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Facing the consequences

What can happen if illegal software use gets noticed

It's a common perception that if you use pirated software no one will find out; and that if anyone does, the worst you can expect is a slapped wrist. Today's reality is very different.

If you are using pirated or counterfeit software, it's easy to imagine that you're not going to be discovered. Not so, says Mark Lomas, head of Intellectual Property and ICT Law at solicitors Ashfords, who advise companies on making sure their software is legal.

Lomas warns that it's common for disgruntled ex-employees, or even current staff, to tell organisations like FAST about companies who break the terms of their licences. "For the worst cases a spell in clink could be on the cards," he warns. "In the UK, on indictment there is potentially an unlimited fine and up to ten years in prison. For civil claims there are injunctions and damages available to rights owners."

But the damage isn't just legal. Your reputation suffers, your business suffers disruption while the case is investigated, and you're going to have to pay for those licences too. Lomas says that companies allowing their staff to use unlicensed software can also be held accountable - and ignorance is no defence.

"A good idea is to make sure you have up-to-date computer use regulations forming part of your employment contracts. They must be regularly communicated to your staff so they know the rules; it's not enough to have a manual that no one has ever seen locked in a cupboard." Being a limited company is not a fig leaf either, he claims. "Do not assume that one can hide behind the shield of limited liability. Individuals can be prosecuted and sued as well."

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Been there, done that

In 2004, the Business Software Alliance settled legal cases at the rate of one a week. For example, The Amos Partnership - an architectural company based in London - paid nearly �7,000; iRevolution Ltd - an IT solutions provider based in Middlesex - settled with the BSA for around �13,000, and Cre8tiv Ltd - a design company based in Yorkshire - paid over �7,000.

Quote�We uncovered a shortfall of over 100 operating system licences�End Quote

One of the most unusual investigations of 2004 that the BSA was involved with - but one that uncovered the typical errors made by many organisations that don't have dedicated network managers - was Warley High College of Sport, a comprehensive school based in the West Midlands.

Despite school courses on copyright law, it realised, when the BSA asked for details of its software, that it was pirating software illegally, and if it didn't fix the problem immediately it could end up in court. A local education authority audit spelt out the extent of the problem. "We uncovered a shortfall of over 100 operating system licences and a number of Microsoft Office licences," admits Executive Head teacher John Martin.

Common errors included:

Using upgrade licences on replacement computers instead of full licences

Using expired leased licences

Rebuilding corrupted disks by 'cloning' a healthy computer - including its license

Warley now has a dedicated network manager and a clear software asset management policy. "All members of staff now follow an acceptable software use policy. This policy provides clear guidelines on what is and isn't permitted," says Martin. It has a database of all its equipment, and stores licences centrally. As a result of its brush with the law, upgrades and repairs are easier to do, and purchasing is more organised and centrally managed.

What next?

The concept of software licensing can be very confusing. Our introduction to licensing explains it in plain English.

Our game's so much fun that it even makes software licensing interesting! Evade the viruses and navigate the maze to win. Play it now.

Microsoft has introduced Windows Genuine Advantage, a way you can check your copies of Windows XP are genuine. Find out more.

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