A recent sting operation by the
Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) has drawn new attention to a new area of online software piracy, in which individuals use auction sites to sell pirated versions of commercial software products. As part of the sting, SIIA agents obtained illegal Windows versions of graphics packages from Adobe Systems and Macromedia, as well as Alias|Wavefront’s Maya. However, an SIIA executive told MacWEEK that pirated versions of Mac programs are also being offered through auction sites.
In two separate suits filed in federal courts, the SIIA has alleged that a Los Altos Hills, Calif., man sold 22 software titles with a total retail value of $54,745 for $144.85; and that a Chicago man sold six titles worth a total of $5,594 for $50. Each faces fines of up to $150,000 per violation for copyright infringement. SIIA representatives, working undercover, placed bids for the programs on eBay and Yahoo; agents also responded to e-mail solicitations pointing to suspicious auction sellers. The titles included Adobe Photoshop 5.5, Illustrator 8.0, Acrobat 4.1, After Effects 4.1, FrameMaker 5.5, GoLive 4.0, PageMaker 6.5, PageMill 3.0, Type Manager Deluxe, Dimensions and Premiere 5.5; Macromedia Dreamweaver 3, Fireworks 3, Shockwave Studio, Flash 4, Authorware 5.0, Generator 2, FreeHand 9 and Director 8. The SIIA also obtained an older version of Alias|Wavefront’s Maya (release 2.5) for free, said Mike Flynn, SIIA’s manager of Internet anti-piracy.
Making an example
This is the first online “sting” operation launched by the Washington, D.C.-based trade group, which represents about 1,000 member companies, most of them software publishers. “We thought it was time to make an example out of the people who are abusing the online auction process,” Flynn said. “We also thought these lawsuits would be a good way to alert consumers about the pitfalls they face when buying software from auction sites.”
Citing a four-day
survey it conducted last year, the SIIA claims that 9 out of 10 of the graphics programs sold at online auction sites are illegal copies or “gray market” software, which include OEM and academic version of programs. Flynn said the organization is in the process of filing several more lawsuits against alleged pirates using auction sites, but would not say whether any of these cases involve Mac programs.
To raise awareness of the problem, SIIA recently published a 15-page
white paper that describes the risks consumers face when buying software online. Although most programs sell on auction sites for anywhere from $15 to $50 each, buyers do not receive printed manuals, technical support or upgrades, said Flynn, who added that in some cases people placing orders online may not receive anything from the seller.
“There are absolutely no boundaries with the auction sites in terms of who you’re buying software from,” said Cynthia Navarro, manager for investigations and anti-piracy enforcement at Adobe Systems, which has been especially aggressive in pursuing software pirates. Adobe maintains an anti-piracy
Web site that provides information about the risks of using pirated software.
Navarro cited one recent Adobe investigation in which a company agent won a bid on an auction site and, even though the money was sent to an escrow payment service in the U.S., the software itself came from the Ukraine. “How can a buyer go after somebody like that?” she asked, adding that Adobe is trying to work with escrow providers to shut down the accounts of people illegally selling software.
“We may not be able to catch them,” she said, “but if we can keep them from getting their money and make things more difficult for them, it may help protect us and the consumers.”
Nevarro confirmed that a large portion of Mac software is being sold illegally on auction sites. In addition to working with SIIA and the
Business Software Alliance (BSA) in prosecuting offenders, Adobe has filed several lawsuits of its own against people selling Mac software through online auctions, she said.
The SIIA points to several warning signs that indicate a high likelihood that software is pirated: use of CD-R media with no accompanying documentation; single CDs containing programs from multiple publishers; or titles described as back-up, pre-release (beta), OEM or academic.
Although auction sites have taken measures to curtail auctions of pirated or gray-market software–such as prohibiting use of terms like “back-up” or “CD-R” in product descriptions–the sheer number of auctions makes it difficult, Flynn said. Even if an auction is shut down, the sellers often change the product descriptions and create a new account, or just switch to another auction site. In some cases, sellers will use stolen credit cards to establish their auction-site accounts, Navarro said, further complicating investigations.
In a growing trend, sellers of pirated software will often glean the e-mail addresses of those placing bids and then send follow-up solicitations via e-mail claiming to have “extra” copies of the programs. This happened in SIIA’s recent investigations.
“They will often represent that what they’re selling are the full versions, that can be registered and upgraded,” said Flynn. “But then people end up getting a CD-R.”
Adobe’s advice? Obtain software from reputable resellers; make sure it includes a license agreement, original disks and authentic packaging; do not buy software labeled “Not for Resale,” “NFR” or “For Bundles Only” (without the appropriate hardware); keep the original receipt and invoice for proof of ownership; and always register new programs.
But the best advice, Navarro said, boils down to an old adage: “If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”