What Is Pirated Software, and Can You Really Get In Trouble Using It?

Using software you didn’t pay for or didn’t pay the full amount for seems innocent enough, but it can have some long-term consequences that simply aren’t worth it.
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Jack Sparrow is a beloved character for a reason. Pirates are seen as fun and mischievous in modern fairy tales, but actual piracy can lead to a world of trouble. Software developers protect their intellectual property through copyright laws. Internet piracy not only hurts the overall software industry but also contributes to the spread of malware through unlicensed software products and pirated materials. Pirating software can land you a hefty fine and even jail time. You may be using illegal software and not even know it.

What is pirating, how can you spot it, and what can you do if you already are using pirated software? Let’s get into the specifics.

In this article
What is pirated software?
What are the types of software piracy?
Why do people use pirated software?
What are the risks of using pirated software?
Should you use pirated software?
Alternatives to pirated software
Tips to protect yourself from pirated software
Software piracy FAQ
Bottom line

What is pirated software?

Any software can become pirated software if it is used outside its intended end-user license agreement, such as unauthorized use, copying, and distribution of the product. That’s it. Pirating can include, but is not necessarily limited to:

  • Purchasing or downloading pirated computer software knowingly
  • Purchasing legitimate software and copying it or letting someone else copy it
  • Legitimately purchasing software and cracking its code to use for your own purposes

Most people think of software piracy as illegal downloads, but it also includes using software for any purpose other than what the manufacturer intended it for.

What are the types of software piracy?

As we discussed, there are a variety of ways someone can pirate software. Whether you intend to or not, software piracy is pretty common and is always illegal. Making yourself more aware of the types of software piracy can help you avoid the legal pitfalls that may come with it.

Softlifting

Softlifting is when you use legally obtained original software in a way other than how it was intended by the manufacturer. This could be as simple as buying a single license and installing it on multiple devices or sharing the software with a friend. It even counts as softlifting if you purchase software at a discounted price, say a student or military discount, when you don’t fall into that group. Make sure you read the specifications of the software before purchasing or sharing. Softlifting is the most prevalent form of software piracy and is considered a cybercrime in some jurisdictions.

Counterfeiting

Similar to fake bills or knock-off luxury bags, counterfeiting software means you produce unauthorized copies of software. This is often made to look like the original, down to the packaging and literature included, and software copies are sold for a lower price. Counterfeited software can easily contain Trojans, viruses, and malware meant to steal your data or use your computer against your wishes.

Hard disk loading

When purchasing a new (or new-to-you) computer, phone, or other device with a hard drive, manufacturers might try to sweeten the deal by including a certain type of software. Sometimes this is done legally and sometimes it isn’t. Even legitimate resellers can be guilty of this. If your software doesn’t come with a disc or user manual, there’s a chance it’s been pirated.

Online piracy

Online piracy has increased dramatically as internet speeds, peer-to-peer torrenting, file sharing, and storage solutions have improved. There are endless sites offering cracked commercial software, which has been modified to eliminate the protection code embedded by the manufacturers. This means you may be able to use the software without a license key, but there’s a chance the source code has been tampered with, which could allow for all sorts of malware and viruses.

To avoid this type of piracy, only purchase from the manufacturer’s website or licensed copyright holders.

Renting

Renting piracy is exactly like what it sounds. Someone who owns the software license rents you the use of it for a short period of time. This can happen with software programs like Adobe Suite for photo or video editing or specialized software like Final Draft for script writing.

Instead of renting, there are free and legal types of software for people who may not be able to afford the brand-name version. Make sure you’re running a good antivirus and downloading from a trusted site before installing.

Unbundling

Unbundling occurs when software that’s bundled together is removed from the bundle and sold off individually. It’s typically not counterfeit software but still counts as copyright infringement. For example, you could end up buying a VPN that was supposed to be wrapped into something else, like an antivirus or identity protection software. No matter what it is, it still goes against the software companies’ intended use and is, therefore, illegal.

Client-server overuse

This can occur when a piece of software is loaded onto a central server for multiple users. It is piracy when it has fewer user agreements than the amount of actual users. This may cause glitches and loading issues, or it could work perfectly. Usually, the users are unaware they’re using pirated software.

Why do people use pirated software?

There are a variety of reasons someone may use pirated software. You may even use pirated software without being aware you’re doing it. Most of the time, if someone is willingly using it, it’s because the actual software may be necessary but cost prohibitive. There’s also a chance people may be using it due to convenience or lack of availability.

Whatever the reason, using pirated software can, at best, cause you to lose your right to use it, and, at worst, get you in some legal hot water.

What are the risks of using pirated software?

First of all, pirated software is theft. Plain and simple. Whether or not you agree with stealing from large companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google, you’re still stealing something someone else created, and that has legal repercussions.

