Libraries have been doing it for years. Every now and then, they offer a period of amnesty from fines for people who return their overdue books.

It’s a win-win situation. The libraries get their much-valued assets back, and the slackers get a chance to come clean without paying an arm and a leg in fines.

Now the Business Software Alliance (BSA) has gotten into the act. During the month of February in 2003, the BSA offered an amnesty program for companies in violation of software licensing agreements. The amnesty program was kicked off in seven U.S. cities: Chicago; Boston; Albuquerque, NM; Dallas; Louisville, KY; Harrisburg, PA; and Seattle.

If the BSA offers a similar program in your city in the future, I recommend you take full advantage of it. Here’s what to expect and where to find out more about past, present, and future amnesty periods.

You’ll recognize the radio commercials
If and when the BSA amnesty program comes to your town, you’ll probably hear about it on the radio. I must have heard the commercial a couple of dozen times. In ominous tones, a voice asks questions like, “Are your company’s software licenses up to date?” A representative of the BSA informs listeners that most companies are “turned in” to the BSA by current or former employees. The same person encourages companies to take advantage of the amnesty program “for the rest of this month.”

I loved it. “Finally,” I thought, “they’re getting serious about cracking down on software pirates.”

I mean, when you set up a business, you don’t hook a water hose up to the spigot on the building next door and steal water from your neighbor. Nor do you plug an extension cord into your neighbor’s socket and steal the electricity. Why would you think it’s okay to steal a copy of someone else’s rightfully purchased software?

What is the Business Software Alliance?
So what is the BSA, and why should you care? The BSA is a software watchdog group consisting of 23 software companies that have combined efforts to inform corporate policymakers. The organization’s modest goal is to eradicate global software piracy.

For the grace period that took place in February 2002, 13 of the BSA’s 23 members participated, including Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Avid, Bentley, Borland, CNC/Mastercam, FileMaker, Internet Security Systems, Macromedia, Microsoft, Network Associates, and Symantec.

Who qualifies for the grace period?
Not every company in every city was eligible for the February 2003 grace program. Requirements may change for future programs, but this time around the following had to be true:

  1. Your company has no previous notices from the BSA, or its members (the 13 listed above), alleging software infringement; your company is not currently under investigation.
  2. Your company must purchase enough software licenses to ensure that all software published by the BSA members is properly licensed.

So how do you “true-up” your company’s licensing information? Simply put, you must compare the number of installed products to the number of licenses you have on file.

Because it has been granted power of attorney under software copyright laws, the BSA has the right to enter your company’s premises on behalf of one of the member companies. The specific rights to examine or audit corporate records are typically detailed in licensing contracts.

If you simply click “I accept” instead of actually reading your licensing agreements, you may want to have the company attorney read them to determine the extent of your company’s potential liability. Fines for noncompliance—at least according to the dramatic radio commercials—can total tens of thousands of dollars per infraction.

Get on the list for the next amnesty program
In many companies, managers debate whether asking the BSA for a grace period is tantamount to saying, “Come and get us.” The fact is there are always possible fines and penalties for periods when your licenses aren’t “trued up.”

So if you’re a corporate software pirate, you have two choices. First, you can contact the BSA to see whether there’s a grace period scheduled for your city, and get on the list. Second, you can do a software inventory and true up your licenses on your own.

Continuing to pirate and waiting for the software police to show up unannounced is not a choice for smart companies.

To find out more about past, present, and future BSA amnesty programs, visit the BSA’s Grace Campaign Web site.

Resistance (to copyright law) is futile

To comment on this column, or to share your own advice for managing your software inventory, please post a comment or write to Jeff.