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Guarding against software piracy

Unauthorised use of unlicensed computer software is a criminal offence - and it is remarkably widespread. But it is not only perpetrated by criminals; in fact, it can happen through carelessness or even by accident. In this Briefing we explain how to guar

What is software piracy?

Software piracy is the illegal copying of someone else's software. It is a criminal activity that costs the software industry a lot of money - nobody has yet managed to put a reliable figure on it, but most people agree that the cost must be in the billions of pounds. Software pirates are people who have paid nothing, or very little, to use a software developer's software, either intentionally, or even inadvertently. There are also some very real costs for the people who use pirated software that only become apparent afterwards.

About the author

Graham Storey is the marketing manager for Cognition Solutions plc, a provider of web-enabled accounting and costing software solutions for the construction industry. For more information email

Visit the web site at or tel: 020 8336 8800.

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Why is software piracy bad for your business?

Because it is theft, software piracy is both morally wrong and a criminal offence liable to civil action. But there are some other equally compelling reasons why pirated software has no place in any business:

You've only got half the product...

Construction companies increasingly rely on their computer systems to know what's happening in their business and to protect their margins.

When they buy business software (for processes ranging from accounting, costing and estimating to word processing and spread-sheets) what they are really buying is the expertise of the software developer.

Users of pirated software operate without a relationship with the software's developer. This excludes the user from later releases of the software which contain both 'bug-fixes' and enhancements to the original product Some of these enhancements may have become necessary in the light of legislative changes - remember the changes to the CIS subcontractors payments scheme?

You're on your own...

Pirated software comes with no formal training arrangements or support. If loading it causes any problems by changing the settings on a personal computer's operating system, or even overwrites other software, the user is on their own. A pirated copy of a word processing programme may not work with a new printer and can stop an urgent quotation from going out. A pirated copy of software monitoring the costs of a very competitively quoted contract may not provide the job cost details needed for an urgent client meeting. Where does the user get help from?

Legal, licensed, software bears the name of the software developer. Pirated software carries no such warranty. If it arrived on a floppy disk it could have picked up a virus from another personal computer.

Are you an unintentional pirate?

Software piracy can happen more easily than you might think and even unwittingly if IT system security is not taken seriously by a company. Pirated software can enter an organisation in many different ways.

Any company with e-mail or Internet access can have pirated software arrive via the modem connection. There is some software on the Internet that can be downloaded legitimately, but there are also illegal copies circulating.

There are some criminals who will copy software, packaging and manuals to look like the original product and sell it as such.

Pirated software can be circulated by accident, too. Legal, licensed, software usually arrives on its own media in the form of floppy disks or CD. Part of the licence usually describes how the user is allowed to run the software (for example, on a single processor, or multiple processors if the licence agreement is designed for multiple users).

Also beware when replacing older computers with new ones. Do you have the software developer's original CD media and serial numbered certificates of authenticity for the operating system and the other programmes that arrived already loaded on the personal computer(s)?

What users need to do

Just read the software licence agreement that came with the software media either printed or as a readable file on the CD; it makes interesting reading. If you are using software that has no licence agreement you should already be hearing an alarm bell ringing.

With very few exceptions, software licences make it very clear that the user(s) have only bought a licence to use the software in strict accordance with the software developer's terms and conditions. Just read the software licence agreement, understand it and comply with it to stay legal.

Committing an offence under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988) can lead to a prison sentence of up to two years and an unlimited fine for each offence.

Committing an offence under the Trade Marks Act (1994) can lead to a prison sentence of up to ten years and an unlimited fine for each offence.

People have already been fined and sent to prison in the UK for software piracy while the Civil Courts are used by the owners of software to pursue their rights and claim substantial damages.

Future developments

Keeping track of which personal computers are running which releases of which software within a company can be a nightmare, especially when site personnel and their personal computers can be anywhere in the country.

Modern construction industry systems allow users, with just an Internet browser on a personal computer, to access securely all the software they would have had on a 'fully loaded' personal computer and securely access the company systems too. Such software is becoming known as 'web-enabled'. This development can leave all the software programmes in one place where they can be centrally managed (with multiple user licences, of course).

Some personal computers in offices are being replaced by less expensive 'Thin Client' devices which have just a screen, keyboard and mouse. They can run exactly the same software as a personal computer by using the central network to provide disk storage, software, printing and any other connectivity.

Having no floppy disk or CD drive and using centrally controlled Internet access, Thin Client devices can make protecting against pirated software much easier for a company.

Two separate activities need to be undertaken to prevent software piracy in your company:

an initial audit of all software programmes on all the computers in the company; and

ongoing monitoring of all revised and new software programmes that need to be brought into the company while maintaining a constantly updated register of which computers currently have which versions of which software.

The initial audit identifies what programmes are present (regardless of whether or not they are being used), what version numbers they have and how many copies are present.

If you have a network of personal computers with their own drives or Internet connections, be prepared for some surprises. In addition to the software you know about, you may find anything from programmes loaded from CDs that come on the front of magazines to strange programmes that have arrived via the Internet. Once the definitive list is produced, read the software licence agreements for each version of each software programme and compare it with the company's usage.

Central to this is the appointment of a single group or person within a company to be responsible for vetting all new software, checking the legality of its use, loading and updating the company software register.

Further information

Construction Industry Computing Association (CICA) is the independent administration body for the use of IT in construction. Contact Ian Hamilton on Tel: 01223 236336, or e-mail

Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) is a software industry body set up in 1994 to educate software users in the avoidance of illegitimate use, and to pursue legal cases on behalf of its membership. For more information Tel: 01753 527999. Website:

What are Briefings?

Briefings are a regular feature which provide a concise guide to some of the most pressing current issues to affect your business or job. Comments and suggestions for future Briefings topics are welcome. Please contact Aaron Morby,

editor. Tel: 020 505 6858 or e-mail: aaronm@construct.