iPhone App Piracy

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Today's topic is iPhone software piracy. No, I'm not talking about jailbreaking (although jailbreaking is typically a required element). And I'm not talking about unlocking an iPhone to work with unauthorized carriers. Rather, I'm talking about stealing software, the same software that you would otherwise purchase from Apple's App Store.

I was dismayed to find just how rampant iPhone app piracy is. I don't mean to sound naive. I am all too aware that piracy exists. It has long existed for computer software, where unscrupulous users share pirated copies of the latest programs from Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and others.

Digressing a bit, I found it ironic that Intego recently posted information about a Trojan Horse embedded in pirated copies of iWork '09. They offer protection against this threat via the latest update to VirusBarrier (so as to make it safer to pirate the software?). Anyway, in the course of their alert, Intego noted that at least 20,000 people had already downloaded the illegal iWork '09!

So yes, I am well aware that software piracy exists. Still, somehow, I wasn't prepared for what I discovered about iPhone piracy. Much of the pirated software would only cost 99 cents to buy. Are these crackers really so hard up for cash that they would rather steal 99 cents, sometimes from a lone developer trying to make a few bucks, than pay for the product? We're not talking about Adobe Creative Suite here (not that it's okay to pirate this either). We're talking about software as silly as Mood Touch or Amazing X-Ray FX. Indeed, iPhone app piracy centers on games and other entertainment software.

I can see one potential rationale here, weak as it may be: Try before you buy. Before you spend ten dollars on an app, you might want to give it a try. Currently, the App Store offers no options for this. But this rationale only works if you either buy or delete the app after pirating it. I doubt this is the common end result.

It's even harder to understand the piracy motivation when you consider that the time and hassle involved in acquiring the pirated software can exceed what most people would find worth the bother. Here briefly (without going into detail) is what is involved:

First, someone has to crack the iPhone app. This means modifying the app so that its DRM protection is removed. This is a fairly technical procedure that most people will not be inclined to do. Unfortunately, recognizing this obstacle, iPhone crackers have posted an assortment of pre-cracked programs on their Web sites.

Even after you obtain the cracked software, you still can't use it -- because iTunes will not recognize it as an authorized program and will refuse to install it on your iPhone. The solution here is to make a modification to an iPhone OS file, a modification that turns off the authorization check. Doing this requires that you first jailbreak your iPhone, which means that the change will likely be wiped out the next time you update to a new version of the iPhone software.

For pirate-wannabes, there are Web sites that offer tutorials on how to crack and obtain pirated software, complete with screen shots. You can even go to YouTube and watch videos that show how it's done. This is yet another aspect of iPhone piracy that surprises -- and dismays -- me. Does YouTube monitor its site to check for such videos? If so, does it permit them to remain online after they are discovered? If so, why? These videos are the equivalent of ones that would, for example, explain how to defeat alarm systems in banks. I assume YouTube would remove such videos. At least I hope they would.

Similarly, do ISPs knowingly permit sites to post cracked software -- especially sites that openly advertise what they do in an apparent attempt to attract traffic?

Now, in most free speech debates, I come down on the side of opposing censorship. But cracking iPhone apps and posting them for others to download, or publicly providing step-by-step instructions on how all of this is done, crosses the line for me.

I have long argued in support of jailbreaking iPhones in order to obtain useful software that Apple has chosen to exclude from its App Store. I recognize that some (especially Apple!) may find this position to contradict what I have said here. To me, there is a difference. It's the difference between making a modification to my iPhone that permits access to software that the developer is freely offering vs. stealing software that would otherwise require a purchase. Jailbreaking allows me to do on my iPhone what I can already legally do on my Mac. Maybe you draw the line in a different spot. Regardless, I hope we can all agree that iPhone app piracy is on the wrong side of the line.

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11 Comments Leave Your Own

Andrew Brehm

I think there is two ways to talk about this subject.

We can either acknowledge that copying software without permission is wrong and hurts developers as well as customers, or we can call it “piracy”, pretend it is the digital equivalent of hijacking ships on the high seas and murdering everyone on board and watch people not take the matter seriously because apparently we don’t either.

We can acknowledge that there are laws against copying without permission, or we can pretend that copying is “theft” or “robbery” and guarantee that people won’t take us seriously because we apparently don’t understand the difference between taking away something from another person at gunpoint and doing something which the other person might never know we’ve done.

