by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, March 1998


I’ve named this column in honor of an elective class offered when I was in engineering school, "How to Lie With Statistics." That class was really a practical guide to detecting others lies and avoiding inadvertent lies of your own. This article is really a practical guide to avoiding piracy.

First, a major warning: I am not a lawyer and this is not meant to be a comprehensive legal document. Take it for what it is - a report from the field from an interested party. If you want serious advice, go to an attorney specializing in the software aspects of intellectual property. It’s such a narrow sub-specialty within the legal profession that my legal clients (who are not specialists in software law) constantly ask me for my opinion. (Talk about desperation!)
Reseller-induced piracy is the initial introduction to piracy for some businesses. (A reseller in this discussion is one who purchases goods for subsequent resale.) To undercut competitors’ bids, some companies will include software with computer systems and either not bill for them or bill at artificially low prices that nobody can beat. While I have encountered a couple of individuals who might have purposely asked fewer questions than they should have (Wow, a $200 Rolex watch - what a bargain!), the overwhelming majority of people were simply taken in due to lack of knowledge.
The reseller copies a single copy of software onto multiple clients’ computers. The original might have been licensed to the reseller, or it might have been acquired surreptitiously from a previous customer. In one variation on this, the reseller sells the software to the customer, but simply walks away with it on the way out the door. In another, the reseller sells one copy of software to a customer and then loads it either on a file server or on multiple workstations.
Sadly, I have caught resellers of all types, from individual freelancers to big-name chains and franchises, playing these tricks on their customers with products ranging from PC-DOS to NetWare. Regardless, the customer is left with pirated software and all of the legal complications that come with it.
The most obvious evidence of reseller-induced piracy is missing media, documentation, licensing, or registration materials. Sometimes a polite phone call is all that is necessary to get your materials back. The hope is that the reseller is so surprised at being caught that the materials will be returned just to avoid further hassles. (As a reminder to my fellow native-born Chicagoans, it is now considered gauche to send an enforcer equipped with a Louisville Slugger to get your stuff back.)
If more than that is needed, you might be better off contacting legal counsel. You don’t want to get into a situation where you get accused of extortion or assault because you phrased your request inappropriately in the heat of anger. (People exposed to the double whammy of being ripped off AND being left dangling as a possible target for both civil and criminal legal actions are usually VERY angry.)
If you don’t get an immediate positive response from the offending reseller, your only way to cover yourself is to purchase the appropriate software and then go after the reseller for reimbursement later. Remember that, here, the appearance of impropriety is as bad as actual impropriety. If anyone could misinterpret your actions as having taken advantage of an offer that was obviously too good to be true, you could be accused of piracy. Even if you convinced everyone that you were an innocent party, you might be coerced into purchasing replacement software directly from the publisher at full list price as a show of good faith. Buy now or pay lots more later.
Another type of piracy is rationalized piracy. That occurs when someone thinks that they have a good excuse to pirate software and rationalizes the act. The price is too high. The license agreement is too restrictive. The software company doesn’t provide adequate support. The dealer mistreated me. The head of the company already has too many billions of dollars. (That’s a tempting one!) My boss told me to do it. (My personal favorite, also known as the Nuremberg Defense. It didn’t work after World War II and it won’t work now.)
I’m sure that these excuses will go over great in law offices and courtrooms. I’ve also heard that one of the qualifications to be a federal judge is to have a great sense of humor.
Next month I will continue with this guide to piracy. Meanwhile, my parrot made off with my bottle of rum, but I’ve got my cutlass at the ready and I’ll hunt him down.
�1998, Wayne M. Krakau