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On a quiet Friday morning in 2000, the headquarters of Ernie Ball Inc., a popular guitar string manufacturer in Coachella, Calif., was suddenly raided by armed U.S. Marshals. The federal agents weren't looking for drugs or firearms or fugitives.
They were searching for unlicensed Microsoft software.
The agents seized the company's computers, shutting the business down. Sterling Ball, the company's owner and president, later learned the federal agents were acting on behalf of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which received an anonymous tip that Ernie Ball Inc. was using pirated software inside the company. [For more on software piracy, check out the CRN iPad app exclusive "Software Piracy: Are You A Trusted Adviser Or An Accomplice To A Crime?"]
Sterling Ball was incensed, and what happened days later made him even angrier -- the BSA and Microsoft began running anti-piracy marketing campaigns that named Ernie Ball. Feeling betrayed and smeared, Sterling Ball swore off Microsoft and pledged to replace all of the vendor's software with open-source alternatives. More than a decade later, Sterling Ball is still recognized as a champion of open-source software and as one of the most vocal critics of Microsoft's and the BSA's anti-piracy efforts.
"I would have liked for some other things I accomplished to be on my headstone," he said. "It still bothers me to this day. But after we went open source, life's been just wonderful."
Ball recently spoke with CRN about that fateful software raid, his transition from Microsoft and his thoughts on open-source alternatives.
Take me through what happened the day you got raided.
I wasn't in the office. It was Friday at 10 a.m., and I got a call from someone who said "Armed U.S. Marshals are here; they've down and seized all our computers." They shut my business down. And there were armed federal marshals. If they say there weren't, well, I disagree.
Had you received any kind of notice or warning from Microsoft before the raid?
We never heard anything from anybody until they barged in on us that day. And they had to be disappointed with what they found.
What did they find?
I think we had 70 or 75 computers. And, they maybe found a dozen computers with software on it that shouldn't have been there. So for example, the receptionist has a computer that the engineering department used to us, and it had an [Autodesk] AutoCAD program on it -- but she obviously wasn't using it, and we could prove that it hadn't been accessed in years. But, that's a violation to them. We made mistakes not wiping our computers clean, but I didn't feel very good paying that much money to the BSA for such a small amount of stuff that was out of compliance, especially when it wasn't even being used.
And, let's talk about how the BSA found out about us. They got a lead on me from an idiot disgruntled employee. The BSA had billboards for "Nail Your Boss!" and they used to advertise on websites like Monster.com. Now, I don't believe anyone should be stealing intellectual property. I make and create stuff for a living and have a career based on intellectual property. But, there's a difference here -- if you're intentionally trying to defraud Adobe and Microsoft and Autodesk, then I've got no sympathy for you. But at the same time, with all those millions of dollars as a nonprofit, what is the BSA really doing to make things better? Why don't you do something good with the money besides using it for marketing for more tips?