Pirates – make 'em walk the plank

Software theft or redistribution of wealth?

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The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

[This article appeared first in Direct Access, a Microsoft UK online channel magazine.]

When you were 14 you probably thought nothing of taping the Top 20 off the radio on a Sunday evening; who knows - you may even have progressed to videoing Top of the Pops. But such a laissez-faire approach to copying software applications could land you in hot water. To some it seems like fair game, but there are more losers that winners.

Piracy is one those issues in the channel that everyone's aware of, everyone's against - at least publicly - and yet no one seems able to stamp out. The excuses given for copying software illegally fall into a number of general categories: no one would do it if the software licences weren't so expensive; it's not really theft as they're only missing out on potential sales; what do they expect when it's so easy to copy stuff; and then there's that old chestnut, the software vendors are big enough for it not to hurt them.

Maybe, maybe not, but the cold hard reality is that software piracy is illegal and the penalties can be severe. Anyone in the business of selling software has an interest in seeing software pirates brought to book.

When software piracy is always someone else's problem it's easy to turn a blind eye to it, but what if it's a problem that's a little closer to home? Assume, if you will, that you are a software reseller. What's that? Oh, you are a software reseller. Well that's a coincidence. Assume then that your next door neighbour - to whom you may well have sold a copy of Office 2000, for example - has decided that they will become a Web-based reseller of illegally copied software. Who is going to pay top dollar for your stuff when Mr CD Burner next door can whack 'em out at a fraction of the price and still make loads of money?

And for many of these latter-day cottage industry types it really is loads of money. Last Christmas, Berkshire CID seized a massive haul of Microsoft Office 97 CDs. In all there were some 55,000 CDs with an estimated street value of £20 million. The last four months of 1999 saw around £70 million of pirate software recovered. Whichever way you choose to look at it that's a lot of money not flowing through the channel.

How much of that could have been recycled as co-op marketing funds, or used to host training events and seminars, never mind the straightforward absence of it as bottom line turnover in the authorised software channel.

From the end-users' perspective, using illegal software can be a very risky business too. There's all the usual stuff like not getting tech support and losing your upgrade path but let's face it, that's hardly going to give anyone nightmares. But what might keep people awake at night is the thought that company directors found to have turned a blind eye to the use of pirate software in their organisation can find themselves being entertained at Her Majesty's pleasure. That's prison, to put it bluntly.

Then there's the shame of having to 'fess up to the Business Software Alliance and have your name plastered all over one of their infamous press releases. If you've never seen one, they tend to have lots of remarks from the offending user/peddler of pirated software saying how foolish they've been and they're glad they've seen the error of their ways.

Oh, and don't forget the settlements the vendors demand - often the pirate's only way of avoiding full-on legal action. Back in early 1999 a Salisbury-based reseller had to hand over what was described as a six-figure sum to Novell after it was found to have been selling unlicenced copies of NetWare to schools and vets' practices, among others. Think about it, a six-figure sum. How many smaller resellers can afford to lose that sort of money?

Some people will, of course, try and take the supposed moral high-ground and argue that if major software vendors can afford to sell their wares for a pittance in some territories (most notably Africa and parts of the Far East) then they are ripping us off over here, which makes it OK to rip them off in return.

It's an interesting point of view, but back here on Planet Earth things are different. Does the developing world have a mature and well-supported reseller channel? No it does not. Does it have the same network of press and media specialising in the IT sector? No it does not. The list could go on and on and these are all things that are ultimately funded by the sale of software, hardware and other IT equipment.

The developing world is just that - developing. It would be unrealistic to impose the same costs in Africa that exist in Western Europe, to do so would benefit no one and all it would do would be to stunt the growth of the IT industry. Likewise, if here in the West we expect to buy our IT equipment from professional outlets where the staff know what they're doing and the products are supported then we have to be prepared to pay for it.

As somebody once said, you don't get owt for nowt. ®

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