WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- An organization of large software publishing companies announced yesterday that it kicked off a worldwide crackdown on computer bulletin boards that illegally distribute copyrighted software with a raid last month on 13 alleged "pirate boards" in Berlin.
The German sweep came on the heels of a raid last month that shut down a board in Baltimore called APL. The Baltimore raid was the first seizure of an alleged pirate board in the United States instigated by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a Washington-based industry watchdog group.
Robert W. Holleyman II, president of the BSA, said rogue bulletin boards have become "one of the fastest-growing and most pernicious forms of piracy." He said the group estimates that copyright violations cost the industry $10 billion to $12 billion a year in worldwide sales.
A computer bulletin board system is essentially a software program, typically run on one or more personal computers, that acts as a communications hub for computer users linked by telephone lines. Users can swap messages, play games, "post" announcements or exchange computer programs, many of which are in the public domain.
Many of the roughly 30,000 bulletin boards in the United States are legal, but Mr. Holleyman said his group "conservatively" estimates that 2,000 of the boards allow users illegally to "upload" and "download" programs that are protected by copyright.
He said some pirate boards are profit-seeking enterprises, while others are not.
Mr. Holleyman said the German boards, which operated in English, were "very much a business." Acting on information provided by the BSA, German police seized the 13 boards in raids on Oct. 28, the BSA said.
Generally, the BSA does not announce a raid until several weeks after it occurs so it can evaluate the contents of the seized computer system before making the action public.
The BSA said yesterday that a preliminary analysis showed that the seized systems distributed illegal copies of at least 25 software programs, some of which were "beta"versions, meaning they had not yet been released by their publishers.
Increasingly, industry efforts to combat copyright violators are being backed up by stern government action. According to the BSA, the operators of the German boards could face criminal prosecution resulting in a prison term of up to five years.
In the United States, a law signed by President Bush early this month makes it a felony to make more than 10 illegal copies of a computer program or to make copies worth more than $2,500. The offense, which is now punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, had been a misdemeanor.
The Baltimore raid, which occurred before that law went into effect, was carried out Oct. 1 by the U.S. Marshals Service in the 8000 block of Gough St. as part of a civil action undertaken by BSA member companies against the system operator.
In that raid, authorities seized more than $100,000 worth of illegal software and $25,000 in computer hardware, the BSA said. A motion filed by the software companies on Oct. 21 sought a permanent injunction against APL, K&S; Computing Group, Kyong H. Lee and Bob Lee forbidding them to distribute copyrighted software.