In a case that might serve as a warning for district administrators and technology coordinators from coast to coast, a school system outside of Chicago has agreed to pay $50,000 to a computer trade organization after discovering that a former employee had copied software onto school computers illegally.

Officials from Community Unit School District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill., settled out of court after discussions with their lawyers and the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an international association of software makers that attempts to enforce copyright restrictions and curb software piracy.

On Sept. 10, the school board voted to pay BSA after discovering that a former employee at Jacobs High School—who has since resigned—brought in a copy of Adobe’s Acrobat software and downloaded the program illegally onto several desktop machines used by administrators at the school.

According to Superintendent Ken Arndt, there also were some illegally copied versions of Microsoft software on the district’s computers, though he was unsure of the exact program.

Arndt has only been employed at District 300 for two-and-a-half months but has been working to resolve the copyright infringement issues since he started.

“It’s my understanding that the situation was brought to the district’s attention about a year and a half ago by the BSA,” he said, adding that he was not sure how BSA received the tip.

Regardless of how the organization learned of the problem, Arndt admits the violations did occur and lawyers were involved, though no formal lawsuit was ever filed. The district has complied with the investigation fully, he said.

District officials attribute the copyright infringement to a lack of knowledge about what constituted a violation. “There was also a lack of knowledge that districts need licensing agreements to use software,” Arndt said. “A lot of employees and administrators did not know that.”

Schools can be particularly susceptible to inadvertent software piracy, because many educators don’t have a clear understanding of what they are allowed to copy for free and what is protected under copyright law.

“A lot of times an employee will bring in a program and install it because they have a receipt for it, and think ‘Hey, I own this, so I can do what I want with it.’ They don’t realize that they need a special [multiple-user] license,” said Arndt. “There is a lot of misconception. It gets confusing because there is free software that [school users] can download legally, too.”

District 300 has learned an expensive lesson, officials say. But the $50,000 settlement is actually lower than the initial figure requested by BSA, which was 1.5 percent of the market value of the software.

The settlement was reached through negotiations between the district’s attorneys and BSA. Arndt was unsure of the exact amount BSA initially requested.

The district is taking steps to ensure that software piracy is eradicated in its 21 school buildings. The school board’s first step will be to update District 300’s acceptable-use policy to reflect new regulations meant to curtail piracy.

“This district has had a long record in terms of site-based decision making,” Arndt said. “But this is one example where those types of decisions are best made not at the building level, but at the district level.”

The district’s new acceptable-use policy will reflect three major changes regarding copyright issues and software licensing.

First, all teachers and administrators will be made aware of federal copyright laws and restrictions, and what constitutes copyright infringement. So far, all building administrators and staff have been notified, Arndt said, adding that efforts to keep District 300 employees well-informed will be ongoing. “We have just begun the process of making sure everyone knows our policies,” he said.

Second, all software installations and purchases will be initiated at the district level. Building-level employees no longer will be allowed to decide on and oversee software purchases or installations.

Third, one person will be in charge of making those decisions. That person also will make sure the district has the proper records to establish the licensure. In the past, no one person specifically was in charge of keeping records and establishing licensure, Arndt said, so employees were not able to present proper documentation for software licenses. The problem was compounded by the lack of an established procedure for filing and maintaining the extensive copyright records that large-scale software ownership demands.

Jenny Blank, BSA’s director of enforcement, said her organization has made no specific announcement about District 300, and she declined to comment on the case.

However, she did say that school districts have “a special obligation” to make sure the tools they use to teach their students are legal, because they set an example for children. Blank also added that software companies understand schools are under a good deal of financial pressure, and they often provide steep discounts on their products to schools.

“That’s why it is hard to understand why [schools] would not be legal,” she said. Still, Blank agreed that lack of communication might be a key factor in inadvertent copyright infringement.

“I think this happens across the board,” she said. “Companies and schools may have a policy about software piracy, but they fail to communicate those policies [to employees].”

BSA has published a “Guide to Software Management” that offers companies and schools advice on how to stay legal.

“Sometimes centralized record keeping can be best, but it does not have to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Blank.

Links:

Business Software Alliance
http://www.bsa.org

BSA’s “Guide to Software Management”
http://www.bsa.org/usa/press/newsreleases/1999-03-17.300.phtml

Community Unit School District 300
http://www.d300.kane.k12.il.us