Back in the early days of microcomputing, when IBM hired Microsoft to write the operating system for their PC, Bill Gates came up with a revolutionary idea at the time: don’t sell the software, license it. In that way, the end user never really owns it, the publisher merely allows him/her to use it under certain conditions set forth under an End User Licensing Agreement (EULA). Naturally, this gives the publisher a great deal of leverage in protecting its intellectual property rights. For us users, it can be a royal pain to comply and “stay legal.”


Even in a small or solo law office, it can be a difficult task to make sure that all the machines in your office are running software applications (including the operating system) that are not violating the EULA. This is because there are often many different programs, not all installed on the same machines, and not always having the same restrictions on use. Some EULAs allow installation on multiple machines as long as only one person is using the program on one computer at a time. Others restrict it to one PC and one laptop, while still others limit it to one copy, one machine.


The new year is often a good time to do an audit of the computers in your office to make sure that you are not unintentionally violating a licensing agreement, which could lead to problems if some one turns you in (usually a disgruntled employee). Inventory all applications running on all computers (desktops and laptops), noting version numbers and serial numbers, and compare them to your purchase receipts to be sure that they match up. If there is a shortfall, either buy additional copies of the application or de-install it on some of your machines in order to close the gap. If you cannot afford to be legal on all the machines, and de-installing does not make sense, one alternative would be using an open source application like OpenOffice for word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation work.


Once you have done the audit, you want to reduce the need to do it again and stay legal. A free program called Spiceworks monitors a network for new software installations. It creates a list of all PCs and software on the network, tracking licenses, warranties, and serial numbers. You should also post an employee software policy in a kitchen or breakroom, so that your employees know the dos and don’ts. The Business Software Alliance (BSA) provides quite a bit of useful information in this regard. Also, when you purchase software, do it from a mainstream, legitimate source to avoid “gray market” copies of questionable licensure pedigree. Finally, you should keep good records going forward from the audit, so that you can prove that you are “legal” should the BSA come a callin’. Hey, we’re lawyers! We know how to collect evidence and present a defense. Just be sure you are prepared should you need to do so.