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The informant’s story: I bust my boss to the BSA

The informant’s story: I bust my boss to the BSA

The number of people in Australia dobbing in their employers for using unlicensed software is growing every year.

It was the hypocrisy that really riled him.

The fast-growing company Chris* had put his “heart and soul into” for more than two years was making solid profits with a successful line of specialist devices loaded with proprietary software. It fiercely guarded its intellectual property – despite the fact much of it had been developed using unlicensed software.

The use of cracked copies of various computer-aided design and enterprise software was an open secret within the company, which then had around 30 employees across offices in two states but has since expanded. “They had no shame,” Chris tells CIO Australia.

So he raised the issue with his manager.

“Don’t you find it ironic that you’re so – as you should be – so keen to protect your IP as far as your software development goes and yet you’re willingly stealing software from which you develop our products?” he says he asked them.

The irony was lost.

“And I thought – are you fucking kidding me? The arrogance and that sanctimony. I just thought – how can you?”

So he decided to dob them in.

A cursory Google search found the BSA, a global advocacy group for the software industry, sometimes known as The Software Alliance. Chris filled out the BSA’s online ‘quick end-user piracy questionnaire’ in minutes, kicking off a chain of events that ended up costing his firm more than $100,000 in one of the highest value unlicensed software settlements in Australia that year.

Drawing the line

Chris is one of a fast growing number of workers across Australia that makes a report against their employer to the BSA. Established by Microsoft in 1988, the Alliance’s membership is made up of the world’s most powerful technology companies, including Adobe, Apple, Amazon Web Services, IBM, Intel, Oracle, SAS and Salesforce.

It acts on their behalf in a ‘bad cop’ role, pursuing companies believed to be using unlicensed software with threats of audits and legal action. The BSA says it has delivered more than $400 million in ‘legalisation revenue’ – most commonly from out of court settlements – to its members since 2010.

Last year in Australia it settled more than $347,000 worth of damages across 28 cases arising from unlicensed software usage. It closed 2016 with a record $589,000 in damages.

To find out about non-compliant companies, the BSA relies heavily on informants like Chris, who provide tip-offs and insider information.

The group told CIO Australia that virtually all settlements (90 to 95 per cent) reached come as the result of an informant’s assistance.

“Informants with reliable information are critical to the BSA program. Copyright infringement is a serious offence, and we need the evidence and cooperation of such informants to bring commercial offenders to justice,” a BSA spokesperson told CIO Australia.

The BSA has in the past aggressively marketed the rewards it offers in return, appealing to disgruntled employees eager to get back at their boss and receive cash in return.

Past campaigns have run on billboards, banner ads and social media using language like ‘Hit 'em where it really hurts’; ‘Bust your boss’; ‘Need a vacation already?’; and ‘Plump up your wallet’.

A BSA social media campaign ad
A BSA social media campaign ad

Although the reward is appealing to some – with up to $20,000 available to informants that provide evidence and witness statements leading to settlements – many are driven by principle alone.

“I’m realistic. People put dodgy software on their computers, but where I draw the line is where that’s done for making profit, and I draw the line again when it’s not just people making profit but when it’s a big company making profit. It’s just so many levels up,” says Chris.

“People seem to see that software theft as not theft at all. It doesn’t feel the same as going and stealing a tangible object… But what surprises me is a company whose main product is actually to do with developing software and code – and they obviously want to protect that because it costs them a lot of money to develop – to then go and steal someone else’s?”

In 2015, the BSA received 73 ‘leads’ from insiders dobbing in their bosses, a figure which rose to 200 in 2016 and 308 last year.

They often prove the trump card in negotiations with suspected software pirates. As the BSA puts it: “The fact that the BSA has an informant is usually appreciated by the employer and sufficient for the matter to settle.”

For the informants the process can be long and arduous. Many run the risk of losing workmates and careers as they covertly gather evidence to be used against their superiors.

“And now that I’ve gone through it,” Chris says, “yeah that risk is real.”

‘Just a couple of copies’

Chris filled out the online form, giving the company’s name and address, an estimate of how many PCs were running pirated or unlicensed software, the types of software used and his contact details.

He hit submit.

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Tags copyrightsoftwareauditintellectual propertyBSAwhistleblowerunlicensedSoftware Alliancecracked copy

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