I've heard the term "pirate" many times before, but I have never really understood it. How do people do it and why?

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    How people pirate video games is surely off-topic, here. Why is because copying something for free is cheaper than paying to buy it. So what's your actual question? Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 9:04
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    @DavidRicherby It seems like the question is what is the definition of "pirating" in legal terms. At least that is how it was answered. But yes How is off-topic and wouldn't even have a general answer, and why is quite obvious "to no pay". Maybe reprhase the post to reflect more the question in the title ?
    – Walfrat
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 10:29
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    I disagree on one point: piracy is not universally 'to avoid paying'. I know multiple people who buy a game, find out it has some silly always-online requirement that prevents them from playing the game if they lose internet, so they crack or pirate the game (that they already bought) to bypass the DRM. Whether it's 'okay' or not is of course still an open topic, but it's not always to avoid paying (of course, in many cases, it is).
    – CGriffin
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 14:06
  • How? Use a binary sharing service to search for and download a version that usually has been modified by others so that the copy protection is dysfunctional. Why? Mostly money. It's free as long as you are not caught. Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 16:53
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    @CGriffin I guess that depends on what definition of 'piracy' one is using. Personally, I'd not consider using an activation crack on a piece of software for which you already possess the appropriate license to be piracy at all.
    – reirab
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 20:16

6 Answers 6


While software is often the subject of pirating, the term is also used generally for unauthorized use of any copyrighted material. It turns out that this terminology is very old. Wikipedia notes that this sense of the word piracy is attested as far back as 1603 CE and was used as part of the language of a copyright treaty as early as 1886 CE.

In particular, people who use or distribute unauthorized copies of movies, television shows, videos of live concerts, and music are also frequently said to be engaged in pirating of the material.

The term is used in this context in testimony before Congress by the chief U.S. Copyright official in 2005.

Critics of the term argue that "piracy," which originally meant armed robbery of tangible property on the high seas (a form of theft), is an inapt way to describe copyright infringement which is really different in kind than theft because copyright infringement does not deprive anyone of use of the materials, it merely impairs the legally granted monopoly of someone regarding how it shall be used. As Matthew Yglesias explains at Slate:

If I steal your car then you don't have a car anymore, whereas if I duplicate a digital media file we both end up with it. The harm in the duplicating is supposed to be that by duplicating content that Fox Filmed Entertainment owns the copyright to, I'm depriving Tom Rothman of some revenue that he might have gotten had I instead gone out and bought a copy of the content for myself. That's fair enough for Rothman to feel sad about, but it's a totally different kind of thing. I didn't buy DC's animated film of Batman: Year One, and I didn't pirate a copy either; I watched it at a friend's house. The difference between watching a movie with your friend and copying your friend's Blu-ray is that one is legal and one is illegal. But in both cases you watch the movie without paying the copyright owner, and in neither case have you stolen anything from anyone.

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    In regards to the term piracy: This is why Brady Haran came up with the term freebooting (which has a more accurate connotation) Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:34
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    @NathanMerrill, meh, I'm glad that didn't catch on. Something about using a word that starts with "free" to talk about unauthorized use seems off.
    – JPhi1618
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 17:01
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    @JPhi1618 do you also dislike that English has words like freeloader?
    – rumtscho
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 17:53
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    @rumtscho to be honest everyone dislikes English for one reason or another. Especially true if your native language has well defined grammatical and spelling rules. My primary language is English, and I just learned the past/present/future - simple/perfect/continuous tenses... I feel hatred just talking about it.
    – Nelson
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 3:23

"Pirating" software means gaining unlicensed or unauthorized access to software.

The "crackers" (as they are known in the underground) who create these illicit method of access do so in many ways. They can either create "software cracks" which bypass the authentication mechanisms. Or they create "Keygens" which generate valid keys for the software. Both of which are illegal.

Additionally, there are groups of people who specialize in releasing and distributing these versions of the software. They are called "warez" groups.

Many times, these cracked versions of the software have been "backdoored" and infect the computers of the people who download and use them.

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    Good answer, but a pirate isnt necessarily a cracker (and "scene group" is the more common term). A pirate is simply a person who accesses the software illegally Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 15:36
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    Modified the answer slightly. Maybe it's my age but "back in my day" the people who actually created the cracks were called 'crackers' and the groups who release the software cracks were/are called 'warez groups'. Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 15:38
  • The term "pirate" as opposed, for example, to "hacker", focuses in particular on two aspects of this: (1) theft of intellectual property, and (2) the notion that "pirates" often operate in spaces where a connection to national territorial jurisdiction is thin.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 16:15
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    @ohwilleke: BTW, originally (and still within the hacker culture itself), the term "hacker" meant "someone who creatively explores unforeseen interactions in complex systems". E.g., the authors of the GPL are hackers, because they use interaction between license and copyright in the legal system, to craft a copyright license that does almost the opposite of what copyright was intended to do. How it became to mean the exact opposite of that, i.e. someone who destroys stuff, is an interesting question. Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:09

The other answers are good, but no one touched on the other part of the question relating to why people pirate software. (Not sure if the why is off topic for LSE, but I saw it wasn't addressed)

Some of the reasons I'm familiar with are

  1. The pirate doesn't have the money to pay for the software
  2. The pirate wouldn't normally buy the software, but would use it for free
  3. The pirate wants to try the software before they buy a legitimate version

Some of the interesting things to think about is that not everyone who pirated the software would have paid for the software anyway. In other words, X number of pirated copies doesn't necessarily translate into (X * price) lost revenue.

