Network pirates

Pirates have moved from three-masted ships to three-piece suits. They sit at computer terminals counting their loot. And worst of all, they work for you.

“You can most definitely find software pirating in one form or another in any company,” says Peter Beruk, director, domestic anti-piracy, for the Software Publishers Alliance. “The question mark is how much.”

Business owners should take note: This is a big deal. If you copy Microsoft Word and put it on 10 other computers in the office, the potential fines could reach $1 million. The software maker can recover up to $100,000 for each infringement.

“That’s serious dollars if the company has 10 computers, has a fine of $100,000 per machine and has to pay court and legal costs,” notes Beruk. “That buys a lot of software.”

Cleaning up

There are several things a company can do to eliminate the threat of piracy.

  • Implement a strong policy that prohibits the use of unauthorized material. Finding unauthorized material should be grounds for termination.
  • Conduct audits to find out what programs are on which machines. “Audits will help you determine what’s installed and you can compare that to the licensed material,” says Beruk.
  • Keep track of what is purchased.
  • Don’t allow purchases of software on expense reports. Buy programs so you have proof they were purchased legally. Simply having original disks isn’t enough. It also makes getting upgrades easier.

Software piracy has become a bigger problem in small companies. Lack of resources combined with not being able to afford a full-time MIS director means computer duties fall on either the president or whoever has some extra time.

“It’s not that they want to pirate software,” says Beruk. “It’s just a situation where they simply aren’t managing it effectively.” He recommends that computer duties be assigned to someone who can approve purchases and who has the expertise to decide when and how a policy should be put in place, and when audits should be conducted.

Audits should be performed at least once a year. The Software Publishers Alliance distributes free audit software that conducts an audit every day. The program works invisibly until a problem is detected. The software is available by calling (800) 388-7478 or from the SPA’s Website.

Don’t think that expensive office programs are the only things being copied. Screen-saver programs are typically the most copied. They might cost far less than a productivity program, but the fines levied are the same.

“What’s difficult for our industry is people don’t see what goes into creating a program,” says Beruk. “They can’t see the value beyond the 50-cent floppy disk. They are not looking at the effort it took to develop that code. Just because it’s easy to copy doesn’t make it legal.

“Before you go deleting material off a machine, talk to the person who had the material. It may be a case where the person bought it legally and brought it to work to use.”


Don’t think that you’re too small to be noticed. The size of companies being reported on the piracy hotline have continued to decline during the last eight years. Anyone can turn you in: ex-employees, temps or even current employees.

“They believe, in most cases, that it is the right thing to do,” says Beruk. “When we receive information, we will thoroughly investigate it.”

The SPA receives an average of 30 new piracy reports a day. About 10 actions are taken every week. Actions range from a cease-and-desist letter to lawsuits. Companies are sometimes asked to police themselves. A letter is sent notifying them of possible violations, with a request for an audit.

“Many times the president of the company was not aware there was unauthorized software in the organization,” says Beruk. “It’s often because there wasn’t a policy in place or it wasn’t enforced from the top down.”

Making a copy of software at work for home use isn’t necessarily illegal. In some cases, you can legally take a copy home, but cannot otherwise distribute it. If an employee made a copy of Claris Works for work at home then made illegal copies to give to friends, the software maker would likely go after the individual and not the company.

Buying one copy of Microsoft Office does not entitle the buyer to put it on as many computers as they like. “That’s a classic case of infringement,” says Beruk. “If you bought a 10-user pack, then it would be permitted.”

Users can also transfer the program to a different computer as long as the original is deleted from the old machine.