I would like to understand the ethical sides of the argument of copyright violation as a form of Demo.

I have seen several justifications of this along the lines of:

  • I wish to listen to this one song on my MP3 player while jogging, if I find it good jogging music I will buy the album.
  • I want to try out this software, but the demo is missing the feature I most want to test. If that feature works good then I will buy it.
  • I will download this ebook. If I like it I will buy the hardcover.
  • I will download this movie, If I like it enough that I think I will watch it again I will buy the DVD.

These are all demo arguments. It is all about "If I would want to have this again". Similarly with a normal demo, say for a image editor, if some one had downloaded that normal demo, and edited there photos with it for a week, then had no more photos to edit, it is almost the same. It may for a particular usage senario be exactly the same. Pirating a thing then never using it again.

The traditional alternatives to these are:

  • Music: Radio
  • Software: actual demos.
  • Books: Library
  • Movies: Video Rental Stores

I haven't seen a video rental store in ages, but the rest are still very common.

How does this weigh up ethically?

Is it the consumer ensuring they are getting the product they want, rather than being "tricked" by the marketting?

Is it basically stealing (as the some companies would have us believe)?

Note: I have no interest in the legal/illegal side of this argument. Only in the ethics that drive such laws.

  • If the seller wasn't making money by giving away free trial versions, they wouldn't do it. That's why you can generally download software for a free trial, and pay for it if you like it. If this practice was a net loss for the vendor, they wouldn't do it. Since they do it, it must be a net gain for them. So it's perfectly ethical. The seller is happy to have people try their product for free.
    – user4894
    Aug 26, 2014 at 17:37
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    @user4894, you are right that they wouldn't do it if it didn't make them money. It stands to reason then that the companies that don't offer free demos are withholding because it loses them money - not all companies operate the same or have the same profit margins. Downloading a "demo" with no demo being offered is called pirating and doesn't make the seller happy. Aug 26, 2014 at 18:05
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    i don't see how intellectual property rights could exist but not be absolute.
    – user6917
    Aug 26, 2014 at 20:06

6 Answers 6


It's easy to establish that this approach for downloading is unethical, given a deontological moral stance.

Given the way things are now, the producer^* has constructed and provided the goods under the provision that he/she will be paid for them prior to their use. To download and use, even as a trial, is to violate this condition imposed by the producer; i.e. you have just trampled on their wishes. Note, esp. for digital goods, the producer can easily distribute the goods via other payment schemes (shareware, pay as you see fit etc.) and by doing so indicate their consent in the downloading of demo versions.

In these cases, utilitarian approaches are muddled due to the lack of direct harm/deprivation imposed on the producer by the trier's (temporary) access to the goods. So on first blush, this type of activity might seem morally neutral. However, an expansive in depth assessment of the long term consequences of this type of action, especially if it incorporates the erosion of trust that the deontological approaches focus on, might show that this is, again, an immoral, utility decreasing, action if taken as a general rule.

Even if you are of the "information wants to be free" mindset, it is still a moral affront to go against these explicit expectations of the people providing the data.

*^ I'm using producer to refer to the person (people) responsible for making the digital goods available in one form or another; this may not be the original author of the goods.


This question is wholly determined by your answer to the question "Is it ethical to download copyright music/software without paying?"; the specific circumstances surrounding a particular example merely disguise the general question that's being asked.

Choice of specifics

If you think it's ethical to download without paying, you can find a set of circumstances involving no knowledge and negligible harm for the company and both dire need and lack of resources for the downloader. Conversely if you think it's unethical, you can find a set of circumstances involving harm for the author and little benefit to the downloader.

Similarly you can come up with analogies that lean one way or the other - for: libraries promoting reading fostering more book purchases, against: joyriding (when returned to owner's house with a full tank of petrol and keys posted through door).

Analogies that seem parallel to me: using a cracked hence free subscription card to access satellite television for a week to decide whether you want to pay for a subscription.

