Getting ahold of software without buying it is increasingly easy; whether by borrowing a friend’s copy or downloading it illegally from the Internet, millions of people around the world do it.

The copyright infringement of software, or software piracy, is illegal in many countries. Even in countries where there are not legal measures in place for the protection of copyrighted software, there are some compelling ethical issues that may be considered both for and against software piracy.

Moral Responsibility

Moral arguments to follow the law date back to Plato, and one pertinent argument is attributed to British classicist W. D. Ross, who states in his 1930 "The Right and the Good": “The duty of obeying the laws of one's country arises partly … from the duty of gratitude for the benefits one has received from it.”

If someone agrees that the law should not be broken, and the law says not to break copyright laws, as does the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the United States, citizens should not do so.

Other arguments that say using pirated software is morally wrong include the loss of revenue to the creator of the software, and that without software being paid for creators will give up designing new software and there will be less software being created in the future.

According to G. Frederick: in “Software Piracy: Some Facts, Figures, and Issues,” 82 percent of PC software used in China is pirated. Advocates against piracy would ask how much revenue to software companies is lost every year in China alone.

Arguments in favor of software piracy

Software licenses cost the same wherever in the world you buy them, but wages vary greatly over the world. People in countries with lower GDP per capita will therefore find it harder to buy software, which can be considered to be unfair to them and emerging market economies.

In reference to China, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously said: “As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.” Here the “biggest loser” of software piracy seems to be condoning it to some degree.

Another ethical argument that can be considered is consequentialism, which can be defined as “the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action.” Traian Basescu, Romanian president as of 2010, invoked a consequentialist argument when he said: "piracy helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania."

Professional standards

The Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, claims to be the “world’s largest educational and scientific computing society.” Any person wishing to join the society must accept a “Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct”, which covers the ethical issues surrounding software piracy.

Number 1.5 of the code expects members to “Honor property rights including copyrights and patents.” It explains: “Violation of copyrights, patents, trade secrets and the terms of license agreements is prohibited by law in most circumstances. Even when software is not so protected, such violations are contrary to professional behavior. Copies of software should be made only with proper authorization. Unauthorized duplication of materials must not be condoned.”