TECHNOLOGY: Piracy - Microsoft Sends the Boys Round ; Clayton Hirst Reports on the Legal War Being Waged by Software Giants on Firms They Suspect of Licence Infringements
Hirst, Clayton, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
In its grand offices opposite the Royal Courts of Justice in London's Strand, law firm Covington & Burling has a dossier on hundreds of British companies. It is compiled from tip-offs, often anonymous, from company employees and members of the public, and it is being used as evidence in a wide- scale investigation into some of the country's biggest firms.
But this is no Enron-style probe. The UK arm of the high- powered US law firm is targeting companies that it suspects of infringing software licence rules - or worse, piracy.
Covington & Burling is acting for the Washington-based Business Software Alliance (BSA), the powerful organisation founded by Microsoft and which today counts companies such as Apple, Adobe, HP and IBM as its members. Over the past few months, the law firm has sent out unsolicited letters to UK companies setting a deadline for them to compile a detailed audit of their computer systems. Failure to comply could lead to legal proceedings.
But the behaviour of the BSA and its lawyers has prompted an outcry in the business community. The Corporate IT Forum (CIF), which represents IT experts working for more than half the companies in the FTSE 250, believes the BSA has overstepped the mark. In its latest newsletter to members, the CIF accuses the BSA of "harassment" and says its business practices "are becoming a menace to corporate IT departments". It is now urging software firms to withdraw their backing for the BSA.
Certainly, the letters sent by Covington & Burling are strong in their tone. One, seen by The Independent on Sunday, says: "We have been provided with information by BSA which suggests that you may be using software in a manner which exceeds the number of legal copies you are authorised to use .... In addition to civil damages, copyright infringement can also constitute a criminal offence."
The letter asks for a "full audit" of the target's computers, servers and software and gives it a month in which to respond.
David Roberts, the chief executive of the CIF, says: "Vendor organisations often have inefficient systems for tracking licences and they are looking to move the costs of tracking to customers."
Covington & Burling has sent out more than 200 letters this year to companies it suspects of software licence infringement. If a letter is ignored, the law firm will consider action. "If we have sufficient information ... we will apply for a court order," says Graham Arthur, the lawyer acting for the BSA. …