Software Piracy and the Existence of Moral Absolutes

(Before I start, I’d like to make it clear that I am not “calling out” anyone. This post started out as a comment on the blog post I refer to below, however my words quickly grew in number and I decided to make my own blog post on it. This post is intended to be a spinoff of Matt’s post. This topic is tangential to the post referenced below, and not in response to it.)

In a recent post by Matt Simmons titled “The real loser in software piracy isn’t who you think“, the Standalone SysAdmin posits an interesting theory. To summarize, software piracy may cost better, alternative products their userbase. If people need to twiddle a few pixels, the Photoshop brand immediately captures their attention. As a result a person may pirate Adobe’s software when a better, less expensive or possibly free alternative to Photoshop would have been just as good.

I completely agree with the above, and it’s a viewpoint that I had never considered outright. I think I’ve thought along those lines without realizing it though. In my experience, if someone with only a little computer background wants to put an all-in-one server in their office to manage printing, file shares, their internet gateway and etc. I am slightly disappointed that Microsoft’s Small Business Server product is usually the first and only product that comes to mind. There are so many alternatives! ClearOS, Untangle, and others are awesome alternatives often with a free tier that can get you started.

However, because the SBS brand is so large, and people think “I guess that’s what I need,” they’ll likely implement it and never consider the alternatives. In some instances, they may improperly license the software. If even just one quarter of the organizations that are not properly licensing SBS would move to an alternative product, I believe that would make the industry better. Microsoft would see clear competition from the growing userbase of other products and have a better idea on how to improve. The alternative products would increase their userbase and know how better to support their customers. Customers get great products all around! Generally speaking, it would be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Often in discussions concerning software piracy the supposed dollar amount of lost revenue for the software company is brought up. Upon investigation those numbers are built on some flimsy presuppositions about the buyer’s intent. Users of software will often not truly be legitimate candidates to purchase the software. However, this is where I find the topic to be most interesting. When the topic of morality gets introduced is when things get fascinating. That’s also when you’ll see some truly jaw dropping logical and philosophical gymnastics.

Let’s talk a bit about morality. Are there absolutes or are there not? Is this purely a financial equation or is there more at stake here?

Definition of Terms

I’ll be using some quotes from Matt’s post as my springboards, but not as a direct response to him (this isn’t about two people disputing, but about different and yet related ideas being fleshed out). Also, I’m not focusing on the recent takedown of MegaUpload. I’m also not focusing on one pirated product over another. This is as generalized as I can be.

The first thing that needs to be determined in talking about “software theft” is “what is theft?” From Matt’s post:

As many people have said, theft is the taking of something which deprives the owner of use.

Before any topic can be given a thorough treatment, a definition of terms must take place. In this case, I’ve never heard of theft being defined as the deprivation of use from an owner. Perhaps it’s regional? That definition sounds more like some definitions of larceny. Theft does not, in my layman’s understanding of the term, primarily consider deprivation of use. Theft is usually defined along the lines of the taking of property that is owned by one person or entity without their consent. No validity is given to the consideration of if the object was useful to the original owner.

Perhaps you’ve seen dilapidated cars from two or more generations ago sitting on a farm. Certainly the owner is receiving no use from it, but taking it would still be considered theft (although I realize there are often tiered designations to the types of theft based on the dollar amount of what was stolen). That is, theft is defined as the taking of property that is owned by one person without their consent.

Certainly in the realm of software it gets tricky because you’re not dealing with cut-and-dried physical goods. In the physical world, it would be as if you could clone the junked automobile and then use it (perhaps for scrap metal, I don’t know). But you can’t perform an atomic copy of something in the physical world so it’s a moot point. Yes, you can copy a design and get in trouble with copyright infringement, but that seems to be an entirely unrelated phenomena. In the virtual world, you can perform an “atomic” copy of a thing – and that fact blurs some lines slightly.

However I believe the key to the situation is a realization that license terms on a software package define what acceptable use is. One you take those terms into account it is easier to understand how theft would be defined in the case of intangible software. Software companies by and large do not “sell” the software to you, but basically sell you the right to use it. It’s a contract for use. If a contract states that in order to use some software you have to pony up some cash then it “is what it is” and no amount of legal wrangling can reverse that. Going outside of that contract would be considered some form if illegal activity.

In the end, it is a non-consensual use of a product that has certain restrictions made upon it. Perhaps the term “theft” is over simplifying the behavior. Perhaps “breach of contract” would be better? That might be especially true since most software makes you accept an agreement before you can use it. Technically you are then bound by that contract. Define it how you will, we’re still dealing within the realm of morals, so at least we haven’t gotten too far off track.

Of course, I also find it laughable whenever software piracy is mentioned and people assign monetary value to the “stolen” software…as though the options were either “steal this software” or “pay for it”. A false dichotomy if I ever heard one.

If people say “one million copes of this software have been stolen, and the software costs $500 per copy, that means the company has lost half a billion dollars!!1!” then they are most certainly making a false dichotomy. Not all of the one million people have $500 to spend and even if they did, they would not necessarily spend it on that software if they were forced to make a choice.

