Technology: Software Licensing Enforcers Target Small Business Owners
You may have never heard of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), but the odds are good that you might get to know them all too soon, This organization is a global copyright enforcement agency that represents just about every software and hardware manufacturer that you do know (Microsoft, Adobe, and Symantec, as well as hardware mega-giants like IBM and Dell—to name just a few). The BSA addresses major international software piracy problems with the cooperation of foreign governments, and has had major success cracking down on counterfeits in Asia and elsewhere. However, here within the U.S., it’s small business owners, rather than counterfeit rings, who are feeling the heat of BSA’s enforcement efforts.
The BSA gathered some $13 million in software violation settlements in the U.S. in 2006, and estimates indicate that a staggering 90 percent of this total came from the small business sector. How so? BSA believes that illegal use of software –copying software and infringing on license agreements— is rampant at small businesses. Whatever the rate of infringement is, small firms do appear less likely to understand the variety of complicated licensing agreements that exist, and lack the organizational and legal resources necessary to provide sufficient oversight to keep employees on the right side of copyright laws. If that weren’t bad enough, consider that BSA actively encourages employees to “blow the whistle” on their employers. Rewards for whistle-blowers topped out at $200,000 last year, but now the limit is $1 million. Rewards are calculated on a sliding scale based on the size of the eventual settlement.
Often the small business owners who are accused of copyright violations might be guilty of sloppy record-keeping and ignorance rather than of any willful intent to violate copyright agreements. However, lack of knowledge is no defense. It’s worth it to take a few simple steps to improve your understanding and oversight. Go on-line and find the tools that the BSA has put together for small business owners. Contact the Small Business Administration (SBA) to inquire about compliance information (the BSA and the SBA have partnered to produce educational materials about software compliance).
There are many common business situations that create an ideal environment for inadvertent infringements. Here are a few red flags:
- Do you hand down computers to employees? Perhaps the latest laptops or PCs go to those who need the speed and performance of newer models, and their old machines are given to employees who use technology less. If an employee has specialized software licensed for one user, this software must be deleted from the old PC after it has been loaded onto his new computer.
- Do you have a wide variety of software licenses? Some may allow sharing on multiple computers within one organization and others may be restricted to one user. Take a look at what you have.
- Has your company grown rapidly with new employees hired and new equipment purchased? If so, make sure that new software that has been purchased is being used according to the licensing agreements that accompany every program.
BSA’s enforcement efforts at home –especially its reward program for tips—have come in for plenty of criticism from business owners. Despite its critics, BSA appears to have no intention of letting up its efforts. Greater financial rewards for whistle-blowers and the cancellation of its amnesty program suggest that it is gearing up for an even more aggressive campaign in 2008.