Canadians who pirate computer programs will face tougher civil penalties -- up to $20,000 for each program they copy illegally -- under changes to federal copyright law expected to be proclaimed within six weeks.
One in five Canadians pirate software occasionally, although fewer than 1 per cent do so frequently, according to a survey released yesterday by the Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft.
The alliance estimates that piracy cost it $357-million in 1996, but companies have had to prove exactly how much they lost before a court awarded any damages.
That requirement is extremely difficult to meet in many piracy cases, since detailed record-keeping is rare at illegal software shops.
Changes to the Copyright Act easing that burden are likely to be proclaimed by the end of April, said Michael Eisen, secretary and general counsel at CAAST.
Those changes are part of a larger package that was given royal assent last April and that has been proclaimed, as Mr. Eisen puts it, "in dribs and drabs".
They were the culmination of years of lobbying on the part of software makers and will permit aggrieved companies to opt for what are called statutory damages without having to prove specific losses. A judge then decides on a penalty of $500 to $20,000 for each illegal copy of software.
The changes will end a disparity between U.S. and Canadian law that the alliance believes has fostered software piracy in this country.
According to a survey by the Software Publishers Association, 42 per cent of Canadian software in 1996 had been pirated, but only 27 per cent in the U.S. had been.
"Do you believe that Canadians are more thievin', cheatin', and lyin' than Americans?" asked Norm Dupuis, a spokesman for the alliance who heads the antipiracy effort at Microsoft Canada Inc.
Mr. Dupuis said he expects Canadian piracy rates to fall toward U.S. levels once the amended copyright law is in force.
But he said the most effective approach is to make Canadians realize that software piracy is nothing less than outright theft, especially in the majority of cases, when a person illegally copies software owned by a friend or relative.
The software industry has a lot of convincing to do, according to a CAAST-sponsored poll released yesterday. The survey said Canadians believe that it's a greater crime to steal a chocolate bar than to pirate computer programs. Fudging details on a résumé and keeping incorrect change from a store clerk were also seen as more blameworthy than copying software illegally.
Decima Research interviewed 604 adult Canadians in late February and early this month for the poll, which is considered to be accurate within four percentage points upward or downward, 19 times out of 20.
Among those people who copy software illegally, 51 per cent believe -- wrongly -- that they aren't committing a crime, the survey says.
Even the reasons given for not pirating programs have to be disheartening for the software industry. Twenty per cent of respondents said they wouldn't copy software because it is illegal -- but 23 per cent said they wouldn't because they don't have a computer or don't know how.
Forty-six per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "Software companies are big and powerful; they can afford to absorb some of the costs of software piracy." Fifty-one per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
That cavalier attitude raises the ire of Michael O'Neil, general manager of International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd., a leading technology-research firm. "Plain and simple, that's stealing", he said, adding that the culpability of people who copy their own software for their own use is less clear.
He said he agrees that an appeal to the better nature of software consumers is the only approach likely to work, adding that the software industry could stress the impact that piracy has on the prices that legitimate customers have to pay.
As with most things illicit, the Internet contains an abundance of information on how to pirate software, allowing anyone with a minimum of technical expertise to flout the law.
One site contains alphabetized lists of "cracks" -- computer programs that can disarm the security measures built into commercial software -- and of bogus registration codes that can be used to fool programs into thinking they are dealing with a legitimate customer.
"Anybody can get it, as long as you have access to the Internet", said Rick Broadhead, co-author of The 1998 Canadian Internet Handbook .
Mr. Dupuis said that the emergence of cheap CD-ROM recorders means that pirating operations can spring up almost anywhere, charging as little as $20 for a disc containing programs worth up to $20,000. "Every university dorm has a student subsidizing his lifestyle by selling these CDs."