The first possible scenario is this: suppose you work in a company, and you need to install some software for a client. The software needs to be purchased, but the boss tells you to just download it for free illegally (infringing copyright). You tell your boss that of course that's illegal and it's not the best way to do the job, but they tell you: "I know, but who cares, just download it for free". If you did it, who would be responsible for the illegal download in this situation? If you are responsible, how should you deal with such a situation?

The second possible scenario is this: suppose you are a freelance software developer, and your client asks you to install a thing for them. They give you a link to an unofficial website where you can download the stuff for free (illegally). You tell them it's illegal, and the stuff should be purchased. They tell you: "Who cares, I'm not going to spend any money for purchasing it, your job is just to do exactly what I've told you, that is, just install it, and that's it". Again who would be responsible and how should you deal with this situation? Of course here there's always the option to not accept the job since you are a freelancer, but I also wonder if there are other options in theory. For example, maybe the client could download the software illegally themself, and then only give it to you for the installation?

Location of the scenarios: any States of United States or any Member States of the European Union, but only one jurisdiction at a time.

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    While you wait for others' answers, update your resume. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 16:25
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    Is this question essentially "Is it illegal to break the law, if someone else asks me to do it?"? ...Yes.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 16:25
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    Substituting a few words... "First scenario, your boss wants you to rob a bank for a client. You tell your boss that of course that's illegal but they tell you, 'I know, but who cares, just rob the bank'. If you committed the robbery who would be responsible? The second possible scenario, your client asks you to rob a bank. They tell you, 'who cares, I want that hoard of cash'. Again, who would be responsible? I wonder if there are other options. For example, the client can commit the robbery and then give you the cash so that you can launder it for them." Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 16:30
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    If this were OK, hit men wouldn't be criminal liable for murder, only the person who hired them would be.
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 20:06
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    I could be wrong, but isn't copyright infringement a civil rather than criminal matter? So while robbing a bank is illegal, copyright infringement would be more rightly described as 'unlawful'? Not sure if this distinction really matters much, but the analogy of robbing banks or killing people isn't great.
    – Joey Sabey
    Commented Feb 16, 2019 at 16:27

4 Answers 4


There are two parts to copyright liability: civil and criminal. TL;DR: both cases are criminal offences, and it is illegal to break the law even when you are paid to do it.

In the USA criminal copyright infringement requires a deliberate act to infringe copyright for commercial gain. Both of the scenarios meet these requirements.

In the UK (and probably the rest of Europe) criminal copyright infringement includes

possess in the course of a business an article which is, and which you know or have reason to believe is an infringing copy of a copyright work with a view to committing any act infringing the copyright.

Again, both these scenarios meet this requirement.

In the first scenario you are acting as an employee, so you don't have any personal civil liability for damages; that goes to your employer. However you still have, at least in theory, criminal liability.

In the second scenario you are your own employer and so have both civil and criminal liability. Your client will share some liability as they have provided inducement to break the law.

The best way of dealing with the first scenario is to point out to the boss that he is ordering you to commit a crime. Cite the law in your jurisdiction and the penalties for breaking it. Do this by email so that you have evidence of having told him, and take a printed copy of the email home with you just in case (if your boss isn't above criminal copyright infringement he may also not be above tampering with evidence). If you are in a big company then a CC to HR might also be indicated. If the boss is the company owner then you are in a stickier situation; your best option is probably to perpetuate the evidence as above and start looking for an employer who doesn't break the law.

The second scenario is simpler: just refuse to do it.

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    TL;DR It is illegal to break law even if you are paid to do it ;)
    – Mołot
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 13:55
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    Not only is it illegal even if you're paid to do it, it might be more illegal if you're paid to do it, since now there's the possibility of a criminal conspiracy charge (potentially even before you actually download or install any software).
    – 1006a
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 17:16
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    Correct answer however working in this sector for many years I can tell you this has almost a zero chance of being prosecuted criminally. I mean you would only have a .0001% chance of prosecution criminally if you had a blog that outlined your activity. There simply aren't police that monitor illegal software. This is 100% a civil issue. Speaking of it as a criminal issue is blowing this well out of context. Criminal would be downloading and selling the software - and even that is dealt with on a civil basis 9 out of 10 times.
    – blankip
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 20:15
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    @blankip until the client notices it's illegal software and calls one of the "report unlicensed software for money" lines. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 21:37
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    @TemporalWolf My understanding of these lines is that they're private, and hence deal with civil liability. Certainly the BSA was known for settling in exchange for software purchases, which isn't something a criminal court would do. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 22:24

I'm in the UK. I have been put in both these scenarios in times past. For the first I stood up to the boss and point-blank refused to do it, giving reasons. The atmosphere was tense for a couple of days, then he apologised and thanked me for taking the moral (and legal) high ground. The second was a little trickier, I still said I would not install hooky software, but I had to be a lot more diplomatic with the client. Eventually, they recognised my standpoint and said upon paying the bill that they would probably do it themselves later.

Stick to the law where you are. Remember that even in the military, obeying an unlawful order is still unlawful.

