DON'T COPY THAT FLOPPY Facing a sea of losses, companies make software pirates walk the plank


...TC Many new-wave criminals don't carry guns or smoke crack. More likely, they wear suits, work with computers and make purchasing decisions.

They're software pirates, people who make copies of personal computer software programs, breaking federal copyright law. To the U.S. software industry, they are a $2.4 billion-a-year problem that is no longer a mere nuisance.

"Software is very expensive to develop and continue to develop," said Sandra Boulton, head of the anti-piracy department at Autodesk Inc., a Sausalito, Calif., company that makes software for engineers and architects. "If we don't get paid for the software, then we can't develop more software."

Software companies want to make it known that they're fed up with software piracy. In recent months, the Software Publishers Association has bought billboards in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Miami suggesting that the act could get you arrested. The billboards warn passers-by, "Don't Copy That Floppy."

Software pirates have kinfolk in crime: people who make illegal duplicates of videotapes and audio cassettes. But duplicating PC programs is easier. Most PCs are capable of transferring programs from a disk to a hard drive. To do the same with videotapes and cassettes requires two machines or a higher-priced deck with two slots.

Getting caught copying software isn't an appealing thought. Violators face maximum fines of $100,000 for each illegal copy -- if punished under civil law. The maximum penalty for people charged under criminal law is a $250,000 fine and five years in prison per violation.

Copyright law permits buyers of commercial software to make one backup copy for emergencies but prohibits anything beyond that. The worst offenders are companies that buy one copy of a program, then make copies for every workstation.

"A typical case for us is a company that makes a conscious decision to make copies of, say, WordPerfect, for multiple machines," said Peter Beruk, litigation manager for the Software Publishers Association in Washington. "The typical attitude seems to be: 'We'll take the gamble. No one will come after me.'"

Showing sympathy for big software companies might not come naturally for people who have to pay $298 or $395 for the latest versions of WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3, respectively. Pirates don't even bother to plead ignorance to the copyright law.

Those small acts of defiance add up fast. Ms. Boulton said four to seven illegal copies of Autodesk's $3,500 AutoCAD program are made for every legal sale. Since Autodesk had $230 million in revenue in 1991, Autodesk's estimated losses to piracy are in the $1 billion neighborhood.

It's no wonder, then, that the industry is on the offensive. Autodesk has more than 300 copyright-infringement cases pending nationwide and has resolved 4,000 cases in the last four years. This month, Autodesk spared itself some litigation by accepting $296,475 from three unidentified Florida companies.

A year ago, the Software Publishers Association received its largest copyright settlement, $350,000 and attorneys' fees from a Seattle consulting firm.

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