Small companies with small budgets may not have have the money to invest in expensive software licenses that they may need for a given development project. This is even more so if the project was a loss-leader to drum up more business and the price of the development product cannot be renegotiated without potentially harming relationships, when it is discovered later that some proprietary expensive software license is needed for a very small yet crucial part of the application.

I have dealt with this in the past by cleverly using trial versions of software in potentially unethical ways just trying to delay or prevent purchasing the license.

What creative ways do smart software engineers work around this problem when the money to invest would be hard to acquire without breaking laws or stealing?

UPDATE: To give some context of a situation where free or open source isn't available, you have a signature pad peripheral device that comes with an integration plugin to Adobe Acrobat Professional. To use this device properly a PDF needs to be created with Acrobat and its accompanying plugin. The trial works fine for creating the PDF but what happens if the customer wants to modify the PDF a year from now? You basically just punted that problem down the road.

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    I believe this should probably be asked on OnStartups. Aug 11, 2011 at 15:26
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    Maybe you can elaborate on what kind of software you're talking about? The world of developer tools& libraries is awash with free / very low cost options. Many of them are very good (sometimes even better than commercial alternatives). Not saying it's the answer every time but looking for free/cheap alternatives is a pretty good starting point. But then you probably know that already... so specific examples would be good.
    – sfinnie
    Aug 11, 2011 at 15:31
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    "What creative ways do smart software engineers work around this problem when the money to invest would be hard to acquire without breaking laws or stealing" - blaming management, of course. You can't go wrong with that! Aug 11, 2011 at 15:37
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    Are you saying "oh, it's a small company, so it's okay if it pirates others' software"? I hope not - btw I've seen that, and such companies are quick to call for a waaaambulance when their code gets pirated. (also, we're programmers; what we think a clever loophole, lawyers often see as a laughable excuse) Aug 11, 2011 at 15:43
  • I am not saying its okay to pirate other software nor desirable. I am looking for LEGAL and ETHICAL solutions.
    – maple_shaft
    Aug 11, 2011 at 16:28

6 Answers 6


I don't believe that there is anything unethical about using a trial version of software for development and deployment.

I've certainly been caught in the situation where purchase order processing of run-time licenses for a library we used was so slow (we only ever ordered just-in-time so we could pay as late as possible) that we routinely installed the trial version. That gave us one month from install to get the dongle to the customer.

It also had the side effect that the customer knew that while they could use the software immediately, they would lose significant functionality after the trial ran out, giving them added incentive to sign the project off and pay us. *8')

Of course, this assumes that you aren't just hiding the true cost of your application by requiring some other expensive component, that would be unethical.

  • Thank you, I relate to this and this is what I wanted to hear. I had doubts that using a trial version for development and deployment, when the license didn't mention restrictions on the artifacts of said product, was ethical or not. It sounds like others dealt with this problem similarly.
    – maple_shaft
    Aug 11, 2011 at 18:00

Use open source software?

If you want commercial software some companies offer deals to startups that can reduce the cost significantly, e.g. Microsoft has the BizSpark program.

[NB Full disclosure - I work for Microsoft. I'm suspect other suppliers have similar deals but I don't know for sure, but obviously if you work in a different stack you should check for relevant deals.]

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    +1 for beating me to it. Small companies or loss-leader projects can't afford to burden themselves with expensive proprietary stuff. Usually you don't really need it. Other times, you can make it yourself. In some cases, when there's only one game in town, well, you're not going to play there.
    – Philip
    Aug 11, 2011 at 16:12
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    +1: My startup is in the Bizspark program. Free software for 3 years until we pay for it. By then we should be making enough money to cover it. If not, then we should probably re-think our startup idea anyway.
    – Ryan Hayes
    Aug 11, 2011 at 16:38
  • Hmm, Was the downvote just because I said I work for MS? :-)
    – Steve
    Aug 17, 2011 at 14:39
  • +1 MS employee promoting open source software. Also, compensating for downvote without explanation.
    – asfallows
    Aug 17, 2011 at 15:47

Generally when you're doing a "loss leader" to drum up business you are already going down the wrong path. Business is the exchange of goods or services for money. If the project isn't bringing in enough money to buy or lease software, you need to re-evaluate your business plan rather then use pirated goods.