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    Welcome to Stack Exchange. Please be aware that as this is a Q&A site and not a forum, answers need to address the question and need to be on-topic for the particular site. In this case you're posting on Law Stackexchange, and the question is asking whether or not something is illegal. Your answer should address the legality of the proposed action rather than just providing a commentary of your own experiences. Your final sentence hints at being on-topic, but more expansion for the specifics of the OP's case would be needed for this to be a good quality answer.
    – JBentley
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 18:59
  • @JBentley with respect, the question stipulates that the actions are illegal, so it's not asking whether they are; it's asking whether the OP is indemnified against the consequences of the illegal act by following the orders of either a superior or a client. I found Alopex's experience helpful, and apparently so did quite a few other people.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 15:57
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    @MadHatter The first paragraph still does not answer anything about indemnification. Helpfulness is great, but doesn't turn it into an answer. And I personally find it not helpful at all -- I have no reason to believe that anyone who might try this with me would behave similarly to the two people they interacted with. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 16:00
  • @MatthewRead fair enough, that's what downvotes are for. Leaving aside my personal support for the answer, JBentley's criticism that "the question is asking whether or not something is illegal" is still wrong.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 16:04
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    @MadHatter I don't agree with your analysis of the question. The title is very clear: "Is it illegal to infringe copyright if your boss or your client ordered you to do it?". This is further clarified by "If you did it, who would be responsible for the illegal download in this situation?". Note the difference between: (1) "Is X illegal?"; (2) "X is illegal. If I am ordered to do X, will I be indemnified?"; (3) "X is illegal, but illegal to which party?". This question is of type (3).
    – JBentley
    Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 16:21

Well, there are cases where doing something without permission of your boss is illegal, there’s really no case where doing an illegal act becomes legal because your are being paid to do it…with the exception of acting on behalf of the government (for instance imprisoning someone is generally illegal, but prison guards do it all day long).

Given that we are dealing with copyright, there could be some subtleties to this: copyright and licensing agreements are not the same thing. It could be legal for you to download and use something (from a pirate site and without following the license), but illegal to install it on a different computer or even the same computer if that computer is not yours. And different countries have different copyright laws, even if they have signed the Bern Convention and not all countries have.

But again, if it is illegal for you to do so, it will still most likely be illegal if told to do so.

I am not an attorney and I am not YOUR attorney, if in doubt about the legality of an action get your own attorney and get a professional opinion. “I consulted JC, Esquire of the firm JC and Partners and was told my actions would be permissible under section X of the law”, is likely to help if you end up in court, “a bunch of unknown people on the internet said it was OK, they even referenced title 7 in section 3 of the international legal code as amended on July 3, 1973” not so much...

  • If the order involves a threat of bodily harm (and meets some other factors) then there are jurisdictions where the underling would not be held responsible. Commented Feb 19, 2019 at 16:05
  • @MatthewRead: I thought about mentioning that, but decided it was too far outside of the described scenario—if your boss is threatening to kill or maim you or your family over installing some copyrighted software, you’ve got problems I can’t help with...(that “you” being the generic you, not you personally)
    – jmoreno
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 11:45


In Hungary, the matter is less straight forward as it is suggested by analogies about bank robbery and murder in the comments and answers.

It potentially is, and you would most certainly not be prosecuted for it on criminal grounds, and the boss is likely depending on facts.

In general, Hungarian law presumes that the public engages in the pirating of artwork subject to copyrights. (I'm serious!) And it compensates the copyright owners by imposing a general data storage tax on all non-transitory storage medium, including thumb drives, memory cards, SSD's hard drives, optical disks etc. Accordingly, it is not a crime to create any copies of any copy right material as long as it does not create profit even indirectly.

Although, according to the Penal Code:

Infringement of copyright or rights related to copyright

Section 385 (1) Any person who infringes the copyright or related rights of another or others under the Copyright Act by causing pecuniary damage shall be punishable for a misdemeanor by imprisonment for a term of up to two years.

§ 385 (5) A person shall not commit an offense under paragraph (1) who infringes the copyright or related rights of another or others under the Copyright Act by making sharing for reproduction or for retrieval, provided that the act does not serve the purpose of obtaining profit even indirectly.

Accordingly, not only there is a high bar to hop in that the law requires that the infringing cause "pecuniary damage" which in many cases you may argue it does not, as someone who downloads does not necessarily intent to obtain the copyright art any cost; in fact, downloading copyright material is usually driven by financial reasoning rather than convenience considerations especially in 2021.

Those who would meet these high bars would also not be subject to the exemptions of paragraph 5 which allows infringement for the purposes of sharing the copyrighted material or sharing for the purposes of retrieving. This particular provision provides strong immunity against criminal culpability for the most typical uses of using torrent sites as long as such infringement "does not serve the purpose of obtaining profit even indirectly".

You used to be able to run into cops buying PSX games to their chip-tuned Playstation consoles in gaming shops in their uniforms more then one at the time. So you can imagine how seriously this is actually prosecuted.

And it probably goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the law allows one to go so far that a layman is not expectable to actually be aware of such nuances, for example, whether as part of their employ and generating profits for another would also make them culpable despite they did not generate profits for themselves and would only be compensated as they would be otherwise as part of their employment. It is very much reasonable to expect a judge would decide that a wage is not profits even for the purposes for this Section of the Penal Code, and you're off the hook. Even if it did find that the business profited from the act, and you therefore engaged in the creation of profits indirectly, there is a chance you would be found not be culpable having acted in "error", that is, you misunderstood the law because of its succinct form. (By the way "error" relieved a law professor in the U.S. about a tax code that he misunderstood despite being a law professor. There the argument was that, given his accolades, he should have had no difficulty understanding it, and not understanding it signals an issue in the law.)

Overall, since law enforcement and other authorities probably foresee these traps of prosecuting a case like this, they would likely not even get started. No case has reached media attention for years, and it would if someone would be prosecuted for copyright matters like these.

Civil liability could possibly work, but absent punitive damages or civil penalties, it is absolutely not worth it for any author or copyright holder to seek them. You would not receive more than the reasonable price of a copy of your copyrighted material.

All in all, you would probably be safe to install whatever your boss tells you even to a cop in uniform.

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