A coalition of software makers that includes Microsoft Corp. has targeted the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), alleging its teachers and other employees have illegally copied software programs.

The charges of piracy could cost the nation’s second-largest school district (after New York City) nearly $5 million over the next three years.

Under a proposed settlement, the district would pay $300,000 to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a trade group based in Washington State that was formed by Microsoft and other software producers to protect their copyrights.

But the real cost of the settlement, which at press time was still subject to board approval, is the estimated $4.5 million the district would be forced to spend to replace the unlicensed software that allegedly has spread throughout its classrooms.

The settlement stems from charges made three years ago that the district’s West Valley Occupational Center violated federal copyright laws by using nearly 1,400 copies of unlicensed software. Acting on a tip, the BSA asked the school to investigate in March 1996 and threatened to file a lawsuit.

An investigation by the district turned up unlicensed copies of several software programs at the school, including 186 copies of Corel WordPerfect and 132 copies of Microsoft MS-DOS–programs that should have sold for $495 and $150, respectively.

Some of the software alleged to have been pirated cost as much as $3,750 per copy, the Los Angeles Times reported.

District officials complained that they were being singled out unfairly but said they wanted to settle the dispute and move on.

“Nothing has been proven,” school board member David Tokofsky told the Times. “I wish that BSA, which serves as the repo man for bigger clients, would go repossess places that aren’t trying to change the future of California.”

Bob Kruger, BSA’s vice president of enforcement, took exception to those comments.

“We sympathize with the situation school districts face–most of our members offer software and support to schools at a substantial discount,” Kruger told eSchool News. “But it’s unfair to the software industry to suggest that we shouldn’t ask for compliance with copyright laws.”

School districts have a special responsibility to their communities and to their students to abide by the rules, Kruger said. “It would be a terrible situation if students were learning that it’s OK to copy software [illegally],” he said.

Software piracy costs the computer industry more than $11 billion each year, according to the Times.

How to protect your schools

“It’s a huge problem, partly because there’s so much available,” said Dave Splitt, ethics and law columnist for eSchool News. “If there wasn’t any piracy, the cost of software would be a lot lower than it is.”

Because it’s virtually impossible to control what goes on in the home, Splitt said, the software industry targets businesses. Larger public school systems are going to come under more scrutiny, he said, especially as school technology use increases.

Patrick Spencer, a spokesman from the district’s communications office, told eSchool News that LAUSD has a written policy prohibiting the piracy of licensed software. Spencer said the policy is given to all employees, and principals are responsible for making sure their building staff is aware of it.

But simply having a policy in place and communicating it to staff members is not enough, Kruger said. School and district technology personnel should include regular audits in their software management to ensure such policies are working, he said.

It’s also important to be realistic about what your needs are when you’re budgeting for software, he said.

“As in a business environment, the use and installation of unlicensed software occurs for a number of reasons–from the intentional to the benign,” Kruger said. “Sometimes it’s just ignorance over what a license permits or doesn’t permit, for example.”

In reaching an agreement, Kruger said, both the district and the BSA wanted to map out a strategy for ensuring compliance that was realistic and effective.

Still, the district may be getting off easy, Kruger said. The BSA could have recovered millions of dollars from the district if it had investigated the use of unlicensed software throughout every building, he said.

Los Angeles Unified School District

Business Software Alliance