Why Software Piracy Isn't Theft

In an earlier article of mine on the dependance of Windows on Piracy, I promised a discussion on whether or not software piracy should be considered as theft. Well, here we are, and I would like to demonstrate how piracy is not theft.

To start of with, let us define theft. The commonly accepted definition is “the taking of someone else’s property without their consent“. The two keywords that need to be looked at here are “taking” and “consent”. I am going to demonstrate in various different ways why software piracy does not come into the same category as theft. My first argument is with the word “take”.

First of all, the word “taken,” as it was originally used, was meant to imply that what you take is no longer there with the owner. In fact, the root of the word piracy itself betrays what it is supposed to mean. Pirates stormed ships forcibly, looted the occupants (not to mention murdered and God knows what else), and took away things that left the original owners without them.

This clearly doesn’t apply to piracy of music CD’s and software. If I download a song from a server, then the original copy is intact and nothing has been lost. To put a different spin on it, if I light a candle, and you (without my consent) light another candle from my flame and run away, can I charge you with having stolen my light? Is that piracy? I don’t think so.

Of course, all software companies and music companies have the right to make it as difficult as possible for people to copy and run their software. Which brings me to my second point as to why I don’t consider piracy as theft.


Image Credit: decoder72

I quite understand the meaning of the term opportunity cost. The primary gripe with piracy is that it causes lost sales. This assumption is dubious at best or remarkably overstated. For this argument to ring true, the assumption must be made that if a user illegaly downloads a song, he or she would have purchased it. If the user never intended to purchase the song, then downloading the song illegally has not caused any sort of lost sales.

In fact, this is much more often true than not. The overwhelming majority of people who illegally download software would never have bought it if they were unable to get if for free. So this argument falls flat.

My final argument is an extension of my earlier article on how to charge different prices for your products. Companies usually adopt pricing policies that confer an additional benefit to those who pay high prices. For example, business class passengers in airplanes have shorter lines. Conversely, they make it difficult for customers who are price sensitive and want to save money to ensure that only those who are willing to make some sort of a sacrifice can get the lower priced products. The example is that of discount coupons which force customers to go through all the hassle of cutting out and saving useless bits of paper in order to get a discount.

Piracy can be looked at in this light. It is never easy to download something illegally. You have to find a source, try and crack it, are in constant fear that updates will change something and render the software useless, etc. This is the reason why people pay money for software. They do it to avoid hassles. The very fact that people choose to buy software instead of trying to get it for free demonstrates this. The end result is this: People who would never have bought the software anyway are the ones who usually try and download music and software illegally. The others buy it to avoid the hassles of using non-genuine software.

The fact that people are still buying music and paying for software illustrates this principle. They pay for software even though they can get it for free. As long as companies make it as difficult as possible for their software to be copied illegally (it doesn’t have to be impossible), they will not lose sales since those to whom the software is worth the price will purchase it.

A lot of people of course, have different points of view on this, believe that you should go to an online store and purchase software, and they are most welcome to share with our readers why they feel that piracy is theft or provide further reasons as to why it is not.

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35 comments to Why Software Piracy Isn’t Theft

  • Stephan Zimmermann

    You seem to be missing the central point in your essay to justify “piracy” of software

    Writings, performances from rock and roll songs to symphonies, and, yes, even software, are part of a system of laws that have been carefully designed to aid and protect the originator of the intellectual property to receive some compensation for their effort in producing the work.

    Even Citizen Economists is covered by various laws covering voluntary and involuntary copying or syndication of originaly written materials!

    I doubt whether you would appreciate anonymous copying of your materials without receiving credit or other compensation for your material appearing in other venues!

    Software is far more serious and time-consuming than simple articles.

  • I think it is still theft….theft of a person’s rightful earning.

  • raymond

    If theft means without consent, what can we call similar actions by our government that are passed into law?


