If you’re like me, you’ve gotten many e-mail messages
lately cajoling you to buy anti-virus software. “YOUR
COMPUTER IS AT RISK!” shouted one in all capital letters.
“PROTECT YOUR COMPUTER,” implored another.
If you don’t already have anti-virus software or need
an update, these offers may sound enticing. After all,
to anyone who’s connected to the Internet, computer
viruses are a serious threat and anti-virus software
is a must. And the price for the software advertised
in these e-mail messages is typically very attractive.
Problem is, offers such as these are usually just as
illegal as the virus activity they purport to protect
you from. For the most part these are pirated programs,
i.e., illicitly copied software that’s sold inexpensively
because it didn’t cost the seller anything to obtain
If you receive these kinds of unsolicited commercial
offers, or “spam,” the likelihood is high that it’s
a kind of come-on, regardless of which product or service
is being offered. With pirated anti-virus software,
you face the following risks, according to Sarah Hicks,
vice president of Product Management at Symantec Corp.,
whose Norton Anti-Virus and Norton System Works software
are often the victims of such piracy:
The practical legal risk for home users buying pirated
software is as small as it is big for users in business
or other organizational settings, says Bob Kruger, vice
president of Enforcement for the Business Software Alliance
(BSA), a piracy watchdog group headquartered in Washington,
- You don’t know what you’re getting. All the files
may not be included. Other files, such as viruses
or other malicious code, may be inserted into the
software as booby traps.
- The seller may be harvesting credit-card data,
with no intention of sending you the product.
- You may not be eligible for ongoing virus definition
updates even if you receive the software and it’s
identical to the legitimate program. This can still
leave you vulnerable to attack from new viruses.
- You are breaking the law.
Organizations risk a charge of up to $150,000 for each
program illegally copied. BSA has been aggressive in
going after violators. On October 31, 2002, it announced
settlements totaling close to $2 million with 12 different
organizations. Companies fined include an Irvine, Texas,
truck dealership, a Minneapolis manufacturing company,
a Denver area engineering firm, and Las Vegas laboratory.
While BSA has never gone after individual home users,
Kruger says, “It’s still an option we have open to us.”
Distributors and manufacturers of pirated software face
the greatest risks, including jail time.
One big-volume pirate operating out of Los Angeles
was sentenced on November 22, 2002, to 9 years in prison
without the possibility of parole. Law enforcement officials
had charged Lisa Chen with importing more than $75 million
worth of counterfeit Microsoft and Symantec software
from Taiwan for sale in this country.
The stakes are high as well for companies whose products
are being pirated. Based on an estimate of 25 percent
of all software programs purchased being pirated copies,
BSA believes that last year the dollar loss resulting
from piracy nationwide was $11 billion. Piracy rates
are believed to be highest in the East South Central
and Mountain states and lowest in the Middle Atlantic
and East North Central states.
For software companies, in addition to lost profits,
piracy reduces funds for research and development, which
translates into fewer software innovations available
to business and home users.
Computer users should take other precautions along
with being wary of unsolicited e-mail pitches. Buy software
from legitimate resellers, whether in a store setting,
on the Internet, or through other channels. Check prices
and forgo those 90 percent discounts. Get details on
return, service, and warranty policies.
In an organization setting, you should keep track of
the software you buy and use. One person should have
responsibility for overseeing the software.
Go through your normal purchasing channels, even with
inexpensive software programs, rather than through employee
expense reports, travel reports, or petty cash, which
can make it difficult to track software purchases.
Pay attention to product licensing language. Don’t
think you can necessarily buy one program and copy it
onto every computer. All it takes is one disgruntled
current or former employee to pick up the phone. Keep
software discs in a secure area to minimize the chances
of employees innocently but illegally installing programs
in violation of licensing agreements.
To help keep you out of trouble, BSA provides at its
Web site [http://www.bsa.org]
a free guide to software management, a software audit
tool, and a training video.
is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org