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Software Group Seeks Probe of Piracy in Schools

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tracking bootlegged computer software could pose a monumental task for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where investigators face the prospect of searching nearly 62,000 campus computers, many loaded with several software programs, officials said Wednesday.

To settle allegations of software piracy made by an alliance of software manufacturers, the school district is considering creation of an eight-member team to replace unlicensed programs with legal versions.

The difficulty of the job is compounded because the district does not have an inventory of its computers. Schools buy virtually all their own equipment and are responsible for policing software use--a system designed to give campuses the authority to decide technology needs.

“To think that eight people can catch up with what’s going in the schools is a mistake,” said Board of Education member David Tokofsky. “It’s impossible.”

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Creation of the eight-member team is part of a $4.8-million proposed settlement with the Washington, D.C.-based Software Business Alliance, a trade group founded by Microsoft Corp. and other computer giants to, among other things, protect copyrighted products.

Acting on a 1996 tip, the alliance alleges that the West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills used nearly 1,400 unlicensed copies of software.

District officials deny any wrongdoing but say they sought the settlement to conclude the matter quickly. As part of the proposal, the district has agreed to pay the alliance $300,000 and replace any pirated software.

Computer experts say district staffers are likely to encounter a host of troubles in the process.

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Inexpensive software made available to schools frequently lacks serial numbers, making it impossible to distinguish between legal and illegal copies, they say. Unauthorized software also can slip onto campuses that have so-called site licenses, which allow schools to install the same software on several computers, experts say.

“It can get to be a real rat’s nest,” said Tom Negrino, author of computer books and president of Los Angeles Macintosh Group, whose members learn to use computers. “It’s got a lot of twists and turns.”

Computer industry executives said they believe software piracy is a major problem at city schools.

“We would be surprised to learn that the only problem with software in the entire Los Angeles Unified School District is in one vocational school in the West Valley,” said Robert Kruger, vice president of enforcement for the Software Business Alliance. “We have a reasonable suspicion that the problem is broader.”

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Experts say software piracy is pervasive in business and government offices, as well as among friends. Part of the problem stems from confusion over what can be legally copied.

“Do people tend to use unlicensed software? Yes,” Negrino said. “But if professional people use unlicensed software they are just silly. They need the manuals and technical support you get if you purchase the license.”

Several Los Angeles principals said they regularly review the district’s policy against software piracy with employees and include the topic in handbooks at the beginning of each school year.


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