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Savvy Computing:
Are You a Pirate?

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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.

The Perils of Pirated Software

If you receive these kinds of unsolicited commercial offers, or spam, the likelihood is high that they’re 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 s perare 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.



Who Will Be Punished

The practical legal risk in using pirated software may be small for home users, but 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, DC.

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 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 November 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, piracy leads not only to lower profits but also to reduced funds for research and development. This translates into fewer software innovations available to business and home users.

Protecting Yourself

Computer users should take other precautions along with being wary of unsolicited e-mail pitches. Buy software from legitimate resellers, whether in a store, 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, keep track of the software you buy and use. One person should have responsibility for overseeing this.

Use your normal purchasing channels for software programs, even inexpensive ones, instead of allowing purchases with petty cash or purchases recorded in employee T&E reports, which can be difficult to track.

Pay attention to product licensing language. Don’t assume that you can buy one program and copy it onto every computer. 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 a free guide to software management, a software audit tool, and a training video at its Web site (


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.” He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or


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