Science: Pirates ahoy on the software seas: Illegal copying of programs is costing companies dear. Crackdowns by some governments have had dramatic results, says Susan Watts

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The Independent Online
In a street market in Warsaw, traders sell computers alongside vegetables. A recent police raid of its stalls netted 2,700 disks carrying pirated software from companies including Microsoft and Lotus. Six people were arrested.

The raid was only one of a series which in the past few weeks have tracked down vast quantities of illegally copied software, on sale and in use in cities across Europe.

In Milan, a week ago, police seized 10,000 floppy disks and charged the owners of eight computer shops. In Lisbon police found 300 pirate copies of programs in a high-street bank, and in Spain the air transport authority has been caught using suspect software on 37 of its computers.

The problem is now so widespread that publishers are warning that piracy will never be wiped out unless politicians, as well as police chiefs, make its eradication a top priority.

Latest figures on the use of illegal software show that during 1993, the industry lost dollars 12.8bn (pounds 8.5bn) in 54 countries. Europe accounted for dollars 4.9bn (pounds 3.3bn) of that loss. The Business Software Alliance (BSA), which enforces anti-piracy action internationally, said the UK has one of the lowest rates of software piracy in Europe.

Nevertheless, at 49 per cent of the market in 1993, this is still unacceptable, and could be brought down further if enforcers had more official support.

The BSA cites Italy as a model, indicating that strong government and police commitment to tracking down illegally copied programs can have dramatic results. In 1992, 86 per cent of Italy's software market was illegal. In early 1993 the country implemented new software protection laws and police involvement in raids and enforcement went up. Software companies saw their sales increase by 161 per cent over just one quarter and during 1993 the level of piracy had shrunk to 50 per cent.

'Losses through piracy are not just dollar losses but job losses, government revenue losses and very real losses to the ability of the British software sector to grow and thrive,' said Evan Cox, legal counsel for the BSA in Europe. 'If a small company is trying to get off the ground, piracy at the UK level means the company is only getting half the revenue it should from people using its programs.'

Last year, the UK had the lowest rate of software piracy in Europe. This year it is beaten by Austria (included in the figures for the first time) and Switzerland, where a high-profile criminal case involving a bank is thought to have raised awareness of piracy.

In Britain in 1992, Mirror Group Newspapers agreed to pay compensation after admitting it had been illegally copying software. In the following year, Trent Regional Health Authority paid thousands of pounds in damages after admitting copying. In the year after this case, 34 other health authorities joined the Federation Against Software Theft, Britain's equivalent of the BSA.

High-profile court cases of this kind seem to have a major effect on rates of piracy. Other deterrent measures the Government might consider include treating software copying as tax fraud, Mr Cox said.

In 14 countries the BSA found that legal software comprised less than 10 per cent of the market. In Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, 99 per cent of the software in use was illegal. The figures stood at 98 per cent in Peru, the Russian Federation, Kuwait and Malaysia. Bolivia and Poland had rates of 96 per cent and 94 per cent respectively, followed by Cyprus, Egypt, Paraguay and China.

'Many of these are new markets, in countries where the law has not been very hot on copyright protection. We are really starting from where we stood in Western Europe five years ago,' Mr Cox said.

The BSA figures consider business software alone, custom software (written for specific systems or to do a specific job) and games software are not included. Piracy of custom software is lower than that for business applications, but piracy of games software is a growing problem.

In the past few weeks, the pounds 960m games industry has set up its own crime unit to deal with illegal copying of computer and video games. The European Leisure Software Publishers Association said those people copying software frequently turn out to be the same individuals who distribute pornographic and obscene computer material.

(Photograph omitted)