January 27, 2001, 3:48 PM — How likely are you to find the Business Software Alliance's (BSA's) compliance police at your door one day, warrant in hand to check for pirated software? Your risk may have less to do with the amount of unlicensed software you have and more to do with the size and location of your company.
Last week's revelation that the BSA's "truce" campaigns are tied to Microsoft's anti-piracy mailings raises questions about the software industry's compliance-enforcement tactics. To readers in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, and Denver (who might be getting their letters from the BSA and/or Microsoft about the time they read this): It may be a good time to look at these issues.
BSA truce campaigns offer letter recipients 30 days to "get legal" and avoid any penalties for past infringement. In and of itself, I've actually thought the truce campaign was a pretty reasonable approach. It's not as heavy-handed as previous mailings by the BSA and other software industry associations in terms of implying the recipient is a notorious criminal, and is therefore most likely to scare only those who should be scared: organizations that are knowingly using software illegally.
But when you add in the fact that Microsoft is double-teaming many of the truce recipients with one or more letters of its own, the truce campaign takes on a slightly different flavor. Microsoft officials just confirmed that they also are conducting follow-up phone calls to some recipients of its mailings. Readers had complained about getting calls from Microsoft to "update our database" in which they were asked a lot of nosy questions about how many workstations and servers they have. (If you get such a call, you are under no obligation to answer, and I'd personally advise you not to give that kind of information on the phone to any stranger.)
In the name of fighting piracy, the software industry claims that all's fair. But those with real-world experience dealing with the BSA -- either as targets of a piracy raid or as whistle-blowers concerning their company's illegal use of software -- raise interesting questions about the organization's tactics.
Several readers who said they'd been the target of a BSA investigation felt that they were selected more for PR reasons than anything else. "I honestly think everything they fined us for was software we had purchased properly ... we just couldn't document that we had all the licenses," wrote one reader of his previous company's experience. "They didn't care, because they knew we were too small to fight. I think all they really wanted was to reach a settlement so they could get a story about us in the local newspapers."