The World Wild Web is always full of surprises, and I can usually find some source of amusement (or irritation—which is easily solved by the “delete” key) in my daily eMail inbox. But this morning I received yet another communique (one of dozens in the past three years) from a well-meaning correspondent informing me that I needed to spring into action to protect my freedoms because Congress was poised to vote on “Bill 601P” that would impose a tax on internet use and siphon off 5 cents per message into the coffers of the evil bureaucrazy. I have a standard response ready to plug in: “This is a hoax! There is no such legislation,” etc., etc. But today it got me thinking.

There are a lot of very slick—and, for the most part—plausible come-ons, deals, bargains, and opportunities floating around on the internet. Some—no, make that lots—are nothing more than scams, rip-offs, and swindles. Unfortunately, the legitimate operations like eBay and Travelocity.com have showed us that there are big bargains to be found on the web. The catchphrase of eCommerce is “low overhead,” and there is no doubt that online is the place to go if you want to save some serious cash. But you’ve got to be careful and use some common sense.

In Robert Heinlein’s superb sci-fi novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, he invented the wonderful and instructive phrase TANSTAAFL—There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch. Now here does that apply more than the internet, the bargain basement of caveat emptor. And what is lurking out there to tempt the unwary (and perhaps a bit unethical) educator?

The obvious answer is unlicensed, stolen software. There are gigabytes upon gigabytes of the stuff out there. Microsoft and other corporate victims of web site pirates and CD-burner buccaneers are always on the lookout for school districts and other multi-seat users of software who have either made extra unlicensed copies of the software they purchased or who have purchased software off the back of the virtual truck.

Don’t think it can’t happen to your schools. Large, supposedly sophisticated companies have been victimized by crooked resellers who have the latest programs and operating system software at too-good-to-be-true prices for the bulk user with a ready checkbook. In some cases, the packaging and license documents even look legit. Buying off the internet from anyone other than the original source, a reseller that is listed on the manufacturer’s web site, or a well-known online catalog reseller is risky. Documentation of licenses and reseller credentials is easy enough to fake in person, but on the internet, it’s a piece of cake.

So aren’t you protected if the software you buy looks correct? What if it has the correct packaging and licensing documents? Not really. The law looks at buying pirated software pretty much the same as buying a stolen car with a forged title. If the seller didn’t have the right to sell it to you, there is no amount of “pleading ignorance” that will protect you. Only a reseller who has a contractual arrangement with the original source and copyright owner can sell you a license to use software.

If your school district is found to be using pirated software, it is doubtful that anyone will see the inside of a jail, but you will have to pay for legitimate licenses (at a price that will be closer to retail than the bulk discount you might have gotten from a legitimate reseller) and, of course, you will lose the money you paid the pirate.

So, if you don’t buy direct from the manufacturer, make sure you either deal with a recognized reseller or that you check out the credentials of the “independent” reseller with the copyright owner. A little caution (and common sense about the reality of a discount that is just too much of a good thing) will save you money and embarrassment (and even your job) in the long run.