Company lures piracy whistle-blowers with plug-in

The Federation Against Software Theft Ltd. (FAST) relies on the kindness of strangers in its effort to short-circuit pirates selling illegal software over the Internet, so in its effort to encourage the reporting of such pirating, the organization wants to make whistle-blowing as simple as the push of a button.

On Monday or Tuesday, the London non-profit will launch a software plug-in for Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer (IE), that when installed will put an “F” button on a user’s browser, said lawyer and FAST representative Julian Heathcote Hobbins. The “F” stands for “fast,” not “fink.” The software, which will be called ReportIT, will be free and available at the FAST Web site,

“The software makes reporting instances of illegal software piracy very straightforward and simple. In the past, people would have to go to our Web site and fill out a form to do so and the process was rather complicated. That’s completely changed with this software; it’s free, easy and you can even make an anonymous report if you’d like,” Heathcote Hobbins said.

If a user finds him or herself on a Web site that sells illegal software — be it music, games, movies or programs — one click on the “F” will pull up a box. A person can fill in their name, a fake name or no name at all, answer a few other questions, and then click send.

“Included in FAST’s software is Webcam software that captures a live example of the site for evidence as well as other basic information about the site,” Heathcote Hobbins said.

FAST was set up in 1984 by the British Computer Society’s Copyright Committee and works in a fashion similar to the Business Software Alliance (BSA) in Washington, D.C. “The BSA also investigates reports of software privacy, but its reporting process is very complicated,” Heathcote Hobbins said.

Companies’ revenue losses due to software piracy were nearly US$11.8 billion worldwide in 2000, according to the BSA’s annual report. The organization’s report for 2001 is expected to be published next month.

FAST, which does not concern itself with peer-to-peer file sharing, had been receiving a steady stream of e-mail and telephone calls reporting the sale of illegal pirated software until recently, he said.

“Since between December and this spring, our e-mails have fallen to about 10 on the weekends and one or two a night on the weekdays. That works out to about 1,000 reports a year, which is about a fifth of what it had been. I don’t know if that’s because pirates have gone more underground or perhaps our old system was a bit of a pain. That’s why we created the new reporting software, which we believe is the first of its kind,” Heathcote Hobbins said.

Once FAST receives a tip-off about pirated software, it investigates the claim. If FAST is satisfied that the report is valid, Heathcote Hobbins sends a letter to the ISP (Internet service provider) hosting the Internet software pirates’ Web site, informing the ISP of the problem and requesting the site be shut down or that similar action be taken.

“ISPs have been very responsive to this issue, and once they are made aware of anything illegal, are generally keen to put a stop to it. FAST is about stopping illegal software but we also work with the other enforcement bodies, covering music, movies and games,” Heathcote Hobbins said.

FAST has also been developing a close relationship with the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) in Washington, D.C. “Obviously, the Web is global and the problem isn’t just confined to the U.K. In fact, I just got a tip-off from the States this week. We are looking to broaden our horizons, but that takes time and money,” Heathcote Hobbins said.

FAST is also developing plug-in software for the Netscape browser but is uncertain what the time frame for its release is.

The company makes money through corporate and industry membership fees. Companies like the international engineering, construction and services group, Balfour Beatty PLC, and Yorkshire Electricity Group PLC pay yearly fees of between