Don’t Steal Software: 4 Free Alternatives to Piracy

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Nearly half the world’s computer users illegally acquire most or all of their software.

That’s according to the Business Software Alliance, an industry trade group whose members include Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft. A recent BSA study, which the organization claims was the most extensive ever done, also says the cost of piracy was up 14 percent in 2010 from the previous year. Software companies apparently missed out on $59 billion.

Who were the biggest offenders? China (with 206 million computers using pirated software) and the United States (with 114 million).

Although the study doesn’t go into details about what specific programs are most pirated, another group called the Software & Information Industry Association [PDF] does give percentages for the most popular categories. Here are the top half-dozen…

  1. Productivity: 57 percent
  2. Utilities: 30 percent
  3. Database: 24 percent
  4. CAD (computer-aided design): 15 percent
  5. Creative: 11 percent
  6. Accounting: 11 percent

What’s weird about this is that many popular programs have great free – and legal – alternatives.

Sure, pros sometimes need to shell out for industry-grade stuff, and the study does point out that business-use pirating is a big problem. But the rest of us have no reason to break the law if we can just break the habit of using familiar brands. Here’s a look at free alternatives in some of these popular categories…

1. The “Office” suite

While Apple has made inroads against the once-almighty Windows, Microsoft is still the indisputable king in one arena: Office products. Data from last year show 81 percent of business users still have those programs, even though two major free alternatives match Microsoft pretty much product-for-product.

One is OpenOffice. If you need Word, they’ve got Writer. Excel? Try Calc. Impress mirrors PowerPoint. Base equals Access. And so on. Anyone familiar with Microsoft’s versions will intuitively get those of OpenOffice. They look and behave so similar you wonder how it’s legal. (But it is.)

The other is Google Apps, a Web-based suite that’s free for the average consumer and $50 per user for businesses. Along with word processing, spreadsheets, and slideshows through Google Docs, you can also get a Gmail account linked to your personal website domain (the service is free, the domain is not) plus a calendar. Did I mention all of this is available through your smartphone too?

2. Antivirus

Protecting your computer from malicious files (which, by the way, are often found in “cracked” or “unlocked” versions of commercial software) is important, but doesn’t have to be expensive or illegally obtained. Instead of paying a yearly subscription to McAfee or Symantec, PC users can have Microsoft Security Essentials for free. See? Microsoft doesn’t charge for everything.

Avast and AVG are two other decent free candidates, but as we discussed in Antivirus Software is a Waste of Money, they do try to pitch unnecessary premium versions.

3. PDFs

For some reason, Adobe Acrobat is frequently pirated. This one makes me scratch my head, because the reader is free – there are also alternatives like Foxit and Sumatra PDF – and the functionality of the paid version is mostly matched by programs like CutePDF, which let you save other document types as PDFs. Macs can even “print” (save) files as PDFs without any software.

Plus, hackers love to exploit Acrobat.

4. Image editing and design

If you want to tinker with photos and get creative, GIMP is the closest free program to Adobe Photoshop. Paint.NET is also worth checking out, though they have an ugly website. (Don’t click the big green arrow – that’s an ad. The download link is further down the page.)

The average consumer probably doesn’t care about drafting software, and pros probably use AutoCAD. But if you do, Google Sketchup is free.


Tax software is another weird category – once upon a time, you had to pay for TurboTax, one of the most popular choices. But thanks to competitors like TaxAct, which guide you through filing a federal return for free, even TurboTax has a free option. If you have a complicated mix of investments, deductions, or circumstances, though, you may want to stick with professional services.

What other program types do people need (or have) great alternatives to? Let us know on Facebook. And if you want to find more legal freebies, check out the 9 Best Ways to Get Free Stuff.

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