How to avoid being an 'accidental pirate'

Most businesses don't intend to use illegal software, or break the terms of their license agreements, but through bad planning, inadequate IT policies or simply a lack of awareness, many end up doing so. Check out these tips from BSA's Philippe Briere on staying on the right side of the law. Arr.

by Philippe Briere
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Software piracy takes many forms, from unlicensed software use where a business buys a single copy and installs it on multiple computers, to downloading and using unauthorised copies of software from the internet.

But whatever guise it takes, software piracy carries multiple business risks.  You may have to pay settlement and legal fees if you are caught out - an unplanned cost that most businesses can ill-afford. The damage to your company reputation if you are exposed could also be substantial.  But what you may not realise is that you could be exposing your business critical and confidential customer information and IT systems to viruses, potentially leading to data loss, file corruption and downtime.

It doesn't pay to be ignorant about software licensing. Philippe Briere, chair of the Business Software Alliance UK committee, offers advice on how to avoid being an accidental software pirate:

Mergers and acquisitions
If you are merging with another company, or acquiring one, your software licensing requirements are likely to change. This is a good opportunity to review all of your software assets, and reassess whether you have enough licenses to legally cover your needs.  You may even find that you have too many, which could save your business some money. 

Hiring more staff
When you are a growing business, with many pressures to deal with, it can be easy to overlook software licensing when you are hiring. Many businesses monitor the obvious assets such as company cars, mobile phones and laptops.  However, software is often not captured or monitored in the same way, although the consequences of not monitoring it can be catastrophic. 

Winning new business
If you win new business, or decide to start offering new services to your clients or customers, you may need to acquire different software.  Ensure that you are purchasing legal copies from reputable sources that are fully traceable.

Don't forget your fonts
Despite being used daily by every organisation in the world, many still do not realise that fonts are classed as Intellectual Property and need licensing just like any other piece of software. Font piracy can easily take place as fonts can be transmitted from user to user either as stand alone software or embedded within electronic documents. It can happen accidentally and there are simple steps that can be taken to license or delete fonts without incurring a fine. Font costs can mount, so it is important to have enough licenses to cover your whole organisation - and suitable font management.

Version control
Have you bought the right version of a software license for your needs? If you have an education edition, but are using it for commercial purposes, you are breaching the terms of the license. If in doubt, check the software publisher's website for more information.

Buying online
Many software pirates set themselves up with very professional looking websites to fool customers into thinking they are buying genuine goods. It is important to do a few checks before placing any orders online, especially if this is with a company you have never heard of before:

1)      Is the price similar to that of any well known provider?  If the price is too good to be true it often is.

2)      Do they provide any contact details in case of a problem?  A tell-tale sign of a questionable seller is someone who does not want to be contacted after they have made a sale. Is there a phone number/address for you to seek help from if you have any problems? A web form to submit details doesn't always help you if you end up with counterfeit software.

These type of web fraudsters are continually evolving to lead you to believe they are genuine resellers. They often operate across borders to reduce traceability and evade taxes. Ensure anyone you deal with is based in your region and don't be afraid to question whether they are genuine. A license isn't a license unless it is authentic.

External suppliers
Even if you think that your software licensing is in order, it is worth making sure that your external suppliers take their responsibilities as seriously as you do. Only deal with reputable businesses with a good reputation, then you won't unwittingly put your business at risk.

Don't assume
Don't automatically assume that whoever looks after your IT systems will take responsibility for your software licensing.  As a business owner, you are ultimately responsible for making sure that your business is not acting illegally. The reputation of your business, and your personal reputation, could be on the line if you are caught out.

Clearly counterfeit
Counterfeit software isn't always the cheaper option.  Some counterfeit software is of such high quality that it is very difficult to distinguish from the real thing, and may only be slightly cheaper. Many counterfeit versions come with a few hidden extras such as viruses and unwanted code, which often cause data loss and leave your IT equipment vulnerable to security breaches. Recovering from a virus can be a very costly exercise.  Always buy from reputable sources, and be aware that high quality fakes exist.

Keep records
Keep a record of purchase for all of your software. This will make it much easier to run a software audit if you are required to, and means you can review what software assets you have and use on a regular basis. Remember, for some software publishers you still need to keep the boxes as proof of license, so ensure that you have these locked away in a safe place.

Dangerous downloads
Having a policy or technical solution that prevents unauthorised software installations by your staff will help to avoid software piracy and make tracking your software much easier. With the advent of remote working, staff now have many more opportunities to download software from a variety of sources, without your knowledge.  Don't give them the opportunity to do so - you are responsible for the software that ends up on your computers, so have a clear company policy in place to mitigate any risks.

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