I've just (accidentally) found that one of our colleagues in the lab (who is a graduate student) uses a cracked piece of software on his personal laptop (We were talking near his station and a pop up went up and warned about the fake license of the software).

The software is an expensive one whose student version is freely available on our shared server; however, the student version's features are often not sufficient for our tasks. So I realize that he might have to do this to handle his job. I don't know if the supervisor is aware of this.

All in all, as it's not acceptable to ignore the copyright, should I report this issue to any responsible sector?

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    – ff524
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 18:45

14 Answers 14


I don't feel that general academic ethics obliges you to report this, unless you have reason to believe that it might be endangering the research of the lab (giving inaccurate results, introducing viruses to lab computers, etc).

You will have to make your own judgment as to whether you are obliged to report by any of the following: your own personal code of ethics, your institution's policies, your lab's internal policies, your PI's expectations, threat of lawsuit from the software vendor, your local law, or likely consequences from any of the above for failing to report. You could also consider whether to warn your colleague and give them a chance to remove the cracked software before reporting them. But all of that is beyond the scope of this site.

  • 41
    While the accepted answer might feel better, this answer is far more relevant and neutral. Even brining it up to your supervisor is overstepping one's role without proper risk being established.
    – user58748
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 22:24
  • 20
    @DarioOO This would be rather unethical on the part of the software developers. They would consciously lead someone to build a building that would collapse, potentially killing people in the process, in retribution for pirating their software?
    – user9646
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 14:03
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    @DarioOO I doubt that. If someone built a building using said software and someone died to the incorrect calculations I'm pretty sure the software house would risk a lot, even if the software was pirated. In any case,fun fact: I know a software house released a pirated version of their own game about software houses, and in the pirated version they changed a few parameters so that it was impossible to proceed further than a certain point in the game because all the games you tried to produce in-game were pirated and you couldn't sell the copies of the game to anyone.
    – Bakuriu
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 14:39
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    @DmitryGrigoryev You can write whatever you want in a software licence... It doesn't mean it's legal or true. If the SE user agreement (which I expect you have read in full obviously) included a clause that said you agreed to them killing you if they felt like it, would you think that's fair or legal? Spoiler alert it's not and no court in the world would uphold that licence. Well, you can write that you decline responsibility all you want, you still need to convince the court....
    – user9646
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 9:33
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    @DmitryGrigoryev The steering wheel lock is designed to lock the wheel while the car is parked. It should prevent theft, it should not "punish" the thief. If the device would have been designed intentionally to engage while driving, that would lead to the car designer/company being prosecuted for homicide (if the thief died). Almost no jurisdiction I know of allows taking the justice in one own hands. The software could legally "call back home" and alert the company, so it could sue the "hacker" or the user, but only a court is allowed to dispense a penalty. Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 14:43

I would stay away from his "personal laptop" in the future and avoid peeking at other people's "very personal" screens. It is not your job to report this. And you should not be looking at other people's screens. He decided to use the software on his personal station, not on the resources of the university, so it is none of your concern. It is a typical "none of your business" case.

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    Not quite, since the laptop is used in university premises. What if the software reports its cracked status from the university's IP address, and their IT department gets contacted by the software manufacturer? Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 9:39
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    @DmitryGrigoryev Still not the OP's problem. The IT department may decide to track down the infringer, not the OP. And I fail to see why a piece of software would decide to report its cracked status home with IP and all, instead of simply refusing to start on the user's computer.
    – T. Verron
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 10:59
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    @T.Verron What about illegal downloads? Alcohol? Recreational drugs? Where do you draw the line? Concerning the second point, you report cracked status so you can take legal action, isn't that obvious? Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 11:14
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    @DmitryGrigoryev To each his own, but I draw the line where it starts to impact me or the overall quality of the work directly, aka where it becomes my problem. E.g. alcohol while working, or downloads slowing down the network for everyone. Also, it may depend on your country: maybe some countries require by law that illegal behavior be reported.
    – T. Verron
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 14:37
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    Because it is not a grievious offence. You can download pirated software, if you buy a license it is no longer a problem, if the origin is problematic(download site) you can make a checksum check (md5, sha256). Why would it be a crime to have a license that is expired? oh i get around to it at the end o the month or the next. As a software publisher you often do not want the customer to uninstall the software, because then you risk is much higher that the user will find an alternative. So yeah it is counterproductive to think of it as a huge deal and a larger crime.
    – cognacc
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 15:11

Are you sure it is cracked software ? A 'warning' popup could just be phishing malware and you might expect that a feature to detect piracy would just shut the application down rather than just issue a warning. Equally it could be a prompt to upgrade to a different version or just an expired demo version which is no longer usable.

