Pirating software you don't own is always illegal. But there are times when you do own software that you can't access without pirating it. The cruel irony is that in those times, you're probably more at risk of getting slapped with a lawsuit than real, actual pirates. Here's a guide to pirating like a pro to get back what's rightfully yours.
This guide is intended to help people who have already purchased software, but are for whatever reason unable to access their credentials, either temporarily or permanently. Gizmodo does not support software piracy. Further, this is general information, and you should proceed at your own peril.
Don't Use the Pirate Bay
Think of the Pirate Bay like the red light district: It's impossible to shut down, but if the lawmen are looking to bust some heads, that's probably where they'll start. And copyright trolls are some particularly unimaginative lawmen.
Instead, try to get access to some of the closed torrent communities. Places like Demonoid or IPTorrents aren't as isolated as they once were, but they're way safer than the Pirate Bay or IsoHunt. They're invite-only, but invites aren't too hard to come by. Ask around, and one of your techy friends will probably have one to throw your way. Beyond that, always, always, always read the site's comments for warnings about not just pirate-tracking files embedded by nerd hunters, but potential malware.
Use a Proxy
Hiding your IP address using a proxy is one of those nerdspeak tasks that sounds a lot more intimidating than it really is. Think of it as using a cutoff man in baseball, except with internet connections instead of shortstops. With torrents, all you've got to do is go to any number of lists of public proxies and paste any one of those addresses into the Proxy field of your BitTorrent client. Or, for a small fee, you can just partake of a ready-to-use service like the popular BTGuard, which does all the work for you. You literally just download and run the app, enter your login information, and then run your torrent. That simple.
You can take this a step further by using a virtual private network (VPN), which BTGuard also offers. VPNs essentially do what the proxy does, but for all of your online actions. That's probably a little excessive for spot-pirating of a bit of software, but if you're worried about anyone tracking what you're doing on the web, it's something to look into.
The downside is that a VPN introduces an additional point of failure for your connection. That's not too much of a concern most of the time, as stable servers are usually just fine, and more automated options will adjust on the fly. But it's something to consider if you hate disruptions of service.
Adjust Your BitTorrent Settings
Generally speaking, your ISP doesn't give a single damn about copyright violations going on in torrent transfers. It just cares about the massive spike in your bandwidth, and what it can do to stop it. If it can prove you're using BitTorrent, it'll just throttle the crap out of your connection.
To head your ISP off at the pass, go to your BitTorrent app's preferences and enable encryption. That'll make it harder to pin you down. The downside is that it also precludes you from connecting to other BT users who aren't using encryption. Many don't, but it's sort of like a (tiny bit extraneous) pirating condom. Better safe than sorry.
You also might want to consider easing back on your max upload speeds. Traditional torrenting protocol says you should cap your max download speed at about 80 percent of your connection's maximum download speed, and your upload speed at about 10-20 percent of that. You can crank either up if you want, but limiting how much you upload at once can limit your exposure to being caught.
Do Not Seed
When you're using BitTorrent, you are constantly uploading and downloading data from other users. "Seeding" is when you've finished downloading, and continue to upload to others. It's good manners, but it's also a bullseye on your head. That's what the lawyer zombie packs are really after. They'll try to pin the wider distribution charges on you if you're caught.
This is where all the hardcore torrenters will come for my head. But listen up: This guide is about not getting caught. Not your online rep, not the health of the torrent community. Plain and simple, seeding is the easiest way to get caught for torrenting.
That said, many communities require you to maintain a strict upload-to-download ratio. And the ones that do are generally safer harbors than most. But seeding for long periods of time, especially on older torrents, is still risky.
Get a Serial Number
OK, so you've got your software downloaded without getting caught. Big deal. Lots of software is available for full public download as a trial, and just requires activation. And for that you need to track down an application called Serial Box.
Serial Box is a comprehensive directory of working serials for pretty much any app or software suite you'd ever want to install. It covers past and present versions, and is available in both Windows and OS X flavors. To find it, just run its name through a search engine with the current month and year appended to it, along with your favorite direct download file sharing site. Like this: "Serial Box 4-2012 Megaupload"—only with a site that still exists. RapidShare, maybe. From there, pick the free download (it can be hard to find on the page; sometimes it's called "slow" download), and unzip and install the files.
You should see iSerial Reader, Serial Box, and SerialSeeker. Serial Box and SerialSeeker should both open to the same app, though, and they're the ones you want to use. Open either of those two up, find your software by scrolling or using the search bar, and click on the Serials tab. You'll find activation codes for every version of the software. Load 'er up.
Keep Your Serial Number Active
Most software is designed to accept pre-defined serial numbers that abide by some algorithm or another. That's to let you install it even if you're not connected to the internet, but it also means that you can activate it using a serial number someone else has already used. Great. But then, your app is probably going to try to "call home" to let its slave masters know that you're using the same authentication code as 25,000 other jackasses. Not great.
There are a few ways to stop this. The first is to employ a user-prompting firewall like Little Snitch to approve outgoing connections. That sounds more complicated than it is. All it does is ask you, with a pop-up, if you want to allow connections to or from your computer when they happen. You can accept or decline, and set your answer to be a one time thing, until a program quits, or to last forever (unless you change it manually). Do you want to let SoftwareCompanyActivation01 connect? No, no I don't. No thank you forever.
Little Snitch and its ilk can be spammy, though, so go ahead and disable the prompts setting and simply scout out what the activation codes you've got to worry about and deny them manually ahead of time. No, you can't make Little Snitch's disable its own phone-home (anymore [easily]).
The other option is to brute-force disable the software's phone home in its actual files. Guides for this will probably be tough to track down for all but the most commonly pirated software. On Windows, this will involve finding your host file in System32 and pasting in a bit of text (that you can find from a basic Google search). The same thing goes for OS X, but in Terminal. This sounds a bit vague, but it's actually very simple to do once you've got the text you need.
Keep the Install File on a Hard Drive
Sometimes you screw up and have to reinstall. Maybe your firewall hiccuped at the wrong moment and a call home was sent out, or you need to run a clean install of an OS. Having a copy of the install file of software you've downloaded will save you a lot of headaches, since if you have to re-download you're doubling your chances of getting caught by your ISP.
When in Doubt, Don't
If you follow through on every step listed here, you're going to be pretty hard to find. But it's still possible. And while being able to produce receipts for the software you're using illegally will temper whatever punishment you receive, the fact is, you can still get in some serious trouble for pirating software—even software you already own. Caveat latro.