Microsoft: 'Software piracy is not a victimless crime'

Microsoft: "Software piracy is not a victimless crime"Me: "Wrongly accusing someone of software piracy is also not victimless"

I tend to restrict my blogging here to hardware related matters, but I feel compelled to comment on the latest twists in the Windows Genuine Advantage saga.

This latest twist is the announcement that Windows Vista is to have technology similar to WGA "hard baked" into it.  This announcement came today via Microsoft PressPass in the form of a press release announcing Software Protection PlatformWrongly accusing someone of software piracy is also not victimless (shortened to SPP).  (Don't know what SPP is?  Just think of it as WGA 2.0.)  The press release takes on the format of a faux Q&A session with Cori Hartje, Director, Microsoft Genuine Software Initiative.  Scroll down to the last paragraph.  That's the bit containing the "why" behind SPP:

"Software piracy is not a victimless crime ..."

Now, while I don't condone software piracy for one minute (after all, Microsoft has to pay the bills just like everyone else), I do find it hard to generate much sympathy for the Redmond giant.  The way that Microsoft has implemented WGA and SPP doesn’t make it clear that the verdict passed on a PC can be flawed.  Instead they are forcing individuals who feel wrongly accused of software piracy to dig deep into their pockets and come up with another $149, all because of a software bug.  That isn't just wrong, it's evil.

Let me offer the following response to Hartje: wrongly accusing someone of software piracy is also not victimless.

See, the thing that bothers me about Windows Genuine Advantage and Software Protection Platform is not so much the technology (everyone has a right to protect their intellectual property) but rather the Draconian way Microsoft is wielding this power over users.  Microsoft is firmly committed to the viewpoint that anyone flagged as running a pirated copy of Windows must be running a pirated copy.  If the system works and only picks up on those running non-genuine copies of Windows, that's great. Trouble is Microsoft’s old, worn-out story about counterfeit software exposing consumers to spyware, viruses and faulty code wears thin when their own mechanism backfires and starts behaving just like spyware, viruses and faulty code. 

While people running a pirated copy of Windows are causing a financial loss to Microsoft, wrongly accusing a genuine user of piracy is also not without consequences.  There's the initial shock factor of being labeled a criminal, there's the downtime to consider (remember, reduced functionality means no start menu and no desktop icons - for more details visit Ed Bott's ZDNet blog), there's the hassle and the time to get the problem sorted out and then the fear that there will be further demands for money.  I don't see Microsoft compensating anybody for this.

In a perfect world technology like WGA or SPP would work, but we don't live in that perfect world, and no one would say Microsoft products are perfect.  If Microsoft’s programmers can't write code that’s free of vulnerabilities, what makes them think they’ve developed the "perfect" system for detecting pirated copies of Windows? 

So Microsoft, how about publicly acknowledging that every person who has been wrongly flagged as a pirate is a victim of your flawed technology?  On top of that, why not go the extra mile and admit that you owe an apology to everyone who has been falsely accused.  And then offer a refund (and maybe some compensation) to all those who forked over $149 for a new Windows product key – even though they knew their OS was genuine – simply because it was the quickest, easiest and safest way to solve their problem.  At least admit that you could be wrong!

On another note, I'm also concerned by how deeply SPP is embedded into Vista.  Take a look at this (again from the same press release):

“The Software Protection Platform has been under development for several years. It brings together new anti-piracy innovations, counterfeit detection and tamper-resistant features into a complete platform that provides better software protection to programs that leverage it.”

What this means is that Vista is to ship with an extensive, yet undocumented, set of features which other programs can tap into and cripple your system if they think you've been naughty.  It's bad enough to think that a bug in Vista could flag you as a pirate and force you into reduced functionality mode, but to think that other applications can do the same thing is truly terrifying.  The more Microsoft software you install, the greater the chance you get dealt a dud card.

If I were a large-scale corporate customer, all this would seriously put me off rolling out Vista across a company.  The kill switch being triggered accidentally could be a serious blow to productivity.  Hmmm, maybe it's time to take a second look at Linux ...?

Earlier today I sent Microsoft some questions.  Here they are, along with the answers I received:

Q: What is Microsoft doing to eliminate false positives?

“The Windows Vista Validation tools are very accurate at determining if a copy of Windows is genuine or not. We have found that many customers who originally felt their copy of Windows XP had been inaccurately labeled as non-genuine were surprised to learn that they were indeed running non-genuine software, often at no fault of their own. Microsoft works closely with these unknowing victims to remedy the situation. The false positive rate for WGA Validation failure is a fraction of one percent, and in these cases a bug was at fault and subsequently repaired. We are constantly evaluating the criteria for validation and continue to improve the process for customers.”

Q: What steps will there be to protect the user against being falsely accused of piracy?  What steps will there be to resolve problems?

“In the event of a mistake, customers will have a grace period in which they will have full functionality and Microsoft support.  Even if they miss the grace period for some reason, Microsoft will provide support tools and other remedies.”

I've sent Microsoft some follow-up questions.  I'll let you have the answers as soon as I receive them. Watch this space …Microsoft's response


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