My experience of software piracy.
The story is true, only names and details have been changed
to protect the guilty and confuse the innocent.
I first came up against nicked software many years ago. I worked in a small DP department on the Snowy Industrial Estate. Oswald and I were the senior programmers, reporting to the Big Boss, except that he was a bit more senior.
After I’d been there about two years someone suggested that we should get a copy of FileBase, the wonder database utility and report generator. Oswald made enquiries and got a quote back for about £4K per annum.
“That’s stupid”, he snorted, “Even if we convince the Big Boss, we’ll never get that through the Board.”
“I know what we can do,” piped up young Pugwash, the junior programmer, “I’ve got a mate who’s an operator at Wonder Crisps down the road. They use FileBase, and I can get him to back up a copy for us on tape.”
This was the time when the home computer boom had just taken off, and I had just sold a piece of software I’d written for my 64K state of the art Dragon. I reckoned I’d feel a bit upset if anyone copied my stuff illegally, so I objected.
“That’s fraud, you’re stealing it”
“No we’re not. Look, they’re not losing anything because we couldn’t get it anyway at that price, the Board would never agree. They’ve got no moral right anyway, asking prices like that. They’re a load of crooks, don’t worry about it.”
The phone rang at that point and stopped the conversation. I went back to my desk. I was still young and innocent enough that the words “don’t worry” didn’t invoke the normal healthy blind panic that they do nowadays. I decided that it was just Oswald being macho again, and ignored it.
About a fortnight later, I noticed a strange attack of whispering between Pugwash and Oswald. That wasn’t too unusual, they were slightly prone to odd behaviour anyway, much of it concerned with their studies in Amateur Gynaecology and certain fully illustrated magazines which Oswald kept in the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk. Then, working late one night, it was my turn to backup the system execution directory, and I noticed a new program had appeared. We had a (very user-hostile) set of database utilities, called Data-Ease-A, and Data-Ease-C. They came free with the operating system, and were generally agreed to be worth slightly less than what we had paid for them. Now all of a sudden we had a Data-Ease-B as well, with a creation date of only a few days ago.
It looked odd, and I was bored, waiting for a ludicrously slow drive to finish writing a tape, so I loaded Data-Ease-B, to see what it was. I’d never used FileBase, but I had a fair idea of what it looked like. The real giveaway was where he hadn’t changed the title line on the output listing!
I sat and thought for a while. Should I pretend I’d never seen it? Would that be tactful, or just make me a crook as well? If I did say something, would I be an honest citizen or a self-righteous smug goody-goody.
I didn’t reach any conclusion that night, or the next either. I kept a watch on the log though, and noticed that Data-Ease-B was being used more and more. I didn’t want to go round denouncing anybody to the owners of FileBase, but I didn’t want to acquiesce in dishonest actions either.
I thought of discussing it with the Big Boss, but I honestly had my doubts about whether that would do any good. I’d a pretty fair idea he knew about it anyway. If he didn’t, I could make a fairly good prediction of how much sleep he was likely to lose over it.
I decided to ask advice, I rang up my union, the EETPU, and asked a very nice gentleman by the name of Tiplady what his opinion was. Tiplady sounded a bit taken aback. It wasn’t quite the normal enquiry, but he rallied and said he’d find out.
He rang me back the next night.
“I’ve spoken to our legal people, they reckon that provided you never run this pirated software, it is unlikely you would be in any kind of trouble. If on the other hand you do use it, then you would be liable personally for damages for breach of copyright, unless you could prove that you had no knowledge that the program was stolen. So the real question is, will this program be included in any of the standard jobs, which you have to support? If so, then you are at risk of prosecution.”
That seemed clear enough. “What should I do then?”
“My advice is not to provoke a confrontation if you can avoid it. I’ve always found asking embarrassing questions works far better than confrontation anyway. I suggest that you go to your manager, and explain that while you don’t want to impose your views on anyone, you think we should point out to senior management that there is a serious risk to the company, especially if we end up suddenly with a court order stopping us from running critical jobs. Then give him a letter addressed to his boss, saying the same sort of thing, but in even more polite language.”
I spent the night drafting the letter, and went to see the Big Boss the next day. The effect was amazing.
First of all there was a sudden rush of people in and out of the Big Boss’s office, led by Oswald himself. Then I was called in, and it was explained to me that my concern was much appreciated, and quite correct, only I had misunderstood the situation. There had never been any intention to pirate FileBase, it was simply being checked out.
“Oswald’s been evaluating it, to see if it’s worth buying it, and to be honest we’re a little disappointed with the program, and we don’t really think it’s worth the money, so we’re going to get rid of it, and carry on with the existing software.”
I thanked them for explaining everything, apologised for misunderstanding the situation, and left it at that. It was about the most feeble story I’ve ever heard, but I think it was Bismark who said something like “never be ashamed to admit publicly that you’ve lost, especially when you’ve just won”.
And just to be sure, next time I was on support, I deleted the FileBase program.