Personally, I dismiss any and all articles about “software piracy” that use loaded terms to describe the act as worthless propaganda.

If there is something to the matter, it should be possible to write about it using the actual words and not words that describe another (much worse) crime.

(Anyone who is sick and tired of watching 10-minute propaganda movies that cannot be skipped on commercial DVDs about how copying DVDs is “robbery” will likely agree that making those claims and ruining the DVD experience with such propaganda clips should be illegal.)

Jared Norris

Any way you can parse reality to help you sleep at night…  These are specious arguments.  Trying to maintain pre-net definitions in current reality is, well, ignorant.  Here’s the truth.  If a commodity, whether tangible or composed of lines of code, is only available for sale, and you obtain it without permission of the author, or without purchasing it, it is STOLEN.  Yes, Virginia, you can steal something without depriving someone else of it.  That duality of thought is disingenuous.  So, if you install CS4 without a valid license (re: paid for it), then you have STOLEN it.  I know that goes against your carefully constructed justifications that it is only violating copyright, not criminal law, but deep down, you know I’m right.  Let’s stop with the ridiculous parsing, and admit it.

Andrew Brehm

Yeah, I admit it.

It doesn’t matter what the law says, whether it actually says that copyright infringement is theft or not (it does not), copyright infringement is stealing because you say so.




If I read what you said carefully, is this an accurate distillation:
I dismiss any and all articles about ?software piracy? because the word “piracy” is a loaded term. This makes the article worthless propaganda.
If that’s correct, what words would you like to use?

In your second post above, you seem to say that copyright infringement is NOT theft because the copyright law says it’s not? I’d like to see you back that up.

You might start by checking out USA legal code. No, you won’t find the words, theft, stealing or rob. But you will find that it is a criminal offense. You’ll also find that the US Congress thought it was theft when they passed a bill in the US Senate in 1999 called the “Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act”

Then there’s the so-called “NET” act of 1997. What does NET stand for? No Electronic Theft.

So while YOU might not see it as theft, the people who write and enforce the laws sure do.

Are these laws perfect? No, I’m sure there are other “LaMacchia Loophole"s. But when the lawmakers use the word THEFT in describing copyright infringement law, then they mean stealing.

Andrew Brehm

What words would I like to use?

Given that the act I would be describing is “copying”, I think the term “copying” might be appropriate.

I never said copyright infringement is not a crime (where do you get that?). But there are different types of crimes. And theft and piracy are worse crimes than copyright infringement.

As for American law, politicians can name their laws whatever they want. The Wikipedia article explains the difference between copyright infringement and theft in American law such:

“Courts have distinguished between copyright infringement and theft, holding, for instance, in Dowling v. United States (1985) that bootleg phonorecords did not (for the purpose of the case) constitute stolen property”

And quoting a court decision, says:

“interference with copyright does not easily equate with theft, conversion, or fraud. The Copyright Act even employs a separate term of art to define one who misappropriates a copyright: ... ‘an infringer of the copyright.’ ...

The infringer invades a statutorily defined province guaranteed to the copyright holder alone. But he does not assume physical control over the copyright; nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use. While one may colloquially link infringement with some general notion of wrongful appropriation, infringement plainly implicates a more complex set of property interests than does run-of-the-mill theft, conversion, or fraud.”


You might notice that copyright law has certain exceptions like fair use, which certainly don’t apply to theft (i.e. I cannot steal your car and use it just a bit, but I can copy parts of your book without your permission). Furthermore, the two laws forbidding theft and defining copyright infringement have different constitutional legitimacy. Theft is illegal because it is a violation of property rights that government CANNOT easily take away. The law here affirms what the US constitution regards as an existing right. In contrast copyright law is NOT regarded as an existing right by the US constitution but is permitted by the constitution as an OPTION to be used by congress to promote the arts and encourage authors to write.

Laws about theft CONFIRM an existing right.

Copyright law CREATES a privilege. That’s how the constitution sees it.

This is how the US constitution allows for the creation of copyright law:

“The Congress shall have Power [. . .] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Copyright law does not protect property rights, copyright law creates an exclusive right for an author IF the parliament happens to want to have such a law. It could be revoked. It’s not set in stone. It’s totally different from laws forbidding theft of property.

