After 20 Years, Critics Question the BSA’s Real Motives

In many IT organizations, the Business Software Alliance’s three-letter acronym is akin to a four-letter word.

Known best as the software licensing watchdog for 30 major technology vendors including Microsoft, Adobe, Autodesk and Apple, the BSA collects millions of dollars in damages each year from errant businesses who fail to use properly licensed software or document that their software is legit.

2008 marks the group’s 20th anniversary. But after two decades, questions remain: Is the BSA really having an impact on software piracy? Do they often punish businesses that may be trying to play by the rules? And, are software vendors themselves contributing to the piracy morass with complex, convoluted licensing terms?

*Check out 12 companies that were fined in 2007 by the BSA. 

Operating out of three offices worldwide, Washington, D.C., London and Singapore, the BSA has garnered some praise from analysts and experts for its efforts to stem piracy around the world, but many businesspeople say that it comes at too high a cost. Critics slam the group for its aggressive pursuit of well-meaning organizations, particularly small and unsophisticated businesses with few resources to track software assets or seek legal counsel.

A recent Associated Press story highlighted the fact that 90 percent of the $13 million collected by the BSA in 2006 came from small businesses. Its policy makers use the funds it squeezes from businesses to bankroll its lobbying efforts to promote a host of legislation and regulations that favor its members’ business interests, leading some to question motives for enforcement.

“We’re not just an antipiracy group by any stretch of the imagination,” said Jenny Blank, director of enforcement for the BSA. “We focus very much on intellectual properties and how that affects the public and our members. It is not just about piracy, it’s about improving the environment of the entire marketplace.”

The BSA’s pockets are deep and its lobbying tentacles run long. Since 1993 the group has collected an estimated $89 million in damages from businesses on behalf of its members, every penny of which it keeps. This sweetens a budget that is already bolstered by undisclosed membership fees, which are based on the member’s installed software base. BSA leaders are frequently granted face time in front of Congress and have helped influence laws that shape our technology landscape, including legislation on copyright, patents and worker immigration.

“It is a tricky tap dance, there’s no doubt about it,” said Laura DiDio, a senior analyst at research firm Yankee Group. “On the one hand the BSA has to posture and they have to be big and bad and they have to walk the walk and talk the talk during enforcement. On the other hand, in some respects it works against them because they have been accused of being a bully, really rattling the saber and coming after people using fear and intimidation.”

*Check out Baseline’s in-depth reporting and advice on the Business Software Alliance:

12 Companies Caught Stealing by the BSA

8 Ways to Avoid a BSA Audit

What to Do When You Receive a BSA Audit Letter