Stung by a report over the weekend that Russian authorities use charges of pirating Microsoft software to stifle dissent from non-governmental organizations (NGO) and other advocacy groups by seizing their computers, the company's top legal counsel said this week that it is changing the rules in order to stop such abuse in Russia and elsewhere.
"Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years. Security officials say the inquiries reflect their concern about software piracy, which is rampant in Russia," the New York Times said in a report Saturday.
However, the Times article indicated the raids and seizures have rarely focused on pro-government groups or media.
Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) response came swiftly Monday morning.
"Whatever the circumstances of the particular cases The New York Times described, 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," Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, said in a post to the The Official Microsoft Blog.
Microsoft's policies may have been an easy tool for Russian authorities to take advantage of because of the company's assiduous and long-term commitment to stamping out software piracy and counterfeiting worldwide.
"We must accept responsibility and assume accountability for our anti-piracy work, including the good and the bad," Smith went on.
While software piracy and counterfeiting are scourges for companies like Microsoft, Smith's post said that anti-piracy enforcement should not function as a convenient excuse for quashing criticism. Therefore, one of the first initiatives that Microsoft is embarking upon is to simplify software licenses for NGOs in Russia and in a number of other countries.
The company, he said, is working on a number of fronts to accomplish that goal.
"To prevent non-government organizations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of anti-piracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products," Smith's post said.
The company already has a licensing plan for NGOs and other qualified organizations in place whereby Microsoft donates free software as well as licenses to use it. That program currently provides software in 30 countries, including Russia.
"In the past year, we donated software with a fair market value of over $390 million to over 42,000 NGOs around the world," he added.
However, Smith admitted that the process can be daunting. So Microsoft will make the new unilateral software license automatically connect from the company to the NGO and provide a clear license that will run until 2012 -- giving organizations time to migrate to Microsoft's existing donated licensing program.
"Now our information will fully exonerate any qualifying NGO, by showing that it has a valid license to our software," Smith said. "Under our existing program each NGO can obtain free of charge six different Microsoft software titles for up to 50 PCs. They can then obtain 300 new licenses every other year," he said.
In addition, Microsoft will put systems in place to inform authorities that the NGOs have legitimate licenses to the software, including letters confirming that the organization is covered by the licenses' terms.
Microsoft also instituted mandatory training for its 40 outside counsel in Russia a year ago which, Smith said, will now include information on NGO licensing. Additionally, the company's own internal counsel in Russia will be directed to take "a more direct role in engaging with relevant authorities" -- that is, meet with them and explain the NGO licenses.
Further, Microsoft has created a study group consisting of its internal counsel in Paris, Moscow, and London, as well as in other locations, to come up with recommendations for solving the problem long-term.
Finally, the company is also creating an online list of counsel who are empowered to act on Microsoft's part in order to stop people from fraudulently pretending that they represent the company in order "to extort money for illegal software."
"But none of this should create a pretext for the inappropriate pursuit of NGOs, newspapers, or other participants in civil society. And we certainly dont want to contribute to any such effort, even inadvertently," Smith added.