Gotcha! Pursuing software pirates

The inside story of how corporate software piracy cases are investigated and prosecuted. Hint: They often start with an IT informant.

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Another critical piece of information the informant supplied is the number of computers in use at the company and the number of PC software licenses or programs that were legally purchased. Among other irregularities, the informant alleges that a single purchased copy of Acrobat Pro software from Adobe Systems Inc. and five legally acquired copies of Microsoft Corp.'s Office Professional suite are in use on 69 user PCs.

"We ask a significant number of questions [in the online reporting form] because we're looking for as much detailed information as we can get to help us understand and get a comfort level that the person who is reporting really has the goods," explains Jennifer Blank, the BSA's senior director of legal affairs.

Once the lead passes a preliminary credibility check, Frank Konczakowski, the BSA's program coordinator for enforcement, contacts the informant to gather additional information about specific software-related conversations, memos or meetings that might bolster the case. The BSA also contacts the software vendor for whatever licensing or sales information it may have about the suspect company.

"If our informant reports 100 copies of Norton antivirus software but then Symantec reports 100 copies licensed, we know the lead is no good," Blank says. Because so many software vendors sell through multiple distribution channels, their information isn't comprehensive. But some BSA members, especially engineering software makers like SolidWorks Corp. and Autodesk Inc., "keep copious databases with registration numbers and transfer information and a lot of detail," she adds.

In more than seven years as an investigator, the one thing that Konczakowski says consistently amazes him is "how blatant the pirates are." He has seen plenty of cases where a single legal copy of a PC software program has been installed on hundreds of machines. Even more troubling is that most informants who report corporate software piracy to the BSA say that the company knows about the piracy.

Purposeful piracy

"Usually, our informant will say their company is aware of the problem and has made a deliberate decision not to buy the software but to pirate the software," says Blank. "Of course, when we investigate, we hear a different story from the company itself."

But the BSA doesn't put a legal press on all of the reports of piracy it receives. Rather, for a case to go forward, all BSA members must unanimously agree to move ahead with legal action. All leads and follow-up information are stored in a central database that licensing staffers and attorneys from the BSA's member companies access via an online portal. They then review the information and decide whether to take further action.

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