Software piracy is obviously illegal as well as being wrong for a variety of reasons. However, from my experience it is extremely common to see pirated software being used by research students. This appears to be implicitly condoned/encouraged by some academic staff.

Usually software piracy is done by an individual for their own use. In academia it is being done with implicit consent by the organisation and for the purposes of conducting research which may end up with commercial applications, or be built upon by others.

How can software piracy in academia be reduced/eliminated?

  • 3
    This does rather read like you would like to participate in a discussion about ... piracy. I'm not even sure what your last question means.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 17:55
  • @EnergyNumbers, thank you for your comment. I have re-written/simplified the question so that it is more direct.
    – atom44
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 18:23
  • @EnergyNumbers I also don't feel it is any more an invitation for discussion than most other questions here. For example academia.stackexchange.com/questions/57107/… doesn't even contain a question...
    – atom44
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 18:28
  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it discuss an issue which is not specific to academia. Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 18:33
  • 3
    @DmitrySavostyanov In my view there must be a difference in how to address someone pirating software at home, such as a video games, etc for their own use vs. at a university when the resulting research is published and built upon by others. Please close the question if it is off topic. But I believe it is a valid question which is applicable to academia.
    – atom44
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 18:48

7 Answers 7


Actually, part of this is by design.

Software companies turn a blind eye to students and faculty pirating their software, so the students learn how to use their program. Once they go on to companies, they will request to use what they know best, and the companies will pay the hefty fees.

How can we avoid this? The best solution is at the root: replace all commercial software by open source versions, when this alternative has a comparable level of quality. This has two costs that would have to be weighted before doing the switch:

  • The instructors would need to learn another software, that is perhaps not what they are using for their research.
  • If the industry standard is a commercial software, the students will have to learn it, preferably when still at university.

On the other hand, sometimes the open source version is superior to the commercial version. For example, I think the Scipy ecosystem is much better than MATLAB except for a few niches. So, when MATLAB users do the exercise of evaluating the quality of Scipy for their applications, they may discover that making the switch in both teaching and research is, perhaps, a good move.

This switch should be encouraged even more for introductory classes, where none of the advanced features come into play, and classes where the software is only used marginally (limited to, for example, one or two practical sessions). Once students have knowledge of the free alternatives, they would have alternative resources before pirating.

(Disclaimer: I personally dislike MATLAB quite a lot, but I know of many people from many fields that are making the switch, and of no one that is doing it back. YMMV.)

Another front is in the software companies themselves. My university provides some commercial licenses for free for us staff. But the list of instructions to install and launch some of the programs is as long as my arm, and quite often (judging from the emails the IT department sends), unreliable. So, even though people can get a legal version for free, the pirated version may prove to be easier and more reliable; so I wouldn't be surprised if several people had chosen that option.

  • 1
    Julia is also a nice alternative to MATLAB. Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 13:55
  • 5
    "Open source" and "free of charge / non-commercial" are orthogonal concepts. Something can be free of charge and open source, free of charge and closed source, commercial and open source, commercial and closed source.
    – user9646
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 16:21
  • While I am not flat out disagreeing with your answer, as we have all heard that before. However, I have never seen a company say this. So if there is no evidence of this answer being true, than can it be true?
    – Keltari
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 4:15
  • @Keltari: Did you consider the fact that MathWorks gives MATLAB away to students for approximately 2% of the commercial price? It's done exactly " so the students learn how to use their program. Once they go on to companies, they will request to use what they know best, and the companies will pay the hefty fees." as this answer says. Piracy is minimized by making the price so low that there's no reason not to have a student license.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 6:42

Since this is an open-ended question: a possible solution would be changing the copyright laws to redefine all educational use as "fair use" exempt from copyright restrictions.

Do not change the behavior (which is perfectly ethically acceptable, in my view); change the laws that define it as illegal.

  • What is educational use?
    – emory
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 1:27
  • @emory Is this a trick question? My first attempt at a definition would be "the use by students, teachers, and researchers in a university, school or degree-granting institution, for purpose of instruction or scientific research whose main output is producing peer-reviewed publications". But don't judge the merits of this proposal by this first definition attempt, which may be improved. The US law, for instance, already includes the notion of "educational use", so it is a problem that has already been attacked and solved. Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 7:07
  • @FedericoPoloni So if Trump Hotel wants to use a software they need to pay licensing fees, but if Trump University wants to use the same software they don't. If I were Trump, I'd have Trump Hotel pay Trump University to do "research".
    – emory
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 12:28
  • @FedericoPoloni I do not like this idea. Often, I license the software I write with GPL3. Universities (and everyone else) are free to use this software without paying licensing fees, but that was my choice. This proposal reduces my choice. Using software against license is not ethical.
    – emory
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 12:31
  • @emory Your "Trump university" example is exactly why I asked you not to use my first attempt at a definition to judge the proposal. :) A good definition can eliminate edge cases, but the fact that edge cases exist should not be used to shoot down my proposal. Besides that, if Trump University produces good quality research and the results are published for everyone to read and use, what is the harm? Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 13:25

