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Russian Dissident Crackdown Prompts Microsoft Licensing Change

Microsoft's chief counsel says the company will clarify its software licensing terms for NGOs after reports of Russian government authorities using piracy investigations to silence dissident groups.

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The move was prompted by reports that Russian law enforcement authorities have been raiding the offices of various NGOs and advocacy groups and confiscating their PCs on the grounds that they contain pirated Microsoft software. Microsoft allows NGOs to obtain six different software titles for up to 50 PCs free of charge.

In many cases, Microsoft's lawyers in Russia have not only ignored the accused organizations' pleas for help, they've also aggressively pursued the piracy cases and given false testimony in court hearings, according to a Sunday report in the New York Times.

Microsoft often touts the effectiveness of its multi-faceted efforts to bring software pirates to justice, but in this case the software giant appears to be getting a reminder of the law of unintended consequences. Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, moved quickly to outline the course of action his company will take to address the issue.

"We want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain," Smith said in a Monday blog post. "We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior."

Microsoft plans to hire an international law firm that doesn't focus on software piracy to investigate the matter. In the meantime, Microsoft is removing all legal ambiguity by creating a new unilateral software license for NGOs in Russia and other countries that covers the Microsoft software they're already using, according to Smith.

"We will also make it available to appropriate journalists’ organizations in order to include small newspapers and independent media. Because it’s automatic, they won’t need to take any steps to benefit from its terms," Smith said in the blog post.

Previously, NGOs could obtain free software by going through a Microsoft partner, but Smith acknowledged that many groups were unaware that the program existed. Microsoft plans to revert back to this model in 2012, and the new NGO license policy will remain valid until that time, Smith said.

"We’d still like to move NGOs to our existing donation program over time, because it better enables organizations to keep their software up-to-date and secure," Smith said in the blog post.

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