As Microsoft targets underprivileged kids in its "Bridging the Digital Divide" initiative, a local charity working toward a similar goal may well be quashed by the tech giant.
PCs for Kids, which redistributes old computers to underprivileged kids, has been slapped with a copyright infringement notice by Microsoft for hard-loading copies of Windows 3.11 or Windows 95 and Word onto the refurbished machines. According to charity's founder, Colin Bayes, the alternative of furnishing each machine with licensed software would cost more than $600 per system - a figure that is beyond the reach of the charity.
"I've told Microsoft very clearly that what it has done is physically put this not-for-profit charity on its knees," he said.
Following a meeting between the two parties last week, Microsoft said that it will not pursue legal action, but will instead issue PCs for Kids with guidelines that set out the licensing issues that it should raise with organizations wishing to donate PCs, in order to obtain fully licensed software.
However, Bayes believes that obtaining original documentation with the PCs will be extremely difficult, after having broached the subject with many of the existing donors.
New Zealand computer recycler The Ark, which operates in a similar fashion to PCs for Kids, was forced to close its operation in 1997 after Microsoft pursued them for a similar breach of copyright. The group has since dodged the bullet by loading DOS-based shareware and freeware software over OpenDos, but managing director Bob Lye believes that the option of asking donors to provide licensed software along with the hardware is difficult, as license documents are usually stored away from the computer, and often get lost or thrown out.
However, according to Microsoft corporate attorney Vanessa Hutley, if companies truly support PCs for Kids, they will provide them with the licensed software alongside the donated hardware. Noting that the crux of the issue was still the protection of innovation, Hutley also added that children would only really benefit from using software that was licensed.
"Still, the essential element is the fact that these people are being given unlicensed software," she said. "Software copyright and the protection of innovation through copyright protection is an extremely important matter.
"In passing on unlicensed software, the recipient doesn't get licensed software with support, and the question becomes, what happens with that person when they need support?" she said.
"We fully believe in empowering children to understand and have technological skills; however, giving them technology that can be fully supported and enabling them to improve their ability in the digital age is extremely important," she said.
Bayes has since written to both Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates and to Microsoft Australia in an effort to keep the operation alive. According to Bayes, the charity, which ships lower-end computer hardware to kids in East Timor and Fiji, has helped more than 5,500 kids since its inception two years ago. The operation also provides Work for the Dole for 65 unemployed people.