Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why I keep telling people not to pirate software. (Ron Ayers Motorsports and the BSA)

piratedsoftwarevd7 I can't tell you how many times I've told friends, family, and professionals in the last two years about the dangers of piracy. The days of borrowing your friend's copy of Window 98 are over. The days of installing a friend's computer game on your PC and playing online are over. And most importantly, the days of downloading illegal hacks of software because you can't afford the real program are over!


I've had friends recently who have called me with a triumphant note in their voice, saying to me "HA! I got a new working copy of Microsoft Vista!" (Or XP, or Office, or Photoshop, etc ad infinitum). I usually shake my head and warn them to be careful, only to be told "No man. It works fine. I got it to activate and everything!"


I'd like to take them all down to a local Greenville business and let them ask Ron Ayers how confident their IT staff felt about it when they got busted last week for running illegal copies of software and were forced to pay a  $72,000 fine and then were forced to purchase legitimate copies of the software on top of that already huge bill from the piracy police!


The BSA (Business Software Alliance) published an article a few days back about the bust. The highlights are as follows:


The Business Software Alliance (BSA) today announced that Ron Ayers Motorsports (www.ronayers.com), a motor sports superstore and equipment supplier, headquartered in Greenville, NC, agreed to pay $72,053 to BSA to settle claims that it had unlicensed copies of Adobe and Microsoft software on its computers. In addition to the payment, the company agreed to delete all unlicensed copies of software installed on its computers, acquire any necessary replacement licenses and commit to implementing stronger software license management practices.


Thirty-five percent of the software installed in 2006 on PCs worldwide was installed without legal licenses, amounting to nearly $40 billion in global losses because of software piracy.  An independent study shows that 21 percent of software in the United States is unlicensed.*    


(For the full article, click here)


Let me see if I can explain some of how the new world of software programming works, using a few clearly identified ground rules for a baseline:

  1. YOU are not smarter than the entire engineering staff of Microsoft, Adobe, or whomever, regardless of what you think of your bittorrent skills.
  2. The Internet is a requirement for most people and most software in today's digital world.
  3. Your hacked software IS going to eventually rat you out, even if your "friends" don't,

Regardless of your love or disdain for Microsoft as a company, let's agree that they have collectively created one of the most advanced pieces of software in the history of the world (The Windows Operating System). In recent years companies like Microsoft have been losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually due to people who are downloading pirated copies of their software. Doesn't it follow that they would take every step they can in order to catch people who are installing illegal copies of their programs? It's not like it amounts to five thousand dollars a year, in which case they would just likely not even notice, but when you put a dent of a few hundred million in someone's pocket, they feel it!


How is this accomplished?

First and foremost, software piracy is reported through the Internet by your own computer reporting on you.  Years back, Microsoft incorporated a program called WGA, which stands for Windows Genuine Validation. Microsoft got tired of getting screwed over by the general population of Internet users, so they instituted the WGA policy. Basically, before you can get any more updates beyond a certain date, you had to download the WGA application update first. This little program simply loads itself, checks to make sure the serial key you have on your computer matches the one you have registered on Microsoft's web site, and checks to be sure that your key hasn't been reported as stolen or pirated. In layman's terms, it creates a unique fingerprint of you and passes that fingerprint off to the Microsoft database. Each and every time you come to get a new update for Windows, or try to download an office template for MS Word, or try to update your browser, your fingerprint is compared again.


Maybe you're one of these people who have a new hacked copy and you can update just fine! That's great! Awesome! Now you can go get updates to your system and no one will ever catch you!!! Yeah, not really...  If you consider it like a fingerprint, it's really an easy analogy to follow. Again, let me remind you Microsoft isn't stupid.(Greedy, overzealous, self-righteous, monopolizing capitalists maybe... but never stupid.) When five thousand people show up to the same store (read as windows update web site) and all five thousand people try to use the same fingerprint, alarms start to go off. No one comes out to arrest you. No one screams FREEZE. Nothing happens that you are aware of. All right! You got away with it again!


