Software makers battle `pirates' with education

Rip-offs: Copies, counterfeit versions and illegal multiple use of programs cost publishers and users billions each year.

July 18, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

The e-mail ads couldn't be more enticing: Adobe Photoshop 7, the gold standard for professional image editing, regularly $609, now only $39.95. And Norton Systemworks 2002, a top utility package, for 90 percent off retail.

There's only one problem: "If it looks too good to be true, then it is too good to be true," says Ray Campbell, senior corporate counsel for Adobe Systems.

The offers come from software "pirates" who swashbuckle their way through swap meets, computer shows and the Internet, proffering fake or illegally copied programs that cost legitimate publishers $11 billion last year, according to the Business Software Alliance.

FOR THE RECORD - A Plugged In article on July 18 incorrectly stated the number of lawsuits Adobe Systems Inc. files annually against software pirates. An Adobe spokesman said the company files five to 10 suits a year and investigates 100 to 200 complaints. Based on information from an interview with a lawyer for Adobe, the original story reported the larger figures as the number of suits.
The Sun regrets the error.

Some of the operations are sophisticated businesses that sell meticulously counterfeited software packages. Others are small outfits selling junk copies of programs that won't work at all. They're a continuing headache for the nation's largest software makers, who have responded with educational programs for consumers, beefed-up investigative teams, and "activation" schemes aimed at forestalling illegal copying .

Ignorant or willing

Bob Kruger, a former federal prosecutor who is vice president of enforcement for the Business Software Alliance, a trade organization of major publishers, says consumers should be careful about what they buy - and notes that many are already aware that a great deal isn't on the up-and-up.

"If someone offers me a Rolex for $100, you know, I would be getting a good deal but more likely, I'm getting something that's not authentic or isn't legal," he said.

Software piracy comes in many forms, Kruger added. Among them:

A company decides not to purchase licenses for every computer that runs a copy of software such as Microsoft Office or AutoCAD, an expensive design program.

Autodesk Inc., which publishes AutoCAD, estimates that only one in five computers running its programs has a legal copy. At $3,750 per license, that's a significant loss, says Sandy Boulton, the corporation's director of piracy prevention.

Large counterfeiting operations that produce thousands of copies of programs such as Microsoft Office, Photoshop or Norton Utilities and sell them over the Internet. FBI agents brought down one such West Coast operation in April, identifying 27 conspirators. The bulk of the counterfeiting involved eight separate schemes to sell fake Microsoft products, with the company estimating its loss from just one of those scams at $100 million.

Casual copying of software by consumers for friends, relatives and business associates. While some software licenses permit use of a program on more than one computer owned by the a person, most do not. For example, placing Microsoft Office XP on your laptop and your desktop computers requires a user to buy two licenses, at $400 or more each.

According to the BSA's annual global report, the $11 billion lost to software piracy last year was a slight decrease from 2000.

The association attributes the dollar decline to falling software prices and currency fluctuations, not less piracy. Still, its own figures show a steady slow decline in piracy among developing countries, long a hotbed of counterfeiting. Worldwide, pirated copies now represent 40 percent of all installed software, the group claims. In the United States, it has been steady at about 26 percent since 1998.

How can you tell if software is pirated? In many cases, it isn't hard. Sarah Hicks, vice president of product management for Symantec Corp., says it was clear that many of the counterfeit versions of its Norton System Works seized in a November bust in Los Angeles were never intended to look like they came straight from the factory.

"Very little of it was in boxed packages; some of it was in white envelopes," she said.

At the other extreme, sophisticated pirates have used Mylar labels to make counterfeit CDs of Microsoft products look like the edge-to-edge holographic designs of Bill Gates' products.

"We can tell because we know what the counterfeit version looks like, but it can be hard for the customers to see the difference," said Tim Cranton, a corporate attorney with Microsoft.

He says customers should go to to learn more about how to protect themselves.

Piracy tip-offs

Sometimes, publishers get wind of piracy simply by opening their e-mail.

"One that happened to us involved a company calling itself Symantic," said Hicks of Symantec. "People thought we were spamming them and complained. Well, they even sent e-mails to Symantec employees."

Disgruntled employees often tip off software publishers to piracy in their companies.

"Most people don't think they're going to get caught," said Autodesk's Boulton. "With our product, the perceived risk may be small. They'll say, `I'm a small architectural firm, who's going to come after me?'

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