Software giant Microsoft is stepping up efforts to stop software piracy, and schools that don’t shape up soon might have to pay up.

The company’s latest version of its Windows operating system, Windows XP, contains a technology called “product activation” that creates and stores a profile of the configuration of every PC on which you install the software. This profile allows Microsoft to “lock” each copy of Windows XP to one specific computer.

The technology is intended to thwart licensing infringements of the software, and it’s just the latest in a series of steps Microsoft has taken to crack down on software piracy.

In fact, a number of school districts–most notably the School District of Philadelphia–have been the target of recent investigations by Microsoft, after company officials received tips that schools were installing single-user copies of Microsoft Office on multiple hard drives.

According to the Philadelphia schools’ chief information officer, Ron Daniels, the district received notice from its Microsoft sales representative earlier this year that someone had reported a piracy incident at a school.

The district has no knowledge of the circumstances of this incident, because Microsoft’s policy is not to reveal the identity of the person that reported the incident, said Daniels.

But on July 10, the online magazine Salon.com printed an interview with a Philadelphia computer teacher, using the pseudonym Lloyd Kowalski, who reportedly admitted to installing his school’s only copy of Office on several teachers’ computers in January.

“It was a minor violation,” the teacher told Salon.com. “We use AppleWorks for word processing, but I put Office on [teachers’] computers because they couldn’t read the Microsoft Word attachments they kept getting from the district’s central office. It was easy to do, and it made sense since our schools are in dire financial straits.”

Dire straits indeed. In June, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that unless they received additional cash advances from the state or city government, district officials weren’t sure how much longer they could meet payroll for the district’s 27,000 employees.

But arguments like that hold little water with Microsoft or the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an industry-wide enforcement group that fights software piracy and educates computer users about software copyright issues. Microsoft is a member of BSA, but company officials say they do not have information about whether BSA is involved in the Philadelphia case.

After talking to Microsoft officials, the district agreed to audit all its software and corresponding licenses. The audit is expected to be finished by late summer.

Daniels believes schools should not be the target of Microsoft’s inquiries, however, because school districts deal with issues for-profit institutions need not face, such as lack of funds, donated equipment, and stakeholders that are unfamiliar with the rules.

“There are new employees coming into the system, there are principals moving from one school to another, and there are administrative offices that constantly exchange equipment once new purchases are made,” he said. “Given that, it’s real easy to lose track of equipment, let alone software licenses.”

Bob Moore, executive director of information technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., agreed that compliance is a problem for schools.

“Any large district that can say with absolute confidence that they are 100-percent compliant on all copyright issues has its head in the sand,” he said. “Your compliance issues grow exponentially with the more technology you have and the more people that use the technology.”

But for the most part, educators agree that Microsoft did not exceed its rights in auditing the Philadelphia school district.

Rick Bauer is the chief information officer for the Hill School, a private academy located near Philadelphia. Bauer said he believes schools should be held to the same copyright standards as private businesses.

“The size of the company, the cost of the software, the ease at which it can be copied, are all just smoke-screening the real issue–theft,” he said. “Licensing can get a little tricky, but the plain fact of the matter is that unauthorized copying of other people’s work is stealing.

“If any of the teachers at the schools in violation of illegal software duplication had some intellectual property that was abused … those individuals would be howling,” Bauer said.

Bauer said he believes Microsoft and the BSA are justified in taking action against schools, because educational discounts made it far easier for schools to afford enough copies of software like the Windows suite.

“When you can get a fully loaded computer software bundle–operating system, connections to networks, applications suite–for less than $100 a system with the academic discounting, it is not fair … to take further advantage of [Microsoft] by illegally copying the software,” he said.

Agreed Ray Yeagley, superintendent of Rochester, N.H., Public Schools, “If we are going to tell our students that it is wrong to steal, we need to provide the example. You can be assured that they know when we are violating copyright laws.”

But what can a district–particularly a large one–do to make sure it is not liable for copyright infringement?

According to Yeagley, Rochester has a stated policy about copyright violations and has voluntarily audited its own system to remove software that teachers have brought in on their own.

“Violation of the policy can result in denial of access to the computers until we have a satisfactory resolution that assures that the employee will not violate the law,” said Yeagley.

Bauer’s staff has implemented similar procedures at the Hill School.

Said Bauer, “More than anything else, we talk to our students and faculty every year in our training programs, and we underscore what most of us already know in our heart of hearts–‘thou shalt not steal’ is still a pretty good standard.”

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

School District of Philadelphia
http://www.phila.k12.pa.us