Product deactivation

Although everyone in the computer industry loathes counterfeiters and wants them brought to justice, a well-recognised legal right actually exists for purchasers of a copyrighted work to make copies for non-commercial and personal use.

As we've seen in my recent columns, the WPA (Windows Product Activation) feature that Microsoft introduced in Windows XP was deliberately designed to be trivial to break. WPA will therefore be of no practical value in slowing down mass software pirates, who can easily reproduce thousands of counterfeit, unlicensed PCs.

The upshot of this design is that WPA's primary purpose is not to foil pirates, despite Microsoft's claims, but to prevent novices and inexperienced PC users from making a second copy of XP on a laptop, a child's computer at home, and so forth.

I believe Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot by treating its entry-level customers in this way. And I think the fallout may be sizeable. Although everyone in the computer industry loathes counterfeiters and wants them brought to justice, a well-recognised legal right actually exists under the laws of the US (and many other countries) for purchasers of a copyrighted work to make copies for non-commercial and personal use.

For example, the US Supreme Court's so-called Betamax ruling in 1983 reinforced "fair use" and personal-copying rights. (See A history of copyright in the US).

I can't resolve here the techno war that's currently raging to narrow these rights. Instead, let's step aside from the legal muddle and simply notice one fact: Microsoft's older product, Office XP, makes a nod toward personal use by explicitly allowing a buyer to install the product on two different machines. Windows XP, by contrast, has been promoted as being for one machine only.

WPA may produce a shift that's as much psychological as technical. I wrote in previous columns that WPA's uselessness against software pirates had first been demonstrated by tecChannel, an IDG publication in Germany. There, the mistrust of Microsoft has taken on elaborate overtones. As tecChannel senior editor Mike Hartmann told me, "There was even a German TV show which advised users to activate only via phone and to do it via a public phone, not the one at home." Ridiculous as this advice may be, Hartmann says, "There is in my opinion no way to restore the users' faith in WPA."

Such feelings aren't pervasive in the US, perhaps because few people have experienced WPA to date. But the intangible damage will grow as people resent the loss of a freedom they used to have.

As the author of several copyrighted books, I have much to lose from piracy. But that doesn't give me or any company the right to act as if the personal-use provisos of copyright law don't exist.

Despite Microsoft's resources, no technological fix can lock software into a single use. Every secret code will eventually be breached. The real answer is to stop counterfeiters through legal means and let personal-use copying be.

Livingston's latest book is Windows Me Secrets. Send tips to tips@brianlivingston.com.

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