It is estimated that violations of computer software copyrights cost software publishers $2.8 billion a year in the U.S. and $15.2 billion worldwide. As could be expected software publishers have become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to enforce their rights.

What you can’t do

The copyright protection on software is fairly clear ‹ you can’t use what you haven’t paid for. (Shareware, free ware, and public domain software, as the names indicate, are exceptions to this ‹ because owners exert limited or no copyright authority.)

Typically, a software license sets out the rights and limitations for the use of software. Generally, the limitation is to the program and one backup copy. Licenses can also be purchased for multiple copies or for use by the entire organization. Most major software publishers allow you to purchase software licenses according to your specific needs.

The copyright statute (17 U.S.C. 101 et seq.) prohibits

€ duplicating software for profit,

€ making multiple copies for use by different users within an organization,

€ giving an unauthorized copy to another individual, and

€ commercial renting, leasing, or lending of software without express written permission

You may make one backup copy of software for your own use. No other copies may be made without specific authorization from the copyright owner. The law does provide an exception for nonprofit educational institutions. It allows for the “transfer of possession of a lawfully made copy of a computer program by a nonprofit educational institution to another nonprofit educational institution or to faculty, staff, or students.” This exception allows the complete transfer of the program ‹ it does not give educational institutions authority to make additional copies of software.

What can happen if you do

If found in violation of copyright laws, an organization or individual can be prosecuted criminally or found liable for damages in a civil action. Criminal penalties for copyright infringement include fines up to $250,000, jail terms of up to five years, or both. In addition, the copyright owner can pursue the violator in a civil action and get an injunction, actual damages (lost profits), statutory damages (up to $100,000 per infringement), and costs and attorneys’ fees.

What you should do

To protect the school district from possible liability, you can implement a number of procedures and policies:

€ Make employees and students aware of their responsibilities and restrictions when using software. Many people are unaware of the restrictions and thus pirate software inadvertently. Draft a memo explaining these restrictions and send it out ‹ or cover the restrictions during any computer inservice training.

€ Consider asking employees and students to sign a software code of ethics, setting out the rules and regulations for software use.

€ Consider, as some districts have done, enacting policies prohibiting students and employees from downloading or uploading copyrighted software.

€ Conduct an internal audit to make sure there are enough licenses to cover the programs the district runs. You can purchase software commercially to run an audit, contract with an audit service provider, or conduct it manually yourself. Audits should be conducted regularly. Any illegal software discovered during the audit should be deleted.

€ Consider purchasing a network metering package if you run programs off a shared server. This restricts the number of simultaneous users according to the number of licenses purchased.

€ Most importantly, make someone in the district accountable. A software manager should monitor software used and keep a good inventory of licenses.

The Software Publishers Association has dedicated a portion of its web site to the copyright his issue. It provides information that can help you come into and stay in compliance with software copyright laws. The site offers a “Sample Software Policy and Procedures,” including a suggested auditing policy and a software code of ethics.

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