Perhaps a more immediate issue is if you aren't legitimately being given the right tools for that research you are doing.

Equally you are not really under any obligation to report possible civil crimes on the basis of fairly slim evidence (what you have said here probably wouldn't stand up in court) and if it is a student using a commercial version of software which has a free student version we are talking about quite a fine ethical line in the sense that it may be just illegal but it is unlikely that anybody really cares.

While I would certainly not advocate using pirated software this is still at the stage of an suspicion and any formal accusation is either going to result in nothing happening or a lot of trouble for your colleagues to no real constructive purpose.

It is also worth considering that the software distributor may not really care about personal use of unauthorised copies by students as they are really in the business of providing bulk licenses and technical support to commercial users but would be compelled to prosecute if it was bought to their attention.

As an aside we can also speculate that providers of software who want to make it the industry standard are fairly keen for students an academic researchers to use it and get to know it, which is why they provide free academic versions. We could even speculate further that this is why this is why they are not quite as rigorous as they perhaps could be in embedding anti-piracy features. while they can't be seen to give away the full version they may not care too much (an may not want to find out) if the odd junior researcher sneaks a cracked copy even though this is clearly wrong and not to be recommended.

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    would be compelled to prosecute if it was brought to their attention -- that's not how law works, at least where I live. It's always the choice of the damaged part to sue or not. Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 22:20
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    They might be compelled in the sense that not prosecuting known infringements of IP rights can be seen as tacit permission which opens up a whole can of worms for them Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 22:23
  • 1
    "they can't be seen to give away the full version" Some do, if you ask nicely. :)
    – T. Verron
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 11:00
  • 5
    +1 For pointing out that a pop up means nothing. Sometimes you get them with the proper license too.
    – Three Diag
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 11:12
  • "you might expect that a feature to detect piracy would just shut the application down rather than just issue a warning" Actually, any software developer worth their salt who wishes to engage in licensing knows that they're better off doing it this way. Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 4:05

Before telling anyone, consider what would happen if he, or other grad students, found out you were the snitch. You'll have to work with these people for years to come, and there is no such thing as "anonymous reporting." You'll have to make a judgement call as to if you want to get involved.

If you choose to get involved, do not mention anything in email, go directly to YOUR supervisor. Explain what YOU have seen, and do not mention hear-say. After this, it's in your supervisors hands, don't mention it again.

  • 4
    +1, exactly. Such a person would not be feeling very welcome in many organizations afterwards. They may also easily lose some reputation with the supervisor – if nothing else, because they are putting extra unpleasant and nonacademic work / responsibility on them.
    – The Vee
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 13:41

The key here is 'personal laptop' which I assume means 'purchased with personal, not university funds'. Here's the reason:

The penalty levied on any institution for evidence of pirated software can be huge, including fees and/or restricted access to said software. (Imagine Microsoft decided to revoke all license for Word. They likely wouldn't, but they can according to their license agreement).

If it were an institutional computer, as a representative of your institution you'd be doing them a favor by alerting someone (anyone) above you. But this seems not the case. If it is a personal laptop, the onus is no longer on you. That person could still pay a penalty, though unlikely, but that would be outside the bounds of your duty to protect the interests of your institution.

  • I'm not a lawyer. But I'm not convinced there is such a hard line between a university computer and a personal device that is being used for work purposes.
    – user24098
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 9:46
  • Piracy cases are often tracked by IP address, which in this case will be identified with the university, so you can still get the institution in trouble even if the computer is your own. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 10:01
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    @DmitryGrigoryev When you write that "[p]iracy cases are often tracked by IP address", do you mean downloading pirate software or using pirate software? If the first, there is nothing in what the OP writes that suggest his colleague downloaded it using the university's network, and if the second could you please provide a source for a case in which someone is tracked via their IP by simply using pirate software? Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 22:50
  • 1
    Still, the student may (probably?) have signed "I won't use cracked software" with their paperwork connecting them to the lab - which will influence how much responsibility is assigned to the university.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 13:53
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    @gilberto.agostinho.f: No one will take you seriously when you say things like "an operating system, not a software". Operating system software is software.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 6:52

Have you considered simply talking to your colleague about the issue?

