Stolen software used on 75% of home screens

Thefts from work 'threatening small manufacturers'
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THREE OUT of four professionals using computer software at home have stolen it, according to a survey by the Federation Against Software Theft (Fast).

The federation claims that 74 per cent of business software loaded on home computers is pirated from friends or stolen from the office. Experts estimate such thefts cost computer companies up to pounds 100m a year.

One in five new computers is bought by SoHo -Small Office, Home Office - users. The majority of these are people in jobs where computers allow them to work at home or on laptops while on the move.

Although the computers they buy come pre-loaded with basic software, the majority of them supplement this with software copied from work or friends "without regard to licence restrictions", according to Fast.

The survey, the first to look at the burgeoning SoHo market, found that 81 per cent of people who took home copies of software from their workplace had no fear of being caught.

Some 76 per cent said they knew what they were doing was illegal but, of those, 63 per cent did it because they thought software was too expensive to buy.

Software companies have, to a degree, accepted that some copying is inevitable. Many licences on business software include an "80/20" rule. Under this an individual who uses software installed on a computer at work for 80 per cent of the time is allowed to make one copy for personal use on a laptop or home machine.

According to experts, most users aren't aware of this and make pirate copies of software regardless. Increasingly the majority of computer users take office software home "in brown paper bags" and then allow friends or relatives to copy it.

Fast says it has to educate people to the idea that software piracy is a crime. This is difficult because software companies are widely perceived as gangs of computer whizkids who become millionaires overnight.

Bill Gates, chief executiveof Microsoft, is the wealthiest man in the US, worth pounds 9bn at the age of 39. He is the most prominent of an army of youthful software millionaires who have reinforced this image. Next month his company will launch Windows 95, combining its DOS operating system and popular Windows software. The new program is expected to increase still further Microsoft's domination of the personal computer software market.

Already pirate copies of test versions of Windows 95 are widely used. Its formal launch together with a range of new application programmes - spreadsheets, word processing and so on -will almost certainly lead to large-scale illegal copying.

Geoff Webster, chief executive of FAST, said: "Software theft cost the industry pounds 400m last year.

"We have 100 UK-based software publishers and distributors among our members. Some 80 per cent of those are very small companies; five people or less.

"They are trying to get their toe in the market by writing innovative software.

"If people copy it rather than buying it that can be the end of those small firms. We have had several small firms go under in the past few years, for a number of reasons, including piracy," he said.

FAST was set up in 1984 as the world's first software copyright organisation. A non- profit making organisation, it is supported by the major software companies with the aim of lobbying Parliament for changes to the Copyright Act 1956.

In the first three months of this year it seized illegally pirated software worth more than pounds 16m.

But its biggest problem remains in the nature of computer software: it is one of relatively few expensive commodities that can be bought and then stolen or given away but still retained by the buyer.

The challenge now is to persuade the huge numbers of home computer users to stop thinking that pirating software is harmless.