Viewpoint -- Personal Computing: Are You a Pirate?

E-mail offers hawking unbelievable discounts on software could cost you a bundle in the end.

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, 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:

  • 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're breaking the law.
The practical legal risk for home users in using 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 Oct. 31, 2002, it announced settlements totaling close to $2 million with 12 different organizations. Companies fined include an Irvine, Tex., truck dealership, a Minneapolis manufacturing company, a Denver-area engineering firm and a Las Vegas laboratory. BSA has never gone after individual home users, "but it's still an option we have open to us," says Kruger. Distributors and manufacturers of pirated software face the greatest risks, including jail time. One big-volume pirate operating out of Los Angeles was sentenced Nov. 22, 2002, to nine years in prison without the possibility of parole. Law enforcement officials had charged Lisa Chen with importing more than $75 million 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. BSA believes that last year the dollar loss resulting from piracy nationwide was $11 billion, based on an estimate of 25% of all software programs being pirated copies. 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% 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 this. 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 ( 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 protected] or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.
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