While Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) publicized piracy cases filed against erring vendors in North America during a major anti-counterfeiting push, the software company’s anti-piracy application was being flogged by irate computer users in China.
On Tuesday last week, Microsoft declared “Global Anti-Piracy Day” with the launch of local and international activities to battle the trade of pirated and counterfeit software.
In Canada, the 49-country campaign was marked with the announcement of lawsuits against six channel resellers allegedly found to be installing unlicensed Microsoft Office and Windows software.
Christopher Tortorice, corporate counsel on anti-piracy for Microsoft, said this was a significant bite off illegal activities that has been costing various software companies more than $1.07 billion in lost annual revenues in Canada.
Tortorice did not name the companies involved but said two were from Montreal, and the others were from Toronto, Mississauga, Hamilton and Oshawa, all in Ontario. No specific figures were released but he said the firms could be fined up to $20,000 for each infringed work.
Halfway around the world, the global push was marred by computer users who posted angry online complains over a Microsoft anti-piracy plug-in that blacks out a computer’s screen if it senses that the machine is running pirated software.
The application is part of Microsoft’s Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) and Office Genuine Advantage (OGA) programs, in effect in North America since 2005 but only first introduced in China in 2006.
China ranks among the top five countries with the highest losses dues to piracy.
The WGA and OGA rollouts in China that are causing grief to many users cover Windows XP professional software products. The anti-piracy plug-in is activated when users of pirated copies of the product attempt to download updates from Microsoft’s download site. The user’s computer screens turn black and they receive a reminder that they should use legitimate Microsoft products.
But last week, the software company found itself on the defensive following consumer concerns that the software tool was notifying Microsoft of the identity of computer users.
“I don’t need you (to) tell me if it’s genuine or not. Because I know. It’s pirated. The key is that I cannot afford to buy genuine. If you reduce the price, then it’s easier for me to accept,” wrote an anonymous poster identified only by his or her location as “Hangzhou, Zhenjiang province.”
The issue also took a bit of a nationalist tone.
“Whether it’s genuine or pirated is not the issue. The most important issue is, can China have its own software?” wrote another person identified as “Anhui province.”
The comments came were in response to an open letter in Chinese sent out by Microsoft to various Chinese media outlets. The letter reiterated that participation in the WGA program is voluntary and that user’s computers will not be deactivated by the application.
The letter also said Microsoft “absolutely guarantees that we will not in any way collect user’s names, e-mail address, or any other information that can be used to identify the user.”
Elliot Katz, senior product manager for Microsoft in Canada, said both WGA and OGA programs have been in operation in North America with hardly any complaint. However, he said it is possible that there may be some minor implementation differences from country to country.
“I don’t precisely know how the program is carried out in China, but in North America, users have a 30-day grace period to acquire legitimate software if the system detects their machine is running a pirated version.”
If a user has not replaced the counterfeit or unlicensed software within that period, the application kicks in.
This results in any background photo or illustration on the screen being blacked out, said Katz. The computer and all installed software, however, will remain operable, he added.
Users can reactivate their original background but the anti-piracy application will black out the screen again within an hour.
Once users load a registered product key, the screen will revert to normal settings.
“The application only collects low-level BIOS information which enables Microsoft to determine that the PC is running unlicensed Microsoft products. No user ID, IP addresses or e-mail addresses are collected,” said Katz.
The machine will not be able to download Windows products, although auto-updates for critical patches will still be accessible.
Access to patches is maintained, Katz said, to prevent the propagation of viruses and malware among users or both licensed and unlicensed Microsoft software.
— With files from Steven Schwankert