The Software Sheriff's in Town
More than 150 years ago, one of North America's leading industries was cattle ranching. In those days, cowboys spent the majority of their time tending cattle and ensuring safe delivery to market. Today, technology—software, in particular—is one of the leading industries, and just as the cattle ranchers of yesteryear branded their livestock and hunted down poachers, software ranchers do the same today.
These days, branding takes the form of serial numbers, and the offenders are no longer hunted down by a posse with guns blazing. Instead, the penalty du jour is purely financial. We all know and understand the implications of "borrowing" software, but as the majority of software developers have not made a practice of challenging perpetrators, most users aren't fanatical about keeping track of software licenses. But, be warned; change is afoot, and even though it may take time to record your licenses, it's cheaper than paying fines.
The software industry's official sheriff is the Business Software Alliance (BSA) in Washington, DC. They take calls and tip-offs from anyone, and in certain cases, follow up with an on-site audit. Trying to find anyone who's gone through an audit (and found guity) to talk is virtually impossible, but one individual was willing to speak anonymously. I'll call him 'Bob.'
Bob confirmed that his prepress firm went through an audit last year and was subject to fines and additional software purchases to the tune of a quarter-million dollars. Now, it's one thing if a company intentionally steals software, but Bob says they did not. They may simply have been guilty of falling into a common trap.
As computers age and are taken out of mainstream production, applications are often left behind on the harddrive. The replacement equipment is then installed and the application is reloaded with the original serial number. It's a mistake not meant to be malicious, akin perhaps to cattle wandering onto another farmer's ranch. But to the BSA, using any software without the appropriate license is illegal.
According to Bob, "Most companies are not practicing deliberate software piracy, but merely keeping poor records. The problem is also exacerbated by the mergers and acquisitions that are prevalent in our industry." After reeling from the audit's results, Bob's company took precautions: "We have a centralized database that's fed locally, and right now we're squeaky clean and plan to stay that way."
Like Bob, we are forced to keep meticulous licensing records, but it seems like there should be an easier way. Just look at the cattle business. There's talk of implanting computer chips into cattle, allowing a GPS (Global Satellite Positioning) to track its location at all times.
If an old-economy industry like ranching can find software and programming solutions to combat theft, why can't software developers deploy a security system to protect their own assets? Here's an idea: Self-destructing applications that require the licensee to input a security code every so often. Seems simple enough. Obviously, there are many ways to solve this predicament. My hope is that software developers are actively addressing this issue, so that we can get back to the business of advertising production, rather than worrying about someone else's assets and revenue stream.
-Eve Asbury (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior vice president/director of print and digital production for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York City.