BSA's truce campaigns

Under the name of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), Microsoft and its allies continue to bombard small businesses with anti-piracy mailings demanding that customers audit their licensing compliance; it is becoming pretty obvious who the real buccaneers are in search of plunder.

Under the name of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), Microsoft and its allies continue to bombard small businesses with anti-piracy mailings demanding that customers audit their licensing compliance; it is becoming pretty obvious who the real buccaneers are in search of plunder.

Between the BSA's regional "truce" campaigns and Microsoft's innumerable marketing efforts cloaked in anti-piracy garb, a small business in a targeted area can find itself inundated with mail, email, faxes, phone calls, and even radio and TV broadcasts with dire warnings that the software police are about to knock on their door.

Given that I have written about this before, I now get urgent requests for advice during each truce campaign about how to deal with the anti-piracy raiders that small-business folks assume will show up. Even those that are sure they are in perfect compliance -- or don't even have any computers -- fear the raiders will feel obliged to penalise them for some mysterious licensing infractions when they show up. To help calm the hysteria, let's survey the different campaigns that have been conducted recently. Most of them revolve around the BSA's truce campaigns in which that organisation mass-mails small businesses. Recipients are offered the chance to conduct a software audit during a one-month period and get themselves in compliance, with the promise that they will not face penalties for any prior infringement.

As I've said before, the BSA truce mailings by themselves would constitute a fairly reasonable attempt to put the fear of Bill Gates into the hearts of those who are guilty of using unlicensed software without unduly alarming the innocent. Unfortunately, however, the truce campaigns have become a Microsoft co-production, so recipients rarely get just the BSA flyer. They are likely to get one or more missives from Microsoft inviting them to participate in its own truce, and may also get a follow-up phone call from someone asking pointed questions about their computer installations. With the accompanying blitz of radio and TV ads plus stories in the local press about previous raids on a local business, it is no wonder that people feel as if they are under attack.

Microsoft has a continuum of educational compliance letters it sends out requesting a software audit, ranging from truce post cards to "License Assurance" letters from lawyers -- which we'll discuss further next time. Another way Microsoft is rattling its anti-piracy sword is by encouraging its resellers to contact their customers in truce-targeted cities. Resellers are provided a package of materials that they can use to contact customers by mail, email, phone, or fax to let them know that it is time to get in compliance.

It is hard to say how many resellers are actually participating in making noise about piracy, because I've had more resellers express disgust with the idea than I've had customers complaining about compliance pitches from their Microsoft resellers. After all, resellers may not want to risk generating ill will among customers -- a possibility that doesn't seem to concern Microsoft in the least. One reader who did get a call from his reseller, breathlessly warning him to buy some licences to keep the software police away, said "I may have to put up with this kind of [stuff] from Microsoft, but there are lots of resellers out there. Anybody who tries to intimidate me like this has just lost a customer."

Another reason some resellers may not climb on that anti-piracy bandwagon is that some have themselves been the target of a Microsoft mailing. Some MCPs (Microsoft certified partners) have received a letter from a regional Microsoft "compliance manager" requesting that they audit their own use of Microsoft software. The negative publicity that could result from an MCP being audited by the BSA and found noncompliant would be extremely embarrassing for the MCP and Microsoft, the letter points out. Yet it doesn't ask them to audit their use of non-Microsoft software; not even the products of Microsoft's BSA partners, although that would surely be at least as embarrassing.

For the most part, Microsoft's BSA partners have allowed the BSA to do the mass-mailings of audit requests for them. One recent exception was Macromedia, which in June sent out an email and a follow-up message to many or perhaps all customers on its email list. Although fairly mild in comparison to Microsoft's attorney-backed letters, it generated a great many angry comments to the Gripe Line. "I'm not sure what bothers me more: being called a potential pirate, or the fact that it happened because I was so foolish as to register my software," wrote one reader.

Macromedia declined to comment on the campaign, so we don't know whether it was judged a success or not. But it will be interesting to see if Macromedia and/or other BSA members follow Microsoft's lead in pressing their compliance campaigns. How far can an industry go in treating its customers like the enemy before it suffers a backlash? I think we're likely to find out one day.

Foster is InfoWorld US' reader advocate. Send email to Ed Foster or voice your opinion in Infoworld's Gripe Line Forum. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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