Can the BSA Scare Pirates

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted October 04, 2001
William C. Gillis

Beware of the watchdog. The Business Software Alliance, the non-profit group that represents software-maker giants such as Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Symantec, has targeted businesses that pirate computer software. A software pirate is anyone, or any organization, that copies, distributes, or installs software in ways that its license prohibits. In 2000, the BSA investigated over 500 companies, and over the last nine years the organization has recovered more than $60 million in penalties from organizations using unlicensed software.

In July, the BSA announced a software-piracy 'truce' in Atlanta, Kansas City, New York, Oklahoma City, and Portland, Ore. The BSA sent form letters to thousands of businesses warning that if they did not acquire licenses for all their software by the end of the month, they 'could become the focus of a BSA investigation.' Despite the scary rhetoric, businesses that receive such a letter aren't necessarily in violation of anti-piracy laws. Truce-area businesses that find they lack the proper licenses can acquire them before the end of a truce month, and will not be held responsible for prior license infringements.

According to Bob Kruger, BSA's vice president of enforcement, software piracy costs software makers $3 billion a year in the U.S. alone, and one in every four software programs in use in the U.S. is pirated. 'The biggest problem the industry faces is businesses - small- and medium-sized businesses in particular - that make more copies of software programs on office computers than they have licenses to support,' Kruger says.

That's why the BSA has taken a hard line. 'No company is too small for us to investigate,' Kruger says. 'You can be made to pay up to $150,000 for each copyrighted work infringed, under U.S. copyright law.' The BSA usually works out settlements with violating companies for well under $150,000; settlements ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 are common.

The BSA has been criticized for using strong-arm tactics in its campaigns. A radio advertisement broadcast in New York during the July truce warned businesses that they were 'only one phone call away' from being turned in by a disgruntled ex-employee. Previous campaigns have encouraged employees to rat out employers via a toll-free hotline.

Jim Steinberg, a corporate attorney with the Atlanta law firm Kilpatrick Stockton, has counseled clients that have received letters from the BSA during truce periods. 'The penalties for violation are real,' Steinberg says. 'You're always at risk that an ex-employee may blow the whistle on you.' He says businesses should perform a software-license self-audit on a regular basis. (Visitors to www.bsa.org can download a software-management guide and auditing tool.)The BSA has planned another truce campaign for October, in locations that will soon be announced. But businesses should take steps now, so they can watch this conflict from the sidelines. - William C. Gillis

In Other News

--Amazon.com has announced a software-licensing center within its software store. The online retailer will target small- and medium-sized businesses for volume-licensing packages. Amazon claims that licenses purchased through its site will cost roughly 20 percent less than the full retail price of boxed software. Visitors to the site will be able to acquire licenses for products from Microsoft, Symantec, McAfee, and several other manufacturers.

--Free e-mail for life? Not quite. USA.net announced in July that it was discontinuing its free e-mail service, used by more than 4 million people, at the end of the month. Users were given the option of paying $29.99 a month for an upgraded account, or finding an account elsewhere. USA.net cited a lack of advertising revenue for the change in policy.

--If you commute underground, you'll soon see folks chatting away on cell phones. In July, California's Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) system voted to begin negotiations with a company that plans to install a network that will allow cell-phone use along the 33 miles of system track that runs underground. New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston have all launched plans to wire their underground transit systems.- W.C.G.


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