International computer software titan Microsoft says that European software piracy accounts for billions of dollars in lost revenues every year. Citing Slovakia as a major haven for offenders, Microsoft has declared its intentions to crack down on the acts of "robbery" here and is calling on the Slovak government for assistance.
Marketing manager for Microsoft Slovakia, Juraj Belvončík, said that "between thirty and fifty percent" of all computer systems in Slovakia currently operate under illegal systems and added that he believed the problem could be broken down into three causes.
"The first reason why piracy in Slovakia is so high is because many small to middle sized companies are on the verge of bankruptcy," he said. "They don't have the money to buy our product, so they get pirated software. The second reason is that laws on piracy are not clear enough, they need to be specific. The third reason is that Slovaks don't have an acceptance of the existing laws on piracy."
In support of the third reason, Belvončík pointed to a piracy case last year involving Eurocom, a Slovak computer manufacturer. The company, he said, had been caught using illegal software but was permitted to eventually settle the case out-of-court. Belvončík said that this was detrimental to Microsoft's anti-piracy campaign because in order for users to take heed of the legal consequences they could face, a precedent had to be set.
"The [out-of-court] arrangement with Eurocom was no good," he said. "We have to make an example of someone."
When contacted by The Slovak Spectator, however, Eurocom denied all allegations, saying that the police investigated and that they had been found innocent. No out-of-court settlement was made, they said.
In an attempt to increase piracy busts, the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a Microsoft company created to combat international piracy, was formed. The company has paid dividends, BSA representatives said, as police raids in Bratislava have thus far netted two illegal piracy operations in Slovakia- one in Bratislava and the other in Detva.
At a February press conference in Bratislava, Roman Sládek, president of the BSA, warned that anyone caught with pirated goods, sellers and users alike, would be prosecuted with extreme and unprejudiced fervour. Sládek also clearly outlined his company's opinion of piracy.
"Piracy is robbery," he said. "This is not simply a case of gentlemen misbehaving. Pirates are thieves."
Sládek also noted that $23 billion dollars would be saved annually if European piracy rates dropped to 27%- or the rate of piracy that currently exists in the United States.
Difficult to battle
When asked by The Slovak Spectator if it was difficult for Microsoft and the BSA to fight piracy in Slovakia, Belvončík laughed. "It is the most difficult thing I know," he said. "I mean, pirates are actually our biggest competitors!"
Belvončík was quick to point out, however, that computer piracy is not a laughing matter for his firm, and that the BSA and Microsoft needed government support when facing what they say is the daunting task of controlling piracy.
"We have no power to fight it, we need the law on our side and we need the government's support," he said. "But today the government has different problems- they need to keep the crown steady and deal with other national interests. For them, software piracy is like peanuts."
BSA representative Peter Schmidt agreed that the government should do more to aid their cause, saying that the existing laws are too difficult to enforce and that they allow perpetrators to easily evade prosecution. "Getting judicial permission and warrants are too time-consuming," he said.
Schmidt added that the BSA currently had several firms under suspicion but could not be sure that they would be apprehended because of the "time consuming" regulations and because, once the firms caught wind that they were under suspicion, it would be "easy for a specialist to hide the evidence".
In response, Martin Sepp of the Government Office said that while the country does not yet have "computer-oriented legislation" it currently has "more serious problems" to deal with.
"What Microsoft says is true. The currently existing copyright laws are very bad in that respect and we would eventually like to address the situation," he said.
For his part, Belvončík said that his requests for aid should not to be interpreted as a complaint. "I am not criticising the government," he said. "But, I would like to ask them to give more force, more assistance to our fight against piracy."
Belvončík offered two different suggestions to the government which he maintained have already worked well in other countries and would also help the situation here in Slovakia.
"One thing I would like to see is for consumers to be required to claim computer software, hardware, and services on their taxes," he said, explaining that this would act as an easily accessible check for his firm and the BSA to determine who had legal systems and who did not.
"Also, maybe we could initiate a program that excluded VAT charges," he said. "This type of program has already been practiced in the Scandinavian countries and it has had a great deal of success." The plan, Belvoncik explained, was different from other measures because instead of being a regulator, it was, in effect, a reward for purchasers opting for legal systems.
"Say the firm buys a [legal] computer with legal software," Belvoncik continued. "As a reward, they pay a monthly fee without interest or VAT. So, it's like borrowing the money for a computer without paying any taxes or interest."