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The Ethics Coach on Pirating Software, Copycat Designing and More This month we tackle thorny questions about pirates, extreme imitation and angry creditors.

By Gael O'Brien

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Do you have an ethical dilemma? Write to The Ethics Coach at

Q: I purchased a few different software packages for my electronics engineering business at the cost of $5,000 to $7,000 each--a significant expense. The vast majority of consultants and some small businesses I've met pirate at least one of those applications. We all know various justifications for downloading free software and music, but discovering how common pirating software is makes me feel like a sucker! I'm paying out of pocket for something I could easily get for free. This situation is one of many where being "moral" seems to be very expensive. Are there any shades of gray on this issue? What is the appropriate response when this comes up in conversation?

A: I ran your question by Damion Robinson, a partner at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Criterion Law Group; his expertise includes IP licensing and piracy. While some studies indicate at least half of businesses use pirated software, he says there are legal and reputational issues that can't be discounted: "Software companies have sued small businesses for the type of piracy described in the letter, and penalties for willful infringement can be as high as $150,000 per piece of software, plus attorney's fees." Beyond the legal ramifications, Robinson points out, "having unlicensed software, especially in a service-oriented business, can be seen as very unprofessional and reduces credibility."

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