SOFTWARE PUBLISHER’S ASSOCIATION’S LEGAL MOVES PUT IT IN PR SPOTLIGHT


In the 1,600 actions the Software Publishers Association has had a hand in since its inception in 1984, its recent lawsuits against Internet Service Providers and end users over copyright infringement is one of its most controversial and may not be viewed as a smart PR move by the time this is played out. In its own admission, the SPA is stepping on some toes in taking on ISPs --specifically three companies, Community ConneXion of Oakland, Calif.; GeoCities of Beverly Hills; and Tripod Inc. of Williamstown, Mass.; and two users over claims of copyright infringement. The lawsuits, which focus on unsavory Internet practices, are based on allegations of piracy, including "making unauthorized copies of software available for download, the posting of serial numbers, cracker and hacker utilities and links to pirate FTP sites," according to the SPA. But the SPA's tactics shouldn't be ignored by any company looking to maximize its PR stance because it calls into question whether --if you have to head into a controversial arena --it's smart to go in with tanks when guns might serve just as well. And it's also a reminder that outsiders may not see your move (that's the real irony here: the SPA says it didn't position itself to be ultra tough) the same way you see it, so it's best to be prepared to pick up the pieces. Despite the negative press and criticism from industry heads, the SPA has received over this issue, the association is not operating in denial. It recognizes the controversy it has stirred and is defending its position. "You always learn by your past actions," said Peter Beruk, director of domestic anti-piracy for the SPA. "We're not sure if we've hit a homerun or a fly-out and I'm not sure in the long run, what we'll learn from this in our trying to be responsive. We may look at this and say, 'This is the silliest thing we've done' or we may say, 'We did the right thing -- we angered some people, but we educated a lot of people.' " However, it's that approach, the admission by the SPA that it may have isolated some players in the very industry it is charged with protecting, that may end up being a kind of salve for the backlash that has followed -- not only because the SPA filed the lawsuits, but because its move was self-promoting. On Oct. 10, the SPA issued a press release concerning its legal claims against the defendants in a move that almost placed the SPA on a kind of moral high ground. Part of what the SPA is seeking is for ISPs to sign "a code of conduct" showing that they have "adopted the operating practices encouraged under the copyright law." But Sameer Parekh, president of C2Net in Oakland, Calif., and one of the alleged copyright "bad guys" the SPA is taking on, is battling the SPA with a kind of nay-sayer's PR approach. His ac- tions are part of what's turning the magnifying glass onto the SPA and away from whe-ther or not software was actually illegally copied by any of the defendants through server capacities or on Web sites. In response to the SPA's legal actions, Parekh has placed a copy of the lawsuit on the Web (at www.c2.net/ispdc); a copy of the alleged email he was sent notifying him of the violation; nd news of a defense fund he's established. In a letter obtained by PR NEWS, Parekh's lawyer, Terry Gross of San Francisco, wrote to SPA lawyers: "There are several serious problems with your lawsuit. First, it is frivolous as my clients have not received adequate notice of any infringing activity... which they failed to correct. Second, there is absolutely no basis for you to name Mr. Parekh personally." Fostering Relationships? But Beruk --who admitted that the suits have ruffled some feathers -- said that the SPA isn't using the lawsuits to collect on damages (the reason so many lawsuits are filed). Instead, he said they were filed to try to stave off copyright infringement, which seems to be growing as fast as the PC and Internet markets are burgeoning. "We are seeking cooperative arrangements with ISPs," Beruk explained. "We are trying to work together to foster relationships that will help us identify warning signs," such as users who upload unusually large files. However, it's not clear at this point whether SPA will get the kind of support it needs from software industry heads who aren't affiliated with the 1,200-member organization that businesses pay fees (based on a sliding scale that's tied to revenue amounts) ranging from several hundred dollars to $100,000. What is known, however, is that organizations, companies and entrepreneurs preparing to make business moves that will be seen as controversial should be prepared to answer questions and explain why they did what they did. (SPA, Peter Beruk, 202/452-1600; Terry Gross, 415/544-0200; ) Dealing with PR Blunders To Avoid a PR Blunder Utilize strategic planning;Emphasize to public what your core business practices are;Explore the implications of any move, including readying yourself for "communications fallout"; andHave corrective measures in place. To Correct a PR blunder Accept blame;Accept responsibility;Apologize; andTake immediate remedying actions. Source: Ernest Del Bueno, a senior communications consultant with the Corporate Response Group Inc., a worldwide crisis management group in Washington, D.C., 202/775-0177.

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