To fully understand the points explained below, we highly recommend you read our article on what software piracy is first. It’ll give you a good understanding of the specifics and will help you grasp how to prevent software piracy that much better. If you’re short on time right now though, the basics are these: software piracy means the usage or redistribution of a copyrighted software program in a way that wasn’t intended by its creator.
Software piracy prevention has 2 big parts: safeguarding your own software from being pirated, and assuring your employees aren’t unknowingly pirating the software you use yourselves.
Here are 12 tips to help prevent software piracy:
- Use a license key (also known as serial number) for your software products
- Have a demo or (unlimited) trial version of your software that’s accessible by the general public
- Search piracy/torrent websites yourself for your own software; you can request its removal from search engine results
- Use digital rights management (DRM) for your software
- Push out frequent updates and patches for your own software
- Require online verification for your software
- Implement tamper proof security measures for your software
- Maintain open communication with your software’s target group
- Stick to the public deadlines and promises made about your software
- Have clear and rigorous internal procedures for the purchasing and usage of third-party software
- Strictly forbid the internal use of unlicensed software
- Have employees within your company that are SAM certified
And now, let’s get into the crux of the matter.
Internal vs External Software Piracy
Usually, software piracy is an intentional practice. Various people or groups use methods that deliberately copy a program and then redistribute it, generally over the internet using peer-to-peer (P2P) connections.
However, there’s also involuntary piracy, which is actually incredibly common. This we’ll call internal piracy. If you purchase a single license for a product, but install it on two devices, you’ve committed software piracy. For regular end users at home, this won’t be a big deal, because no one’s going to come and check on them.
However, when you’re a company, software audits from your vendor or by another entity like the BSA (Business Software Alliance) are a real possibility. There are only two possible outcomes: you’re found compliant and all is fine, or you’re found not compliant, and hefty fines will follow.
It’s in your best interest to make sure that your consumers have as few reasons as possible to consider pirating your software. At the same time, another priority must be to not commit software piracy within your own business. The 12-points list above is a summary of what you should be doing, but now we’ll get into the specifics of all suggestions.
How To Prevent External Software Piracy
Whenever you’re trying to solve a situation, it’s best to treat the root cause, rather than the symptoms. Software piracy is a result of products being too expensive for some users, or not being of a good enough quality, or the end user having a low opinion of the company making the product.
Of course, some users will still opt for pirating your software if possible regardless of your own actions, because it’s their preference. This is something you must be aware of all the time. At no point will unlicensed software products stop being on the internet completely, unless there’s no more net neutrality.
However, you have 2 ways of improving the chances that your target group will acquire your original, licensed software:
- Security measures that guard your software against copying, “cracking”, sharing or redistribution
- Indirect prevention measures that give your target group additional benefits for purchasing your product instead of pirating it
Ultimately, it’s up to you to design the trajectory you want to take, but we advise mixing a bit of both into the equation.
Use license keys
Licenses, or product keys, are nothing else than strings of data in the form of numbers and letters. They’re a unique ID of sorts you give your user when they purchase the right to use your software. Usage varies from the license having to be inserted into an installation wizard, to being tied to an account automatically, to buying just the license key itself and using it on another web page to claim the software usage rights.
Because the program can only function with the license key attached to it or the user’s account, it prevents its copying and redistribution. Do bear in mind that there have been numerous attempts (successful too) at creating unlicensed “key generators” for popular or mandatory software products like operating systems.
Have a demo or (unlimited) free trial
This one can go hand in hand with the one above and it’s a friendly approach to consumer interaction. In short, you provide a “freeware” version of your software that has limited capabilities, but anyone can download it officially. There’s virtually no piracy needed for it, as users can get it for free on your website.
Think of how antiviruses like Malwarebytes have the scanning feature for free forever, but if you buy a license key then it’s also an active antivirus; with web protection, anti-phishing etc. Of course, if a user likes the product, they can still choose to pirate it, but it gives them less of a reason to do so, because of the goodwill you’re showing.
Demos themselves were a popular method of promoting video games up until around the start of 2013, where the practice mostly stopped. In part due to the advancement of technology and marketing approaches for big companies, but also due to the emergence of paid betas and early access. These however are payment-gated and the same piracy problems apply to them.
Submit a DMCA request to search engines
This is kind of an after-the-fact prevention step, but one worth trying nonetheless. If your software is already on torrenting websites, it’ll start showing up in search engine results pages at some point.
While Google, Yahoo, Bing or other search engines can’t do anything about those web pages existing, you can submit a “notice and take down” request for the search query results themselves. This’ll stop your program’s keywords from showing unlicensed versions in search results.
Use DRM (Digital Rights Management)
By definition, the software you create belongs to you, and users are paying for the right to use it. They’re not purchasing it like you would a physical product, where once you paid it’s yours forever.
DRM is one way of enforcing this, but it has been controversial to say the least with end users. Thing is, DRM is perhaps copyright protection in its purest form. It can be applied to video games, video & audio files, emails, ebooks, movies etc. What it does is actively restrict how users are allowed to interact with the software/file.
For example, an email can be read, but it can’t be forwarded. A video game can be played, but it requires an online connection at all times (even if it’s not an online game) or a verification through an online account. This type of encryption has even been the subject of some academic studies.
Supporters say that it’s an ideal copyright protection method because it limits the usage of the software product exclusively to the registered end user. The opposition claims that it limits the usage of the end user too much, that they’re paying for a product that’s deliberately defective in some way (like not being able to share it with friends & family).
