Inside Microsoft’s anti-piracy campaign

Times article questions how Redmond co-opts law enforcment to do its work

New York Times Silicon Valley reporter Ashlee Vance delivers a fascinating article in Sunday’s paper that delves into the efforts Microsoft uses to fight global software piracy. The article, which was posted online Saturday night, details Microsoft’s crackdown on software piracy and the efforts of counterfeiters to promote it. Microsoft also comes in for some criticism for leaning on law enforcement agencies to do its bidding.

Microsoft investigators use CSI-like forensics to spot pirated software by identifying the stamping machine used by pirates to make fake CDs of Windows or Office. But equally sophisticated are the pirates who set up fake Web sites at which unwitting customers enter their fake authentication codes to make them think they bought legitimate software.

While I think people should use only legitimate software and that people who knowingly use pirated software are stealing, several points in the Times story resonated with me. For instance, Microsoft cites a study by the Business Software Alliance (BAS) an industry trade group, and the research firm IDC (a unit of IDG, which publishes Network world), that pirated software cost the legitimate software industry $51.4 billion in 2009. That figure drew a protest from one reader in the comments section when the Times article was reposted on MSNBC.com. “$51.4 billion is how much would have been made IF each of those who used the pirated software went out and bought it instead,” the comment stated. “This should not be confused with the amount of money that was actually LOST. Had no pirated copies been available, not everyone who had used a pirated version would actually go out and buy one.”

The Times story also notes that the rate of piracy rises in countries with the poorest people, meaning that maybe Microsoft should consider the market’s ability to pay. Lastly, the article notes that Microsoft has been able to co-opt local law enforcement in many countries to do its bidding.

Vance writes: “‘It is better for the Indian government to focus on educating its children rather than making sure royalties go back to Microsoft,’ says Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia Law School and a leading advocate of free software.”

Microsoft’s cooperation with authorities in Russia proved to be an embarrassment to the company in September when it was revealed, also in the Times, that Russian authorities were using software piracy as a pretense to raid advocacy and opposition groups to silence them. This also earned Microsoft criticism from Network World blogger Ms. Smith. Microsoft had to publicly distance itself from such politically-motivated raids in the wake of that report.

While I agree that people shouldn’t steal software, I also agree with those quoted in the article that advocate for free software. Critics of Microsoft say it is “trying to defend old business models,” the Times notes, and that piracy of expensive software is an argument for free software like Linux and Google, which is distributing free software online for creating documents, browsing the Web and performing other functions common to Microsoft products.

And it will be interesting to see how Microsoft guards against piracy as it goes “all in” for cloud computing. There may be new ways to protect Microsoft’s intellectual property online, but it seems the pirates will be right behind them trying to find a way around those protections.

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