John Lovelock is a nice bloke. But don't be taken in by his easygoing charm and ready smile − he'd like nothing better than to send you down for a nice long stretch at Her Majesty's pleasure.
The director general of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) is a man on a mission to root out the corporate perpetrators of software piracy and hang 'em high for all to see. "I'd love to get someone put away for 10 years," he says. "My whole raison d'etre is to get somebody in jail. If I can do that, directors [of businesses] are going to sit up and listen."
FAST has just embarked on the second phase of a campaign designed to hammer home the message that software piracy is a crime and one with serious penalties, such as unlimited fines and up to 10- year custodial sentences.
Operation Tracker 2 has just launched hard on the heels of Tracker 1, which was a 12-month investigation in the covert sharing of software over peer-to-peer networks by PC users. Tracker 1 nailed individuals whereas Tracker 2 is a refined version designed to catch only corporates.
Unlike the first phase, which saw FAST having to go through the process of obtaining court orders to retrieve individuals’ identities, Tracker 2 will yield the names of companies that can be named and shamed without recourse to the courts.
Further investigations and negotiations with the companies concerned will determine whether action is taken through the civil court to enforce software licences or through the criminal justice system. Lovelock expects to have those target companies within eight to 10 weeks.
And for anyone thinking that criminal proceedings are just a FAST fantasy, Lovelock observes that last year saw the incarceration of members of the internet software piracy group Drink or Die. "If we can get hold of organisations where they are just so complacent they just let [piracy] happen or in fact encourage it then we have a good case," he says.
Complacency is Lovelock's most powerful foe. "We encounter a lot of complacency amongst business managers and directors about their compliancy status. They tend not to want to know. It is a case of 'go away, we're too busy running our business'," he admits. A lot of people just hang up when FAST calls to enquire about the legality of their software.
Now the gloves are off. No more Mister Nice Guy.
Small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are amongst the worst offenders when it comes to piracy. According to research conducted for the Business Software Alliance (BSA), companies employing fewer than 200 people are the most regular offenders when it comes to breaking software copyright laws and represented 90% of the firms in the UK with which the BSA settled in 2002/03.
Of course not all SMBs hail from the Del Boy school of business management, but many are too caught up in the minutiae of day to day business to think about software legality. They are too busy trying to keep their businesses afloat to worry about something perceived to be so petty. Their bogeymen are the Inland Revenue, the VAT inspector and the health and safety people. Against that sort of competition FAST just isn't very scary.
What's more, piracy is seen as a victimless crime − there's nothing wrong with buying a product and sharing it throughout the company as far as they are concerned. "People look at the Bill Gateses of this world, they look at Michael Jackson or Robbie Williams in the music world and say 'oh they don't need money, it is only a couple of tracks or a bit of this, that and the other'.
“[FAST] is about is protecting the nursery industry − people who are leaving school or university and want to proceed with creative careers in software engineering or music or film or games. If their intellectual property (IP) is seen being stolen without any recourse to law, then why would those industries develop and flourish? People wouldn't bother. We're about protecting the software industry and nurturing the small guys. The big guys are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves," Lovelock says.
IP theft is the same as any other theft and it damages the UK economy, he says. "We are no longer a manufacturing economy; we are a services and creative industries economy and theft of software IP is costing £1bn a year." BSA figures show that if the rate of software piracy in the UK could be reduced from 27% to 17% it would generate almost 34,000 new jobs, nearly £11bn in economic growth and £2.8bn in tax revenues.
FAST is working with IT forensics experts to uncover sharers of unlicensed software, but it is not without help from insiders. "We get 100 whistleblowers a month," says Lovelock. What motivates people to shop their company? "IT people are taught about IP as part of their training. Intellectual property has to be respected. If they want to be in the IP space themselves, writing software for example, they have to understand the law surrounding it.
“So they come out of university and whatever business they go into they still have that ingrained in their mind that IP theft is an issue. If they wanted to do it or their friends have gone into software publication and design, they are going to suffer as a result of IP theft. They're actually quite miffed about it; IT people in business are quite moral."
FAST also keeps a database of the 38,000 UK businesses that have 30 or more PCs, which it consistently revisits to check on compliancy.
Lovelock's message to SMBs that are breaking the law is clear: however we get to you, we are going to get you.
"If illegal activity is taking place, we can find you. It is like the TV licensing people saying that they know everybody out there that doesn't have a TV licence. How do they know that? Because they have got everybody's address. We can send a similar message: we know everybody out there that is using illegal software and we will find you," he says.