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Is sideloading APK files considered piracy?

Recently, we got a question from someone new to Android about sideloading apps. For the most part, this isn't something you do (or can do) on iOS and seeing people in the comments of articles here and elsewhere about getting APK files online and sideloading them was a little confusing. Along with some confirmation about the hows and the whys, the meat of the question centered around piracy.

Let's start by explaining what an APK is for the people who aren't quite sure. Technonerd jargon aside, an APK file holds the contents of an Android app; inside it is everything needed to install and use the app as long as it's built with support for your phone. This APK file is stand-alone and can be downloaded to your phone's storage. Clicking on it will install it once you've given permission to install apps from Unknown sources (downloaded from somewhere that's not the Play Store). You'll find APK files hosted in plenty of places on the web. The act of installing an app using this APK method is called 'sideloading'.

Sideloading doesn't mean stealing. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to get an app that's not from Google's Play Store.

Finding them and installing them is simple. And there are plenty of good reasons to do things this way — using an alternative app store like Amazon or F-Droid, or even MiKandi (NSFW) comes to mind. There are also plenty of not-so-good reasons to do it, like pirating paid apps and games. The more difficult part is the grey area that emerges when you want a free app that is regularly distributed through the Play Store, but rolls out slowly.

Without getting into a discussion about software piracy and morality, it's safe to say that using any app without a license to do so is definitely piracy. But that's not the entire picture. When the newest Google Something app is released that does something new and everyone wants it, the APK file for it gets spread around liberally. You'll find people here talking about it and where to get it, and the same goes for most any other Android blog or social space where Android users talk to each other.

It's pretty obvious that Google isn't concerned about it or they would find a way to shut down the distribution of such files. They push updates for their apps out slowly so they can monitor for bugs with a manageable sample size. It's easier to stop things and fix them for a few users than it is for a billion users. The want everyone on the planet to be using that app in the long run. Technically, though, it's piracy because you only have a license to use the app if you downloaded it from Google Play on that device.

And wait forever to get to try it unless you sideload it

And wait forever to get to try it unless you sideload it

Things get even murkier. Every developer who uploads an app into Google Play is doing so under Google's rules. Those rules go both ways and one of them says Google will allow a developer to decide which devices can install his or her app and Google will only let those devices download and install it.

Someone downloading an app then pulling it from their phone to share with others is the complete opposite of that. A developer might care. I know some do because they have told me. Not because they don't want everyone to have a copy of their app but because sometimes an app runs poorly on a particular brand of Android phones or a particular model. So yes, this is technically piracy, too.

The answer to the piracy question is up to the developer and the publisher. That means it's confusing.

The simple answer to this one — is sideloading an app considered piracy? — is yes, if you didn't pay for it and should have, or it wasn't approved for use where you are or on your phone, or is only supposed to be available through Google Play.

A better question (that gives the answer we're looking for) is, How much does it matter for free apps that I would have downloaded anyway once available?

That one's between you and the people who developed it. As for what I think? I do it. I don't just grab an app from someone I don't know or a site that anyone can upload to because of security concerns, but I'll install the latest Google gotta-have-it app for my Pixel if someone gets it first. I know Google isn't going to mind if another nerd installs an app that turns out bad. I don't do it for apps from another developer, though. I respect whatever reason they have to not let me install it the "right" way and move on to a different app.

What about you?

Now I'm curious. Not counting apps from Google, what do you do? Shout out in the comments and tell us what you think. No judging. Just looking for honest feedback.

Got a question for AC? Ask Jerry in the forums!

