Burnt by hot software

When a police officer was called to a "domestic-related incident" in a high rise housing complex in Bloxwich, West Midlands, England, he found rather more than he was looking for.

While in the apartment, the officer noticed a tower PC connected to four CD writers, in the process of copying, and a large number of recordable CDs. He mentioned nothing at the time, but contacted the ELSPA (European Leisure Software Publishers Association) anti-piracy unit and arranged a joint raid on the premises.

Late on a Wednesday night in March, Bloxwich Police and ELSPA executed a search warrant on the apartment. When they arrived, they found the CD writers busy burning 24 CDs with a business software program.

The PC and CD writers were seized and a search of the premises found 106 recordable CDs containing business software titles, 28 with music titles, 11 film titles and six with PC format games. Five CD carry cases full of master copies were also picked up.

The man in question is no doubt peeved to be charged with doing what so many people in the U.K. do -- copying software.

Over a quarter -- 26 percent -- of all business software in the U.K. is unlicensed, according to the U.K. offices of the Business Software alliance. Spokesman Mike Newton says software piracy is responsible for the loss of about £360 million (US$525 million) to the U.K. software industry. "And that costs substantially in lost jobs -- for every one software job lost, we reckon there are another seven connected jobs gone," he said.

The majority of the damage is done by companies who just don't track the software they use and whether they have the licenses they need, Newton said.

"If you go to your IT department and ask if they have all the licenses they should have, most will grimace a little. It's a complicated administration process and many companies just don't keep up," he said.

The do-it-yourself CD copier in his flat in Bloxwich is just the small guy caught out at the end of the piracy chain. Amateurs doing their own duplicating on CD burners at home do contribute to the problem, but they're small fry compared to the companies who use software without licenses, and compared to some very professional operators who create software that would pass at first, second and third glance as genuine, Newton said.

"It comes in the right box, seems to have all the right documents, and even the manufacturers themselves have to look carefully," he said. "It'll be sold through disreputable dealers, through auctions on the Internet, and even through decent resellers who don't realize what it is."

ELSPA is the watchdog for the computer games industry, set up in 1989 to protect games publishers. its anti-piracy unit has investigators across the U.K.

According to ELSPA figures, the U.K. video game industry loses £3 billion every year to piracy. In 2001, U.K. sales of video games, consoles and other leisure software products reached £1.6 billion, an all-time high and a 36 percent rise on the previous year, the association said. Outside the U.K., British-developed games generated more than £1.1 billion in retail sales in 2000, ELSPA said, and a third of all the PlayStation2 games sold in Europe originate in the U.K. That's the same proportion as U.S.-originated products, and ahead of Japan or any other country, it said.

So piracy matters, ELSPA said. It matters to software companies losing money, to people who lose their jobs and to customers who end up with poor-quality products.

But the black market here is big business, and the software industry has a major fight ahead if it is to catch all the Backroom in Bloxwich pirates -- not to mention all the companies who haven't bothered to check their licenses.

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