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Designers get a software shock

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Architects have been fined £5000 for illegal computer use by a software group which is clamping down on designers and offering cash rewards for betraying colleagues.

Global trade body the Business Software Association took action against Manser Associates after a tip-off that the firm's Intergraph Microstation CAD software was unlicensed. Manser had bought 10 copies in an 18-month expansion drive costing £70,000. It installed a dozen extra computers in its London office and duplicated the existing software.

The practice said it was setting up a server and aiming to negotiate a £35,000 licensing deal with a supplier when the association struck, said joint managing director Jonathan Manser.

'We used the 10 copies of Microstation unlicensed for about three months and when we realised what we were doing was not right we went to a supplier to sign a deal,' he said. 'Although we signed a deal for £35,000, the BSA refused to discuss it. It said it wanted £30,000 for damages. In the end, via our solicitors, we offered them £5,000. I don't know who shopped us.'

He added: 'We felt we had been victimised: it wasn't as if we weren't trying to sort out the situation when it got in touch with us.' He said the firm never pretended it wasn't breaking the copyright law.

Mike Newton, campaign relations manager for BSA, would not comment on the case. But he warned the design sector to watch out. 'We are looking at 80,000 small to medium-sized firms. Architects are a key area because of their high use of computers.' Past fines have included £96,000 for a publisher, £50,000 for an advertising agency and £5,500 for an engineer. It is not known how many architects have been trapped.

The software company has launched a telephone hotline (0800 510510) to reward whistle-blowers. 'Individuals can contact the line to report companies they suspect are using illegal software,' it said. 'If, on investigation, their suspicions are proved right, they can receive a reward of up to £2,500.' Last year, piracy cost the UK software industry more than £290 million, and almost a third of software copies in the UK is illegal, said the association.

Manser warned other firms to buy licenses immediately and warn staff of the consequences of downloading software.

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