The downloading and distribution of pirated software is a global phenomenon and the Business Software Alliance (BSA) Global Software Survey for 2016 shows that Sub-Saharan African countries such as Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe have unlicensed software installation rates of 75% and above.
This means that around one in four pieces of commercial software in use is fully compliant and licensed, with the rest being pirated or unlicensed.
Downloading pirated software can not only expose you to legal repercussions, but can also harm economic investment and cost more in the long run, according to Tarsus Distribution Dell and Microsoft general manager Justine Louw.
"In some cases, software is unlicensed because end-users knowingly copy an application from a friend or colleague without paying for a licence, or download it from a ‘free' site on the Internet," Louw said.
"In other cases, users are not aware their software is unlicensed until they need technical support or a software update."
Louw added that some resellers might copy the software and sell it as the original product with convincing counterfeit packaging, or load unlicensed software onto a client's PC without mentioning that it is unlicensed.
Risks of piracy
Louw said that South Africans should avoid counterfeit software for a number of reasons, not least of which is the illegal nature of the practice.
"In most parts of the world, software piracy is illegal and users who knowingly or unknowingly make use of unlicensed software can be subjected to fines and other penalties," Louw said.
She added that counterfeit software also has a high risk of containing malicious tools like spyware, viruses, and other malware.
"Often, criminals distribute malware-infested software with the goal of using it to gain access to a victim's computer, so that they can steal their data or identity," Louw said.
A software license not only allows you to use an application legally, but it also buys you support from the original vendor or official reseller.
"You can call or email someone for help if you run into a technical issue or simply need some assistance using the software," Louw said.
"You will usually be able to get the latest feature updates and security patches, and you'll have access to instructions and other official resources from the software vendor. That, in turn, allows you to get the most from your software."
Users with unlicensed software are often left with no support or authority to turn to for technical assistance.
Louw said that using pirated software could reduce economic investment in countries like South Africa, with software vendors becoming discouraged from investing in the country due to being deprived of revenues.
"It also harms the bottom line of local tech businesses, like official resellers and distributors, and denies government tax revenues," Louw said.
"In turn, this harms job creation in the IT industry, discourages investment in localising software for the market, reduces choice and competition, and takes money out of the economy that could fuel growth."
Using pirated software can also be more expensive than buying an official product if the user runs into technical problems due to bundled malware.
"Far from being the cheaper option, using counterfeit or pirated software can be the more expensive choice in the longer term," Louw said.
"In addition to the legal and reputational risks, fixing serious problems caused by counterfeit software (such as malware or downtime) can be expensive and time-consuming."
"The lost productivity alone can be costlier to the business than the cost of legitimate software licence," she added.
The incoming Cybercrimes Bill is another threat to pirates in South Africa, as it aims to crack down further on the distribution of unlicensed software.
Once passed into law, the Bill could require ISPs to report instances of piracy by clients to the relevant authorities and could face fines if they are aware of piracy and do not report it.
The new legislation also includes provisions which provide for a maximum penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment for cybercrimes.