When a company is found using illegal software, the people liable to be prosecuted for the offence are the company’s directors. That could be you. Last year, the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an industry body set up to combat software piracy, took legal action against 4,000 companies in Europe. This figure does not include action taken by other industry bodies, by national police forces, and by software companies themselves. For obvious reasons, it is very difficult to make accurate estimates of how much pirated software is in use today, but some experts put the figure at around a third of the installed base. In some countries, this is even higher: in Ireland, around three-quarters of the software in regular use is reckoned to be illegal. No wonder, then, that Microsoft has cited software pirates as its greatest competitors. To make matters more urgent, the pressure to take action against software crime has just increased thanks to the launch in May of a new campaign from the BSA. Under the slogan “Software piracy can seriously damage your professional health”, the body is instructing businesses on how to avoid software piracy and keep their organisations clean. It is also – and here’s the catch – using reward money to encourage employees to ‘shop’ their companies if they think there is software piracy going on. While this will help to catch more illegal software users, it does also leave companies open to the actions of malicious or disaffected employees who would rather report the problem to the BSA than help their company deal with the problem outside the legal system. So companies need to act now to ensure they comply with the law. Many guilty companies are unaware that they’re committing a crime – hence the BSA’s other warning: “Don’t be a passive victim”. Inadvertent piracy offences come in many forms, from an employee copying some cool applications from a friend and installing them on his work computer, to people downloading software from the Internet, unaware that they need licences to use it legally. Copying standard applications such as Word or Excel from a desktop machine to a laptop is also common. It is less common for companies to knowingly implement widespread installations of business software they know to have been copied illegally and sold by criminals. Avoiding the use of illegal software is more a matter of business procedures than technology. In the first place, companies should be careful to buy their software from accredited dealers. Though much of the pirated software on the market is distributed through the likes of car boot sales, where corporate users are unlikely to shop, there are unscrupulous dealers who sell illegally copied or stolen software. Most software now comes with a hologrammed licence agreement and a unique identifying number, which needs to be registered with the manufacturer. You should also ensure that you buy enough licences to cover the number of users. As companies expand, it can be easy to overlook the licensing agreements issued with software, and simply copy the programs on to new employees’ machines automatically. (Equally, some companies end up paying for licences that aren’t even used. This is a matter for the IT department). Companies should be aware of the need to stop users installing their own software of dubious origin on to work machines. This software is not only usually unlicensed, but could also contain viruses capable of disabling the user’s machine or worse. Downloading software from the Internet can also be risky, and most corporate firewalls prevent employees importing anything that could be a virus. However, the most common Internet downloads are applications such as browsers, browser plug-ins and drivers, which present no threat and are generally free anyway. The first step in enforcing these anti-virus measures is as simple as a corporate memo to ensure that all employees are aware of the risks and penalties of sharing or downloading unauthorised software in this way. The penalties imposed on errant users vary wildly: in some firms, employees are warned that unauthorised software use is a dismissable offence. Visitors to the BSA website can download sample memos and employee anti-piracy agreements, as well as fill in a form to assess whether they’re at risk from pirated software. For firms wanting more reliable procedures than counting on employees following orders, there are some technological helpmeets. Systems departments could check all users’ software manually, but this is time-consuming. The BSA offers a free and easy to use application, called SoftScan, capable of scanning machines to detect all licensed and unlicensed software. More complicated versions of this type of software, capable of metering and auditing machines over a corporate network, are also on the market, from vendors such as On Technology, Tally Systems and Pathfinder. Software vendors have not, to date, been as keen as they could be to detect and prosecute companies guilty of using illegal software. This is largely because the market for software has grown at such a rate that this has not been a priority. But as the market becomes saturated, and many high-tech companies have seen their growth rates flatten, the manufacturers will be more intent on protecting the revenues from their intellectual property.
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