History of Software Piracy

Stealing copyrighted software and entertainment media has never been easier. The advent of file-sharing programs like BitTorrent and Napster makes acquiring expensive programs for free as easy as clicking a button and subscribing to a high-speed Internet service. Belief that software piracy evolved recently is a common misconception; people have stolen software for years.

What Constitues Software Piracy

Several court cases have questioned what constitutes pirating software. The best definition can be summed up as follows: the use of software not legally purchased, or the copying of software when not legally authorized to do so. Despite the clear illegality of software piracy, illegal software accounts for roughly half of all software in use, according to the Business Software Alliance.

Read More: Legal Penalties for Software Piracy


Before 1980 one could freely copy computer programs and pirate without any legal ramifications in a sense. The U.S. Patent Office recognized copyrights on computer software, but only on the compiled version, not the source code. The patent office granted computer programs protection as a "literary" work, but as in a book you could not copyright particular words, only the work as a whole. Testimony and lobbying by Microsoft founder Bill Gates during the late 1970s finally led to legislation that started to protect software integrity.

Digital Piracy

Before the widespread software piracy on the Internet, thieves used dial-up Bulletin Board Systems to upload and distribute software to local computer owners. Thieves could log on with a telephone connection and either download files to their computer, or in the case of programs with larger file sizes, meet other software pirates willing to trade floppy disks through the mail system.

Rise of The Internet

Law enforcement could do little to stop the trade of illegal software during the 1980s. Most dial-up BBS systems distributed software for free, and owners of the BBS usually had little money for restitution to software companies. Only the few BBSes that attempted to profit from stolen software actually faced criminal investigations. The rise of Internet companies during the early 1990s allowed users all across the globe, as distinct from regional BBSes, the ability to steal copyrighted software. Authorities now had a serious problem on their hands.

Peer To Peer

While the 1990s made software piracy easier, the new millennium turned copying software illegally into a fairly common occurrence with programs that simplified file-sharing so that anyone could steal copyrighted material. Peer to Peer networks, specifically Napster and shortly thereafter BitTorrent, decentralized access to illegal software so that users could share files with millions of users worldwide and leave no trace of the action.


Although software piracy is a common occurrence, especially with younger people who grow up learning to use a computer, it is still illegal under the laws of the United States and most other countries. However, as Internet connections become faster and faster, piracy is likely to become a more efficient way to obtain copyrighted material than purchasing a hard disk version. Penalties for distributing software can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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