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
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

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.