In the end, implementing DRM or not is up to you and your industry trends, but from a technical standpoint, it’s definitely effective security.
Update/Patch your product regularly
Another user-friendly way of promoting legal purchases of your software. If your software gets pirated, then a specific version of your software got pirated. Each update, which can bring fixes, new content, quality of life improvements, stability improvements etc must also be pirated and redistributed separately.
In practice, this can mean that new versions just won’t get pirated at all and users will prefer buying the licensed product, or they’ll buy your product simply thanks to continuous support and listening to feedback.
Require online verification for software usage
A method where you’re forcing your end user’s hand a bit, and which was also subject to critique. Mandatory online verification can be part of DRM, but it can also just be a standalone security measure. Additionally, if you go this way you can have your software be cloud based, and grant access to it via a license key tied to a user’s online account. This also allows the program to be used on multiple devices freely and legally by only having it tied to the account, but it limits active sessions to one at a time, so the program can’t be accessed by 2 people at once.
Use tamper proofing
A straightforward solution, tamper proofing forces the program to cease working if changes are detected in its source code. This prevents piracy that involves the copying and manipulation of software code.
Maintain open communication with your users
One of the core principles of QAing a product is that no matter how much you’re testing its limits, some type of bug will slip by, or users will find a way to break it. Being responsive to both positive and negative feedback is a must, and fixes must be delivered promptly. The more proactivity you show in delivering an outstanding product and adding requested features, the more your user base will stick by you.
One great option is doing a free public beta where you let your user base test the program for you. They get a taste of what’s to come, they see your dedication to the community, and you get free QA.
Stick to deadlines and promises
No matter the amount of publicity and exposure you want to give your software product, never make promises that are uncertain internally. Why? Because your target group is never ever going to forget you breaking them. Even a clean slate and a good reputation can be tarnished in mere hours. If you want a recent example, look at the Polish video game company CD Projekt Red (one of the only independent industry leaders). Their launch of “Cyberpunk 2077” in December 2020 was disastrous, and a huge amount of goodwill from their fanbase just dissipated into thin air.
Instead of launching an unfinished product, delay it or keep expectations within deliverable margins. It’s first and foremost in your own interest. If you disappoint your users, they won’t be lining up to spend money on your software.
How To Prevent Internal Software Piracy
In short, that can mean your business has to pay up to someone else. Depending on each case, it could be a meaningful sum too. What’s more, you could have employees that are using pirated software right now to do their duties but you don’t know about it. If it’s on a personal machine, no harm no foul for the business; but if it’s a company device, you’re directly responsible for it.
Here’s how to regulate your internal procedures better:
Have clear rules for software purchase & usage
- No shared access via a local area connection in the office
- No installing it on multiple devices
- No sharing of the same account
- No copying files and installing them on a personal machine
Forbid internal usage of unlicensed software
It can be tempting to cut corners and pirate the software your employees need. Multi-user licenses are just expensive sometimes, and coupled with your other development costs, the sum can go pretty high.
However, you’d only be giving yourself a constant worry. Once you choose to knowingly allow the use of pirated software, all consequences of that action will fall on you. Moreover, be mindful of employees suggesting this alternative, or letting you know that they can solve that X task using some tool or another that you didn’t buy. Ask questions about what they want to do, how they want to do it, and make it clear that only the use of properly authorized software is allowed.
If you can’t afford a tool your team is asking for, look for freeware alternatives, but don’t just refuse paid versions outright. What matters is that you’re delivering a quality product, and then your ROI will outweigh your investment.
Have at least 1 SAM expert
Software Asset Management (SAM) is a crucial part of any TOS-compliant business, big or small. Like we’ve mentioned above, there’s a high chance that all or at least a part of the software you’re using to do your work isn’t your own. SAM is an integral part of an organization’s IT strategy because of the way it interacts with the process of acquiring and managing third-party software.
First, remember this: a SAM expert is also a negotiation expert. They handle both software inventory and software contracts.
Software inventory means the use of specialized data discovery tools that scan your entire system to see what programs are running in your environment. The tools aren’t fault-proof, but that’s where their experience as individuals comes in: filling in the blanks to achieve a trustworthy data inventory (making sure the gathered data is complete and true). After the analysis is complete, a SAM expert should be able to give you a list of every software you’re using, and tell you if any of them are unneeded, unlicensed, or if you aren’t using them to the full extent of your purchased license(s).
Software contracts is the activity of actively trying to bring your software costs down while making sure you’re getting all the features you’re entitled to.
Here’s a rundown of the entirety of your software compliance process, as done by a SAM expert:
- Purchase of the program
- Deployment of the program
- Ensuring EULA-compliant use of the program
- Maintenance of the program
- Disposal of programs that aren’t relevant to your activity anymore
SAM experts are knowledgeable about both lowering the cost of your software acquisitions, as well as minimizing legal risks that go hand in hand with copyrighted products. This process maximizes your employee’s productivity by placing licensed and responsive IT products that fulfill their work needs.
Each piece of software your SAM expert acquires for the company is also added to the data inventory that’s done by then, so that your business is compliant with all the TOSs involved at all times.
Drawing The Line
Software piracy prevention can be tricky, whether you’re thinking of how to minimize piracy for your own programs or how to prevent your business from doing it.
Still, by placing in effect the measures we’ve presented so far, you’d be at a much smaller risk of either of them happening.
If you find yourself in a position where your own intellectual property has been copied or redistributed without your consent, give us a call at (727) 403-1129.
We have 20 years of experience in brand protection, and we’ll help you sort out your situation too.