Information Technology Services

Copying Software


Although the following was written quite some time ago, the underlining theme is even more hard-hitting today. The statements below not only apply to software, but in today's electronic world, serious penalties for copyright infringement carry over to music, movies, television shows and even electronic images.

Consider the points made and take the necessary measures to adjust your use of software, electronic music, DVDs, images, movies, TV shows, etc.

Top 10 Reasons for Illegally Copying Software (And Why None of Them Is Good Enough).

By Vince Incardona, Academic Computing and User Services, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Okay, okay, we know you've heard it before: "Thou shalt not copy software illegally." So why are we reciting this litany again? Simple, it's because we occasionally encounter illegal software copies and we have a responsibility for reminding the RIT community that ownership of intellectual property, such as software, must be respected. Usually, when we confront people with the notion that maybe they shouldn't be doing this, they rationalize such copying with one or more of the following arguments. We feel compelled to point out why none of these "defenses" are likely to hold up if you are caught:

I'm Allowed to Make a Backup in Case Something Happens to It, So It Must Be Okay to Use It on Another Machine.

Most software is sold with the stipulation that you can do this, but a backup copy is exactly that - a backup. Vendors recommend that the copy be used for installation. The original should be safely locked away. If you then do anything other than store the copy for safekeeping, it would be very reasonable to conclude that you made the copy simply to avoid paying for a second license.

I Didn't Copy It - A Friend Gave It to Me.

Technically, you're right. You would not be guilty of illegally copying software in this case, although your friend would. However, since illegally copied software is viewed as stolen property, you would be considered just as culpable for receiving illegally copied software as you would be for stealing it in the first place.

My Boss/Department Head/Instructor Told Me To. It's Her Problem.

The defense, "I was just following orders," is a weak one. It does not work for soldiers who commit atrocities, it does not work for crooked politicians, it would not work if your boss ordered you to embezzle funds or commit other illegal acts and it will not work if your boss tells you to illegally copy software. Your boss would not be able to legitimately dismiss you for insubordination because you refused to commit a crime, but you could be fired for obeying an order to do so.

I Bought the Software, Shouldn't I Be Able to Do What I Want With It?

Software is seldom ever sold to individuals. What is sold is a license to use the software. The terms of that license are almost always spelled out on the outside of the package, and they tell you what you may and may not do with that software. When you break open the package, the law assumes that you have agreed to abide by those terms.

It's Not Like I'm Robbing Somebody.

Many people do not view software as property because it is not a tangible thing that you can pick up and hold. However, not all property is tangible. Software is intellectual property, just like a song, a book, an article, a trademark or an invention. All of these things are owned, and can be bought, sold and licensed. All of them are used to make money for the people who create them. In the case of most commercial programs, the people who have worked to create them do this work for a living. In most cases, software engineers are not millionaires, they are working people like you who have staked their livelihoods on the programs you are stealing. In a very real sense, you are taking bread from their table by making or using illegal copies.

It's OK If You're Using It For Educational Purposes

If education were a justification for theft, driving instructors would be able to steal cars with impunity. While many software vendors are generous to educational institutions, this is their prerogative - not an intrinsic right granted to educators simply because they are educators. Furthermore, such generosity is firmly grounded in trust. Stealing intellectual property for educational purposes violates that trust and jeopardizes that generosity for all educators, innocent and guilty alike.

There is a doctrine known as "fair use" that allows some limited use of written materials in classrooms without permission from the copyright holders. Fair use generally applies only to sections of written works, and not the whole work. It generally does not apply to software that is copied in whole and distributed without compensation to the copyright holder. If this kind of distribution is allowed, the software license will clearly state it. Don't assume that it's allowed unless you have it in writing.

I Needed It, But The Price Was Unreasonably High. If I Had to Actually Pay For It, There Is No Way I Could Ever Afford It.

Software prices are high for the same reason the price of houses is high: both require a lot of highly skilled labor to create. As a result, there are many in our society who need housing but cannot afford it, just as there are many who need software but cannot afford it. If a homeless person broke into your house and took up residence in your living room, you would want the police to evict that person and they would have to do it. You might feel sorry for the person, but not to the point of abdicating your property rights. Similarly, if a software company wants to prosecute people who illegally steal their software, you can expect that they will press charges, and probably win, no matter how sorry they feel for you. Their survival may depend on it.

I Didn't Know It Was Illegal.

Unauthorized duplication of software is a felony in New York State. State and federal laws provide for civil and criminal penalties if you are convicted. Copyrighted software carries a copyright notice on the package, and displays a copyright notice when it begins execution. It would be difficult to convince a judge or jury that you had no idea that unauthorized copying was illegal, unless you first convinced them that you had never used the software and that you had no clue about the meaning of the word "copyright."

The mere fact that you read this far means that you can't honestly say that nobody told you that copying software without a license is illegal. And in most cases, all that has to be proven is that you should have known, whether or not you actually did.

It's Only Illegal If You Get Caught.

Okay, so what if you do get caught? What could you be facing: Fines, imprisonment and civil penalties at both the federal and state level. At the institute level, disciplinary action may be taken up to and including suspension, in the case of students.

Software vendors have formed a group called the Software Publishers Association (SPA), and the SPA both offers rewards for whistle blowers and conducts covert investigations of software piracy at large organizations. Most of the people who have been caught by a SPA audit never thought that it would happen to them. The SPA is not to be taken lightly. Since their livelihoods depend on successfully prosecuting software piracy, these people know what and who to look for, they know how to build a case against them, they have lots of expensive lawyers to do it with, and they usually have the full cooperation of both law enforcement agencies and the organizations they are investigating. If they find out you've been stealing software, you generally don't stand a chance.

Oh, Come On, Everyone Is Doing It.

This excuse has been used to justify everything from speeding to lynching. Yet, it is by far the number one reason given for illegally copying software. The logic supposedly is that society tacitly approves of the action, even though there are laws against it. Therefore, it is morally defensible, even if it's illegal.

Think about this for a second. Approach this argument as you would if your son or daughter used it to justify something you considered wrong. This is tantamount to an assertion that you have no will of your own, and that you define right and wrong simply in terms of what you see people around you doing. If you don't see yourself that way, why give everyone the impression.

The Bottom Line.

If you are copying software illegally, you should stop immediately. If you see someone else doing it, tell them to stop. If they don't stop, turn them in. The practice exposes you and/or the institute to liability, jeopardizes your chances of receiving a good, legitimate deal from vendors, and compromises RIT's reputation in the business community.

Note: This information was originally printed in the Rochester Institute of Technology _ISC News, September 1993, and has been made available electronically by EDUCAUSE, the professional association for managing and using information technology in higher education, with permission of the publisher; see

Last updated: 
Tuesday, July 12, 2016

If you have questions or need further information, contact your department's IT support office, or contact the IT Service Desk via email at, via phone at 603-646-2999 or walk in to see them in Baker/Berry 178J.

Information Technology Services