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HOW TO AVOID WALKING THE PLANK

Staying legal takes some work, but it's not as hard or expensive as you might think. And there are concrete benefits as well, such as the ability to get technical support, documentation, and notification of upgrades. Most publishers offer existing customers discounts on new versions, so you can keep software up-to-date economically. On the flip side, unlicensed software can cause problems even if you're not audited. Crash your network with a pirated version of WordPerfect, and there's no one to call for help. And if you download illegal software from the Internet, you risk scooping up a virus.

So what exactly does ''legal'' mean? If you're buying software one copy at a time, you need a license for each program running on a computer. For software running on a network or several computers, you need a network or multiple-copy license. And, conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it's illegal to copy Myst from your kid's computer and load it onto your office PC. For more on copyright law, log on to the Software Publishers Assn. (http://www.spa.org) or Business Software Alliance home pages (http://www.bsa.org), or check out Microsoft Corp.'s Licensing & Software Management Guide on the company's Web site (http://www.microsoft.com).

To make sure your software is legal, do a self-audit by downloading free audit kits published by either the BSA or the SPA. These programs scan hard drives and network servers and create spreadsheets of existing software version numbers, dates installed, and assorted details that identify the programs. You then compare this information to your licenses. And don't worry about the audit's scope. If you've got the software, these programs will find it: The SPA's SPAudit tracks 4,400 titles.

POINT PERSON. It's also a good idea to make one person responsible for software management. To bring that person up to speed, SPA offers a one-day, $395 ''Certified Software Manager'' seminar. Topics include how to conduct self-audits and differences in licensing agreements.

Another step is writing--and enforcing--a software policy that bars copying. Most managers already tell workers not to copy software, but they don't follow up--sometimes, until it's too late.

What if you're terminally disorganized and don't want to track software yourself? If you buy through a third-party reseller, such as ASAP Software Express, it'll do it for you, keeping a list of your software, purchase dates, version numbers, price, and the kind of license (single-user, site-license, and so forth).

Sure, resellers shave dollars off the list price and offer useful combinations of licensing options and upgrades. But perhaps their biggest benefit is standing by you in times of trouble, with proper paperwork in hand. Then, if you're accused of piracy, you can bring out the guns rather than run up a white flag.

By Elaine L. Appleton


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