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

73 Comments
  • Nope. Except adblocker I don't sideload. I want an app, I pay for the real thing.. That way I can chat the dev if I have issues
  • Might be worth reading this article again, you might not have grasped it. I've sideloaded dozens, possibly hundreds, of apps one way or another over the years and to my memory I haven't pirated a single one.
  • Haha fuzzylumpkin, I think I got it alright. I don't do as much with apps as you do perhaps. Stuff I use comes from play store, except Adguard. I don't get out much 🙃but I do get the difference between side loading and pirating...
  • There isn't much difference in terms, unless you argue it with a legal attorney who is going to make the words and sentences sound fancy so that way the rest of the world doesn't understand their incoherent sentences.
  • What happens if the developer doesn't offer any valuable insight if you have a problem? Then what?
  • Exactly. I use "Block This" ad blocker because it's not available from the Play store and you have to side load it. I also support the developer by donating. BTW I find Block This uses a lot less battery than Adguard.
  • If it costs money & you need hacks to get around to installing it properly that is piracy imo. If it is a free app that can be downloaded from anywhere then imo it is not piracy.
  • That is exactly my opinion. Seems like an obvious ethical boundary to me.
  • If sideloading is "piracy" I guess Amazon is one of the largest Android piracy sites. For those that don't know, to install Amazon app store you can have link sent to your phone that basically downloads the apk and installs it. Then every app the Amazon app gives you is basically a download of an APK and install outside of the google play eco system.
  • I thought the same thing when I noticed this article (BTW Thank you Jerry) I've paid a little under 25 bucks for apps from the Amazon Underground appstore.
    A bit of a hassle turning on and off the security feature for those sideloads.
  • Amazon has EXPLICIT permission from the dev to distribute apps. Hence... it's not piracy by definition. The article states (in big bold letters) that "sideloading does not mean stealing" did you even read the article or think about it before you posted?
  • I was providing commentary to the editorial question - "Is sideloading an Android app considered piracy? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends." Which made me think about Amazon and how it delivers content. Yes I did read the article, which states fairly clearly that Google would shut down sideloading if ti was really concerned.
    So to answer your question yes I did read and think, which drove my posting. I guess you read my comment in a different way?
  • As far as I'm concerned, it took a developer time to develop the app, the developer deserves to get paid for it!
  • That may be true, but has nothing directly to do with sideloading. You're conflating sideloading and piracy, you couldn't do that.
  • No. It is not.
  • I sideload premium apps I use rarely (ie Accuweather) and pay for the apps I really love and use all the time (ie Nova).
  • Well that's OK then. I am sure the devs of the apps you don't use very often will understand.
  • Accuweather sees this.
    Wtf!
  • I do it all the time without remorse for free apps
  • People should read the article before commenting. Sheesh.
  • I don't like reading the articles. Just the headlines. Then I base my comment off the headline.
  • The only apps I sideload are those that are not available in my region! For example untill very recently the BBC radio iPlayer app was not available so I had to sideload it and repeat the process everytime it got updated.
    For premium apps I would just rather suffer the ads or throw the Devs a few quid every now and tben
  • i sideload just becoz of high prices of the apps. In dollars, prices look great but when it comes to INR, it just ripps the pocket apart. Other than that, we dont have proper payment options - just net banking and card payment. no mobile carrier billing no mobile wallet options.....
  • I steal a new TV from Best Buy every Super Bowl because they're too expensive. We should hang out. In other news, if the developer is losing money because of sideloading, I consider that piracy. If you're doing it because an update hasn't been pushed to your phone yet, that's a lot harder to define. Great article, Jerry!
  • Do you get take the service plan brochure too?
  • And a blue shirt as well!
  • Folks have NO trouble at all shelving out the money to buy a very pricey phone - a Galaxy S7 Edge costs 50 thousand INR, 35 thousand PHP (where I live,) and 700-something USD, but stop at the thought of buying a good app (say, the 4.99USD Pocket Casts) they can recuperate from not smoking a pack of cigarettes or buying powdered coffee instead of a Starbucks. Ergo, Piracy is legitimised. That's a bit ridiculous to me.
  • Would you walk into a store and steal something because it was too expensive?
  • How about you sideload an app that is not available on your device and you pay to subscribe ?
  • well, if the app in question in free (Hulu, HBO Now, etc), I don't see that as piracy.
  • If you sideload a free app or an app that's usually paid but the actual developer has a free link for a version to sideload (usually with limitations), then I won't hate you. If you sideload a paid app via a third-party link without the developer's knowledge, please get out unless you have a supremely legitimate reason.
  • How do you remember your username?
  • Great question. I have no idea. It's been with me since 2011
  • Stay signed in!
