Gotcha! Pursuing software pirates

The inside story of how corporate software piracy cases are investigated and prosecuted. Hint: They often start with an IT informant.

You might not realize it, but two out of every 10 of your co-workers might be using pirated software, according to industry statistics. You might be, too, for that matter, particularly if you work in manufacturing or at a small or midsize company with 100 to 500 PCs. You just might not know it.

Your boss, an IT manager or even the president of the company, on the other hand, may be well aware of the "cost-cutting measure," which typically involves buying a single license or just a few copies of PC software and then installing it on multiple computers for use by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees.

According to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which represents the world's largest software makers by revenue, virtually no organization -- large or small, commercial or nonprofit, governmental, religious or educational -- is immune to software piracy. Some industries, like manufacturing, are heavier abusers, however (see sidebar).

According to a report issued jointly by the BSA and research firm IDC in May, global software piracy last year accounted for 41% of all installed PC software, which translates into a $53 billion loss to software makers. In the U.S., the 2008 piracy rate was 20%, the world's lowest. Even so, the economic loss is a stratospheric $9.1 billion.

The BSA does a lot more than merely study software piracy. The industry group provides education about copyright and software licensing rules, plus it offers sample software asset management policies and free online tools so companies can self-diagnose and address potential piracy problems.

The group also employs a small team of software piracy investigators to follow up on the thousands of confidential leads it receives each year, primarily from IT managers and other IT employees. Computerworld was given unprecedented access to the BSA's Washington-based investigators and attorneys, who explained step-by-step how they find corporate software pirates and what they do once they catch up with them.

How it works

It all begins with a lead like this one, which was submitted to the BSA via its standard online fraud-reporting form ( on July 8 and is now being investigated:

"I was the IT coordinator and questioned higher up why I was installing the same CD on all the computers even though we bought one license," wrote an informant. "[The] response was that [my employer] was too cheap to buy all the licenses."

The informant went on to say that "management knew about the issue from Day One and recommended it to save cost. This was brought up several times among the IT staff and was pushed off, as it was considered no big deal."

Another critical piece of information the informant supplied is the number of computers in use at the company and the number of PC software licenses or programs that were legally purchased. Among other irregularities, the informant alleges that a single purchased copy of Acrobat Pro software from Adobe Systems Inc. and five legally acquired copies of Microsoft Corp.'s Office Professional suite are in use on 69 user PCs.

"We ask a significant number of questions [in the online reporting form] because we're looking for as much detailed information as we can get to help us understand and get a comfort level that the person who is reporting really has the goods," explains Jennifer Blank, the BSA's senior director of legal affairs.

Once the lead passes a preliminary credibility check, Frank Konczakowski, the BSA's program coordinator for enforcement, contacts the informant to gather additional information about specific software-related conversations, memos or meetings that might bolster the case. The BSA also contacts the software vendor for whatever licensing or sales information it may have about the suspect company.

"If our informant reports 100 copies of Norton antivirus software but then Symantec reports 100 copies licensed, we know the lead is no good," Blank says. Because so many software vendors sell through multiple distribution channels, their information isn't comprehensive. But some BSA members, especially engineering software makers like SolidWorks Corp. and Autodesk Inc., "keep copious databases with registration numbers and transfer information and a lot of detail," she adds.

Wall of shame

The 10 industries most often reported for software piracy:

1. Manufacturing

2. Sales/Distribution

3. Service

4. Financial services

5. Software development

6. IT consulting

7. Medical

8. Engineering

9. Education

10. Consulting

Source: Business Software Alliance, Washington

Join the Computerworld Australia group on Linkedin. The group is open to IT Directors, IT Managers, Infrastructure Managers, Network Managers, Security Managers, Communications Managers.

More about: Adobe, Adobe Systems, Autodesk, BSA, Business Software Alliance, IDC, Microsoft, Norton, SolidWorks, Symantec
References show all


Mark Tobin


Dear Julia,
Always had the pleasure reading your articles in the Computerworld. Accept the last one- “Should you get an MBA?” The direction of the article is right on the money; however, the subject you picked to display is the worst one can imagine
I worked under Szygenda till my retirement after 32 years with GM. I worked there before he took over IT for 20 years. I have seen the difference before and after.
First – he doesn’t have a MBA and he never had any inclinations to listen to MBA’s or even to people who are able to think and offer real help. He is and always was a corporate dictator. If someone he did not liked, this person was gone one way or another.
He surrounded himself with people who promoted him and build for him a very powerful PR machine. Through this machine he kept himself in the press and builds a carefully much orchestrated image as a marvel and advanced thinker. However, the facts are quite different
When he was hired, he was given 3 goals- reduce the cost of IT related car cost from (if me memory serves me well) from $132 per car to @75 per car. Second, reduce the RONA by 50% and third, help the company to sustain 5% profitability on constant bases.
Over the years he was with the company, NOTHING was achieved- none of the set goals were achieved. He destroyed once a very advanced and productive IT force to practically nothing. Knowing that he personally does not know the IT/IS business, he handed over it to EDS first, and later to others. Naturally, ALL IT business characteristics suffered. But at that time the PR machine has done its job. He created himself an image; and it worked. As a result, as expected by many of us, GM failed. Thank to people like Szygenda, once a prosperous and productive organization failed. This is called DEMAGOGARY.
Talk to other former and current GM employee about him. I just offered you a bit of insides into a corporate sneak oil salesman.

Comments are now closed.
Related Coverage
Related Whitepapers
Latest Stories
Community Comments
Tags: anti-piracy, movie piracy, piracy, software piracy
All whitepapers

Teenager jailed for refusing to hand over computer password

Sign up now to get free exclusive access to reports, research and invitation only events.

Computerworld newsletter

Join the most dedicated community for IT managers, leaders and professionals in Australia