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Cyber Cafe: Hard Facts About Software Licensing

Restaurants USA

Taking some simple precautions will help you avoid fines and penalties for using unlicensed software.

By Marnie Roberts

Computers have become indispensable to restaurant operations. Today, most restaurants use more than one computer and must understand the fine print involved in software licensing in order not to face substantial penalties.

Computer software is considered intellectual property and is covered U.S. copyright laws, which also include books, films and recorded music. As a result, there are rules restricting the distribution and copying of software programs, in the same way it is to copy a book for distribution. Generally, it is illegal to purchase one copy of a software program and copy it onto more than one computer without getting a separate license for each unit, according to the Business Software Alliance in Washington DC, an association of software manufacturers. In addition, multiunit operators must purchase licensed copies of software programs for each computer used in each store. And since most software companies, such as Microsoft, have their own regulations and licenses, it's important to pay attention to the licensing details of your software programs.

The Business Software Alliance works with the courts to enforce licensing laws. If they suspect that your restaurant has unlicensed software, they can get a court order to conduct an audit of your network. During an audit, representatives of the Alliance check downloaded software and verify licenses. If your restaurant has unlicensed software, you could face a criminal or civil penalty, or you may have to pay a settlement fee to the manufacturer.

Larry Himelfarb, vice president of technology development and applications for the National Restaurant Association, offers the following advice to help operators comply with copyright laws when using computer software.

Organize your paperwork. Most people open up a software box, load the CD-ROM and throw out everything else, says Himelfarb. Although that may be an acceptable practice for home computers, it's important for businesses to keep all of the paperwork that comes inside the box and fill out the proper registration forms. Not only does the paperwork detail the software's licensing, it also is proof that you purchased legitimate software.

Store all of the paperwork in a central location, since license numbers often are needed to upgrade programs. Depending on the size of your restaurant, it may be helpful to designate a staff member to keep track of important paperwork. Maintain a software cabinet for all disks, manuals and other documents, suggests, a technology Web site for nonprofit organizations. Once everything is stored in one place, consider posting a checklist for employees to sign when removing software from the cabinet. It's important to always know who is handling your software and its paperwork.

Conduct an inventory. Regularly inspect the software on each computer to make sure the software and the licenses match. When upgrading a program, check to see if you need to get a new license as well. It's not always obvious what is an upgrade and what is a "patch," says Himelfarb. For example, downloading version 6.1 of a software to replace version 6.0 is usually a patch; replacing version 6.0 with version 7.0 is generally an up-grade. "Always make sure you have a license for the version of the software you're running," he says.

Buy wisely. Purchase software from a reputable, well-known software dealer or buy programs directly from the manufacturer. Research software before purchasing it via the Internet and avoid auction sites, which might sell pirated software. Know the price range of the software you're looking for; if you find the product for a price that is significantly lower than market value, be suspicious and check into the matter further. According to the Business Software Alliance, it's important to purchase legitimate software for several reasons. Pirated software can cause computer viruses or corrupt disks, leave the buyer without proper paperwork (such as a warranty) or without the ability to upgrade.

By following these simple steps, operators can keep pace with software upgrades without overstepping the bounds of software licensing.

First published August 1, 2001

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