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Thursday, 13 December, 2001, 14:07 GMT
Hunting down the pirates
BSA closure notice on pirate software site
Visitors to sites selling pirated software could see this message
In the week that police in six countries mounted raids on a huge software piracy group, BBC News Online visited the London offices of the investigators attempting to curb the online sale of pirated software.

King Canute knew when he was wasting his time. The 11th Century English monarch told his courtiers he could not hold back the sea - and so it proved.

So, how should the investigators for the Business Software Alliance (BSA) feel when they try to stem the tide of pirated software being sold online?

They have a vast task. There are now over 500 million people online, over 125 million hosts, more than 2 billion webpages as well as peer-to-peer services, chat channels, instant messaging systems and dedicated file transfer sites.

Yet the small, tight-knit team that watches the web for the BSA seems undaunted by the scale of its job.

Web watchers

The BSA is the industry association that heads the efforts of many large software makers to combat software piracy.


Hardened criminals are always going to find a way

Margo Miller, legal counsel for the BSA
The investigators BBC News Online met are not hollow-eyed, exhausted shells broken by the scale of the job facing them. Instead, they are a perky bunch, who inhabit a light, airy office in an anonymous building located in one of London's more expensive neighbourhoods.

Despite dealing with up to 1,000 leads per month, the investigators are sure they are having an effect and helping to curb the amount of counterfeit software out there in cyberspace.

The BSA is keen to protect the location of this investigation team, the identities of the investigators and just how many people it has working on stopping the software pirates.

Lost sales

Margo Miller, legal counsel for the BSA, said this was necessary to stop angry software pirates taking their frustration out on the investigators.

The fact that investigators have received death threats in the past shows just how serious software piracy can get.

Certainly the BSA is in no doubt about the scale of the problem and claims it cost software companies more than $11 billion (7.66 billion) in 2000.

Some dispute this figure because they suspect that those who use pirate software for free would not go out and buy it. Under this explanation, pirated programs are not lost sales.

Consumer protection

The investigators in London, as well as those in the US and Asia-Pacific regions, aren't just tackling the globally co-ordinated groups.

Pirate software seized by the BSA
Sample software bought by the BSA's anti-piracy investigators
"Hardened criminals are always going to find a way," said Ms Miller, "but, we are trying to make it very difficult for the average consumer to come across this pirate software."

The investigators follow up the hundreds of leads sent in every month and also do some sleuthing of their own to root out websites that are selling pirated software, offering it for free or detailing how to get around copy protection mechanisms.

The investigators concentrate on websites because that is where most consumers sell and swap pirate software. Peer-to-peer services such as Napster and chat systems such as IRC are far less of a problem.

Site spotting

Whatever way the investigators hear about a potentially infringing site, the first thing they do is visit it and ensure that piracy laws are actually being broken.

Copies of Microsoft's XP are prepared in the factory
Windows XP has been targetted by pirates
The investigators admit that on some well-produced sites it can be difficult to tell if the products on offer are pirated or not. Usually, however, there are a few tell-tale signs.

Sites selling software for amounts far below the recommended retail price are suspect; especially if they are offering professional products that typically cost hundreds or thousands of pounds for just 10 or 20.

Sites selling CDs with compilations of software on them also get a closer look. Almost none of the BSA members bundles more than one product on to a single disk.

"We look particularly hard in the period of time before products are released when there is no way that you can distribute legitimate copies of that software," said Ms Miller.

Legal threat

Software sites that have no pages explaining their terms and conditions, their returns policy or have no postal address are also likely to come under scrutiny.

Thai police use a steamroller to destroy counterfeit CDs
Some take extreme measures to destroy pirated goods
The investigators follow a well-worked out procedure to log the evidence that a site is breaking software piracy laws. If necessary, investigators will download the software on offer or buy some of it to confirm their suspicions.

Once they have the evidence, the BSA investigators contact the net service company hosting the pages and ask for them to be removed.

The majority, over 95%, comply straight away. The reason for this is simple. "If they do not co-operate, we sue them," said Ms Miller.

Recently passed legislation means that net service providers are protected against liability if they act quickly when told about sites that break the law. There is little protection for those who do nothing about infringing sites that they have been repeatedly told about.

Who are you?

Ms Miller said websites selling or offering pirated software were shut down within 48 hours of being found.

The BSA also sends messages to any e-mail addresses listed on an infringing site to tell that site's owners that action has been taken.

Many counterfeiting sites are run by hobbyists with CD-burners, who are out to make a little "beer money". They tend not to be hardened criminals.

"People think it is worth dabbling in this because they think that they cannot be traced," said Ms Miller.

Using widely available tools and net-based databases, such as the "whois" service that holds details on web ownership, the investigators can quickly gather a lot of information about the person behind a site, the use that individual makes of the web and even where the person lives.

See also:

20 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Piracy problems stain Windows XP
29 Jul 01 | Business
Software piracy on the rise
05 Aug 99 | Business
Lara Croft battles software pirates
12 Dec 01 | Americas
Huge piracy ring raided
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