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 it.
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, D.C.
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.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or reidgold.com.