Microsoft turns to private detectives

Microsoft gets serious about checking out people it suspects of using auction sites to sell unlicensed software

Microsoft says that its crackdown on the trading of unlicensed software is "going well", thanks to the use of private detectives.

The company said on Tuesday it has taken action against five rogue traders in the UK so far, and has legal actions pending against another 16. The crackdown is international in scale, with 50 legal actions already filed, including 15 in the US, 10 in Germany and the Netherlands and five in France, as well as the five in the UK.

Of the five actions that have been concluded in Britain, four have been settled through courts and one was an out-of-court settlement, according to Michala Alexander, Microsoft's head of anti-piracy.

Alexander would not reveal details of the settlements reached but confirmed that all of the actions have come about through the use of Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage, the controversial tool that the company uses to track potentially illegal software.

"The actions were all against people using eBay and other auction sites to sell illegal software," she said.

Alexander revealed Microsoft is using private detectives to approach and question people suspected of selling illegal software through auction houses. Their use was justified, she said, because of the special circumstances involved in approaching such traders.

"We can't have our people doing it," Alexander said. "We can't send them in when we don't know what they are being let into. This could be private premises where the illegal copying was being done in somebody's bedroom. We have to use specialists who know how to handle that sort of situation."

According to Alexander, the need for the crackdown was justified for a number of reasons, including the need to defend the public. "A lot of auction sites, like eBay, are completely legitimate," she said. "But there is a lot of illegal software out there."

According to IDC, 34 percent of the software packages sold on auction sites in fact contain nothing but blank disks, Alexander said.

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