- By Joab Jackson -
I figured Bob Kruger, vice president of enforcement for the Business
Software Alliance (BSA)
might be a tad sheepish about his organization's way of encouraging
employees to rat out their bosses. Heck no! Harnessing employees'
vengeful tendencies to find out whether companies are using more
copies of software than they have licenses for is what the
alliance is all about. Kruger says BSA gets about 1,500 calls a
year from its hotline (1-888-NOPIRACY) and about as many leads from
emails sent to its Web site. And it follows up on most of
these tips. "Those with an ax to grind, those who are disgusted with some
aspect of the company, or have been mistreated" is how Kruger
characterizes BSA's whistle-blowers. "Sometimes it's a person with
a vendetta," he acknowledges in a phone interview.
"But it can be a vendetta with some good information."
Thanks to these legions of the disaffected, BSA recently
$512,000 in fines from eight California businesses,
some almost mom-and-pop in size. Since 1988 the alliance,
acting on behalf of software companies such as Adobe,
Apple, Microsoft, and Symantec, has collected approximately
$59 million from the corporate world (the money
goes back into BSA "enforcement
and education" programs for the prevention of future software theft).
You know how this sort of thing starts: A company may buy one copy of a
software program but, for whatever reason, spreads it across five or 10
computers in the workplace. Some companies purchase multiple
licenses to cover such additional users -- licenses can cost as
much as the cost of the original software but are usually sold
at a discount -- but many don't. BSA estimates that 25 percent of
all business software in the United States is illegally copied this
So obviously, Adobe and Symantec and other makers of the closed-source
goods want businesses to buy their products the same way they purchase
pens, staples, or automobiles -- if you need cars for 10 workers, you buy
10 cars. The problem is getting office managers, who probably don't spend
much time thinking about "software licenses," into line with the
industry's thinking. What better way to do so than a few
software raids," accompanied by heavy fines for software misuse?
And what better way to ferret out such misuse than relying on the many,
many desk jockeys who would love to see their office managers sweat?
Kruger speaks with a rough-hewn, gravely voice. It's a voice I
suspect is attached to the kind of body I wouldn't want to meet up
in a dark alley with a 100 bootlegged copies of Quark XPress.
He tells me that the key is finding an informant willing to go on
the record. BSA can only get a court order to do legally do an
audit of the suspect firm's computers if it has someone willing to
vouch that a business is using software illegally. ("We don't like to call it
[an audit] a raid, but in reality that's what they are -- raids,"
Kruger says.) Then the alliance corroborates the info with other
resources -- for instance, it can check the software company's
registration records or consult with its regional sales office.
Once the alliance has a judge's OK, a team of auditors -- usually
BSA accountants with laptops -- shows up at the business under
suspicion, along with a few U.S. marshals. The auditors check
what software is on each computer, then asks to see the company's
licenses. For each software use for which the firm doesn't have
papers, it's fined. While each violation carries with it a fine
of up to $150,000, Kruger says, the actual figure comes down to
a dance between BSA lawyers and the offending party's chosen
reps. He assures me that the alliance's intent is to
make its point via the company's bottom line: "It's one awfully
rude way for companies to realize it's a lot more expensive to
violate copyright laws than to comply with them."
Unquestionably, copying of proprietary software is ethically
incorrect. But to my mind, BSA's methods are equally foul. To encourage
individuals' petty tendency to "get back" at their bosses is to
encourage a mind-set of irresponsibility. It suggests to employees that whatever
sucky situation they are in is the result of circumstances beyond
their control, and therefore they're justified to "retaliate."
I thought responsibility -- in the form of paying for software that
is used -- is what BSA is trying to promote. It may serve BSA's
bottom-line ends, but it makes for
even more hostile working environments. The software industry is
doing no favors to the communities it serves by encouraging mistrust.
In other words, its just more FUD.
Kruger estimates that the number of BSA software raids
will probably level off in the next few years as acceptance of proper
licensing procedures grows. He is confident this will happen, what
with all the publicity generated by the busts. In the meantime,
there is no shortage of targets.
"It's very easy to get caught," Kruger says. "Companies may think
they won't, but they're assuming they won't ever have a disgruntled
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