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February 1, 2002

Piracy or Expediancy?

© 2002, Douglas E. Welch

There is a major problem that every high-tech worker faces eventually -- software piracy. Too often you are called upon to install software which your company or client does not legally own. This can include installing software on more than one computer or installing software "borrowed" from a friend. While most companies characterize this as the expediency of doing business, software manufacturers look upon it as stealing, plain and simple. Worse yet, you, and your career, are often the ones caught between expediency and piracy.

Caught between

I feel safe in saying anyone who has worked in high-tech has been faced with the dilemma of software piracy. It seems to be at epidemic proportions and endemic to the high-tech world. Almost every one of you will have faced the quandary of installing pirated software or losing your job.

It is a rare company, regardless of size or profitability that has even 1/2 of its software legally purchased. Even companies that can afford the software seem reluctant to pay. The sad fact is anyone who wishes to live strictly according to their morals will have a hard time in a high-tech career. Nearly every company you work for is going to have pirated software and you will be the one installing it.

It certainly shouldn’t be this way, but little effect has been made by the various anti-piracy campaigns and copy protection seems easily skirted by those that really want to do so. High-tech professionals are not organized enough to take on the fight by themselves. Taking an individual stand would certainly be taking the "high road" in this fight, but I know of few who wish to end their entire career to make a point. Anyone who refuses to install pirated software would soon find themselves out of job in all but the most progressive companies. I am sure there are companies out there that abide by their license agreements, but I hear little word of them and found very few in my personal experience.

I will say that in some companies, lack of software compliance comes from several directions. Large corporations often have a difficult time tracking how many copies of software they actually own and where these copies are installed. I have fought this issue many times and no one has yet offered up a good solution. The combination of software that is bundled with a computer, site licensed software, upgrades purchased individually and software purchased by an individual user combine to create a morass of software licensing issues which further create an environment of futility. Many companies just simply give up trying to track their software and hope for the best.

In my own work with companies and individual clients, I always try to reinforce the need to purchase all the software they are using. Admonishments about upgrades and free support often fall on deaf ears, but I continue to try. In some cases, flagrant copying of software and casually distributing it to others, has been a factor in leaving a client. Just because software piracy seems to be the norm doesn’t mean that you have to aid and abet it. If you can extract yourself from such a situation, do so.

Finally, if you find yourself involved in an operation that is pirating software for profit, get out today. Working in such an operation not only endangers your career but could also send you to jail or leave you with fines that would effect your financial stability for the rest of your life. While you may have problems avoiding casual copying, there is no excuse for being involved in active pirating and distribution. The risks are far greater than the rewards.

A little help

The one bright spot in the fight against software piracy is the growing inclusion of usage protection systems in most software products. I have never been a fan of disk-based copy protection schemes, which often fail and leave software non-functional. Far better are serial number based usage controls which prevent casual copying and provide you an easy method of enforcing software legality. These protection schemes cause fewer problems and are often the nudge needed for companies to purchase additional copies of software. More than one of my clients has moved to legality after a software manufacturer instituted these systems. They may grumble about it, but purchasing additional copies protects both the company and you.

It is hard for high-tech workers to take the high road against software piracy. But through a combination of gentle pressure and new requirements from software manufacturers we might see a change that allows you to focus on building on your high-tech career without compromising your morals.


about this column.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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