Private sector watchdog

  • 2002-11-21
  • Aleksei Gunter
Computer-related companies in Estonia registered a branch of Business Software Alliance, a global software piracy watchdog, in December 1996 to change entrenched Soviet attitudes toward the use and sale of pirated software. Two years later BSA offered Ahti Leppik, a graduate of the National Defense Academy with a major in criminal investigation, to head the alliance's operations in Estonia. Aleksei Gunter spoke with him recently.

Today the organization unites 14 companies working in Estonia, yet has only two full-time employees. Thanks to cooperation with police, informational campaigns, and extensive media coverage, BSA Estonia has made users think twice before installing a shady copy of any software. Still, the piracy rate in Estonia remains at nearly 53 percent, and Leppik wants to shoot for 40 percent.

What's the current piracy situation in Estonia?

We can basically divide the software piracy in two parts: distribution and usage. As far as distribution, police have done a lot of work. Several major shopping sites where pirated software used to be available have either been shut down or ceased selling illegal copies. For example, Mere Keskus in Tallinn - where concealed storage rooms for pirated good were uncovered.

Pirated software vendors are now concentrating on more low-profile areas and operate on the basis "the one who asks will get it." In Narva, at Energia market, pirated software is available if you ask for a concrete program. They have it under the counter.

But while availability of illegal products at markets and shops has decreased, the industry has moved onto the Internet. Web sites offer cheap copies of pirated software, and we are cooperating with the ISPs who offer hosting. First we warn the webmaster and ask to remove the illegal material, and if the webmaster doesn't react, the ISP closes the Web site.

What are the current trends in software piracy in Estonia?

We saw a major increase in pirated software distribution on CD-ROM media, which means that more and more pirated software CDs are being made in Estonia or copied here. CD-writers are so cheap now that young people often decide to make money by advertising a CD-ROM copy service on the Internet. They download pirated software, burn it onto a CD, and sell it for some 40 kroons (2.5 euros).

These young people often do not realize they can ruin their life. An Estonian resident recently found guilty of that business got 10 months in jail. The sentence was suspended though. But anyway he will never get a U.S. visa, will never be able to run for president, and many public administration posts will be closed for him because he has a criminal record.

We usually warn a person suspected in illegal software distribution first, and often they quickly react, delete the illegal data and promise they'll never do it again. Some, however, try to host their Web site on an American or Russian server, but we manage to close sites on those serves as well.

What about piracy among home-computer users?

The situation with home users has not changed much, and perhaps it is getting even worse as more and more people are getting themselves a computer. But neither the police nor BSA has ever been keen on hunting down home users of pirated software; we'd rather tackle legal entities. They use pirated software for business and earn money with it.

Vendors in Estonia often sell computers without any software to keep the price down. Isn't this a cause of piracy?

We cannot make computer vendors include an operating system into every computer they sell. Only big computer manufacturers who have agreements with software producers like Microsoft or Sun can install an OS on every computer. Microlink, for example.

Home users are interested in cheap computers and often buy a PC without an OS, and later install something illegal themselves. We have asked some computer vendors in Estonia and found out that about 15 percent of them agree to install pirated software if a buyer wishes so.

Many people cannot afford to buy a legal version of MS Office. Statistics show that an average user exploits some 15 percent to 20 percent of this software package and so pays 80 percent more. Perhaps it is more reasonable to use Star Office or Open Office then, or other free programs. We advise the people who contact us and ask for alternatives because our goal is to promote correct usage of software and not to advertise some certain producer.

How can BSA persuade home users to stop using pirated programs? Will the police carry out raids to track them?

Police never investigate home users just to find out if he or she uses illegal software. Any investigation is usually based on information that the person is suspected of distributing pirated programs. I think we can cut the piracy rate among home users only by increasing their awareness.

The authorities can fine a company for using illegal software because it makes money with it. In the U.S. and U.K. the piracy rate is just 25 percent; in Finland it is close to 30 percent. And these numbers depend upon home users. Police in other countries never pursue home users of pirated software since even if in principle they break the copyright law they do not earn money with it.

The BSA's image among common people is quite negative. There were even parallels with the Gestapo.

Why is it so? Well, the media partly contributed to it. BSA started in 1997 with information campaigns against piracy. In 1999 the first police and BSA raids made the headlines, and everybody learned that BSA audited some companies and imposed a big fine. This is where the BSA's negative image comes from.

Our goal though is not to audit as many companies as possible but to spread information on how evil piracy is. We have a free information line that received some 200 calls last month, we have a Web site with over 1,000 visitors a month, we do share information on piracy. I think the attitude toward BSA is changing for the better, but it's clear it is not an easy process.