Computer software giants have been cracking down on schools and districts that are pirating their software, and they appear poised to increase their efforts.

Working through their trade group, the Business Software Alliance, large software makers such as Microsoft try to find large-scale copyright violators. They encourage anonymous tipsters through a toll-free number, 1-800-RU-LEGIT. Fines can add up quickly: They can be as much as $150,000 per violation, though they are almost always settled for a lesser amount.

In one highly publicized case last spring, Microsoft threatened to sue the Philadelphia school system for possible copyright violations at more than 260 schools. As part of an agreement to avoid litigation, the district conducted an audit in the spring and summer to determine which software titles were purchased legally, and to purge those that were pirated.

In a 1996 case, Los Angeles schools settled a copyright case with a $300,000 fine and a plan to spend $3 million to replace illegally copied software.

Software companies have strong justification, both legally and morally. Schools should not be violating a basic rule such as copyright, noted a Microsoft spokesperson. It sets a bad example for students. Also, software companies have made and continue to make cash donations and software discounts to students and educational institutions worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

School advocates, however, say that the software companies are charging nonprofit institutions too much money for software, and that in pursuit of profits, they are robbing America’s children of basic computer access. A school district such as Philadelphia’s city schools is chronically underfunded and simply cannot pay retail prices for software, officials say.

Some school districts—aided by technology-savvy parents—are attempting to use noncommercial software to run their systems. These “freeware” or “shareware” programs, which are free or very inexpensive, can be downloaded on the internet. As teams of volunteers customize these programs, they are becoming capable of supporting the types of activities commonly used in schools—word processing, web design, and even administrative tasks.

One group of educators has started a web site called that is intended to contain “all the basic pieces, and the help necessary, for an open-source tech program.” A web server, network tools, mail, bulletin boards, course building systems, library system, and school database system will be offered as of October, says co-founder David Bucknell.