I think looking to the consequences of a single event is perhaps misleading when determining the ethics, particularly since ethics is intended as a guide to future behaviour rather than a justification of a single event. Thus again, the question "is it ethically OK this time" should really just be "is it OK ethically".

Does the trial basis change the ethics?

I'm not convinced that calling it a demo changes whether it's ethical or unethical - a temporary injustice is unjust, but temporarily, and a temporary justice is just, but temporarily. They differ in degree but not fundamentals here, since there is no physical item to keep or return.

You might want to argue that in the event that the software/music is purchased, the copyright holder has obtained payment, so that this is fine, but unless you can conclude that it's ethical when payment is never made, the answer becomes "only if you pay", which sounds like a "no" to generally downloading without paying! Thus as I said, this really boils down to whether it's ethical to download without paying full stop.

Can you weigh potential benefits against harm?

Of course, if it's ethical generally, it's ethical to do on a trial basis, but if it's unethical generally, it's unethical to do temporarily, since it's not it's not generally true that a potential future benefit outweighs a harm.

As a deliberately extreme example, consider a man having a one-night stand without his partner ever finding out. He might argue that she benefited from all the extra attention he lavished on her because of his secret guilt and from some improved sexual technique he developed from this event, so that she has no idea it happened and has benefited. This argument doesn't really address the question of whether his behaviour was ethical.

To be clear, I'm not saying that downloading copyright material is morally equivalent or even comparable to having an affair, I'm showing how the reasoning "they may well benefit, and will never know, so it's ethical" is flawed.

(Notice that if the couple agree they're free to sleep with other people at any point, the example becomes rather different.)

Thus we must come again to the conclusion that the ethics of trial downloading match the ethics of downloading generally.

Two philosophical perspectives you might want to try out on the problem

Kant would argue that if everyone failed to pay for music or software, harm would result (job losses, less money spent in making popular music), so since the behaviour is not generalisable, it cannot be a moral rule to allow it.

At the opposite (anarchist) end of the argument, Proudhon would argue that property is inherently theft, that the copyright holder had no right to charge for the download, that this wrong was exacerbated by its costlessness, so it is ethical to peacefully circumvent this unethical charge.


I will make a brief argument against pirating as a form of demo. Business owners make business plans based on the expectation that certain rules will be followed. Prices reflect the amount that consummers are willing to pay for the item, but they also cover things like low manufacturing yields, high risk experimental products, and losses from shoplifters and pirates. In order for a business to be sucessful they must get this balance right. The only reason they offer a product or service is because they are expecting a certain return on their investment. If they thought they could not get enough return they would repurpose that capital into something else.

A person could argue that the return on investment is unreasonable and greedy and therefore not unethical to dip a tiny bit out of it, but what is reasonable is relative to the provider. Some are non-profit, some make small margins, and some make hefty margins, but they all are going into it expecting what they are planning to get. When that balance falls away from the expectation they may increase prices or stop offering the product.

Demos are available because the business has made a decision that providing the opportunity to test a product will ultimately bring the expected returns. Products that do not offer a demo are restricting that testing because they feel it will not bring the expected returns. That is why one-time-use products do not offer demos (at least not full demos) and products with a long life are more likely to offer demos.

Some people will say that they are bringing value to the company if they pirate once and then become a long-time customer (and thus are doing it ethically). That may be true for the individual in some cases, but in other cases they will try and never buy.

All of these points have been general enough to be independent of legal issues. If the law were suddenly changed to allow for pirating then companies would adjust their business model based on the expected relationship between company and consumer, and they would continue under the new model.

There is an implied understanding between companies and potential consumers (consumers as a group) that both sides only have a relationship because of the expected norms of the environment. Pirating is unethical because it violates that understanding.

If that doesn't sway you, you can also consider that as pirating becomes more commonplace companies will compensate by increasing the cost of their products. This is fine for the pirates but unethically harms a large group of other people.


