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What is software piracy and why is it dangerous?

Don’t feel like splurging on a computer program you will only use a few times? Or paying for a film with less than glowing reviews? Why not borrow the license from a friend or download the film from a sketchy site? Becoming a software pirate is easier than you think. These occasional and seemingly insignificant acts can result in monetary penalties and cyber threats. Read on to find out how to avoid internet piracy and stay safe online.

What is software piracy and why is it dangerous?

What are software piracy and software pirates?

Software piracy is the act of illegally using, copying, modifying, distributing, sharing, or selling computer software protected by copyright laws. A software pirate is anyone who intentionally or unintentionally commits these illegal acts.

You don’t have to be a hacker to become a software pirate. It’s enough to use illegal software or copy and share legal software without the author’s consent.

Why is software piracy considered a crime?

Copyright laws have been created to make sure software developers (engineers, programmers, graphic designers, writers) receive appropriate credit and compensation for their work. Software piracy is illegal and considered a crime because whenever software is used, copied, or sold illegally, these copyright holders are robbed of their payment and recognition.

The end-user license agreement (EULA) is the most common license for software protection. It is a legal contract between the software manufacturer (or author) and the end-user (or customer) that defines the rules of the software use. These contracts can have different clauses, but most of them forbid the user to share the software with others. Typically, EULAs are signed digitally upon the installation of the software. Otherwise, the installation cannot be completed.

Copyright infringement may result in large fines and risks to your online security. But what specific actions fall under the umbrella term of software piracy?

Types of software piracy

These are the main types of software piracy that you should steer clear of when purchasing and using software programs or downloading online content.

Softlifting, or end-user piracy

Softlifting, also known as end-user piracy, is the most common type of software piracy. It happens when you purchase a piece of software and share it with people who are not authorized to use it. This practice is common in corporate and educational environments, where the user only pays the software vendor a licensing fee for one software program or application but downloads it on multiple computers.

Softliftin also includes benefiting from software upgrades without having a licensed version of the old software being upgraded as well as using non-commercial software (meant for one computer only) or academic or restricted software without a proper license.


Software counterfeiting is the illegal copying, distribution, and/or selling of licensed computer software. Other elements that come with the software may be also counterfeited, for example, the license agreement, packaging, registration information, and security features. Cybercriminals usually present counterfeit software as authentic but sell it for a lower price than the original.

Hard-disk loading

Hard disk loading is a form of commercial software piracy in which a PC reseller buys a legal piece of computer software, copies it, installs it on a computer’s hard disk, and sells the computer. Having software already installed makes the business’ offer more attractive to customers, most of whom aren’t even aware that they are also purchasing unlicensed software.

Client-server overuse

Client-server overuse occurs when a company allows the number of users of a particular software to exceed the number of licenses the company has for the software. This happens when the company installs the software on its local area network instead of an individual computer, making it possible for multiple users to use the same software at the same time.

Online piracy

Online piracy, also known as internet piracy, is the illegal sharing, selling, and acquiring of software on the internet. Online piracy is committed on:

  • Online auction sites that sell counterfeit, outdated, and pirated software.
  • Peer-to-peer file sharing networks that allow users to download and distribute copyrighted software, films, music, and games.
  • Usenet, the worldwide distributed discussion system, which offers anonymity and is known for pirated content distribution.
  • Websites that allow users to exchange pirated software.
  • Websites that offer to download pirated software programs for free.

Examples of software piracy

You don’t need to search far and wide for everyday examples of software piracy. Here are some common ones you will probably find familiar:

  • Purchasing a single user license for a piece of software and downloading it on your own computer as well as on someone else’s computer. The same example applies to companies that opt for softlifting to save costs.
  • Downloading copyrighted films, music, games, or e-books from shady websites for free.
  • Streaming content without authorization from its legal owner.
  • Buying a used PC or a hard drive with potentially unlicensed software installed on it.

Whether you engage in software piracy knowingly or not, it is still a federal crime that poses multiple risks.

Risks of using pirated software

Using pirated software might be cheaper than buying original software, but you should be aware of the dangers that await a software pirate.

  • As an unauthorized user, you will not receive any updates or customer support from the software manufacturer.
  • You will face an increased risk of the unlicensed software malfunctioning or crashing.
  • You will put your online security at risk because illegal and counterfeit software might infect your device with viruses, malware, or adware.
  • Visiting pirating websites is a danger in itself — they contain malicious ads, let alone infected files.
  • You may face legal consequences due to copyright violation, including financial penalties.

Being familiar with the risks is step one, while step two is taking action to avoid software piracy altogether.

How to protect yourself from software piracy

Take the following actions to protect yourself from taking part in software piracy and stay safe online:

  • Buy software programs only from authorized manufacturers and dealers.
  • Choose wisely which websites you download from. If you are planning on downloading software from the publisher’s website, do your research to make sure you are visiting its official site instead of a near-identical site set up by cybercriminals.
  • Scan your files for viruses. Even if you visit only trusted websites and download licensed software, there is always a chance you might absentmindedly open an attachment in a random email and unleash malware that will infect your computer. NordVPN’s feature Threat Protection scans all your files during download to prevent these mistakes.
  • Always read the end-user license agreement before you share the software with anyone else or download it on multiple devices.