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8/26/2009
07:36 PM
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Open Source: One Sure Way To Keep Piracy At Bay

The software cops are just a phone call away from showing up at your small business. It's your job to figure out how to slam the door in their faces.

The software cops are just a phone call away from showing up at your small business. It's your job to figure out how to slam the door in their faces.The Business Software Alliance (BSA) is notorious for its over-the-top anti-piracy efforts. That includes a series of annual reports that, according to many experts, grossly overstate the extent of the problem, at least in the United States and other developed nations.

It also includes a running campaign that offers cash rewards to snitches who drop a dime on their employers.

Many small businesses assume that they fly under the BSA's radar. As a result, they tend not to worry about infractions like buying a single license but running an application on multiple desktops. They also figure that if the BSA shows up to perform a software audit, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Wrong. If an audited company can't produce proof that they purchased questionable software, including dated receipts, the BSA is likely to offer them a choice: pay up or go to court. Many businesses would rather pay a settlement -- guilty or not -- than risk losing a lawsuit.

There are plenty of ways to minimize this risk. Keeping your receipts, certificates of authenticity, and other documentation is a great first line of defense. Software asset management tools are another good option; these tools can, for example, alert a manager when the number of users running an application exceeds the number of purchased licenses.

IT security also plays an important role in this process. When employees download and install illegal software, your business might end up paying for their lack of judgment. Strict acceptable-use policies and, when necessary, Web filtering software will go a long way towards preventing these types of lapses.

The best defense, however, is a good offense. That means avoiding proprietary software in favor of open-source alternatives whenever it is practical to do so.

Open-source software renders the very concept of piracy largely obsolete. Most open-source developers allow users to run software free of charge; their business models are based upon service and support, rather than up-front licensing fees.

Commercial open-source vendors such as Red Hat take a somewhat different approach, offering subscription-based software licensing for their commercial products. In the case of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, however, totally free alternatives such as CentOS and Fedora are readily available; they offer the same functionality as RHEL (including updates) for companies that don't require professional technical support.

Even using open-source software on a limited scale can reduce your company's risk profile. Rather than "stretching" an existing complement pf Microsoft Office licenses, for example, consider installing an open-source option like OpenOffice.org on some employees' systems.

The BSA won't tell you that the best way to avoid software piracy is to use software that cannot, by definition, be pirated. Then again, the BSA also won't tell you that a disgruntled ex-employee decided to make your life miserable by giving them a call.

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