I don't agree that this is "none of your business" case, since the computer is used in university lab, most probably connected to university network. So the university is affected by whatever risks cracked software may bear (viruses and such), and any piracy tracking will probably identify the offender as having university IP address. This may result in trouble for both your colleague and the university.

However, without solid proof you should not assume anything. Ask your colleague about the software. Chances are, they have a reasonable explanation for the error message you've seen: they may have a legit free trial version which expired, connection issues preventing license validation, missing license token etc. If they admit using cracked software, tell them it's against university policies (it almost certainly is), and give them a chance to fix the situation.

Escalating the issue right away and without warning will not win you any friends (not even your supervisor). Additionally, discovering cracked software on someone's personal laptop may lead to question about your own ethics. Depending on how you present the situation, you may be seen as either accusing someone without sufficient proof, or accessing someone's computer without permission.

  • 5
    This is the obvious and only correct answer, from my viewpoint. It's not that hard to talk to your colleague. Moreover, it doesn't get them in trouble, it doesn't remove your option of reporting them, and it could, all by itself, have the desired effect that they will decide that it's really not okay to use cracked software (since they feel the peer pressure), and stop using it. Without getting any legal action or disciplinary action involved. +1, wish I could upvote this multiple times.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 7:59
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    There are certainly scenarios where a warning message may appear when in fact the software has been legitimately purchased. Assuming that cracked software is being used is wrong and could have unpleasant repercussions. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 7:33

You're looking at the problem from the wrong angle. The problem is not with your colleague violating copyright on a piece of academic software. The problem is that your lab hasn't purchased the necessary tools to complete whatever line of research you're currently pursuing.

Here's what I would personally do:

  1. Ask the student what license they're currently using and if they need the lab to provide one.
  2. Talk to your supervisor about purchasing a license for the lab. Since there's a free academic license for that particular software, I presume a full license for an academic institution shouldn't cost an arm and a leg.
  3. Once the license is purchased notify the student and ask them to replace the license with the one from your lab.

That's it. No need to point fingers or accuse anyone of misconduct.

  • 1
    This isn't the issue. a) Having written both academic and commercial purchase orders for several different software, I can tell you it's often not affordable. b) It's not the OP's responsibility to do this. It's either the student or the supervisor. c) Anyway it's that student's personal laptop, not a lab machine. Installing academic-licensed software on someone else's personal laptop, which they'll presumably take with them in future, and maybe use commercially, is just asking for trouble.
    – smci
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 14:41
  • 2
    @smci "It's not the OP's responsibility to do this" then they shouldn't get involved in the first place
    – user14156
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 14:45
  • JonathanReez that's exactly what I just told you.
    – smci
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 14:49
  • By the way I also dealt with situations where we did bust our asses to purchase and provide access to academic copies (on a server, in cases when we couldn't afford a lab-wide license), but students didn't want to run a remote-session (from home, offsite, at weekends etc.). So, even when you do what you recommend, it still doesn't solve the problem. So just leave it.
    – smci
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 14:52

I suggest you talking with your supervisor about the case under wraps. Either she is aware of the case or not, you can rely on her to handle the situation.

I'm a graduate student in a North American university, where utilization of such cracked licenses for personal use is not only common among students, but also between faculty members! It is not something deserving, but it's a fact.

So, as I guess your supervisor is aware of the case, your report may make some trouble for your colleague and your supervisor, too. You better watch out...

  • 346
    OP needs to mind their own business. It's on someone else's personal laptop, and OP couldn't keep their prying eyes off their screen. It has zero impact on lab work, and is a personal ethical choice to make. I see OP accepted this answer because you told them what they wanted to hear, but clearly this opinion is in the minority and frankly, I personally would find is distasteful if someone reported me to an authority figure without jurisdiction over my personal belongings.
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 18:04
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    I agree with @SnakeDoc, this answer "feels" right but it isn't the best advice and puts personal ethics over professional ones.
    – user58748
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 22:25
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    It feels right because the issue reflects the OP's personal values, but the environment does not allow said values to be enforced upon someone else's personal belongings. Reporting unlicensed software on people's personal laptop to their work supervisor is NOT the right thing to do.
    – Nelson
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 2:49
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    Well does the message say "This is an ILLEGAL License", or does it say, "missing/invalid license, go to www.awesomecompany.com to renew", it is not illegal to have installled a product at then the license is obsoleted. Also some license keys can be invalid later in life, as seen time after time with Microsoft licenses. Many times if a license is invalid or nonexistent you don't press charges etc but allow the user to install a new license and often allows the software to work, sometimes partly in the mean time. If i was a soccer/football referee i would say that is an unbookable offense. ;)
    – cognacc
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 15:05
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    I have a legitimate license to an expensive piece of EDA software, which is enforced via a USB key. Sometimes I run it without plugging in the key, in which case it works to an extent - but with a pop-up saying that it is unlicensed. I hope this isn't a similar situation. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 0:22