On the ethical side, the more that stealing software is normalized, the more likely it is to happen to small, independent developers who rely on the software they create to pay their bills. Yes, software can be expensive, but it’s also written by people with skills they took time to learn. Everyone needs to pay their bills.

Remember, if the legal and ethical reasons don’t bother you, consider the fact that pirated software is unsafe. It’s a hotbed for Trojans, viruses, and malware that can do major damage to your personal data or individual device. Since you don’t know where the program is coming from, you have no idea what else is embedded in its code.

Should you use pirated software?

The obvious answer to this question is “no,” but not everyone is interested in paying for the software they’re using. We can’t stress enough, though, that the major reason to not use pirated software is internet security. It’s easy to ignore arbitrary warnings and ethical conundrums, but malware infections are not a problem that’s going away. Spending less money or downloading a free program that could potentially ruin your device will cost a lot more in the long run.

If you find that you’ve been using pirated software without your knowledge, it’s best to delete the program. You can even go so far as to report where you acquired the program if you want. Most of the time, however, you won’t get in trouble for unknowingly using pirated software, especially if you can prove you deleted it when you found out.

Alternatives to pirated software

There are plenty of free or low-cost alternatives to popular software. If you’re a streamer or a gamer, several platforms host free streaming or gaming access. There are a variety of free office suite applications like Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides. If you need to edit a PDF, a quick internet search can help you find a free trial or free PDF editing application.

Most of these are open-source and made by developers honing their skills or who believe in free software for the people. Some programs have free trials to make sure you actually want it before buying. The same goes for beta tests of software. You can sign up for free, report back on the usability, functionality, etc, and maybe get a free final version for your insights. Finally, if you don’t mind rewinding 20 years, you can use ad-supported software. Trading off a few commercial breaks for a reduced price is how it was done in the 90s, and by all accounts, the 90s are back.

Tips to protect yourself from pirated software

First, you should always use antivirus software like TotalAV or Bitdefender, a virtual private network (VPN) like NordVPN or Surfshark, and other verified security measures like a firewall to protect your devices. If you unknowingly download pirated software from a site you didn’t know was illegally distributing it, it may also contain Trojans, viruses, or malware. In that case, your security software will catch the problem, and you can delete it right away. If you’re worried about price, there’s great, free antivirus software available to help protect you.

Never accept downloads from anyone who isn’t the manufacturer or a verified retailer like Best Buy, Amazon, or other verified sites. If you aren’t sure if the site is legal, you can do a quick internet search. For instance, “Is download.com legal” returns a variety of positive results showing that the site does distribute legal software downloads. If your search turns up anything sketchy, or worse, nothing at all, then you should avoid the site and the download.

Finally, make sure any software gifted to you by friends or family is legal. People may look at you funny or roll their eyes, but it’s better for your inner circle to think you’re a quirky straight edge than it is to shell out $150,000 for an illegal copy of Microsoft Office (or any software, for that matter). The legal fines for those caught using pirated software can cost that much, and who has $150k in this economy? There are free dupes for that, anyhow.

Software piracy FAQ


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What is an example of pirated software?

Softlifting is the most common type of pirated software. This is when someone shares legally purchased software with someone else, even though there’s only one license purchased. Think about if you and your roommate split the cost of an Adobe Suite subscription and you both use it with shared credentials. Technically, that’s considered illegal and a form of piracy.


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Is it illegal to use pirated software?

Yes, pirated software is illegal. Software is licensed by the manufacturer to the consumer for use. Since pirated software has not been authorized by the manufacturer, it’s considered theft. You can be prosecuted and fined for distributing and knowingly using pirated software.


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Can you get caught pirating software?

Yes, you can absolutely get caught pirating software. In the U.S., pirating can cost you $150,000 and 5 years in prison and land you a felony charge. It’s worth noting that in many U.S. states, people with felony convictions can temporarily or permanently lose their right to vote. You would have to check your individual state’s laws, but the repercussions for a simple piracy conviction could have long-lasting consequences.

Bottom line

Downloading pirated software is illegal, no matter how you want to spin it. If you can’t afford or find the program you’re looking for, try a free and legal alternative.

We love Google Workspace as well as WPS Office for word processing, spreadsheets, and more. Free PDF editors allow us to quickly sign that document our landlord sent over, without shelling out for Adobe. For all you streamers out there, head to your local library, then go to the Kanopy website to watch millions of titles for free just by entering your library card number! Of course, gaming is always better from a verified source that doesn’t make you wonder if your host is secretly installing malware.

No matter where you find what you need, make sure you use the best cybersecurity software available to keep you protected against hackers.

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Author Details
Mary lives in Los Angeles and has been a cybersecurity writer for over five years. With a B.S. in Liberal Arts from Clarion University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Point Park University in Pittsburgh, her career in online security began in sales and content creation for a private cybersecurity firm.