The Microsoft 'black screen' of software legitimacy

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, Hardware, Microsoft, Security, Software, China, Windows

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  • The Microsoft 'black screen' of software legitimacy

    Thank you Bryan for bringing this issue to the fore front. I think Microsoft has over stepped it's bounds. For instance in our case we have purchased two copies of Vista which we hate, and we have Windows Xp home addition, We also have a copy of windows XP Professional and to be honest I don't remember where we got it although I think from our son. My husband has Vista on his home computer and I have XP Home Edition on mine both products purchased . So we run the XP Pro on my husbands work edition, haven't we given them enough money to compensate and when our son purchased the XP Pro doesn't the product then become his property to do with as he pleases. That's like buying a car and only you can use it and after you take it out of the driveway 101 times it no longer functrions because you have to renew the purchase, absurd, but that's how microsoft has become absurd. We purchase their software and then they tell us how we can use their product we wouldn't sit still for this in any other scenario and I think it's time we said the "customer" is always right. When we purchase their software it then becomes our property and how dare they tell us what we can do with our property.
  • The Microsoft 'black screen' of software legitimacy

    For one, one never "BUY" a software.
    You merely purchased a license to use that software.
    That software is never yours.
    Read the EULA, TOC, TOU, License Agreement and whatever legal documents that come with that software.
    Intellectual property is not the same a buying a car.
  • "The Black Screen software :An Anti-competitive Practice by Microsoft"

    "The Black Screen software : An Anti-competitive Practice by Microsoft"


    Singapore must take the view that the global 'black screen' measure compulsorily imposed by Microsoft constitutes an act that falls within the domain of anti-competitive practice as envisaged by the Competition Act 2004.

    The question is whether a rightful owner be allowed by law to obtain unfair competitive edge via contractual advantage to the detriment of an innocent buyer/individual/users ?

    Although the Copyright Act 2005 and the Computer Misuse Act 1990 guarantee certain legal rights to the owner, they do not allow the rightful owner carte-blanche freedom to embark on anti-competitive measures with a view to protect his rights to the prejudice-and/or at the expense of consumer rights. No doubt section 7(1) of CMA's "without authority or lawful excuse" is a stark reminder to all, but it is by no means an insurmountable wall of defence for Microsoft. If it can be shown that Microsoft themselves had in fact implemented the black screen 'without proper authority and without lawful excuse', the imposition of the black screen would be declared as unconstitutional and illegal not only under the Computer Misuse Act but also under section 47(2)(a) and(b) of the Competition Act 2004 pertaining to abuse of dominant position :

    47(1) Subject to section 48, any conduct on the part of one or more undertakings which amounts to the abuse of a dominant position in any market in Singapore is prohibited. (2) For the purposes of subsection (1), conduct may, in particular, constitute such an abuse if it consists in — (a) predatory behaviour towards competitors; (b) limiting production, markets or technical development to the prejudice of consumers; (c) applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage; or In any event, the last remedy against the black screen can be found in the law of restitution.

    The legitimacy of the black screen (and the Windows Genuine Advantage tool) may be tested in Court-if not in Singapore- it may be initiated in the EU or Australia.

    The black screen is not the only example of an unfair measure enforced by Microsoft in its global anti-competitive blocking strategy.

    Jeong Chun phuoc. Lecturer-in-Law.