Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I would like advice about software being used illegally. I have tons of software that people always ask for. Should I give it to them? Everyone else does!

A: Unfortunately, the use of illegal software seems to be misunderstood. A recent joint study by the Business Software Alliance and the Software Publishers Association reports that more than $13 billion in software revenue was lost worldwide in 1995 due to software piracy‹and the trend appears to be growing.

[copyright symbol] The legal implications of unauthorized software use should be clear to everyone who owns or uses a computer. According to the U.S. Copyright Act, illegal reproduction of software is subject to civil damages of as much as $100,000 per title infringed plus criminal penalties, including fines of as much as $250,000 per title infringed and imprisonment of up to five years. Given these high stakes, the consequences are certainly not worth the risks.

Setting aside the compelling legal arguments and looking at the ethical dimensions of the problem, we might begin by examining the principle of fairness and justice. Is using software illegally something we would regard as fair if the roles were reversed and we were the company selling the software?

Such companies devote a large portion of their earnings to the creation of new software products. The programmers, writers, and all those involved in the creation of these new products deserve fair compensation for their efforts just as we expect fair compensation for ours. We all prefer a world in which respect for our own property and for the property of others is the norm.

If we apply the virtue approach to ethics, we find ourselves asking whether the concepts of honesty, trustworthiness, faithfulness, and integrity are consistent with participation in the distribution of illegal software. It is not a close call.

So what, then, can you do about this problem on the practical, personal level? First, get rid of any illegal software you might have inadvertently received. In this way you won't be viewed as a role model who says it is OK to use pirated software.

Find the resources to purchase those software packages you really need for work and for your personal use. With legal copies of software, you will get user support; you will avoid potentially severe legal penalties; and, most of all, you will be acting ethically.

Next, when friends or colleagues ask for a copy of your software, invite them to sit at your computer and try yours. If in five minutes they are convinced they absolutely must have the software, offer to help them acquire a legal copy. Good software is almost always worth its price.

Finally, you should be aware that many companies are developing written employee policies about the use of software in their organizations. If your company has such a policy, get a copy and study it carefully. It should serve as a tool to reinforce ethical behavior.

If your company does not yet have a written policy, you might offer to help develop one. The Software Publishers Association has an excellent draft version to use as a starting document. It is available on the World Wide Web at

And yes, it's OK to copy and use this draft — in fact, it's encouraged!

Terry E. Shoup
Sobrato Professor
Dean of the School of Engineering
Santa Clara University

We have also made a Spanish version of this article available online.