  • Kris

    I absolutely agree with you Bhagwad… And I might be able to sympathise with Raymond and Elaw, were the decision solely down to the artist, however there are quite a few artist who are happy for their music to be shared, even those who own their own label such as 50 Cent, and others who are grateful even, such as the Arctic Monkeys, who wouldn’t be where they are today were it not for P2Ps. As far as software is concerned, I might start to give a damn when the companies develop a sense of integrity… I remember paying $200 for Roxio Video Wave 7, and finding out it was an inferior to Video Wave 5. I paid £1200 for my new laptop, sporting Windows Vista, before realizing most video camera drivers were incompatible! They essentially released a product before it was ready, can that even be considered ‘intellectual’, property?

  • feyri

    i agree, i download ‘illegally’ but i also purchase products which are good or seem worth it. with music i listen to alot of underground stuff so although alot i wont buy but what is good about it is helping them gain another claim and credit from the works as they deserve by people downloading their stuff it will raise their profiles and potentially help them out. this will not be true in all cases but the idea is their.

  • kthnxbai


  • Adam

    I agree with the writer. When a song or album is downloaded from a server, techinically speaking, the server is granting permission for the request, and the server sends packets of data to the recieving computer. If one wished to not let someone else share the music they have, they would not give permission to do so. If I let my friend borrow a CD, and he likes a song, and copies onto his/her computer, by definition of today’s piracy, he/she is stealing the song from me. Should they be arrested as well?

  • Adam

    One can hardly expect a dishonest person to be honest about why they don’t pay for something they know they’re supposed to pay for.

    I have heard all the rationalizations. They ALL boil down to one thing: “I can afford a computer, therefore some grown-ups somewhere should provide me with free entertainment.”

  • shukov

    If the song, software whatever costs $20.00 and you take it for free, you have just stolen $20.00. Good luck with the judge.

  • benthedorklord

    The claim that piracy is illegal stems not from the fact that you’re stealing from other people (from whoever uploaded the song onto limewire or the copy of windows onto the pirate bay) but from the company or individual who owns the rights to that song or program. There’s no way to justify that as legal. Adam is completely correct: “One can hardly expect a dishonest person to be honest about why they don’t pay for something they know they’re supposed to pay for.”

  • He never said it wasn’t illegal, he just said it wasn’t theft (criminal law). Copyright infringement is a civil law, and in the UK civil laws can not carry jail time (there may be specific exceptions).

  • Oh, and in terms of software, M$ like people copying windows in places like India… They just want to control it in the places where there is money so they can empty everyones pockets. Windows itself has very few redeeming features over several other operating systems. Just all the bigger software houses target windows over the rest.

  • Shady

    Pirates have always been at the birth of new business models. When Edison invented the record player musicians branded him a pirate out to steal their work until a system where royalties could be paid, we now know this as the record industry. Edison also invented film making and demanded a license fee, this in turn gave birth to a band of pirates to flee New-York and thrived until Edisons patents expired. They founded a small town… Hollywood… and the name of the leader of the Movie pirates… William… FOX (as in 20th Century for the simpler ones amongst you). Conclusion: The entire Movie and Record Industries are based on piracy.

  • Clarkson


  • Matt

    Theft is defined as appropriation of property belonging to another with the intention to permantely deprive, your definition is complete crap! do your legal research before assuming a definition. Appropriation means to assume any of the rights of the owner including copy, using without permission or even move. So yeah it is theft you idiot.


  • Garrett

    Matt — “…with the intention to permanently deprive”
    umm… doesn’t that means the original owner doesn’t have access to it anymore? If it is copied, the owner still has it therefore, by your own definition, it is not theft.

  • Seen it

    I bought Jail House Rock by Elvis on a 78, 45, 33 album, 8 track, cassette, and CD. I think I’m the one getting ripped off, not the record companies. How many years is a song and movie copyrighted these day, even if it were a million, they would want and get an extension. Of course the singer or actors would never see any of the royalty fees, the record companies would just pocket most of it. (like now). Also, 99 cents for a download from a server ? Whats’ that 95 cents profit, and still they complain. Everything you need to see, hear or read is at the library, your taxes paid for it, use it !

