Waging war on business

How do you spell extortion? BSA, RIAA, DMCA

In Dallas , the Business Software Alliance (BSA) is running radio ads offering amnesty to businesses. Confess your companywide software piracy before the end of February, the announcer gently offers, and you’ll only have to pay your overdue license fees. That seems reasonable enough, but then the ad turns dark. If you have just one disgruntled ex-employee out there, a BSA spokesperson intones, his call to the BSA could cost you $150,000 for each user it deems unlicensed. One disgruntled ex-employee, one competitor, one vendor that couldn’t sell you a license renewal — a tip’s a tip.

These ads started running not more than two weeks after the BSA and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) agreed to quit pushing for new legislation to protect intellectual property. New laws might include protection for consumers and businesses, and debate over the new laws was alerting unaware consumers to the odious nature of intellectual property protection laws already on the books, particularly the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

The BSA’s amnesty ad illustrates these organizations’ united position: We’ll work with the laws and technology we’ve got.

This can’t be good.

The DMCA is a wondrous bit of law. It bypasses First Amendment rights and nullifies balancing provisions of copyright law, such as fair use. For businesses and trade groups inclined to misuse the DMCA, it allows them to impose costs and restrictions on companies without the benefit of a lawsuit.

I keep harping on this topic because the abuse of intellectual property protection is invariably cast as a consumer issue. In mid-January, Verizon lost a battle to withhold its business records from the RIAA. Its only allowable defense was to argue that the DMCA didn’t apply in this case. To the delight of Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, Sony, Lexmark, RealNetworks, HP, and countless others, the DMCA always applies (See the Electronic Freedom Federation’s site at www.eff.org for more on this).

Thanks to this law, we’ll have business software that automatically rats your company out for suspected license violations. If you try to defuse the bomb (or monitoring device) planted on your computer, the DMCA imposes harsh penalties. You’re not even allowed to discuss how you might disarm it. The BSA, with the DMCA in its pocket, is an invisible participant in every sales call made by one of its members.

Fortunately for IT, the strong-arm tactics used so far have been so brash that they’re easy to see coming. USA Today reported on the City of Houston ’s answer to the BSA’s threat of a license audit, which coincidentally came during license renewal negotiations — just as similar threats against 500 school districts were sent out with Microsoft sales flyers. As a result, the number of open-source school districts is increasing. Houston decided to move about 7,000 city workers from Microsoft Office to a cheaper alternative called SimDesk. I’ve called this option impractical, and it may prove to be. But if you’re held at gunpoint, whatever you do to get away safely is OK by me.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.