Audit your assets to stay safe
Music giant Sony BMG has stirred up controversy in the last two weeks over its use of anti-piracy software on some of its CDs. The software installed itself whenever a protected CD was played on a computer, preventing users making digital copies.
Critics complained that the protection was intrusive, difficult to remove and tried to make itself invisible. In other words, it had some of the characteristics of spyware. To make matters worse, within weeks of the disclosure, a Trojan (a kind of virus) turned up that exploited Sony BMG's anti-piracy software to attack computers.
Lawsuits and consumer pressure have since caused Sony to do a u-turn and withdraw the affected CDs, but it raises a bigger point about intellectual property and how to protect it. According to the Business Software Alliance , the self-styled "voice of the world's commercial software industry", an astonishing 35% of the software installed on personal computers around the world is pirated.
I'm no fan of piracy myself, having run a computer games company for ten years - but the industry's indignation, like Sony's over-zealous efforts at protection, often sounds shrill and self-interested to my ear.
I don't think any legitimate business sets out to steal software deliberately, so I often find myself asking: 'What has all this got to do with running a business?'
Well, I think there are a number of real business issues around software ownership and piracy:
Without a firm grip on the software you need and the software you own, you could end up having too much software or the wrong mix.
Buying software in a planned way can result in better deals. For example, buying volume licences for lots of copies of Microsoft software is cheaper than buying them piece by piece in the high street.
Increasingly, support and updates are being restricted to legitimate software. For example, Microsoft validates that you are running a kosher copy of Windows XP before letting you download its AntiSpyware program.
Keeping track of all your software licences makes it easier to keep offsite backups of these important documents.
It's easy to report alleged piracy to anti-piracy organisations such as The Federation Against Software Theft and the Business Software Alliance. This is a tempting way for a disgruntled employee to get revenge. This isn't an abstract threat - the BSA gets hourly emails from informers.
Uncontrolled downloading and installation of software by individuals, either from their own sources or over the internet, can create a legal liability for company directors even if you didn't sanction it.
Avoiding these risks isn't an onerous task, but it does require a little bit of work. The BSA has a useful interactive questionnaire that will help you refine your approach but the outline is:
Put someone in charge of the problem.
Work out what software you need. For example, not everyone needs a copy of Microsoft PowerPoint - if they don't give presentations, they're fine without it. They can open slideshows using free viewer software.
Check what software you actually have using an audit. There are links to free trial versions of various auditing tools on the BSA website and a searchable database on Microsoft's website.Microsoft's website. I looked at E-Z Audit, which might be cost-effective for smaller firms. It costs just $80 if you have fewer than 50 PCs.
Reconcile the software installed on your computers with the licences you own. It helps if the licences are stored together safely somewhere.
Uninstall software you don't use or need, check you have licences for the rest and buy any software you need but haven't licensed.
Make sure staff policies clearly say that users shouldn't install software, and organise a process that organises and tracks new software purchases and licences.