  • Volly

    Here is a simple way to look at it. Your a guy. You rape a girl. Technically, did you physically take something? No you didn’t. Did you take something mentally from her? Yes. You can’t put your hand on it, but you did take something that you can never give back.

    When you steal software, you are losing site over the most important thing. Only the author OWNS the software. When you buy a CD, you are buying the right to PLAY IT. Not to own it outright.

    You will never get the right to own software outright. You are buying the right to USE it. Not own it.

  • Chime In

    Why would I want to pay for something that I can never own?

    Also some arguments against piracy says it’s bad because the authors never see a cent from the copy that you now have. Then those same people should be against used cd/game/movie/book stores, not to mention libraries.

  • legal=simple?

    You say that it is difficult to pirate software. This seems completely bizarre to me. Recently I had access to a completely legal copy of windows xp and an illegal version. Trying to turn over a new leaf I installed the legal version and used its code. It would not activate. after spending 4 days with customer service (who barely spoke english) I gave up formatted my drive and installed the illegal version. 40 minutes later (the install time) it was running perfectly and fully activated.

    Your argument is not valid because atleast 75% of the time it is easier to acquire software illegaly than it is to just pay for it.

  • Jon

    Copyright theft:

    Removing the right of a copyright owner to profit from their property.

    You use a narrow-minded, narrow description of words and twist it to try to find some intelligent insight, completely ignoring the fact that the law doesn’t say anything about taking a program.


  • rianoor

    All are amazing, i am very confuse which one to select but i have 2 PCs and 1 laptop at my home so i will install 5 to each.Thanks for sharing nice list.

  • Jesse Forgione

    Not only does the absence of scarcity render the concept of “owning” ideas, methods or patterns invalid (like in the example of the candle), but to the extent that IP laws are enforced, real property rights are negated.

    (The person who made the absurd comparison to rape ignores the fact that what makes something a violation is physical invasion.)

    Owning intellectual property amounts to owning one or more possible uses for physical property.
    For any given piece of physical property, the more of it’s possible uses are owned by others, the less it’s owner is free to use it. He may only use his physical property in ways that remain unclaimed or in ways that he himself owns (which others who own similar property may not use without his permission). If we followed IP to it’s extreme conclusion where all possible uses are owned, we would reach the state where no two people could make the same type of use of similar physical property without one getting the permission of the other. If someone owned a piece of physical property, but none of it’s possible uses, he could not be said to own it in any meaningful way.

    In principle, to own a method or pattern is to have a degree of control over all the physical property that exists. To the degree that the various possible uses of others’ property can be owned, those others are not it’s owners.

    Let’s imagine I use my own materials to build a house of my own design. You, my neighbor, own similar materials, and seeing my method of building, you imitate my design for your own house. Now either I am justified in knocking your house apart to take back my intellectual property or I’m not. If IP is valid you have stolen my pattern and I should take steps to get it back. If IP is not valid than I’m a vandal violating your property rights. But we can’t both be right. Either I control the pattern you arrange your property in, or you do. If it’s the former, than you cannot really be said to be “owning” your physical property. This would amount to the fascist model where there is nominal private property but the state controls what can be done with it, rendering the “ownership” meaningless.

    Also, there’s no reason in principle that IP couldn’t be applied to broader, more general or more obvious ideas. What if I owned not just the design of a specific car, but the very idea of a car? …or the very idea of mechanical transportation? …or the wheel? The difference is only in degree.

  • vesey

    If you have to write an article this long to justify pirating then it’s theft plain and simple…………..

  • Jared Norberg

    Thank you, Jesse Forgione, for understanding the despicable system that’s really at the bottom of the furor over pirating.

    Thank you, Jal Park, for giving me a much simpler way of arguing it for those who don’t have time to get into details right away.

    Even if every song cost only $0.10 to “own” through the travesty of IP law, it would cost ~$2,000 to fill an 80GB iPod, to say nothing of one’s own hard drive.

    Anyone who is familiar with IP is invited to read a critique of it by one much more familiar with it than I:

  • Josh

    To take the example of the housing designs, ones’ loss is the amount of time spent formulating the designs. Lost time is lost utility. The neighbor does not lose this utility and profits from your lost utility in the designs he takes.