It is not your job to enforce or report copyright law so you should not report it. Contrary to what others say here you are not complicit in a crime because it is a matter of civil law and not criminal law, so you have no obligation to do so. Legal matters aside, reporting a colleague will make it hard for you to find support in your future academic life, which is critical for all but the most trivial assignments.


I know there are a lot of answers here, and most of them are the same. I'm going to go a different direction.

It is entirely possible that the software is
a) demo
b) just expired
c) actually legally purchased and the warning is an error
d) legally purchased, however the person cracks it to avoid a dongle, CD check or something else archaic and disruptive.
e) something that they purchased from a non-reputable vendor and they didn't know
f) some other plausible deniability.

Thus the result is a recommendation the same as above. "Not my circus, not my monkeys."


Ask yourself:

Is it my business?

If no, it's a sign that you might be procrastinating. Strictly forbid yourself to do anything in this case.

If yes, ask yourself why? Would this fact affect you in a positive or in a negative way? Answering this question will provide you with a hint on what to do next, if at all. Just for the sake of an example, if it is the case that using the cracked software might really become visible over the net such that the police might come and seize the equipment including the one you need for your research, then you should probably talk to the colleague and then to his/her boss. But things might be different if software cracking is a part of research activity; then your colleague publishes on that and gets grant proposals accepted; you should support that to the extent permitted by the law!


I wouldn't care much if an individual has been using the software for the personal needs. Even software vendors themselves are not interested in punishing a single person. There is no real value for them in making a precedent: upon receiving a miserable surcharge they loose time, resources and often gain negative reputation (vendor vs institution is a different story though).

Sooner or later this person is going to present the results of his/her work in a form of annual report, presentation, paper, etc. If a paid version of program has been used for conducting a research, it always shows, and people from the same field will always be aware of what piece of software has been utilized.

Assuming you care about this person and you want to help, I'd suggest to show him/her some free open-source alternatives. Show the benefits of reproducible research. Sometimes people use the cracked version not because they are evil, but because they are lazy and don't want to check out for the optimal tools, downloading the first program Google spoonfed them with.

If you want to make it public, on the next group meeting congratulate the person on the achievements and ask politely how this, that or the other has been achieved (which algorightm, how it's been plotted etc.), forcing the person either to lie, or to evade the questions entirely. If the people around are literate, invested and pay attention, they will get your message. If they aren't, your accusation-driven report won't change anything anyway.

I see only one reason you need to report to your supervisor explicitly: if you have to collaborate with that individual and you cannot perform your part because you also need to use that pirated program to process the data. Otherwise I'd say it's none of my business. I get my own life and I'd better think for myself.


You should immediately contact the responsible authorities, and report what you have seen, otherwise you will definitely be complicit in a crime, and could yourself be prosecuted for failing to act. This is called 'accessory after the fact'. You should not put yourself at risk by remaining quiet. Remember Edmund Burke's adage "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing".

Nobody should be doing research with pirated or cracked software; it is unethical, and the results will be compromised. No cure for cancer was ever developed by criminal software thieves.

Erich Mielke

  • 5
    Accessory after the fact for using pirated software?! Show me one case law precedent on this. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 5:30
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    You sound like the OP just witnessed a school shooting. Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 9:47
  • 1
    obligatory reading material gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.en.html Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 13:47
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    Downvoted for factual incorrectness. This is a matter of civil law, not criminal law. Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 11:53
  • 2
    While (as?) this sounds perfectly in line with what "the original" Erich Mielke would have liked (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Mielke) - is this a troll post?
    – cbeleites
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 15:00

Report it to the vendor. They are the victim. If this is MATLAB, then it can be reported on the following web page:


  • It is supremely ironic that the scale of votes on these answers is inversely proportional to the correct action. So, the most unethical answer gets the most votes, the wishy washy kind-of-anonymously-report-it-to-vague-authorities gets a few votes, and the recommendation to report to the correct entity which will take positive action gets downvoted. Commented May 12, 2019 at 14:14

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