Blowing the Whistle

Many whistle-blowers say they're more concerned about professional ethics than financial reward.

Revenge isn't the primary motive of individuals who blow the whistle on software piracy. Neither is money -- fewer than half of the informants who report their employers for using pirated or unlicensed PC software ask about financial rewards.

Instead, most informants are like Bob, who last year reported his former company for using what his then-boss told him was "jacked software." He was galled by the blatant dishonesty. Some informants, especially those who are in IT, also express concern about their professional reputations.

(The names of informants are kept confidential, so Computerworld is only using first names.)

In 2008, the Business Software Alliance received more than 2,500 reports of illicit use of software by companies in the U.S. It settled 588 cases for a total of $9.5 million. The BSA also paid out $136,000 to 42 informants, with the average reward being about $3,000.

Clearly, the number of informants outstrips the rewards paid out. That's because most informants aren't interested in financial compensation, according to the BSA, which maintains a reward pool of up to $1 million annually.

Rather, "most informants feel they have professional credentials to protect," says Jennifer Blank, the BSA's senior director of legal affairs. "People who call our hot line are outraged by the situation."

For Bob, the outrage began when he went to update operating system and design software at the small manufacturer where he worked. "The foreman told me you can't update it. He said it would freeze up and that the software wasn't registered," Bob recalls. "That was mind-boggling to me, because without that kind of software, they weren't in business."

Not long afterward, both Bob and, later, his boss, left the company. Bob got jobs at other manufacturers and after about a year decided to report his former employer.

"It stewed at me," especially as he saw other companies paying their fair share for the software they used, Bob explains. "It was the level of dishonesty that triggered me [to contact the BSA]."

Chuck, a computer science teacher in Pennsylvania, wasn't looking for money or kudos when he contacted the BSA about his school district. He was simply doing what's right, he says.

The district had purchased a single copy of Adobe software for use by 1,500 students. Well aware of software copyright and licensing laws -- which he taught to students as part of the computer science curriculum -- Chuck met with school administrators about the situation. He also discussed it with IT personnel lower down in the hierarchy. The high-level administrators, Chuck says, told him that what they were doing was perfectly legal. But at the lower end, "the people said they were aware of the licensing issue but that was what they were told to do by upper administration," Chuck recalls.

At that point, Chuck purchased his own copy of the Adobe software, read the licensing agreement carefully, and then contacted the BSA.

"It was really not a driving force to turn these guys in and cash in. It was more to get them back on track so everything we had was legally licensed," Chuck says.

"As somebody teaching students how to write computer programs and about the ethics involved in that, it's disturbing to find out your district isn't following procedures," he explains. "What kind of example does that set? We're there to teach kids right from wrong along with the right skill sets."

NEXT: Software piracy's global economic impact debated

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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