Assuming a person genuinely intends to pirate the software as a trial/demo:

The person tries the software, decides it's not worth buying the full version, deletes and doesn't buy the software. If we assume the person would have chanced it and bought the software if they couldn't pirate it, then this deprives the company of a sale. The result is that the company loses a sale, but the person avoids wasting money on something he wouldn't have wanted. If the person is the type who doesn't like to buy software before demoing it, then the company loses nothing, and the person doesn't waste any money.

Alternatively, the person tries the software, decides they like it, buys the full version, and everyone is happy.

The only losses the company would suffer are from people who would have bought the software if they didn't try it first. Do you think this is unethical?


What a person says and what a person does are different things.

You are saying that a person is pirating and giving a justification. Piracy is unethical. Giving a justification doesn't make it ethical, actions can make it ethical. So how many albums has that person bought after downloading an mp3? What software has this person purchased? How many hardcovers and DVDs has the person bought?

I personally very much prefer a person who steals and admits that they are a thief, to a person who steals and makes all kinds of excuses.


I see some signs of moral absolutism in some of the answers -- statements that sound like, "Piracy is bad, period, so don't even start making up any justifications for pirating." I see answers that sound like scolding. Methinks we should steer clear of any moral absolutism and scolding, especially while in the domain of philosophy.

Taking the first line as the key part of the question, I shall answer this question: "I would like to understand the ethical sides of the argument of copyright violation as a form of Demo."

Making software (including music, videos, etc) publicly available in any form -- minus some features or otherwise -- is a conscious action of the marketer of this software. The marketer has already factored in the tendency of some users to engage in commercially unrewarding behavior, such as the ones mentioned in the question. However, it is precisely such behavior that marketers have learned to count on in their journey to success. For instance, a catchy song from an album is put freely into public domain in the hope that it will go viral, and create a wave of free publicity for the artist, which is worth millions in advertizing dollars.

When one is in the marketplace, the relationship between the producer and the potential customer is a bit like that of a fisherman and a fish. Sometimes, you have to feed the fishes a lot of worms in order to catch a big juicy fish that makes the whole thing worthwhile. Sometimes the fisherman wins, in the sense that he ends up making a whole lot more than he loses. And sometimes, the fish wins in the sense that it end up getting a free meal. I find this sort of market situation amoral or ethics-neutral.

However, I limit the scope of my above answer as applicable to things that are put in public domain.

To elaborate, the question of Protection by Copyright arises in two kinds of cases:

CASE 1: when something (such as a piece of writing, a tune, a song or a software) is available in the public domain, and it is physically possible (or even convenient) to copy it, or to use it, or to enjoy it -- as a demo or otherwise.

CASE 2: If that thing has NOT been put into the public domain, and/or it is not possible to use/enjoy/copy it without going to extraordinary lengths to do so, or alternatively, without paying the owner of that thing.

My answer above is limited to the first case. I am convinced that when a tune, song, software or piece of writing enters the public domain, it is in what many consider as "Intellectual Commons", and the owner effectively loses his ownership over it. To place restrictions on (or to expect payment for) private enjoyment of something that becomes a part of these Commons is, in my view, unreasonable or ambitious.

My view in this matter are admittedly leaning towards laissez faire, and so I stand open to criticism for that.

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    The question proposes a scenario in its first sentence. This doesn't seem addressed here. Instead, there's comments on many of the other answers and in response a recommendation of public domain / open sourcing is proposed. Can you relate your answer more to the question being asked?
    – virmaior
    Sep 30, 2015 at 9:45
  • I think a few more steps and needed to clarify how the worm and fish metaphor applies to the base question: "Is it ok to pirate software/music/movies as 'demo' " Sep 30, 2015 at 9:45
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    This question is about "case 2", not case 1. I can't think of any ethical issues for the accessor in using content that is already in the public domain as part of a trial/demo.
    – Dave
    Sep 30, 2015 at 13:17

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