Once upon a Wikipedia safari, I found myself sucked into the article on the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I read that contrary to popular belief, the expression “pay the piper” actually comes not from the Pied Piper, but from the phrase “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” You learn something new every day, I thought to myself. You see, over the years, I have advised employers, clients, and contemporaries that when it comes to software licensing, it is best to “pay the piper.” It was an expression I learned as a kid in the Boston area.

I often felt like a broken record. “You have to pay the piper…. It’s just best to pay the piper…. Pay the piper…. Pay the piper….” Until I was blue in the face.

Properly licensing software is a constant battle. Operating systems, databases, desktop and server software of all types– and yes, also cloud applications– they all get licensed. Compliance with licensing is an important part of information technology work. If you don’t have the stomach to fight for licensing budget when you must, well, it is probably best to find another line of work.

If you or your employer find licensing terms objectionable, then you are free to try to find alternative software that is licensed under terms you find agreeable.

If you find yourself with a lack of options, it might be a good time for a reality check. Take a step back, breathe deeply, look around you, get your bearings. When something provides real value to business, it stands to reason that it would be possible for its creator to charge money for it, or specify whatever terms of exchange they deem fit. (In fact, the economist in me must point out that in a relatively free market, offering goods or services of value in exchange for money is generally what firms do. Perhaps your firm does this as well.) After careful and logical analysis, there is usually a fairly objective level of utility, and value, for any given goods or services to any given consumer of them. If software is not worth to your business what its maker insists on getting in return, well by all means, cut bait and move on with life. There ARE options.

I have experienced four licensing audits at three different companies. As a result of my hard work and diligence (as I prefer to think), but often at the expense of my affability, and in no small part due to luck, software under my responsibility has hitherto not incurred penalties or other surprises, when the auditors came calling. But there have been some close ones, with developers taking machines into production being offset by machines being deprovisioned outside of my purview.

At its best, a software licensing audit is the IT version of a tax audit. If you have kept on top of things, documented your operations (and of course any and all discussions with software provider sales reps!), and your team has someone with a knack for legal-ese, it is possible that you just might make it through without any unexpected liabilities.

On the other end of the spectrum, for those who find themselves with volumes of unlicensed software in production, the outlook from their position reveals only one path, a path filled with pain and gnashing of teeth. The experience will go from being like a tax audit to being like war, metaphorically speaking.

When licensing is way out of compliance, and the inevitable audit goes down, things get ugly. Longstanding work relationships are irreparably hurt. Many people look as if they are about to vomit upon hearing how much money is at stake. Some might actually slink away to toss their cookies. Work becomes like a bad dream. Some folks begin to mutter to themselves. Higher-ups look on silently, but intensely. For many involved, emotions run high, and their raw, red eyes glisten. As the days go by, and the damage is laid bare, folks take on a hollow look. For many, they become too tired to have any tears. They think to themselves that they deserve better than this. A stale smell sets in. People would rather be anywhere but there in that workplace.

Some experience a form of mourning. Depending on where they are in the stages of grief, they may become detrimental to the flow business. They mourn the loss of their company’s future in which the firm had been unsaddled with this burden and conflict. Indeed, what we are talking about can often be closely bound to the death of the company vision, or even the company itself.

The after-effects of the traumatic event are long-lasting. Defensive posturing ensues. The blame game is played vehemently, almost childishly. History is revised repeatedly, and is likely to remain questionable for ever more. Whole departments end up in the doghouse for years on end. Leaders, and whoever else is left from the ranks, run for higher ground. Many, even most, become resentful of the software that was audited. Some cannot even say the name of the company whose software it was without their lip curling from unadulterated loathing.

By far the most common path to this undesirable end is negligence. Responsibility for properly licensing software can travel around in long circles, often many times, without landing, only to then vanish into the ether. Nobody bothers to nail it down, lest they be thought of the person who makes the company spend more. It is like a foolish game of musical chairs that everyone believes they are destined to win. Discussions about responsibility turn into he-said she-said, which is responsibility’s very antithesis.

I have of course witnessed licensee mistakes made in total earnest. Types of license for types of implementation can be a tough one, especially when manufacturers don’t make it easy to convert. I can think of at least one that quite frankly made the software maker/licenser look guilty of intentional entrapment. (Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. This was more like laying in ambush by the food bowl and trying to eat the whole arm that was carrying the kibble!)

Other times, there is actually a concerted effort to pirate software by those who wish to use it without paying for licensing. Crime never pays.

No matter, they all earned the same fate, come audit time. Software licenses were not being respected. Facts are facts, the rest doesn’t matter much, as it turns out. It is irrelevant what sort of organizational malignancy might have been at work from the perspective of the company who should have been paid.

I cannot say with confidence that one person can completely stay on top of licensing for an organization. It needs to be a team effort, with everybody on board. Those not working towards this end should be corrected forthwith. No matter how low on the totem pole, or if they are at the top, they are scuttling the ship whether they know it or not.

So, do your part. Do your JOB. Somebody needs to save the ship, damnit. Be diligent. Be prepared.

The bottom line is, if you depend on another company’s software, your company needs to make sure it complies with that company’s licensing terms. Licensing compliance needs to be tracked, documented, and checked periodically. The effort will pay for itself, have no doubt. Furthermore, the effort needs to become a priority for the whole enterprise.

So, take control of your future.

If you see your operation turning down the wrong path, you should speak up to decision makers. Get off your rear! Make some waves! Your leaders’ vision of their company’s future is on the chopping block, and they will want to know. If you don’t think so, then put it in writing to them. Company leaders need to actively take responsibility for software licensing. If they don’t, or won’t, there is no hope for the organization, it is already dead on its feet. That is something you and everyone else will want to see or disprove with your own eyes.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. Make sure your company does! You have GOT to pay the piper.

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