What Is Software Piracy?

Find out if the software you're using is stolen

Software piracy refers to stealing legally protected software. The software's manufacturer hasn't authorized its use, but someone has illegally copied it and distributed it to sometimes unwitting and sometimes complicit end users. If you're at all unsure, it's important to figure out if you're using pirated software.

Pirated software is also referred to as "bootlegged" software.

Photo of a CD being loaded into a computer with a skull and crossbones on it
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More About Software Piracy

Most software purchased today has a single-use license, which means only one person can use the software. This legitimate software is copyrighted by the manufacturer. Software piracy occurs when this legal software is illegally copied, modified, or sold to another party.

Although some software piracy is malicious, it can also happen in seemingly innocent circumstances. For example, copying software to share with a friend is considered piracy. Copying software to use on two different computers for personal use may also be considered piracy.

A Brief History of Software Piracy

In 1975, the first personal computer was invented. Unfortunately, software wasn't protected until 1980, when the Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980 came into effect. At this time, however, only those who understood the ins and outs of the fledgling computer industry knew enough to pirate anything.

In late 1989, the United States Patent Office began to issue patents to software developers, further protecting their property. Still, over time, pirating software became commonplace. In fact, there is approximately $19 billion of unlicensed software in North America and Europe and $27.3 billion throughout the rest of the world.

Notable Software Piracy Cases of the Past

Over the past decade, there have been notable software piracy cases that underline the importance of keeping an eye on the software you're using.

A $100 million software piracy ring

Six men once pled guilty to pirating Adobe and Microsoft programs such as Windows and Photoshop. Each faced up to five years in prison and a quarter of a million dollars in restitution fees.

Bitmanagement vs. the U.S. Navy

Software company Bitmanagement once filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy, stating that the Navy copied and installed Bitmanagement's virtual reality software on hundreds of thousands of computers.

These notable cases only scratch the surface of the issues caused by piracy. Though they're extreme examples, most piracy occurs in a home-use setting.

How to Tell if Your Software Is Pirated

Even if you don't pirate software yourself, purchasing software online or receiving software from someone else might leave you vulnerable to pirated software. Here are a few ways to tell if you're using pirated software.


If you're purchasing software online, be sure to check the price first. Software that's selling at a major discount should throw up a red flag. Research the site you're downloading from and make sure it's legitimate.

Ease of use

Many types of software require that users download the program. But if you're attempting to buy and download software and the download and activation process seems unduly complicated, you might be dealing with pirated software.


If you're purchasing a software package rather than downloading, be sure the software is in the correct type of packaging. Did it come with manuals and all the necessary paperwork? If not, the software has probably been used before.

Software updates

All legitimate software will include any future updates needed for use. Software with no upgrade options might very well be pirated.

You're encouraged to report both businesses and individuals you believe to be using or selling pirated software to The Software Alliance online.

The Consequences of Using Pirated Software

Software piracy is illegal. In fact, it's considered direct copyright infringement. Piracy denies the owners of the copyright compensation for the use of their product. In addition, there can be severe consequences for using pirated software on your personal computer.

Malware Infections

Pirated software may infect your computer, as it's more likely to be malicious. Many suspicious software downloads will bring along malware or viruses.

More Security Woes

Since you can't update pirated software as you can with legitimate software, you won't receive the patches and system updates that aim to protect your system from vulnerabilities. You're at a real risk of data loss if you use pirated software.

Legal Trouble

Piracy often results in fines and legal trouble. Severe cases of software piracy, such as those that occur in businesses, are often subject to large fines and even jail time.

Software piracy should be taken seriously. Before you purchase software or download software to your computer, be sure to check its authenticity to protect yourself from any repercussions.

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