The executive order signed by President Clinton is the latest move by the administration to please America's high-tech industry, which is growing in importance as a political force in Washington.
Under the new order, federal agencies must make sure that only paid-for software is used, prepare an inventory of software on their computers and maintain record-keeping systems.
The new policy is designed to prevent government workers from making copies of office software for their personal use and prevent them from installing personal copies of their home software in the office.
The U.S. government is easily the world's largest purchaser of computers and related equipment, buying more than $20 billion worth each year. But there are no good estimates, other than anecdotes, about how rampant piracy runs among government offices.
"We are declaring war on software piracy," Vice President Al Gore said in a statement. "The message is clear: Don't copy that floppy. At home or abroad, intellectual property must be protected."
The Business Software Alliance routinely audits large corporations suspected of using pirated programs, but it's never audited a federal agency. It said those checks are sometimes performed by each agency's office of inspector general.
"We clearly know that in any organization, there can be software piracy problems if there are not broad piracy programs in place," BSA President Robert Holleyman said. He called Clinton's order "very significant" and "a great initiative."
In the past weeks alone, the White House has relaxed some export limits on powerful data-scrambling tools, and Clinton indicated his support for legislation to nearly double the number of high-skilled immigrants allowed into America.
Both were important issues for the nation's computer industry, which wants fewer rules against selling its encryption products overseas and wants to hire more engineers and programmers from other countries.
Since January 1997, the high-tech industry gave $5.4 million to political action groups, candidates and parties, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. That's slightly less money than given out by the tobacco industry, among the top political contributors.
Jeff Tarter, publisher of the Softletter industry magazine, characterized Clinton's latest order as "probably meaningless."
"Government agencies have been probably the single worst software pirates in the U.S., and an executive order is not going to change that," Tarter said.
Clinton also directed the U.S. trade representative, Charlene Barshefsky, to encourage other governments to ensure that their own employees also are using only authrized copies of software.
The industry also supports legislation that could be passed as early as this week that would implement two copyright treaties adopted in 1996 by the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization. Executives say the bill would strengthen laws against illegally copying software even in countries without such tough prohibitions.
"I'm not sure this is a meaningful gesture," said Tarter of Thursday's order. "To say now we're going to stop other countries to stop pirating we can't stop genocide in Yugoslavia, and now we're going to send the Marines into Hong Kong to attack software pirates?"
The BSA contends that use of illegal software costs more than $11.4 billion annually, including $2.7 billion in the United States. Those figures include losses from counterfeiting rings that produce massive numbers of illegal copies.
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