Companies can be burned alive if word gets out that they steal other products, especially if you're charging someone for your end result.

  • First of all, stealing is not an option. Secondly, I disagree that a "loss-leader" is a bad path. If there is one thing I learned about the industry it is that valuable contacts and satisfied fortune 100 clients on your client list are extremely valuable. A startup can have the most innovative and high quality product on the market but if they don't have good inroads with important clients and people then their competitor will eat their lunch. I know it isn't fair but politics and who you know reigns supreme.
    – maple_shaft
    Aug 11, 2011 at 17:49
  • Spoken like a true manager. Pack your golden parachute while the rest of us are working. A solid, well executed product that people need will always reign supreme. Loss leaders on trial software will only get your foot in the door, but it won't maintain a steady production plan.
    – bobby
    Aug 16, 2011 at 20:31

First, a company that doesn't understand the old adage You have to spend money to make money is a company that doesn't deserve to be in business; speaking from experience working at a horrible tiny company that wouldn't pay any money for anything, no matter how much it would help, this is incredibly short-sighted and indicative of a management issue at the very core.

To directly answer your question, there are legal ways around this depending on what you're talking about. For development, you can either use open-source technologies (lots of free IDEs, Databases, pretty much anything for PHP, Java, Python, Ruby and their friends) or make due with the Visual Studio Express editions (not an ideal solution but they work well enough).

If it's something that has no open-source alternative or "limited" trial, then see the first point. If it's something you need to run your business, then buck up and buy it, or re-evaluate if you really do need whatever requires that software to begin with. Management/Founders often think they need things that they really don't because they either read about it, somebody mentioned it or they're trying to ride a bandwagon, but if you're unwilling to play by the rules then, quite frankly, you shouldn't be allowed to play at all.


If you don't want to pay, either write code to do the same thing, find the lib that probably already does the same exact thing in your O.S., or go open source. The only problem with the open source stuff is that you are usually on your own when it comes to figuring out how to use a library. Their documentation is usually sub par, and the developers usually have jobs so they can't talk to you. For everyone that writes software to sell, there are usually 2 who write the same thing for a hobby and host it on github or something.

Also, most companies are willing to negotiate on price once they realize that the choice is either, you buy at a low price or they get nothing.


MS Express editions/BizSpark/DreamSpark(if you're a student)/open source. The thing you have to remember is that very few development products are actually necessary to develop with. They are nice/speed up dev times, but you can make almost any type of software with notepad and compile it with command line if you have no other choice. There are plenty of options out there. You should never feel that stealing/pirating is one.

Re: Your update:

I would try to find an open-source alternative to Acrobat. I have been using one called PDFJet with quite a bit of luck. Once you find that you will probably have to write code to make it operate with the plugin that you mentioned. This should not be too hard as they should have a published API. I don't believe this is unethical either because you are not de-compiling and reverse-engineering or anything, you are using a published API to create an interface.

  • Did I word my question poorly? Why do so many people assume I want to steal software? I am saying that I expressly DO NOT want to do this.
    – maple_shaft
    Aug 11, 2011 at 16:45
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    I think in a way you did word it poorly. Things like "cleverly using trial versions of software in potentially unethical ways just trying to delay or prevent purchasing the license." and "What creative ways do smart software engineers work around this problem" imply that you are looking for a creative (read unethical) way to do this. A better phrasing might have been "Are there any resources for small businesses offering discounted software for use in development?"
    – Paul
    Aug 11, 2011 at 17:05
  • Thanks for the insight into PDFJet, I will check that out. If I can integrate that plugin and create a Reader-Enabled PDF document with it (Client will be using Adobe Reader) then it will work. The problem is that the Adobe Reader-Enabled feature does not follow the PDF specification. It is a vendor lock-in feature.
    – maple_shaft
    Aug 11, 2011 at 17:32

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