    With regards to software and music companies, presuming piracy causes a decline in their sales, they are forced to compensate by raising their prices. Therefore, people who chose to buy these goods honestly must pay higher prices. A loss is therefore incurred by these honest consumers.

  • Piracy is not theft. I would have paid over $4000 for the music i have downloaded. I am 17. Not only that, but I have kept only $2200 worth, and am still removing some. By downloading $40 worth of Modest Mouse, i have done to one MM concert. $45. I would not have bought the albums nor gone to the concert had I not downloaded it.

    You can say I’m immoral all you want, but it doesn’t matter. Because in the end, the band got more money for their intellectual property through my method. To think otherwise is fallacy.

    I could not have bought even ONE of the albums I own. But you know what? Why not ask Modest Mouse? Why not ask Wolf Parade? How about Cloud Cult? Oddly enough, all of these bands support downloading. Oddly enough, it’s still considered illegal. But you know what? Lets use a band that isn’t okay with downloading.

    I have downloaded all of Metallica. Let us call that a $80 value. Let us say they would have gotten $10 from that (very generous). I’ve spent $40 on shirts that i never would have, because of illegal downloading. Ah, but, I also have my $12 Metallica figurine. Oh, and a $6 poster. And $2 in ring tones. That’s $60. I’ve been listening to Metallica for four years. Damn. So basically, $60 every four years… if I live even two years more, they will have gotten 90 from me.

    Shut your goddamn mouths a with this anti-piracy BS. It results in me spending far more money than I would have been able to on them anyway. if I spent that money on their albums, I’d have -20. So let’s say I just didn’t buy two of their albums. Well, I’d probably like Metallica less. And would probably buy even fewer albums. It’s common damn sense. I’m 17, you think I have 4k lying around?

  • Wiley15

    GalinKilin your argument makes no sense. You claim that you absolutely cannot afford an album at $20, but in the next sentence you say you went to a concert for $45. Neither of those are necessities so it would seem you did have $20 for album if you wished to spend it.

    The main thrust of your argument is that if you cannot afford to buy it, it is not stealing if you just take it for free. You could not base a society on that rule. I cannot afford a Porsche, should I be allowed to break into a dealership and just take one? If someone else is poorer than you and cannot afford an MP3 player, would you just shrug and say “fair’s fair” if they took yours? Of course not.

  • Grand Savant

    How would you like to work on a job and be paid only once every 3 months? You don’t like? Well, that’s how authors are being paid buddy.

    Now how would you like to work on a job for 3 months and find out at the end that you’re not getting paid for that 3 months? That would hurt isn’t it?

    That’s what you are doing to authors, wether they are musicians, writers, or programmers when you pirate their works.

    Oh and don’t forget; you reap what you sow. What goes around, comes around buddy.

  • Making the point

    Did you know trolling is an artform?

  • ip masking

    All of the free services spy on you and use your personal information for profit. Then there are the really bad ones that place bots and trojans on your computer. Pay a couple of bucks and don’t get used.

  • Ben

    Music distributors are thieves. They serve no purpose in today’s world. Artists of the future will self publish.

  • IDTheftReview

    This is a very convincing argument on piracy not being theft but there sure is just a fine line separating it. Illegally downloaded music for instance, doesn’t automatically mean lost sales because the interest wouldn’t have been that much if it can’t be obtained for free. But still, if it was obtained without permission, wouldn’t it still constitute theft?

  • Joe

    The creation of something that someone else wants for the purpose of sale to sustain a living is an age old practice. If a musician or a programmer makes something that you want, they deserve to get something in return so they can sustain their living. Commercialism, however, has made it so that there are a dozen other hands attempting to make a buck off that one persons creativity. I am more than happy to pay the creator of that “something,” but I am unwilling to pay exorbitant rates to finance the living of leeches.

  • Aaron

    I have pirated some things in my day, and I still know its not right or legal. I do it, but trying to justify it is idiotic at best.

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