So, NO, neither I nor the people who enforce the law see copyright infringement as theft. The only people who do are certain companies and people I run into on the Internet. But neither of the two make our laws, and thank G-d for that!


I think that it is idiotic to use objections to the term “software piracy” as an excuse to dismiss discussion of the subject. Yes, it is arguably an unfortunate term, like many other common expressions in the English language, but by this point everybody knows what it means. It is no longer a loaded term, if it ever was. Nobody thinks it has anything to do with guys with peg legs and parrots. Get over it.

When people seek to divert a discussion of “software piracy” (feel free to insert term of your choice) into semantic quibbling, I can’t help but wonder if they are seeking an excuse to avoid confronting the ethical issues.

Andrew Brehm

Who said anything about dismiss discussion of the subject? Refusal to accept loaded terms is a corner stone of discussing any subject. And if you think companies use the term “software piracy” just because it is a common expression, you are wrong. They do it to create the impression that copying copyrighted material is a high crime, when in fact it is often quite legal.

As for your wondering, would you likewise assume that anybody who refuses to call theft “murder” is only doing it because he doesn’t want to confront the ethnical issue of theft? In my opinion the ONLY way to confront any issue is by first agreeing to call the issue by its name.

What does happen though is that people use the term “piracy” to avoid discussion of the plain fact that copying copyrighted material is often completely legal and that “licences” are very often and in many countries NOT real contracts. You can see in the comment above that for many people the difference between theft and copyright infringement is not even obvious any more, despite the two totally different legal explanations. If calling it “theft” is not avoiding discussion of the ethical issues of copyright infringement then I don’t know what is.

How do you discuss the ethical issues of subject A, which according to the law is not the same as B, with someone who insists that subject A is the same as B? It’s impossible. And I guess that is the idea of using those terms. It makes discussion of the subject more difficult and there are always winners when subjects cannot be discussed.


This in not a moral issue, or a legal one.  It is economic.  The simple fact is that most americans are employed today in fields where the output in cerebral, not corporeal.  Without a robust recognition of intellectual property rights, much of the creative force that drives the economy would cease to exist because they would not keep people clothed and fed.  Proponents of “copying” “copyright infringement” or “piracy” make way too much of the idea that because software isn’t physical, you should treat it differently from physical products.  The price of every product reflects two costs, the cost of physically producing the unit, and the price of the R&D that goes into its creation.  Mac buyers recognize this when they knowingly pay more for computers than the combined value of its components, because they are also supporting the engineers who created the better batteries, sleeker chassis, brighter screen etc.  Such R&D costs exist just as much for software as they do for the Mac, and with software, those costs reflect a very large share of the costs.  Accepting the pro-piracy arguments requires that we ignore these very real costs.  Selling cars uses a different business model than selling software, but copying, plagiarizing, or pillaging is just as invasive into intellectual property as stealing a car is invasive to corporeal property.  It’s still money, it’s still morally wrong.

American Male

I’ve pirated a few apps on my iPhone just to see how it was done. It’s far too complicated for the average Joe the Plumber. First you have to jailbreak the phone, then you have to use Unix commands to install a patch that allows unsigned packages to be executed. Then you have to chase down the cracked apps themselve on websites that die a few hours after they are launched.

All of this to avoid paying 99 cents? I doubt many people bother.

It was kinda amusing to have the I Am Rich app on my iPhone though.


I am a developer and it is a VERY hard living as it is… In fact I am working two jobs because this cannot support me like it used to. The piracy has skyrocketed ( I have 6 high quality apps out there with months of man hours invested )... I am constantly asking sites to remove my apps. I still am seeing HUGE numbers in piracy. I provide videos of the apps that is enough of a test drive IMO. Those that say they try and buy I do not believe. I bet those that take the time to delete the pirated app and go to buy the real app are 0.01% of those that are illegally downloading 99 cent apps… A try and buy for 99 cents?.. How much entertainment do you expect for 99 cents (Bubble gum anyone?) when the dev only gets 45 cents or so a sale after apple and the govenrment take their bites?


Well I have numbers now and how dismal are they.

Cracked first day.
300 sales in 4 days…
3500 unique device identifiers…

90% piracy rate… wow…

That will crush me…in bandwidth costs alone.

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