Additionally, the EU found that pirating may actually help software sales.


In my country, pirating is fairly common. It has many reasons, including

  • GDP per capita is much lower than in advanced countries
  • distribution costs makes prices even higher than in its original country
  • our language is different, so it's more difficult to spot piracy and enforce good behaviour
  • our country is small enough that only the largest publishers put in some effort to stop piracy

While it's not necessarily true that a pirate couldn't afford a certain movie or computer game, they can acquire much more if they pirate all or some of it. For example, if one teenager has to save all their pocket money for one year to buy a single movie or game, while others download a new one every few weeks, then probably they are more inclined to pirate it.

The illegal material are plentiful out there, so the perceived cost of downloading something and probably having bad feelings about it can be lower than the cost of properly buying it.

Also, there is a social side to this. Teens are pressured to watch the same movies, play the same computer games as their peers. Another social aspect is to gain the trust, appreciation or admiration of others. Often pirating means exchanging illegal material between two or more people. It's viewed as a mutually beneficial act, at the expense of the publisher. Also, between "crackers" it's considered a feat to publish the first cracked version of a game.

I am not a lawyer, it's just my opinion what I know about this topic.

  • In my country (England) we have silly copyright laws so you're not allowed to rip a cd (and continue to possess) and use the ripped files on devices you own.
    – bye
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 16:52
  • This reminds me of a news story a couple of years ago, when a teenager (living with minimum wage parents) was caught by authorities, illegally possessing hundreds of games, thousands of movies, and tens of thousands of music files. The sensationalist media presented him as having caused over a hundred thousand dollars worth of damage... yeah, because surely if he couldn't have pirated them, he would have those hundreds of thousands of dollars lying around to buy them all.
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 17:53

To pirate software is to make a copy of it, that you ought to pay for but don't. By "ought to pay for" I mean by buying it from the company that sells it and applies your payment to everyone from the coders to the marketing staff. If you use the software, and paying for it is a requirement for you to be able to use it, and you haven't done that, you have pirated it.

Having said that, companies complain that they have lost lots of $€£¥ due to piracy (calculated as the number of pirate copies out there X the retail price). While I am not condoning piracy, most piracy is done by people who can't afford to buy it, and won't buy it if they can't just make a copy. In theory, the company has lost nothing in this case.

Exception: if you can't buy it at any price, such as a rare song on YouTube that is not for sale anywhere, then most people would just download it without worrying about it.

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    This adds nothing useful to the existing answers, and includes a lot of irrelevant meta commentary that is (at best) put in chat.
    – user4657
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 1:01
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    Actually, this answer is the only one to directly answer the question -- "what does it mean to ..." That's in the first paragraph. The other two paragraphs add related data, not directly related to the question, that's true, but significant just the same.
    – Jennifer
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 10:23

Piracy is a colloquial word for copyright infringement.

Every intellectual property(IP) is a media that has a list of rights that rule over who can monetize that IP and what can or cannot do to achieve a proper commercialization. Also every IP has authorial rights that may or may not be applied to the same person or company.

By the term piracy when applied to software and digital entertainment, we refer to the act of going against the rights of commercialization. Piracy usually doesn't go against authorial rights. For example, if you download an illegal copy of Minecraft, you will still see the credits to developers and companies.

Legally, the people who download illegal copies aren't doing anything wrong. They are consuming a service that another one is offering. The criminals are the ones who crack and distribute the pirated items. There are two ways in which it is illegal:

  1. Cracking: The act of trespassing security measures without permission.
  2. Sharing: If it is free is more ambiguous, but if it is some kind of money income it is illegal because you, as a cracker, are not the owner of the right to commercialize and distribute this item (movie, software, music etc).

Why people consume illegal copies? For various reasons:

  1. Lack of money. There are a lot of countries in which the games or software are far more expensive than what they can earn working, so if they want culture and tools will have to work it out some way.
  2. Lack of distribution. Many people don't have access to legal ways to use those games, or watch that movies or series. For example, until last year there wasn't Netflix in Spain, nor any way to watch any of the Netflix series legally. Think about movies that aren't released worldwide, or are banned in authoritarian regimes. In fact, Russia and China are well known providers of cracked movies, music or games.
  3. Trying it. There is too much offer, and most of the products don't deliver a good experience. So people want to try things before buying. Most of these people are trying things because they don't trust in the product and if they didn't have an opportunity to try it they will not purchase.

@Timothy James linked a good study financed by the EU to prove that the piracy indeed affects the industry, but the article was kept at a low profile with almost no reference to it from the leaders because it didn't fit the story that they wanted to tell. You must see it is very clarifying, rigourous, legal, and from an official source.

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    I don't think it is ever called "piracing." "Piracy" is the action (like "theft"), "pirate" is a person (like "theif"), "pirate" is the verb (like "steal") and "pirating" is the progressive (like "stealing").
    – Brandin
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:04
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    Piracy is a word for a specific type of copyright infringement, not an exactly equivalent term. Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 15:15
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    "Legally, the people who download illegal copies aren't doing anything wrong." Legally, people who download illegal copies are violating copyright law which can have civil and criminal consequences.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 17:17
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    @JackAidley expanding on that, someone who wrote a song and sampled an entire song from someone else as the backing track would be commiting copyright infringement, but not necessarily piracy. They COULD have pirated the song, but that's another story.
    – user14261
    Commented Nov 10, 2017 at 17:19

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