The Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) has threatened to prosecute educational establishments that use improperly licensed software.
The pressure group, which lobbies on behalf of the proprietary software industry, has threatened to take headteachers, schools and local education authorities (LEAs) to court if they are found to have any unauthorised software.
"The message is clear: if head teachers, schools governors and even LEAs allow the use of illegal software then it may be a fast track to a criminal record," said John Lovelock, director general of FAST.
"The government has given us the tools to support this initiative with the Copyright and Trade Marks (Offences and Enforcement) Act 2002, which increased the penalties for certain copyright offences from two years to 10 years... and strengthened search warrant provisions."
FAST claims this is the first campaign of its type to target primary and secondary schools. The group claims the software industry is "at a huge risk from the availability of illegal downloads".
To underline its threat, FAST pointed out that it is running a process called Operation Tracker, which it calls the "CCTV of the Internet". The system enables the pressure group to trace file sharers by identifying their Internet connection.
FAST's clampdown attracted criticism from one expert working in the open source educational field, who called the scheme "disastrous".
"From a marketing perspective, it is a disastrous move than cannot fail to annoy and upset a critical sector. Presumably this is why it is outsourced by big business interests," said Mark Taylor, president of the Open Source Consortium, a group that represents the interests of open source vendors in the public sector.
Taylor said that while FAST has a legal right to chase those who haven't paid licensing fees for proprietary software, the methods it is employing may be counterproductive.
"The message is threatening, both overtly and subliminally. Anyone who has worked with LEAs, head teachers and school governors knows that they are honest, hard working, harassed and generally worried individuals," said Taylor. "Associating them with criminal intent is... well, eyebrow-raising, to say the least."
Taylor said that education professionals are focused on dealing with "violence, drugs, bullying, truancy, shrinking budgets and escalating government regulations", not "worrying about whether they've got licences for anything anyone has ever installed on their ageing networks".
Taylor said that if he represented a school on the receiving end of these threats he would start researching open source software.
"I'd begin to move away from the people locking me into proprietary solutions whilst threatening me with criminal proceedings, and towards open standards, open source-based software that gives me options, dramatically and permanently lowers my costs, and won't get me a criminal record."
The Open Source Consortium works with the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) to discuss the uptake and use of open source software in education.
A BECTA spokesman told ZDNet UK: "BECTA has regular meetings with the Schoolforge-UK Open Source Consortium Education Working Group representative to update the open source community about what the organisation is doing and so they can keep us informed of open source activities."