The Empire Strikes Back

Bootleg basher Microsoft puts the kibosh on local computer resellers

As it turns out, Microsoft's actions are right in sync with other industry efforts to curb software bootlegging. The Washington, D.C.-based Business Software Alliance (BSA), which estimates that piracy costs the industry $2.7 billion a year in the U.S., targets businesses around the country using counterfeit or unlicensed software. They figure the piracy rate at 27 percent across the nation, meaning, by their count, that one out of every four pieces of software isn't legal. Last fall, the BSA, which counts Microsoft as a member, unveiled an anti-piracy radio and print ad campaign in several Midwest cities (including Minneapolis and St. Paul), encouraging people to "Nail Your Boss" and "Blow the Whistle."

In October, Microsoft filed lawsuits similar to the Minnesota actions against four computer resellers in the Charlotte, N.C., area. Patent attorney Philip Summa, who is representing a Computer Renaissance franchisee sued there, says he has no problem whatsoever with Microsoft's right to defend their copyrights, but he believes Microsoft to be overstating the gravity of the situation. "It appears to me that there is a bad apple that got into our store. That would imply there could be a few bad apples, but no more," Summa says. He likens Microsoft's tactics to those the U.S. government uses to fight its drug war, where pursuing small retailers proves an easier feat than tracking down big producers. "Who do you go after?" Summa asks. "Pablo Escobar in Colombia, or the junkie on the street?" Producers who flood the market with bootlegged software, or the puny computer resale shop on the corner?

The Minnesota cases are similar to the North Carolina ones. In each, Microsoft alleges that its agents obtained one or two pieces of suspect software from the retailers; the company seeks to collect, for its troubles, "illegal profits" and damages. But the question remains: Why is such an enormous and enormously profitable company quibbling about a few questionable sales?

"Experience shows if you do two test purchases within a certain period of time and counterfeit purchases come out of both of those instances," Microsoft attorney Block reasons, "the conduct is really extensive at the company." And for every one of those bootleg transactions, Microsoft loses a potential customer. But rest assured, pirates: For the time being, she says, home computers loaded with counterfeit or unlicensed software remain safely out of suit-happy Microsoft's sights: "That's not something we and other software vendors can police."

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