This is where, often, the conversation with someone turns finances into morality. “Well I wouldn’t pay for it anyway!” or “I only use it once in a great while!” or, my favorite, “The software company has plenty of money. They’re not losing that much because of me.” As if, somehow, arguments of convenience or shareholder meetings shift the foundations of right and wrong.

Finances Vs. Morals

Certainly the dollar amounts that are brought up around software piracy are smeared around to make the software companies seem like helpless victims. When you look into the numbers, it’s highly unlikely that Adobe, Microsoft, Autodesk, Symantec and etc. aren’t losing a ton of real money. They might even be gaining value in the long run with their products being used by more people who carry that brand in their minds from then on.

However is the discussion about software piracy all about numbers and branding? Can a person change right and wrong based on their own convenience or their determination of how much a company needs more currency?

I’d like to focus this topic less on the numbers and more on how one behaves after digesting the numbers. My question for us all to think about is this: What determines right and wrong? Here are the numbers and a fairly accurate interpretation of them:

[Those that download commercial software without paying] didn’t have $500 to buy photoshop. Did Adobe really lose that $500 that wouldn’t have been paid to them? No.

Most of us would agree with that. Framed within the context of “a person doesn’t have $500 and furthermore wouldn’t spent it on the software if they had it” then the software maker didn’t lose money. However, if we then take that likely reality and use it to excuse a breach of contract, we start determining right and wrong based on profit and loss. In the presence of moral absoulutes, a thing that has certain contractual usage restrictions on it being used outside of those restrictions is still wrong. Typically, that “wrongness” is only superseded if there is considerable harm to another person unless that contract is broken.

“That money didn’t exist. Assigning it a value is dishonest.”

Certainly the numbers are trumped up to an extent. On that there is little dispute. Where do we go from here? Can we go from “I don’t have the money to buy this software,” to “I’m going to intentionally break a contract so that I can use it anyway”?

At this point in a discussion on software licensing (or music, movie and other entertainment licenses), the discussion usually continues spinning its wheels. Volleys of words like “fair”, “greedy”, “corporations” and “big business” get lobbed.

A product has value independent of a person’s ability to pay for it. A product is then sometimes priced disproportionate to its value. Or, oddly, value is manipulated by price, but that’s another discussion. If a company, within their legal rights, sets a price on a product that a person feels is disproportionate to its value, does that person’s personal evaluation of the price/value equation allow them to morally break contract and use the software outside of its licensing restrictions?

We could argue about the fairness of current licensing practices, the greed of corporate licensing practices, the value of a product in comparison to its price and if software patents are detrimental (please, no GPL fanbois). Those things are important to talk about, however in the context of determining morality, if those smell fishy, that’s because all of them combine to form one giant red herring distracting us from the real point. The real point is centered on how one determines right and wrong.

Absolute Uncertainty

The question of absolutes now comes up. Is it ever right to take something that is not yours? If a loved one is dying, and you can steal medicine to save their life, is it wrong? If you and others are locked in a prison camp during a war and face almost certain death, is stealing the keys from the guards okay? Is killing your guards okay?

Those are extreme examples, but valid nonetheless and thus not in the realm of straw men. It shows us that, usually, there is a line when theft and even killing become acceptable. (Even so, there are those who believe in pacifism to the point of never fighting back even in the defense of your or another person’s life.)

The question remains, is there ever a time when it is acceptable to break a contract or license? Once you figure that out you can answer the following questions with certainty and be able to backup your view: When is it okay to break a contract? When is it okay to perform an act that is punishable by law? Does solvency determine right and wrong and if so when?

I think moral absolutes is the heart of the issue of software being used outside of license restrictions (I hesitate to call it “theft” or “piracy”). If there are none, then this topic is wasted energy. If there are absolutes, but they contradict honoring software licensing then we should at least define them and be aware of why we do what we do. If there are absolutes, and they say to honor law in so far as the law does not clearly contradict other absolutes (e.g. a law requiring you to punch a random person in the face), then the topic is rather simple, in spite of arguments about practicality. Your pragmatic need for a software title notwithstanding, show some fortitude and don’t break a contract / license agreement (essentially dishonesty). Go find a product whose licensing you agree with or do without.

For myself, I am a license pest. I actually read some EULAs. I actually follow them to the best of my ability. For example, I recently bought an OEM copy of Windows 7 for a workstation I built for my small business. According to strict licensing interpretation you are not allowed to install the OEM version of Windows straight onto a PC from the DVD. You are supposed to use the OEM Preinstalltion Kit or the Express Deployment Toolkit. So, I got rid of the installation that I had initially made, turned one of my other PCs into an EDT server and installed the OEM version of Windows across my home network onto my workstation.

Who would have known? What difference does it really make? For one, I would have known. Secondly, I believe the difference is in how a person continually builds their character. If you are unfaithful in the little things, it makes unfaithfulness in bigger things a little bit easier to justify. If people that I know have little or no problem breaking contracts and licenses, my trust in them is eroded. If a person rationalizes things in such a way as to take relatively clear cut restriction and justify breaking them in the absence of clear harm to another person, i wonder what else that person could justify.

