Legalize it

People infringe on the copyrights of others every day.

Often, the copyright owner never discovers the infringement. However, exposing the copyright infringement of software programs such as Microsoft Word is becoming more common. And the whistle-blowers are often unhappy, former employees.

In my practice, I’ve noticed more companies are calling me after receiving a letter from a software owner claiming that certain copies of his or her program had been copied. The company will first ask, “Am I in trouble?” and then ask, “How did they find out?

The answer to the first question is usually, “Yes, you are in trouble.” The answer to the second is generally that an unhappy existing or former employee has contacted the owner of the software program and blown the whistle on the company.

Under United States copyright law, a judge in a copyright infringement lawsuit is authorized to award up to $150,000 in monetary damages to the copyright owner for each copyright willfully infringed. If a company has 25 copies of Microsoft Word and only 20 are authorized, it would be potentially liable for $750,000, or $150,000 for each unauthorized copy of Word.

Without question, it is much less expensive to purchase authorized copies of software than it is to defend yourself in a copyright infringement lawsuit and pay the monetary damages awardable under the U.S. copyright laws.

Why, then, do people continue to copy software programs? First, they don’t want to pay for the software. While this is an understandable motivation, in my experience, it is often not the most common reason. The more common reason is that, due to disorganization and administrative oversight, the company inadvertently has more versions of software running on its computers than it has licenses.

One way to avoid this potentially expensive problem is to periodically audit your software. While some companies prefer to do this themselves, others hire outside companies to perform the audits.

The Business Software Alliance periodically offers a truce, or an amnesty program, to companies in different regions of the country for a month at a time. Last month, a truce was offered to companies in Northeast Ohio. To be eligible, the entity must not have previously received notice that the BSA or its members have received a report of infringement and are investigating it.

Details about the truce, and when the next amnesty period is planned for your area, are available at the BSA Web site at or by calling (877) 536-4272.

Whether an entity is eligible for the truce or not, getting legal with computer software is just good business. Roger Emerson is a shareholder in the intellectual property law firm of Emerson & Associates. He can be reached at [email protected].