They is a new breed of criminals who come in all shapes, sizes and guises and are found in large and small companies, schools, universities, homes, government offices and just about anywhere else and they steal more than R1,9-billion in South Africa alone. They are software pirates.
The software industry points out that regardless of whether someone commits piracy only once, or on a regular basis, it remains a serious crime either way. And in South Africa, where the small and medium business (SMB) sector has become increasingly important for economic growth, most of them are using illegal software, according to Microsoft.
Even though South Africa last year had a software piracy rate of only 34% compared to the African average of over 80% (Zimbabwe being 91%), IDC says that a reduction in piracy of 10% over four years could generate R6-billion in additional revenue in the South African IT industry and as many as 1 210 extra IT sector jobs. In addition the state would receive an extra R490-million in taxes.
Which means ordinary South Africans and communities across the country are the end victims of software piracy, says Jan Wessels, MD of the Dex Group of Companies, a global IT group based in South Africa which specialises in IT security solutions, software protection and license management solutions.
Software piracy takes on many forms. For example, so-called "softlifting", which refers to the purchase of a single licensed copy of software which is loaded on to several machines; uploading and downloading software illegally over the Internet; shops and distributors loading unauthorised copies of software onto hard disks to promote the sale of PCs; making and selling counterfeit copies of software; and unbundling or selling standalone software that was meant to be sold as part of a package with specific hardware.
In South Africa, the computer industry makes use of two laws to combat the illegal reproduction and use of software. These are the Counterfeit Goods Act, which carries a maximum fine of R5,000 or three years' imprisonment, or both per item and the Copyright Act which carries the same maximum penalties.
The Copyright Act is mostly used to prosecute small business owners and civil claims for damages that may amount to several times the cost of the unlicensed software can also be instituted. Larger multinational organisations like Microsoft have the means to combat and prosecute piracy far more effectively than the smaller developers who, ironically, are far more dependent on income from individual licenses.
Most software companies are now trying to stamp out illegal practises by requiring newly installed packages to be checked online for unique signature authentication against a global database.
"This is not a new problem. Companies have been fighting it since software was first developed. However, the increased use of electronic media and the availability of tools to allow illegal replication is rapidly exacerbating the problem," says Wessels.