How to Not Be a Software Pirate

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.