The Windows tax fight is finally over: Buyers can get a refund on their Microsoft OS in Italy

A long-running court case over consumers' right to get a refund on unwanted OS has finally been settled. Will it change the PC market in the country?

Not happy to find Microsoft Windows preinstalled in your new computer? In Italy, you can now get a refund on your unwanted OS after a recent ruling handed down by Italy's High Court opened up new possibilities for unsatisfied customers.

Nine years after he first took his case against Windows OEM HP (who originally sold him a PC and Windows software as a bundle) to court, Florence resident Marco Pieraccioli succeeded in having the cost of software license repaid. The decision could set a precedent, speeding up other complaints about hardware and software bundling, but replicating Pieraccioli's success could prove to be more difficult than you might think.

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"I filed the case in 2005. The first trial lasted two years, it took another three years for the appeal, as HP contested the verdict, and four more years for the final pronunciation the High Court," Pieraccioli told ZDNet. In all three circumstances the judge rejected the OEM's contention that the PC and the operating system had to be considered "indivisible", and that the former's cost therefore couldn't be split from the latter's.

Instead, he maintained that the link between the two was more "commercial than technological", as part of a promotional strategy to encourage buyers to make use of Microsoft's products.

According to IT lawyer Carlo Piana, "the judge essentially decided that it's illegal to  force customers to buy something they don't want without giving them the chance to express their consent or disagreement to the terms of use of the thing itself before the purchase." On this basis, the court ruled HP must pay the trial costs and refund Pieraccioli to the tune of of €140, of which €90 was for Windows XP and €50 for Microsoft Works 8, which also came installed on the machine. The sum represented a roughly 15 percnet discount on the €850 that Pieracciolo spent on the hardware and software bundle.

All's well that ends well, then? Does this mean that Linux lovers — or Microsoft haters — now have a clear path to get rid of unwanted Redmond's product and save money on brand-new computers? Not so fast. "First of all," Piana says, "the idea of installing an operating system from scratch is only likely to appeal to a minority of users. Then manufacturers could still try to place obstacles in the way of users, making applying for a refund so muddled as to be inconvenient". 

Acer, one of the few manufacturers so far to publish details of how to obtain a refund for an unwanted Windows license on its website, for instance, asks customers to contact a call center, fill in their personal details, schedule the computer to go to a service center, ship it to the nearest facility at their expense or take it there in person (together with its Windows installation CDs, if there were any, and a receipt for the purchase) and wait for the formatted PC to come back — shipped at their expense — again.

The maximum amount that the manufacturer will refund is €90 for a Windows 7 Ultimate Edition license. Of that, one third or so could easily be spent on shipping fees. It's hard to imagine many people will take the trouble to send their PC back and forth for such a small sum, which could end up even lower in case of a Windows 8 Home installation (a €40 refund) or a Windows 7 Home Basic one (€35).

Also, truth is Pieraccioli is not the typical user — not so much for his love of open source software, but because he's a consultant for ADUC, a well-known consumers' association. Indeed, ADUC was involved in the case from the start.

"I filed the case in my nam, but I got the full support of the association. In fact, we wanted this to be a test bed for other complaints," Pieraccioli says. The positive outcome of the trials makes him optimistic about future cases, as he believes manufacturers will now be more careful and eager to respect the rights of users, and that more customers will step forth and ask not to pay the Windows Tax, as it is often called. To make it easier, ADUC has devoted a section of its website to a step-by-step tutorial on how to obtain a refund.

Pieraccioli dismissed the idea that installing an operating system themselves could prove too hard for the majority of users: "actually, it was the norm in the '90s, until Windows 98 and XX came along. There's nothing extraordinary in a guided installation," he says.

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