Background. Before discussing the precautionary steps to avoiding licensing problems, let's take a step back. In operating our computers there are many ingredients to their functioning correctly. Still, two key elements make them useful -- the hardware and software. Both of these elements are reliant on innovations, inventors' intellectual capital, based on ideas and concepts that have been developed into something that makes us more productive in and knowledgeable about our businesses. The law provides safeguards and motivation to continue to innovate to the creators in the form of intellectual property rights. We know the results of these laws as patents and copyrights.
For computer hardware, protecting these rights from most of us is easy. Hardware involves tangible components that must be manufactured. Thus, unless you are a manufacturer, it is difficult to abuse the owner's intellectual investment.
Software is often a different story. Because it is usually distributed digitally, available on very mobile media, and expensive (one computer requires a lot of software), it is easy for nearly anyone to ignore its publishers' ownership rights. In fact, many of us rationalize that copying software that we did not buy is okay. The industry defines this as "piracy."
Changing landscape. Since the advent of the PC and mass-market software, publishers have dealt with how to enforce their rights. Early on, they created installation routines that hid protection keys within the process. Often software had to be installed and uninstalled with the correct installation disk, a problem when you updated the computer that was being used. Others used hardware keys sitting on the printer port or on a card in the computer. These came almost to a stop for a period of time for most applications because a whole industry of publishers looking to cripple these systems came into being.
More recently, though, vendors are going back to enforced software keys made more possible by automated Internet registration and an appreciation for the amount of piracy in the marketplace. For example, in Windows 2000 Microsoft is enforcing the licensing more than NT 4.0 and in the upcoming Office XP, every copy will have to be registered to work more than a small number of times.
In addition, the power of the publisher and consumer sensitivity to copyright ownership (and sometimes patents associated with software) is changing. Though many have mixed feelings about it, the Napster debate has at least improved our awareness that there are some losers when we misuse the intangible creations of another's intellect.
Compliance with copyright law. We comply with copyright law when we use software with the permissions accorded in the licensing agreement. Although these agreements are only understandable to attorneys specializing in reading fine print, their terms are binding. In fact, during the installation process of many off-the-shelf software products, the installation routine forces tacit agreement to those terms. Especially for software used in business, the risks of not properly honoring a copyright and complying with licensing terms can be high.
Why begin an examination of your licenses? Rather than focusing on the penalties and risks, the following are a few reasons why you may work to inventory your IT assets and make sure that you fully comply with licensing agreements.
Products to make the job easier. In the process of examining your licenses, you will find that you need help for this job. Microsoft provides a kit called the Software Management Guide to help you get organized for this process. In addition, Microsoft offers a product on their Web site to inventory all your computers. Unfortunately, at the time of this article, the inventory product was not available for download because it was being "updated."
In addition to the first time of getting into compliance there are other reasons to keep this information. For these purposes, there are a few publishers of products that can address the initial compliance audit, but also provide long-term benefit. Some products are now even available on the Net, thereby eliminating the need to install software and accommodating a mobile workforce.
The categories of function are:
Though there are tools to make the compliance job easier, you still need a basic understanding of the license agreements. There is no product that I could find that will tell you how all the software that you use can be used. Still, take the time to get into compliance and avoid jeopardizing your company. Happy Inventorying!2001 Smartpros Ltd. All Rights Reserved.