  • It looks easy to me. It's words with numbers in place of some letters that they resemble.
  • I only sideload music download apps.
  • Unless those are Spotify, Rdio, Play Music or similar, it sounds like you are sideloading a free app in order to get another pirated stuff.
  • When I had a BlackBerry 10 device, side loading was the only way you could get the most popular apps. Since buying my 6P though I haven't sideloaded anything.
  • Because bb10 is built for security, it can handle any app. The security is not even close to the galaxy. I love samsung phones tho but for other reasons.
  • When I had my TF701 I did sideload a bunch of the ASUS apps because they were constantly showing in the Play Store as having updates available when said updates were flagged as not compatible.
  • If you use a different app store to or sideload free apps. I see no problem. If you use the workaround to get a paid app for free. Yes, piracy.
    Pay these people for their hard work.
  • I dl (free) apps like android auto... that are not available in my country through google play. I dont sideload apps that need to be paid for.
  • Only ever side-loaded related a to a product I bought on the Play store which they then "neutered". Bought BSPlayer Pro a few years ago, and it was great. Played anything I could throw at it, streamed from m NAS, etc. About a year ago, updates started removing certain codecs from the App, saying, "you need so and so codec from the store", but when I got to the store, it said that codec was not available in my region (US here). So they actively removed features from an app I purchased after the fact. Total BS. Found those APKs I'm not "allowed" to have, and side-loaded. Zero regrets.
  • Which sites host untouched Apks meaning i could trust that no additional code is added? Apkmirror? Any other site?
  • APKMirror and APKPure are good ones. APKPure also has a downloader so you can c/p Play Store links and grab the APKs that way (Only free apps, paid apps won't work unless you already own the app)
  • Stick to APK Mirror. Everything you would ever want without stealing will be there, and Artem and his guys do everything they can do to make sure all the files are clean and haven't been tampered with.
  • I literally just yesterday got the update for Instagram which allows for the liking of comments. I pretty sure AC published an article about that update being released weeks ago! So, I can see the motivation for people to sideload. My take is if I'm not trying to get around paying for an app, then I'm good to go.
  • I steer clear of APK's on security grounds, not being too technonerdish. I'm also a believer of paying the developer their dues.
  • I believe that "sideload" is a term for the process of loading or installing an app on a locked down apple product. Therefore, I haven't sideloaded anything. I've simply installed apks. Real simple process. When flashing a custom rom, many times, Google apps aren't included and you have to install the apks. Please let's not use a convoluted term for an easy thing to do in Android.
  • I sideloaded adguard, definitely not in store cuz google hates ad blocking, and i download apps from apkmirror or apkpure when i think older versions are better than newer versions i have updated just now. And yes, i tried to sideload infinite flight, but i stopped it because i felt sorry for them, bought it, and promised myself not tp do it again. As a dev, please, dont do it, if you are dealing with licenses or paid apps.
  • I sideloaded AdGuard and a few apps that aren't available in Canada, Cortana, Hulu, Facebook Lite, HBO Now.
  • I side load apps, that are not available via the Google play Store.
    For instance, I cannot stand the pages version of Waze (4.0+) with its cartoon appearance and reduced capabilities. Therefore, I "side load" an earlier version, each time I flash a new ROM.
    Another is Amazon Underground. Not available at the play store, but I believe my account with Amazon would preclude any charges of piracy being cast in my direction.
    (eyes looking up)
  • I sideload certain apps that sits within the gray area, being it's a free app but isn't licensed to distribute from unofficial sources. I think Amazon Videos is a good example of one of these apps. They've even sent takedown notices to sites that host their files because they want their apps to be downloaded directly from them.
  • Of course sideloading is not piracy, Installing software you don't have the right to use is. Plenty of devs send apk's to beta-testers, user with issues, etc. to test code rather than upload a new apk to the play store or even provide apk distribution for anyone's use outside of the Play store. It's about having legal right to install and use. Don't blame the method. Same problem as those people who think torrents, bitcoin, etc. are illegal.
  • I don't pirate anymore. But I do side load apps that I have bought and sometimes they don't work or you have to do sometype of skull duggery to get them to work. X-Com doesn't even work on the Shield Tablet among other things.
  • I smell another South Park episode being made out of this. It really depends on who you want to ask. Of course most developers will probably tell you it is, when in actuality it really isn't.
  • What do you mean by south park?
  • I typically sideload adaway and then any new Google app from APKmirror since i don't like to wait. I do take backups of my apps just in case an update breaks something so that it is easy to go back to an older version without having to find an apk on the internet. I don't care at all if any of it is considered piracy. Until google gets as good at backups as titanium backup I will continue doing it my way. I don't install anything paid unless I have paid for it legitimately though. However, once I have paid for something I have no problem using a cracked version of it if it means it will work better for me. For example, if an app required an internet connection for DRM purposes I would buy that app and then have absolutely no problem installing a hacked version that eliminated the internet requirement.
