CyberWatch Column


Stolen Software, Music and Videos


Professor of Computer Information Systems

Norwich University, Northfield, VT

This is another in a continuing series devoted to how ordinary people can protect themselves when using the Internet.

People have been stealing software since personal computers become common.  Families where the parents would be shocked at their kids’ stealing a $1 candybar from the local supermarket seem blithely unconcerned about those same kids’ theft of software packages costing hundreds of dollars.  Unfortunately, some of those parents are guilty of stealing software themselves:  many of the “customers” at software “lending libraries” are adults who know that what they are doing is illegal but just don’t care. These people need to understand that software theft is a serious problem with serious consequences. 

For example, in May 2000, the FBI arrested 17 people, five of them former or current employees of Intel, on charges of involvement with Internet sites devoted to pirated software. The five were described as having held low-level engineering jobs, and an Intel spokesman said four out of the five were no longer with the company. All 17 suspects were members of a loosely organized group called Pirates with Attitudes, which operated one of the Internet's oldest "warez" sites -- a term describing a hacker variation of software sold in stores by merchants. Most warez sites are run as hobbies and their users are often teenage boys who view downloading a pirated software program to be a rite of passage. The indictments did not allege that the perpetrators were attempting to make money through their activities, but the potential penalties include a US$250,000 fine and five years in prison. "This is the most significant investigation of copyright infringement involving the use of the Internet conducted to date by the FBI," said a spokeswoman for the Bureau's Chicago office. "It demonstrates the FBI's ability to successfully investigate very sophisticated online criminal activity." (Wall Street Journal 5 May 2000 as reported by NewsScan, edited by John Gehl and Susanne Douglas).

Even some teachers have fallen into the trap of believing that they are entitled to copy proprietary software without permission.  They are quite wrong.  For example, in 1998, the Business Software Alliance audited the Los Angeles Unified School District and found 1400 illegal copies of proprietary software in a single school in the District.  Total costs of replacing illegal software throughout the District reached ~$5M.  Imagine trying to explain fines and costs at such a level to the voters when the next budget came up.

The plague of intellectual-property theft has recently been extended to music CDs and DVD movies.  Napster, Gnutella, Wrapster – do you know if your kids are using these peer-to-peer packages and others like them?  Such software allows people to share digital music and video files through the Internet; most of the material being exchanged among enthusiasts is restricted by copyright.  Napster lost its court cases in the year 2000 and was forced to begin cooperating with the recording industry to screen out stolen property from its exchange networks.  Individual thieves received legal notice from infuriated bands such as Metallica warning them to destroy their pirated copies of stolen music tracks by the heavy-metal group.

In summary, stealing other people’s intellectual property is illegal, unethical, and rude.

Now go tell your kids about this.

In addition to the specific arguments above, it would be a Good Thing to discuss ethical decision-making with your kids.  We should challenge those who use sloppy thinking in condoning their own or others' abuse of other human beings' work.  Here is a hierarchy of questions that we can all use in making ethical decisions: