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In April 2005, David Kellogg received a strange letter from a law firm representing the Software & Information Industry Association. He had never heard of the organization, but the letter immediately grabbed his attention, thanks to two simple words written in bold at the top of the letter: "Copyright Infringement."
The letter went on to detail allegations against Kellogg and his company, Solers Inc., a government-focused solution provider in Arlington, Va., regarding the use of unlicensed or pirated software.
"SIIA has evidence that Solers Inc. is engaged in the unlawful copying and use of software," the letter read, with more than three dozen software vendors listed, including Symantec, Adobe Systems and Apple. The letter did not detail the evidence.
"Although we are prepared to seek remedies available under the Copyright Act, we prefer to work with companies to reach a resolution that is quick, fair and out of the public spotlight," the letter stated. The choices outlined by the SIIA were clear: fight the allegations in court and risk up to a $150,000 fine per violation, public embarrassment and potential jail time or take the SIIA's recommended settlement. The letter described the four-step settlement process, which included submitting the company to an SIIA-sanctioned software audit, furnishing the SIIA with all proper software licenses and/or receipts, and paying the SIIA Copyright Protection Fund "a negotiated amount based on a multiple of the manufacturers' suggested retail price of each copy of unlicensed software."
After reading the letter, Kellogg was furious. To him, the letter read like more of a guilty verdict than an accusation. "The allegations were false," he said, "and I knew they were false because we didn't even use Symantec or Norton Antivirus."
Kellogg refused the SIIA's settlement offer, but the organization kept pressing. The question was never about whether or not Solers committed copyright infringement, Kellogg said. The question was how much Solers was willing to pay to make the case go away.
"The SIIA basically said, 'Submit to our software audit or pay up,' " he said. "It was nothing short of shakedown. It's basically extortion."
Kellogg decided to fight the SIIA and took the battle to court. But what seemed like a relatively simple matter quickly unraveled into a byzantine legal battle that's still in court seven years later. While industry associations such as the SIIA say they're fighting a tide of software piracy in the corporate world, Solers' experience and others like it have led to questions about the tactics the groups use to investigate and prevent piracy.