Suddenly, Software Pirates Really Are Criminals

[SOUTH AFRICA] Most people have copied a game, operating system or some other piece of software illegally, thinking it a victimless crime. But the victims may turn out to be pirates themselves: the South African police have recently made a couple of high profile software-piracy arrests and corporations are more determined than ever to put a stop to this violation of their bottom lines.

The latest headline is the police raid on the Mpumalanga Department of Education, resulting in the seizure of 174 out of 347 PCs suspected of being preloaded with unlicensed versions of Microsoft software. The computer reseller, who cannot be named for legal reasons, allegedly loaded one copy of Windows 95 and one copy of Office 97 on all 347 PCs, a practice known as ‘softlifting’. The raid came in response to a tip from a disgruntled employee.

A few days before, the papers reported that a 49 year old man and his 23 year old son had been arrested for being in possession of R12 million worth of stolen software. Again, the police reacted after a tip-off from a member of the public.

According to the Business Software Alliance, the current software piracy rate is 48 percent for desktop applications, even higher for entertainment packages and operating systems. That means that 1 in 2 software programs is illegal, resulting in a loss of R500 million to the IT industry in 1998 and damaging our reputation within the International Community.

South Africa was on the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) special 301 watch list in 1995 and again in 1999 for copyright infringement, under recommendation from the International Intellectual Property Alliance. Luckily, we were removed from the list by the end of 1999.

As a participant in the Generalized System of Preferences, we receive trade benefits for, in part, “providing adequate and effective means to… enforce exclusive rights in intellectual property…”. If the USTR doesn’t think we’re acting to protect intellectual property, like software, stiffer tariffs are imposed on goods we export to the USA – US $398 million SA goods entered the USA tax-free in 1999.

So quite apart from increasing the difficulty in recouping development costs and thereby increasing software costs for those who do choose to pay, software piracy has a direct influence on the affluence of people who may not even own a computer. But there are more personal reasons for software pirates to go legit.

Under the terms of the South African copyright law, dealers in software that infringes on copyright face a penalty of R5,000 and/or 3 years imprisonment for each item. So, theoretically, the dealer in the Mpumalanga case could face up R1, 735 000 in fines and/or 1041 years in prison.

Those who merely use the software can have their computers seized and can be taken to court for royalties and other fees due and may also be ordered to pay punitive damages. Additional costs can include paying the claimants legal costs – often greater than the total cost of damages awarded.

My advice is, if you don’t want to pay for your software, join the Open Source Movement. Who knows, you may even end up contributing something positive to the computing world.

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