The Federation, the UK trade association that prosecutes people for copying software, is letting individual file sharers off the hook and going after corporate software pirates instead.
It used electronic surveillance techniques last year to track down bedroom file-sharers in a £100,000, 10-month investigation it called "Operation Tracker". The organisation, which represents the $100bn software industry, consequently secured a court against a mobile engineer from Epping in Essex, demanding he pay £3,400 for copying a £35 software programme.
John Lovelock, director general of The Federation, formerly the Federation Against Software Theft, conceded there might be good reasons to let file sharers off the hook.
"Going to court is not cost effective, so we might have to let some fish through the net," he said.
"We don't want to go to war and extract every last pound of flesh. That's not what we are all about," he added.
He said that he might even consider the social situation of those file-sharers still caught in The Federation's tracker beam when it takes them to court.
However, there are still a handful of file-sharers the Federation wants to punish before it turns a new leaf.
Butterworth was one of 99 people who had their personal details given to The Federation last January, under a court order placed on their ISPs. The Federation had tracked them down on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks and recorded their IP addresses.
The Federation sent the offenders letters demanding they scrap their shared software or pay the £35 licence fee and a £315 fine to cover the costs of its own investigation. Lovelock said that 30 to 40 paid immediately, while about another 30 paid after another letter was sent six months later. Another 30 had still not put up or paid up, so the Federation would send them final demands within a matter of days.
He said it was necessary to take a hard line on software theft because the $35bn of software sales were lost last year from businesses using illegal software, while the UK software industry lost about £1bn.
He did not know how much the industry lost to file sharers. Neither could he imagine whether file sharers would buy the software they shared if sharing was punished indiscriminately.
"It's hard to say - someone who buys a counterfeit Rolex, would they spend £4,000 on a genuine Rolex?" he wondered.
The more he was pressed on the matter, however, the more he reverted to stereotype. File-sharers were bad "in principle", regardless of the value of the software they exchanged.
"We are offering people a third opportunity to pay for their wrongdoing and get on with life, which I think is not unreasonable," he said.
"Buy whatever it is that you need to buy or don't use it. If you can't afford to buy it because you're on the dole, we can't have it," he said.
"I don't think there's an excuse for breaking the law," Lovelock added.
Lovelock refused to identify the software that the file-sharers were being prosecuted for sharing because he wanted to preserve the reputations of the software firms who were prosecuting them.
"Publishers don't like to be seen taking individual court action against people," he said.
"The general mode of software publishers is not to punish, they leave that to us. They don't want to be seen as bad guys," he added.®