The main cause of this behavior is the premise that "for educational purposes" makes certain acts acceptable, in the eyes of the perpetrators. Universities may negotiate deals with software vendors, but the terms may not be favorable enough, or they might be for the wrong brand: or, they have unclear or unseen terms of use (such as requiring the software to be uninstalled when the person leaves the university – but that is buried in a EULA that most people don't actually read). There are really only two solutions. One is that universities will just have to bite the bullet and pay for the millions of dollars worth of software that staff and students feel they need; the other is for individuals to realize that "But it's for educational purposes" is not a passkey entitling you to all electronic content out there.


The best would probably be for educational institutions - and for all government (all levels) - to switch to open-source software, which preferably used only open standards and file-formats. This would allow competition between providers, and not lock institutions into proprietary programs (often with yearly license fees) "for ever". The Government should also spend money funding developing of open-source software - perhaps developed at Colleges.

But I guess you were more asking how software-companies can collect what students owe them, than how the industry could be improved... As for big software houses, they could always try to lower their prices and/or have cheaper software available for students - under separate license agreements and/or through the schools.

It's not that I don't understand developing high-quality software can't be expensive, but when you keep re-packaging software that was mostly developed 20+ years ago (only with a bit of added functions and the occasional face-lift), and still charge $1000-$10000 for something that had earned back it's development 10 years ago, then you're just being greedy.

Capitalism is about free and open competition - not monopolies, patents and locking customers into something sub-par for eternity. Sadly with locked file-formats and such, competition gets inhibited.


Piracy is not eliminated because in academia people usually have a lot of freedom, so I guess the prevalence of piracy is more or less the same as in the general population.

In the end it's the same with all piracy: if you make paying an easy, affordable option, people will do it. Nobody is going to pay full price for Adobe CS because they make 2 posters and 5 figures per year. And apparently my university isn't paying full price, otherwise not all students and staff would have the full suite all the time. So this works (and at their first jobs all the students will ask for Adobe stuff).

Other licenses besides "full" ones also help. I have one program I use maybe 5 times per week, but every time only 5-10 minutes. We only have licenses for 5-10% of the staff, if too many people have started the program you have to wait a few minutes but this rarely happens. But companies have to allow this system.

Switching to open source was also suggested: while this works for certain types of programs, it's not always possible / desirable. Even if the software is available, there might not be sufficient documentation, people might need a lot of training to switch or specific required functionality is missing.


Richard Stallman creator of the GPL Free Software License and the GNU project has talked about this moral dilemma:

...If you use a program without freedom 2 then you end up in a moral dilemma. If someone says “Hey, great software Can I get a copy?”. In this case you should choose lesser of two evils, which is to violate the license and give your friend a copy. Being the lesser evil doesn’t mean it’s good though. When you’ve fully studied this dilemma what should you do? Option 1: don’t have any friends! That what the proprietary debs would have you do. Option 2: don’t have that software in the first place so you don’t end up in the dilemma in the first place...

For me that is the solution, don't use propietary software in class, I teach all my courses using Free Software.

The biggest reason why this doesn't change is because many teachers use proprietary tools. i.e. They wouldn't like to change their Power Point presentatons or Word documents to Libre Office. Or stop using Matlab and use Octave. Because the effort to adapt is deemed too big of an inconvenience.

And as students and PHD students become teachers themselves the cycle is perpetuated.

However more and more things are changing the push for Open Access, Open Science and reproducible research is motivating more and more to use software that you can distribute.


The answer is obvious. Make a confidential report to the Business Software Alliance. The BSA will investigate your university and if they receive a monetary settlement will pay you a reward.

After a university gets whacked by the BSA stick, they will find ways to reduce or eliminate software piracy (if they had not done so before).

  • So the answer is be a "snitch", betray your university, classmates and professors so that the BSA can make some money? A more productive approach is to teach classmates and students to use Free as In Freedom Software. And if no Free alternative exist, then to make a contribution and develop it.
    – elviejo79
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 2:28
  • Why do you owe your university, classmates, and professors confidentiality in this matter? However, I agree that Free software is to be preferred.
    – emory
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 12:37
  • PS I didn't down vote you... I disagree with your opinion. but I didn't downvote...
    – elviejo79
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 14:22

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