I am not here to point fingers, flex my “morality,” or get anyone to behave the way I do. I am here to encourage you to stop and consider yourself. Stop and consider why you choose what you do. Consider why you think what you think. Consider everything. Have a reasoned defense. A new topic that has been intriguing me is that of dialectic reasoning. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Socrates:

The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.

Do not live an unexamined life.

What do you think about software licensing? Is it okay to break the license terms? Is there a practical limit? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. xdroop

    January 23, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Astoundingly good article.


  2. Justin Dearing

    January 23, 2012 at 8:34 am


    There is one hole in your framework. If I pirate software, I’m not breaching contract, unless I borrow the CD from my job, or have a license from another machine of mine. I’m not saying this to justify piracy, or to argue with your conclusions per say. I agree that if I download AutoCad (which I’ve never owned a license for) off of bittorrent, and install it, it is wrong. However, I am not breaching a contract with AutoDesk.

    I do applaud you for following the OEM license to the T, but I’ll admit I’d never do that. I often obtain “pirated” windows install disks and use my legitimate license keys because they have things slipstreamed in. I’m a big fan of laws that make sense. I’ve followed certain policies at work that I disagreed with to a T to point out their ridiculousness. I think you can say that I find “sensibleness” part of a rules justness.


    • Wesley David

      January 23, 2012 at 9:45 am

      I’m more familiar with licenses that pertain to the actual bits and where they are installed compared with who owns the license (and if its transferrable – I’m staring at *YOU* Cisco!!). I’m not familiar with the scenario you give.

      Oddly, I know someone who called Microsoft’s licensing number and were told that it’s okay for small shops to use the OEM disc straight away without the OPK. It was kind of an undocumented “nudge wink” thing that I guess MSFT allows… ? However, I know better than to take one person’s word at a call center as the final statement. =)

      And yes, some licensing / policy restrictions are just absurd. Not sure how to deal with some of the more insane ones. Sometimes, like you said, following them to a T to point out their absurdity is what is needed.


    • xdroop

      January 23, 2012 at 10:07 am

      Justin: you are not violating contract law if you download a copy of AutoCad and install it, true. But you are in contravention of copyright law, which grants the “owner” the right to set the terms under which they will permit (“license”) you to use it.


  3. andy

    February 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    I struggle with licensing. Barely a week goes by where I don’t have to deal with someone at a particular client saying to me “why is XYZ asking me for a licence/telling me that it’s expired/telling me it’s not genuine/” etc etc.

    Even down to “well, i can’t setup office because this laptop doesn’t have office. I can sell you a version for XX, which is less than you’d buy it at (bignamestoredowntheroad)”
    This is usually followed with “I’m not paying that. Can’t you just get me a special version?”

    I struggle with this. I’m cogniscent of the fact that this client is relatively poorly licensed. Not necessarily CAL, OS and Office applications.. but other applications as well.
    I know that I’m never going to convince them to spend the money on proper licensing because they just don’t see the need.
    I also know I’m never going to provide them with unlicensed software, and that I refuse to install it if I don’t have a license for it. Every time the matter comes up, I’ve got written emails to them saying it’s not licenced, and it should be.. but I think that’s about as far as I can go. What do you think.. ?


    • Wesley David

      February 23, 2012 at 7:14 pm

      There’s a different between a business that knows they’re out of compliance and is making at least an effort to become compliant and stay that way versus a business that is belligerent and outright refuses to do the lawful thing. The former has my blessings, and I know that compliance can’t be achieved in mere months, or even a single fiscal year. The latter I have no patience with.

      Look at it this way. If a business has a leadership culture that will argue vehemently why they shouldn’t pay what is a plainly stated fee to use software, then they’re the kind that will argue with me and refuse to pay my invoices at some point. It’s the same mindset.

      As the saying goes “Lie down with dogs and get fleas.” As such, I research potential clients before I accept long-term contracts with them and if they smell like a dog… they can stay in the kennel. =)


      • andy

        March 5, 2012 at 7:28 pm

        I’m still struggling with this one. I suspect before too long there will cease to be a business relationship one way or the other.

        So now i’m standing on my “you should be licenced” moral high ground, considering whether I want to jump down into the mud and call up some certain vendors.

        do i do it while there’s still the business relationship, so I don’t seem vindictive? but then.. I might seem like i’m only trying to chase further revenue, which I’m not.


        • Wesley David

          March 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm

          How I would handle that is to simply say “we can’t do business together anymore and here’s why.” Personally, I haven’t ever been a whistle blower, but I’m not sure why. I wouldn’t feel at all bad if I ever did blow it, nor would I ever find it distasteful if anyone else did. I just… for some reason… don’t blow it myself.

          If you wanted to blow the whistle, I’d personally want distance between my business and theirs. I’d likely only do it after some time had passed without interacting with them. If they asked “How could we have been found out?!” expecting an answer from me, I’d have to be truthful and tell them it was me. That doesn’t seem like it would be a fruitful encounter. I’d just not do business with them and then call the tip in a few months later and let the erring business make the first move to reconnect with me.

          Always do what’s right and don’t worry about how people perceive you.


  4. andy

    March 7, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    one of my concerns would be having my name slathered negatively over the internet….


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