Software Firms Go to Court in Piracy Dispute : Suit Charges Unit of American Brands Inc.

Times Staff Writer

The nation's computer software industry took American Brands Inc. to court Thursday, accusing the $4.4-billion-a-year conglomerate of routinely pirating software programs costing a few hundred dollars apiece.

An industry trade group, claiming that there are as many illegal as legal software programs in circulation, promised more lawsuits against corporate abusers of software copyright laws. It also proposed tougher laws and industrywide standards for improved devices to make it more difficult to illegally copy software.

Illegal copying of software programs cost the industry $600 million in lost revenue last year and will cost $800 million this year, according to a study done for the trade group by Future Computing Inc. of Richardson, Tex. The study said there is a pirated software program for every legal one in existence today.

Declines Comment The suit against New York-based American Brands was specifically directed against a subsidiary, Wilson Jones Co. of Chicago. It was filed by the Assn. of Data Processing Service Organizations and MicroPro International Corp. of San Rafael, Calif., the producer of the software that the suit said was copied.

American Brands declined comment, saying it hadn't seen the lawsuit. It was filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

The complaint says Wilson Jones Co., "as a regular part of their business," repeatedly copied MicroPro's WordStar, SpellStar and MailMerge computer programs "for the purpose of use and distribution at one or more sales training seminars and otherwise."

The American Brands unit sells office equipment and supplies, including computer programs. The suit didn't accuse the firm of reselling the copied programs, however. The complaint says the copying violates U.S. copyright, trademark, unfair-competition and other statutes.

The pirating of software programs, the set of "instructions" recorded on disks that tell computers what to do, has become a major problem for the thousands of firms that develop and sell software. The study cited Thursday by the industry, which is in a shake-out due to the leveling off of personal-computer sales, said pirating has reduced deserved revenue by about 25%.

The apparently rampant copying of software programs remains a simple task despite years of technical efforts to make the disks inviolate. The latest scheme, dubbed "killer" software, penalizes pirates by damaging their own software and skewing recorded data.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in the past, by Apple Computer Inc., software giant Lotus Development Corp. and others.

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