If a modern G. B. Shaw wannabe were writing a musical about dashing brigands in the 21st century, the three-masted square rigger would be too outmoded for his swashbuckling anti-heroes. He would need a more up-to-date venue in which outlaws could ply their wicked ways. Something high-tech—Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of Evian! There would be mice in place of swords, and pieces of eight would morph into 32 bits.

In truth, a story about Y2K Pirates of Cyberspace would not have to stray far from reality, because nowhere in the modern world is piracy more rampant than on the high seas of the internet.

For the past year, I have been telling eSchool Technology Conference attendees that software piracy is one of the most potentially expensive legal risks that educators face today. In 1999 alone, the value of software stolen by corporate users was more than $12 billion—and that just covers larger corporations, not personal and small-business pilfering.

The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) and the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which keep track of these statistics, have documented an even worse scenario for internet-based auction sites such as Excite, Yahoo, and eBay. According to SIIA, somewhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of software programs sold through auction sites is pirated. Unlicensed copies of applications often are sold without complete documentation and usually at prices far below realistic market value. Another clue that an offering is illigitimate is the use of terminology such as “back-up copy”” or media descriptions like “compilation CD.”

As you know, the license you get to use each piece of software is limited, usually to a specific number of machines, users, or locations. It’s also usually non-transferable—i.e., you can’t make copies to sell, auction, or even give away.

The largest software piracy problem in most small businesses (and school districts) is the use of more copies than are permitted by the license you purchased. For example, if you buy a site license for five high schools and distribute copies to three additional schools, those extra copies are pirated. If you buy an operating system license (such as Windows 98) for 50 computers and run Win98 on 100 computers, you have stolen half the copies and potentially could suffer both civil and criminal penalties.

Given the prevalence of “hot” software on the web, there is a serious potential for having unlicensed software on school system computers if you (a) try to cut costs by purchasing software that may be unlicensed from discount vendors or web sites; (b) allow users (faculty, students, or administrators) to download and install software from the web; or (c) allow users to install personal software from any source (including copies of software they bought for use at home).

But why the red flag from me now? Doesn’t the difficulty in detecting unlicensed software make it cost-prohibitive for vendors to pursue small-time pirates? Aren’t most school districts too small to become targets for the “software police?”

Maybe it used to be that way, but not any more. Some individual vendors are getting serious about protecting their intellectual property rights, in this case the copyrights they own for software programs. Microsoft, which probably loses more money than any other vendor to piracy, is taking a hard line in particular.

For pirates hooked into the web, the threat of detection is immediate. In recent months, Microsoft has been using a new intelligent web crawler that searches the internet for unlicensed software. The tool hunts and finds counterfeit copies of Microsoft applications. Then, Microsoft initiates criminal actions, lawsuits, or both against the pirates. Although this online scanning tool is relatively new technology, it won’t be long before other vendors follow suit. When the detection tools are this highly sophisticated and easy to use, there are no pirates too small or unimportant to ignore.

So, now is the time to clean up your act. Make sure your software inventory matches your licenses. Make sure you have a clearly-worded, written policy that prohibits unlicensed software from being downloaded and installed on your school system computers. If users are allowed to bring in personal software, make sure they present valid documentation of a proper license. Spread the word! If you unfurl the red flag and wave it at your staff and students now, you can avoid having a software vendor raise the Jolly Roger over your schools in the future.