Originally created 08/17/00

Companies face piracy charges



ATLANTA - Two Georgia-based businesses face criminal action for allegedly distributing counterfeit Microsoft software, officials announced Wednesday, and in response the software giant launched a statewide campaign to thwart future piracy.

Compunet Systems, in Griffin, and Tierra Computer Inc., in Doraville, were investigated by the U.S. Customs Service and now face criminal indictments, according to a Microsoft corporate attorney. Tierra Computer has already settled a civil lawsuit filed by Microsoft for an undisclosed amount.

"I didn't know that it was counterfeit," said Michelle Qian, former owner of the now-defunct company.

Software piracy, the making or selling of counterfeit computer software, is on the rise throughout the state, according to government and industry officials. Georgia's piracy rate is 26 percent, 1 percent higher than the national average. One in every four software copies used in businesses is illegal.

The trend isn't expected to stop, either.

"This is something that is on our radar screen," said Bill Cloud, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs. "I have a feeling we could be given some authority in this area at some point. It has been talked about as this has become an escalating concern across the state."

In the investigation announced Wednesday, Customs agents reported seizing 2,100 fraudulent copies of Microsoft Windows 98 and Office 2000 Professional Edition software, totaling more than $1 million. Officials could not estimate how much illegal software had already been sold or who might have purchased the pirated copies.

Under federal law, trademark violations and copyright infringement are subject to fines up to $2 million and five to 10 years in jail.

"These companies were both in the business of distributing software, and they offered technology solutions for companies," said Nick Psyhogeos, Microsoft's corporate attorney. "These companies were advertising on Web sites and trade publications. The vast majority of customers would not have assumed they were buying pirated services."

The company unveiled a statewide education and enforcement program designed to protect consumers by teaching them how to detect pirated software and prevent illegal software usage themselves. A 24-hour hot line has been established to help consumers determine whether software is legitimate.

Using common sense, Customs says, is enough to protect many potential software buyers.

"If it's too good to be true, then it probably is," said Robert Gattison, Customs Service special agent in charge. "If you are buying a piece of software, or a CD or a pair of sneakers that would retail for hundreds of dollars but you found it for a really low price, you should assume it is a knock-off or a pirated copy."

Reach Shannon Womble at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.