Microsoft Helps Lower The Boom On Software Pirate

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Wednesday dished out a 46-month sentence against Justin Harrison, Oxford, Ga., for selling illegal certificates of authenticity for Microsoft software.

Harrison had previously been found guilty of using the fake certificates, or COAs, to sell illegal copies of Windows XP and Windows 2000 through a company named Sales International.

Bonnie MacNaughton, senior attorney with Microsoft's worldwide antipiracy team, said certificate of authenticity labels, or COAs, are commonly used by software pirates and unscrupulous system builders to deceive customers into believing that the counterfeit product they're buying is genuine.

Microsoft first became aware of the tactic a few years ago, according to MacNaughton. "COAs were being disassociated from PCs they were being bought with, and then being sold separately on a standalone basis," she said.

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The Anti-Counterfeiting Amendments of 2004, which are part of the federal criminal code, provide criminal and civil penalties for the distribution of certificates that were intended to accompany software vendors' products, MacNaught said.

This is the first time the amendments have been used in a case involving Microsoft COAs, she added.

Kevin Baylor, principal at Aequus IT, Bradenton, Fla., said that counterfeit COAs aren't as common as they used to be, but haven't yet disappeared altogether.

"We definitely see it in the distribution lines occasionally, but we've only ever run across one client, who bought a PC from a local shop, that ended up having an illegal license," said Baylor.

"On a grand scale, I'm sure there are companies that are still using illegal COAs, especially small mom and pop OEM builders," Baylor added.

While the software piracy rate in other countries is higher than in the U.S., MacNaught estimates that about 22 percent of all software in use in the U.S. today is pirated.

Microsoft hopes this week's ruling will convince other countries to enact laws to prohibit this practice, said MacNaughton.

"We would love to see similar legislation enacted in other countries around the world to criminalize sales of illegal certificates," she said.