? Should I?

    6. There’s a difference – a profound difference – between entering someone’s home and taking their only copy of some object and making a copy of a mass-produced object they sell. It’s the “entering someone’s home” part that gets people shot, not the hypothetical income loss. If our laws respected this common sense and kowtowed to corporations less, they’d get respected a lot more.

    7. You can’t fairly judge ANY activity or tool based on the way that the stupid use it. The stupid are stupid, and stupidity pretty much dominates the more subtle issues.

    8. Last but not least – in order to really have a sensible discussion, the entire article would have to be deconstructed word by word, as there are SO many assumptions made about the concepts the author is trying to convince us of.

    Doesn’t anyone else ever respond to the first line with a response on the order of “No. It isn’t stealing. It isn’t wrong. And if you want to walk with me through the process by which we acquired laws claiming it is, I’ll be happy to study that history (again) with you – but it will take as long as, say, learning vi.”

  18. VGA says:

    KFW….you present some pretty good arguments. Why don’t we just rid the world of all second-hand shops, garage sales, school fetes, hand-me-downs and anything else that doesn’t really support and uphold the capitalist, profit-making political paradigm ,so we can be ‘good’ people.

    There truly are a whole lot of assumptions being made about some complex philosophical, ethical and moral questions, when someone so blithely says scoring some free music or software makes you a ‘bad’ person, whereas paying for it makes you ‘ethical and good’.

    Bad luck, you say, OP writer, you don’t have the money to pay what corporations are asking for some of their products. Get out there and be a ‘good person’ and support the capitalist way. That’s all I’m hearing.

    What about freecycle? Is that immoral too? After-all…wouldn’t the ‘right way’ really, be to throw out and completely destroy what you don’t want or need anymore so no-one gets any free-use of a product they should, by your standards, have payed for?

    You’re not supporting a deeper, more ethical way of being…you’re just upholding standard Western values…and guess what…Standard Western Values have been based on a whole lot of REAL injustice in the first place and like KFW points out, perhaps you need a walk through history and you can have a few hidden realities pointed out along the way, such as…how much of the Western world has been built on slave labour and exploitational wages in the first place.

    BTW….I sing for free and it pleases a lot of people, because I’ve got a damn good voice. And I give out a lot of my ideas, everyday, for free, and help a lot of people, for free. I have to make a living, sure. And I do. An honest living. And right on KFW…I don’t expect people to be paying for my services for the rest of world history and sit back raking in the profits of my sweat and tears of labour til the day I die.

    Get off your simplistic high-horse and open your eyes to some of the real bloody injustices going on in the world.

  19. peterb says:


    This has nothing to do with benefitting corporations. It has to do with personal ethics.

    All of the examples you erroneously cite — all of them — involve someone deciding to give away something that they own, which is to say something that they have the right to give away. Freecycle? Awesome. Second-hand shops? Love ‘em. Garage sales? Great. Hand-me-downs? Fabulous. In all of those situations, the person who is reselling or giving an object away already has a moral right to do so. The fact that the company that originally sold the item doesn’t get paid twice doesn’t make it wrong. And if you don’t get paid for singing or for giving away your ideas, that’s your choice. They’re your ideas. You have a moral right to them.

    None of this, however, is any sort of a justification for giving away or selling objects or products that you don’t have a moral right to. And if you think the existence of garage sales makes it OK to steal other people’s stuff, then I don’t think you’re qualified to lecture me — or anyone else — about the meaning of the word “injustice.”

  20. peterb says:

    KFW: Yes, intellectual property law is positive, as distinguished from natural, law. You seem to have some sort of belief that just because it is positive law it’s somehow unjust. That’s not a sensible belief.

  21. Dan Martinez says:

    I don’t use unauthorized copies of software. Heck, I don’t even go without paying for donationware I find really useful. I don’t download copyrighted music unless I absolutely can’t find it on Amazon or iTunes. (Thankfully, that’s increasingly rare. I’d much rather pay under a dollar for a track of a certain assumed quality than download a half-dozen pirate copies and then pick out the one that sounds least like ass.)

    However, I am only too happy to download pirated movies right now, because the user experience is often superior to that granted when you purchase a DVD or Blu-ray. You don’t have to jump through a series of trailers and other bits of studio marketing before being allowed to view the main menu. You don’t have to watch an unskippable studio ad equating copying with theft after you’ve bought the damn DVD. You aren’t subjected to the hideous blue-background, likewise-unskippable FBI warning. You don’t have to wait for your retarded Blu-ray player to laboriously load disc content while drawing a “progress bar” which you realize is meaningless when it’s erased and drawn again. And again. And again. You don’t have to download a Windows-only executable that turns out to be a self-extracting archive of an ISO in order to update your player’s firmware so that you can actually watch the damn movie you just paid for. (This has screwed up two movie nights so far. Yes, I’m aware that it wouldn’t be necessary were we using a PS3 or other network-capable Blu-ray player, but you use what’s there when you’re visiting your parents. While we’re on the subject, though, anyone care to recommend a Blu-ray player with a particularly pleasant user experience?)

    Don’t even get me started on the buggy DirecTV on-demand box that wanted us to switch from the existing HDMI connection to a component-cable one before it would let us watch a movie we’d already paid for. (Yes, HDMI to component. I’m aware that’s completely back-asswards.)

    Anyway, the bottom line is that where movies are concerned, I find myself wanting to pirate them, not out of cheapness but rather spite against an actively customer-hostile industry. Does this make me a hopeless morally bankrupt hypocrite?

  22. Jeremiah Norris says:

    I am both a consumer and an entertainer. And I’m on the fence. Because I’m also on social security because of my disability since birth, thus making it hard to afford DVDs or music CDs. So I download from torrents because I also have no way to pay via credit card. You can’t pay with a credit card if you don’t have one.