The Federation Against Software Theft (FAST)is threating a harsh regime of punishments including jail for UK companies which it catches using unlicensed software.
The new zero tolerance approach will see the federation participate in evidence-gathering and police raids on suspects' premises. The directors of any firm found "misusing software" will face prison if FAST gets its way.
The federation said its move is not draconian, only a matter of maximising its power under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. Section 109 of this Act allows for a search warrant to be secured from a magistrate's court if a police officer has "reasonable suspicion" that an organisation - either private or public sector - is infringing copyright in the course of its business.
FAST added that it has improved its working relationship with the police across a number of counties to identify premises in which it suspects that firms are "misusing" software.
Geoff Webster, CEO of FAST, said the organisation has redoubled its commitment to finding and prosecuting copyright offences. "The message to company directors is clear - check your software licenses. Until then you cannot be 100 per cent certain that you're not acting illegally and on the way to receiving a criminal record."
The hardball approach comes in marked contrast to the federation's previous tactics which centred largely on use of civil actions that typically carried less severe penalties and offered the opportunity for alleged offenders to settle out of court.
Webster says this Mr Nice Guy strategy is now over: "Civil law has its advantages, but in the current business climate, when budgets are under pressure, it simply isn't working. Figures show that in 2002, software piracy levels rose for the first time since 1994."
According to Webster, this increase in piracy last year cost the software industry £204 million. "The federation is not being harsh for the sake of it - infringement of copyright costs livelihoods. Software theft of any kind will no longer be a commercial option for businesses in Britain." ®