  • I side load AdAway on my Nexus devices, stop me.
  • There's other reasons to 'sideload' - Consider, if you will, an issue that occurred with the update to Google App last week and a lot of Samsung Android users. The update broke access to the multi-task screen when using the 'long press' on the Home button. Instead, it would crash the System UI. I've no idea if this is an issue with Samsung and certain variations of its OS, or its a Google problem. Neither seem awfully interested in it.
    After a weekend of folks gnashing their teeth, the Google App was found to be the culprit by users, and 'Uninstall Updates' via Settings > Application, the solution. Problem is, that takes the Google App right back to its original factory installed version, which can be pretty ancient for some users, and can remove a lot of features on later (non-problematic) builds of the app. So, if you can find the app prior to this last one, download the .apk and install it - regaining features - who is that hurting? You're actually restoring functionality to the OS.
    Another reason?
    I was not a fan of the idea of installing Facebook Messenger on my device - especially when it wanted access to my Contacts to install - and their apps have been power hogs in the past - to the point where I used m.facebook.com to access FB proper. But I was made aware of a legit version of the app intended for older devices (which my tablet certainly qualifies as, running 4.2.2) and/or locations where the internet isn't everything it could be (not so much) - and with the added bonus, it didn't want access to my Contacts. Downloaded and installed this Lite version. Ditto recently a Lite version of FB proper (same intentions from company), so I'm using their products, as intended. Who does that hurt? And each of these apps were free from the developers (insofar as letting them sell off your info and habits is free), so no harm, no foul.
  • I have side loaded Google play services a lot on several devices because it is not vailable on the play store as it was before. I also have sideloaded the play store itself on devices such as Moto E because of app problem not working correctly. And yes, I have pirated apps before but that's you don't need to know about that. Believe it or not, I also pay for apps :)
  • Agree with some of the others, Sideloading is a stupid word to describe something you are well within your rights to do - installing a piece of software onto a device you own. I guess we've been "sideloading" apps onto our PCs for the last 30-odd years! Android is meant to be about treating people like grown-ups - you can do whatever you like with the device but it's your responsibility if something goes wrong. Of course, that extends to pirate software - if you choose to install such apps, that's your choice, if you get a virus, or get prosecuted, again that's your problem. Sideloading apps is not piracy, installing apps for which you don't have a licence for is piracy, let;s not conflate the two concepts. That's the same as saying that Kodi is a pirate device
  • I have AppMonster and will reinstall apps that Google Play has removed or are no longer supported by the app developer that I have paid for (WeatherBug Elite). Would this be considered piracy since I had the apps legitimately on a phone, but I'm upgrading phones and they aren't available anymore?
  • Gotta be careful sideloading and where you're getting the apks from. Could get viruses and the like
  • Just download from apkmirror of apkpure.
    No worries from malware! Disclaimer: im not advertising
    :D
  • Mainly, I sideload apps when I'm eager for an update/new feature, or if I want to go back to the previous version of an app. I've never pirated paid apps like games, but I have sideloaded a "free" Netflix-like movie app before, admittedly.
  • I bought an OnHub and imported it to my country. When I went to download the Google On app to set it up, Play Store said it wasn't available in my country. No choice but to pay a visit to apkmirror.
  • I "have to" sideload some apps because:
    - the current versions available in PlayStore are only compatible with newer version of Android (say for using 3 year old tablet)
    - the current versions available in PlayStore somehow are worse than the previous version, such as removed search function etc. I wish we can choose versions in PlayStore, as this will overcome both problems above.
  • If choose version is available, developers will be super mad, because people will shout why the older version doesnt work and the devs will say that it was fixed in the next version, and so on. Just go to apkmirror.
  • I have a tablet for my kids that has no app store and no networks configured. I buy apps on my main devices and side load them to the kids gizmo. Plus then it doesn't count against my device limit. I sometimes sideload a backup of an old app when there is a major ui "upgrade" that cripples usability for me.
  • If it's an app you were supposed to pay for and didn't then of course it's piracy, if it's a freely distributable app or you paid for it then it isn't; pretty much the same as computers have worked for the last 40 years.
  • I leave loose .apk's alone. Nothing good ever came of it for me.
  • I have installed apps from the Amazon Appstore. I also installed an APK for Firefox Nightly.