What Is Software Licensing?

Software licensing describes the terms and conditions of how a software package can be used. It spells out the consequences of ignoring those terms or using the software on multiple machines while only paying for a single-user license.

Why Are Fines Necessary?

As software prices in the marketplace continue to rise, more companies are looking for ways to use software packages without paying for them, usually through the use of bootleg or pirated copies. The value of unlicensed PC software around the world is up to $60 billion. This gives vendors a powerful incentive to pursue unlicensed software users.

ICM Research for the Business Software Alliance (BSA) surveyed 1,000 software users. The firm found that one in four pieces of software in use in the United Kingdom is unlicensed. More than half of the employees using that software felt it was less risky than other behaviors. However, if the company loses a case in court for using the unlicensed software, the consequences can be serious.

Risks Associated With Using Unlicensed Software

Using an unlicensed software product can have expensive and crippling outcomes.

  • Infection of your computers: You may find yourself with a package of malware instead of the software you intended to install. It may render an antivirus false positive, but not every time. Malware can slow down your PC, share your private information with unauthorized parties, pull your friends in by using their information stored in your system, and damage your important files. Your credit card numbers, bank account information, passwords, contact information, and more can all be shared with identity thieves.
  • Malfunctioning computers: The software package you install may not even work because most companies can verify the registration of the product. Even if it works for a short time, the software becomes unusable later unless you purchase the software license. Disabling the Automatic Update feature is possible, but you won't get the important patches that secure your system against vulnerabilities. For example, among bootleg copies of Windows, a recent test on six different copies found that two had malware embedded and all had the Update feature disabled and the firewall rules modified. These may seem like small changes, but they expose your system to serious danger.
  • Unlimited fines: Companies can be fined whatever the court deems appropriate. There is no cap on the amount. In 2007, one company was fined for using unlicensed software. Business owners must ask themselves whether the company can survive a financial hit like that.
  • Jail time: Management staff involved in software privacy can be sent to jail if found guilty by the courts.
  • Exposure to cyber attacks: A global survey called "Unlicensed Software and Cybersecurity Threats" confirmed a link between unlicensed software and malware. In a given country, the higher the rate of unlicensed software, the higher the rate of malware presence. Lacking a legitimate license puts your company at risk.

Software Audits

The possibility that your business will have a software audit soon is real. According to Gartner, up to 68 percent of business will have at least one software audit request in the next year. Multiple software audits have already taken place in up to 52 percent of companies surveyed.

Vendors use audits to generate revenue and defend their rights to their intellectual property. They watch purchasing records carefully to choose the next target for an audit. Suspicious activity can bring about an audit, and failing to complete one audit can bring about more.

Now that you know an audit can be right around the corner, you should prepare now to avoid or successfully complete one. Most companies know about the direct costs of an audit, but they don't realize all the associated expenses involved. If you enter into a settlement to avoid going to court, the amount can include significant damages. The BSA reports that cases settle outside of court at 40 to 60 percent of the original demand.

How to Report Unlicensed Software

To help curb the use of unlicensed software, you can report such activities anonymously online to the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST).

If you need help with understanding unlicensed software fines, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.