The Microsoft 'black screen' of software legitimacy

Summary:Microsoft has come up with a new way of handling software piracy. Using its Windows Genuine Advantage tool, when a non-authorized version of its Windows XP Pro operating system is detected, every hour of use throws up a black screen that can be reset to anything else in the usual ways, but every 60 minutes it will change back to the plain black background.

Microsoft has come up with a new way of handling software piracy. Using its Windows Genuine Advantage tool, when a non-authorized version of its Windows XP Pro operating system is detected, every hour of use throws up a black screen that can be reset to anything else in the usual ways, but every 60 minutes it will change back to the plain black background. This will continue to happen until that copy of Windows is genuine.

This black screen is thus a very different one from Microsoft's well-known blue screen of death. Microsoft has implemented this to the Chinese version of Windows because its position is that software piracy is rampant in China. It will probably be only a matter of time before this is implemented to other language versions of Windows, as well as other Microsoft products (and it has). This does not necessarily mean that Microsoft is abandoning its previous way of addressing software piracy but this move hits home much closer.

As expected, this move has caused an outcry in China, with complaints and lawsuits threatened. It also remains to be seen whether, and how the Chinese government will respond to this in their own unique way.

There have been arguments from the Chinese that this move amounts to "hacking" by Microsoft. Microsoft's own counter was that the use of illegal software opens the user to information security risk.

If we examine this hacking issue in the context of Singapore law, section 7(1) of the Computer Misuse Act provides that "Any person who, knowingly and without authority or lawful excuse:

(a) interferes with, or interrupts or obstructs the lawful use of, a computer; or

(b) impedes or prevents access to, or impairs the usefulness or effectiveness of, any program or data stored in a computer,

shall be guilty of an offence".

On the face of it, any interference is prohibited--so, if some malicious spyware installs itself on your computer and brings it down, the person who created that spyware is in hot soup. However, look closely at the words "without authority or lawful excuse".

If a software manufacturer can state on his software license that if you use his software license without authorization, then you may affect the operation of your computer--when you choose to install his software, then you agree to these terms, which will include a lockdown in the event the software is not validated.

It gets more severe for an operating system software manufacturer because the limitations placed on the operation of server software legitimately would affect the operation of the entire computer. The software manufacturer has, therefore, authority to carry out the act of interfering in the use of the computer and not fall foul of the Singapore definition of hacking.

Could it also be considered lawful excuse for a software manufacturer to take steps to protect its intellectual property? I have no sympathy for software pirates but the academic in me would ask to what extent can an act justified by lawful excuse be extended to.

At the end of the day, few would want to claim that Microsoft had interfered with their computers as doing so would be owning up to copyright infringement, which could possibly carry criminal penalties in Singapore.

Topics: Singapore, China, Hardware, Microsoft, Security, Software, Windows

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