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As safeguards grow, so does snitcher's urge to 'nail' boss 40,000 call software hot line to report employers' violations; Whistle-blowing


When his company would buy a single copy of a software program and install it on about 30 or so machines, the computer instructor at a chemical plant in Texas couldn't help noticing. But he was nervous about reporting the practice, which he figured was a violation of copyright law. "You don't dare say anything," he recalled recently, "because it's probably your job."

Then, suddenly, he had no job to worry about: his whole department was laid off. The instructor, in turn, called a hot line he had seen in a computer magazine and unburdened his conscience.

His call prompted an investigation by the Business Software Alliance, a trade group based in Washington, and led to the company paying $150,000 to settle charges of copyright violations.

The instructor, who insisted on anonymity because he said his actions could jeopardize his current job, was one of about 40,000 people who have called the software alliance since the hot line was set up four years ago. And the alliance, finding that it can benefit from employees' grudges, is getting more direct than ever.

In an ad campaign that put posters at well-traveled points in Manhattan starting last month, the message, "Report Software Piracy, 1-888-NO-PIRACY," is under red letters with the startling message, "Nail Your Boss."

"All it takes is one unhappy employee," said Bob Kruger, director of the association's enforcement program. "There are very few companies out there that haven't made one unhappy employee."

The key to keeping those calls coming is to make sure the employee is not found out by his or her employer. While going public can be hazardous to a career -- and so the number of workers who want to play Frank Serpico or Karen Silkwood is understandably small -- snitching is another story; as long as it's safe, apparently, it's satisfying.

When Congress enacted protection for whistle-blowers nearly 20 years ago and established inspectors general in federal agencies to investigate reports of fraud and waste, it prohibited the disclosure of an informer's identity. And under the Federal False Claims Act, whistle-blowers can receive a share of any money recovered from government contractors.

Many companies have also set up hot lines and promise to protect the identity of whistle-blowers. And Daniel P. Westman, a lawyer in Palo Alto, Calif., who wrote the book "Whistle-Blowing: The Law of Retaliatory Discharge" (Bureau of National Affairs, 1991), said such procedures were only common sense. "Any rational company that has something bad going on within it is going to want to know," he said.

The next step, which the software industry found instantly promising, was appealing to the employees of its customers. The Software Publishers Association, another trade group, started an anti-piracy hot line in 1989. It gets about 30 calls a day, and one temporary worker in New York turned in three companies in a week.

Kruger at the software alliance said he knew that the approach would work when, new to the job, he picked up the phone one day to hear: "I'm a disgruntled employee. Is this where I call to get revenge?"

Illegal copying of software costs the industry $15 billion a year, according to the alliance. It says hot-line calls have led to threats of legal action against 1,500 corporate and institutional users and settlements recovering $18 million.

The targets, some of which "behaved very decently" when notified, Kruger noted, have included Verteq Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif.; Russell Stover Candies Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., and scores of smaller companies, hospitals, nonprofit groups and even government agencies.

Some callers are temporary employees who are given photocopies of software documentation by their employers. Some, like the computer instructor in Texas, had little to lose. At one company, an executive said he believed the whistle-blower was a data-entry worker who had been dismissed for spending too much time playing computer solitaire and dipping into data bases.

The association is immensely protective of its callers. If it files suit -- so far, no cases have gone to trial -- it asks the court to put the whistle-blower's name under seal. "We've never had a case where an informant or source was identified," Kruger said. "I've never had anybody call back and say, 'Gee, guy, thanks a lot.' "

While there are federal and state laws protecting workers from retaliation for reporting an employer's wrongdoing, one advocate said the only effective protection for an employee was total secrecy.

"Never identify yourself," said Donald R. Soeken, who as a social worker for the Public Health Service protested the practice of giving psychiatric examinations to dissident federal employees. "It'll ruin your career. Call from a pay phone, and don't give your name."

All of this sneaking around challenges the classic image of the whistle-blower as a righteous loner who speaks out and accepts the consequences. Soeken knows this model well: He and his wife, Katherine, interviewed 90 whistle-blowers for a study presented to Congress in 1987, and now, from his office in College Park, he runs Integrity International, a whistle-blower advocacy group.

"If you took all these people back to when they were teen-agers," he said, "the whistle-blower would be the one saying, 'That's not right,' while everybody else is saying, 'Aw, come on.' This is the person who insists on having a designated driver."

Kruger of the alliance said he did not care if a whistle-blower was judgmental. "Some call us because they will bust if they don't tell somebody," he said. "Some say, 'I'm offended that my company is doing this because they're making so much money.' We don't care if they are angry or not, so long as their information is accurate."

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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