What you aren't aware of is that Microsoft puts your fingerprint in a database of "suspected fakes" and starts to track it. It's really simple to do. Let's assume that Microsoft (this works for Adobe too) releases a new patch on Tuesday. A normal user would login sometime that week through the Automatic Update feature, have their fingerprint scanned, and then be authorized to get the download. However, anytime the same download gets applied to the same fingerprint over five thousand times in the same week, something is wrong! (Remember, you got your hacked copy from a friend, co-worker, Internet site, etc. Now you ALL have the same fingerprint, but different IDs, so once ALL of you download the same patch, they know something is wrong.)

What happens in the real world when a crime is believed to be in progress? An  investigation is started, much the same as in the digital world. Microsoft doesn't have the time, patience, or the desire to track you down and come to your door; this is true. However don't think for a moment that it can't happen. Just like with a real-world investigation, the judge doesn't do the leg work. He has cops, lawyers, bounty hunters, and others for that. Microsoft and these other companies who spend hundreds of millions making software do too!


There are companies out there who make a percentage of the profits for catching you running pirated software. Microsoft doesn't chase you down themselves. They DO however pass over the information to one of these companies, and let them run with it. Let's assume that your pirated software is Microsoft Windows, retailing for about $180.00. Five thousand people who have all stolen the same copy equates to about nine-hundred thousand dollars! (That's almost a million dollars Microsoft lost JUST on the ONE pirated copy that got stolen from ECU a few years back! I worked for a computer IT company at the time and I literally had HUNDREDS of people come in with the same cd-key and try to tell me it was theirs they purchased but they lost their original disc!) Now, let's assume I work for the BSA or other organization. I simply call Microsoft and say "Hey guys. I'll make you a deal. I'll go investigate and collect your money for you. In exchange I want 20% of whatever I can recover in fines. Deal? Cool!"


Now you have a private company (who is ALSO smarter than you) with a vested interest in tracking you down and carrying you to court for the fines you owe to Microsoft, Adobe, and others. In the end, what happens? Ask the guys at Ron Ayers what happens. Seventy-two thousand dollars later, with your name all over the paper, and after having to fire your entire IT staff, you STILL have to hire new employees, buy new software, and deal with annual audits for the rest of your life to make sure you haven't done it again!


To those of you out there who are geeks: Don't flame me with emails telling me I'm an idiot. I KNOW very well this isn't the actual method instituted to track software piracy. I'm trying to make an analogy that my regular readers can understand, in simple terms, minus all the jargon.


How do you protect yourself against piracy?

Well, I'm not going to give away all my trade secrets for free. After all, I do run an IT company that needs to turn a profit. If you think you're in danger of being caught for pirated software then you probably are. You can easily Google the word "Software auditing program" and try some programs for yourself. If you are a business owner out there, or work for a company you feel might get caught, I would be delighted to help you audit your software inventory. Does this mean I will call the police and tell them you're running illegal software? No. I work for my client, which is you or your company. My job and my liability end with me reporting to you which programs are or are not compliant. It's up to YOU to contact the proper people and purchase legitimate software.


What if I'm already running pirated software?

If you know already that you're running illegal copies of software, you can purchase the legitimate copes for a discounted price and have your "keys" changed to reflect the new licenses, which will make you legitimate. Again, this is something you can try to do yourself, but I would definitely see about contracting someone who knows what they are doing before relying on it for your business. If you want professional assistance, check out the official work web site: www.twnetworx.com



If you find this article useful, please Digg it. If you have questions or comments or want to know more, leave a comment and I'll answer it online.


  1. Have there been any actual cases of home users of pirated software being prosecuted or fined?

  2. Can I take that as a no?

  3. There's a decent article on it here: http://www.technewsworld.com/story/34933.html

    Mainly it says home users arent' targeted by companies like BSA, but I wouldn't trust it. Microsoft is building in tighter and tighter controls into their systems for a reason. While there hasn't been any news that I personally am aware of for home users pirating microsoft software, there have certainly been a flurry of lawsuits regarding the pirated use of music and videos in recent years.

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