Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Buying Software on Ebay

Though I see a lot less in the way of dodgy Photoshop copies these days, buying software on Ebay is not without risk. This is my approach to filtering out the rip offs.

As a design teacher (ex-freelancer) I use all the industry standard tools: Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Flash, Dreamweaver etc. In fact software has to be the biggest cost apart from the building I work in. The fact is that software licensing is not at all cheap. If I want my own copies to use at home it would cost as much as any business. If like me you prefer to stay legal and avoid pirate copies - buying second hand is pretty much the only option - and Ebay is one of the best places to do it. But tread carefully.

What you are after

Finding the software you want on Ebay is easy enough, what is not so easy is finding a genuine bargain. When you do spot what looks like a bargain among a forest of expensive "Buy it now" items, it is really helpful to know what you are after.

What many people don't realise when buying software, is that the most important things are the license and the serial number. Not the disc, not the manual, not the box, but the license and serial. Those other things are wanted too, but without the license and serial owning the disc is of little legal value.

This license is in simple terms a recognition by the publisher that you have their permission to install and use that software. It may come in a tangible form such as a certificate, but more commonly these days licenses are managed through the software serial number via online registration (hence the importance of the serial number).

You are after:

  • Original Publisher Produced Media (Media means CD/DVD, whatever the software comes on) and not a copy
  • Original Serial Number sticker/card etc.
  • Any other original documentation, manuals and packaging (if available)
  • That you are also buying license (the right) to install and use the software (and not just a disc with the software on - there is a difference)
  • A full commercial use license (there are other licenses that give you limited use rights, if you plan to use the software as part of a business you need a full commercial license)
  • Assurance that if the software is currently installed elsewhere it will be uninstalled
  • If the software has been registered before, you are also after appropriate license transfer documentation (so you are not duped, this documentation is available from the publisher website, and should be signed by the previous owner with all correct details). This is your proof that the previous owner really did transfer the license to you.

Don't be fooled

Some areas you need to look out for to avoid being ripped off include:

  • Type of License
  • Media Only
  • Fakes
Type of license

The type of license is everything if you are planning to use the software commercially (that is for business - and possibly for doing favours for someone else who is in business). Here are some licenses you might find yourself buying if you don't watch it:
  • Educational or Academic License
  • Beta, Demo or Trial
Educational or Academic licenses are the ones you might get caught by. This license provides the lastest full version of the software at a really low price, less than £100 when you know that normally you might pay 5 times that. It comes in nice packaging, brand new, probably even advertised on Ebay as "new sealed" so you know no one will have used it or registered it before. The only problem is that the Educational or Academic license does not permit the software to be used for commercial purposes. It is specifically aimed at students and educational establishments, if you use educational license software for your business you are using it illegally. If you are a student using it only for personal and college work, and happy to have an educational license, the chances are you are not making that big of a saving shopping on Ebay, since it is sold cheap anyway by the publisher.

Beta, Demo or Trial software usually works just fine, and then stops working when the trial or demo period runs out. It is also not licensed for commercial use. This is intended for professionals to try out new features and decide if they want to buy a full commercial license.

Read Carefully. Make sure you read the full description provided by the seller. I have lost count of the number of times I have clicked a listing that says something like "Flash 8 Professional - Full Version" at a great price, only to find when I had read through loads of drivel that it was an educational license they were selling. Except that I nearly didn't find out, it was only that I bothered to scroll all the way down that I saw the small red writing that warned me it was an educational license, right at the end of the listing. Who are they kidding, pretending to be up front about the type of license. If they really wanted people to know it was an academic license they wouldn't put "Full Verion" in their listing, or at the very least, they would let me know in big writing at the top of the advert. Apart from the real pirates, it's these guys that annoy me the most, it is blatant deception in my opinion, hoping to trick the unwary.

So be wary. Check the small print.

Respect to this seller for being up-front: click to view >

Media Only

Be careful that the software you buy includes a legitimate license and those other things you are after that I mentioned earlier. "Media only" sales may only be just that. The media. That is the disc and nothing else.

Some sellers may say "media only" to indicate that no packaging or manual is available. It doesn't mean it comes without a license. Just be aware and make sure you ask the seller a question to confirm it is what you are after.


The seller is highly unlikely to be up front if they are pedalling pirate software. If you are unsure, ask the seller a question to confirm it is what you are after.

Some seller claim not to sell pirate copies, but rather be selling "backups" or "replacements" for people who already own a license to use the software. Whatever they call it, if they are duplicating media and selling it without the publishers authorisation it is a pirate - avoid at all costs.

Some software is not pirate, it is simply not the software you are after. It is common on Ebay for sellers to list Freeware that does a similar job to the software you want. It's not illegal to sell it, but paying an Ebay seller for sending it on a CD would also be a waste of money since you can download most freeware for nothing (see my site for instance). You do have to be careful you don't buy it by mistake however, sometimes the way it is listed can fool you.

Take this example for instance: click to view >

To the trained eye this is obviously not Flash, but it is close enough to make you look, and to the untrained eye it might seem a real bargain. I do wonder what Freeware Flash software they might have burned to a CD for some naive customer. PowerBullet Presenter maybe? Perhaps they even threw in Squirlz Morph, Draw SWF and Live SWF Lite...

Double Check to be Sure

You have probably heard it said before but, if it looks too good to be true - it probably is.

Not wanting to be bitten I have got into the habit of double checking with the seller of every software item I have doubts about. The best way I have found to check the legitimacy of a software item on Ebay is to be completely up front with the seller.

Using the Ebay ask the seller a question facility I would send the seller a general question about the item that goes something like this:
Hello, please could you confirm the following:

1. The item is original Adobe media
(original CD, with case and manual) and not a copy, pirate, backup, clone etc.

2. The item is unregistered.
3. The item is no longer installed on a computer.
4. The item comes with original Adobe Serial Number sticker and documentation.
5. The item comes with a full commercial license and is not an academic or educational license or a beta/demo/trial etc.

Sorry to be so specific, but there are some dodgy vendors on ebay.
Thanks very much.

And there you have it. It is polite, direct and unambiguous. There is no need for the seller to take offence, anyone would want to make just as sure as you are trying to be.

Typically I have had one of three responses from sellers, to this type of query:

1. No reply. This is fine by me, it tells me something may be wrong. If they simply did not get round to replying - too bad, but it's not worth the risk.

2. Total confirmation. They confirm all my points, and I am more confident to bid. Of course they may be lying but because of the detail of my questioning I will have a good case for claiming my money back since the item was not as described.

3. Partial confirmation. They might confirm some points but not others. This might be harmless - for instance they no longer have the packaging but everything else is in order. But do be careful with these. Don't assume that because they only mention one problem that everything else is confirmed. Anything you ask which they do not specifically confirm may be a problem. What you want is positive confirmation of each point. In this case I would simply send another question asking them to confirm all points except, for instance, that the box is missing.

Being this cautious might smack of paranoia, but I have never been sold dodgy software on Ebay yet.

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