How Microsoft could make a liar out of me

Not everyone who needs more than two copies of a piece of software is a pirate.

Microsoft's new copy-protection scheme--which I wrote about last Thursday in an open letter to CEO Steve Ballmer--does more than just end casual copying of Microsoft products. It threatens to turn millions of Microsoft's customers into liars.

Let me explain:

I believe consumers should be able to buy a single copy of a program and install it onto as many computers as they like--so long as only one copy is used at a time. This is what many people, including me, have been doing for many years--despite the fact it's a violation of Microsoft's End-User License Agreement. (The agreement allows only two copies, and that's what the new copy-protection scheme is intended to enforce).

My open letter drew many, many comments from readers, some of whom have already been stopped from copying Microsoft Office to all their home computers by the new copy-protection scheme, which works by associating a particular software serial number with a specific PC.

The registration and authorization is done automatically over the Internet or via phone if you're not connected. If you are way out of touch there is a free trial period, but after that users get two installations and are then told to buy more software.

There is a workaround. But first let me issue a disclaimer: I'm not recommending this, mind you, just reporting what I've learned. Let me repeat that, just so I'm absolutely clear: I'm not recommending this. I'm only telling you what I've learned. Understand? Good.

Here's what to do if you need, say, three or four copies of Office at home:

After you've installed your two legal copies--intended for a desktop and laptop owned by the same person--on the next installation you'll get a prompt telling you to call Microsoft to get an authorization code.

When you call Microsoft, tell them you are moving the installation from one machine to another (as in removing it from one machine and then installing the software on a new machine). Microsoft will give you a new code number for that machine. Microsoft, according to what they've told me, has no way to determine whether the software has really been removed from the other machine or not.

If you don't do this too many times, you can get additional authorizations and not set off any alarms. No, I don't know what "too many times" is. Microsoft seems to understand their new system isn't perfect, so to avoid jerking people around they are willing to live with some subterfuge.

Like I said, I don't propose you actually use this "workaround," but if someone told me they were giving their old machine to the kids and wanted to keep Office loaded "just in case" on the new machine for when it crashes I'd have a hard time condemning it. And since we know the new machine will crash--this is Windows we're talking about after all--this logic makes a lot of sense.

This is the scenario where proponents of a broad concept of "fair use"--what should you should be allowed to do with software and other kinds of intellectual property after you purchase it--are likely to ding Microsoft.

My understanding of fair use has been that so long as you aren't running it on two machines at once you ought to be able to install it on every machine you use. Right now I have five PCs here in my office--not including the servers--and I have Office on all of them. But I only use it on one machine at a time.

Your TalkBack postings tell me I'm not the only one in this situation. Not everyone who needs more than two copies of a piece of software is a pirate. And that's why I'm staying on Microsoft's case over this issue.

Yes, I understand that a company should protect itself from piracy. Individuals, companies, and whole countries should pay for their software. But Microsoft shouldn't make us lie when we have a legitimate and fair reason to install software we've purchased on more than two machines.


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