Software piracy amnesty is set

Local companies have until Aug. 31 to start to obtain licenses

July 30, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

A computer industry group that combats software piracy has a message for Baltimore-area businesses: Stop using illegal copies during the next month or we'll come after you.

And to further its point, the alliance will announce tomorrow that two local businesses have paid $180,000 to settle claims over illegal software.

Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Howard County paid $115,000 and e.magination, a Baltimore Internet company, paid $65,000 to the Business Software Alliance, a Washington organization created by software manufacturers to slow the bootleg use of their products.

"Those are highly significant settlements for the usual cases that BSA goes after," said Erich W. Merrill Jr., an attorney in Portland, Ore., who specializes in technology and intellectual property lawsuits and who is familiar with the alliance's work.

"It's not in their top 10, but it's a big settlement that would have a major impact on those businesses' bottom lines."

Syd Rubin, e.magination's president and chief operating officer, said his company's use of copies of software for which it hadn't secured licenses was discovered after an employee alerted the alliance.

The Canton company had trouble keeping track of various copies of software on its computers after it grew rapidly during the technology boom of 1999 and 2000, Rubin said. It has since added an automated system to detect illegal software, he said.

The Business Software Alliance claimed e.magination had more copies of Adobe, Autodesk, Microsoft and Symantec software on its computers than it had licenses for them.

"We know exactly who it was," Rubin said of the whistleblower at the company. "We are very cognizant of copyright law and wouldn't ever willfully pirate software."

Turf Valley did not return calls for comment.

The alliance said Turf Valley had unlicensed copies of Adobe, Microsoft and Symantec software on its computers.

Businesses can save thousands of dollars by using pirated versions of software programs instead of buying them.

Baltimore is one of five cities to which the alliance is offering amnesty periods in August. The other cities are San Diego; Columbus, Ohio; Huntsville, Ala.; and Providence, R.I. The group plans to contact about 200,000 businesses in those areas in August.

Companies won't be pursued for violations that occurred before Aug. 31 - providing they've taken steps to secure licenses, the alliance said.

Whistleblowers

Alliance investigations often begin with a call from a whistleblower to its hot line, 1-888-NO PIRACY, or with a similar report online at www.bsa.org.

Adobe, Apple Computer and Microsoft Corp. are among the dozen companies behind the Business Software Alliance. During the past 11 years, the alliance has collected more than $78 million in penalties from companies using unlicensed software.

The possible fines for copyright infringement under federal law would greatly exceed the sum of those settlements, the alliance said.

The alliance's figures show that software piracy increased in 2001 after declining for several years. In Maryland, about 1 in 3 copies of business software is illegal, the alliance estimates.

That is comparable with the U.S. average but well below the abuse in other parts of the world. Eighty or 90 percent of business software in China and Russia is believed pirated.

As the computer age has made it easier to trade and copy information, copyright enforcement groups have gained financial support from the recording and video industries as well as software developers.

Some of the Business Software Alliance's methods have come in for criticism, however.

"I've heard them referred to as the `software storm troopers' because of their tactics," said Robert F. Zielinski, a Philadelphia attorney who chairs the intellectual property and information technology law group at Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen.

He and others said they've defended cases in which a disgruntled information-services employee loaded unlicensed programs on a company's computers, resigned and then turned in his former company.

Warnings arouse fear

The alliance's blanket warnings arouse fear in companies that are uncertain if they are benefiting from pirated software.

One alliance campaign in New York amounted to "How you'd like to get even with your boss?" Zielinski said.

Bob Kruger, vice president of enforcement for the anti-piracy group, has warned companies in alliance ads that "as long as you don't have any former or current unhappy employees and don't plan to make any in the future, you're only a phone call away from a visit" by his investigators.

Company whistleblowers are "just about how all these cases get set in motion," Kruger said. "But just because you're disgruntled doesn't mean that you don't know what you're talking about.

"Our goal is to not to embarrass these companies. It's almost the opposite - to send a message to companies that this is something they ought to care about. If you don't put a name [of a violator] with it, they won't get the message."

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