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12/6/2007
01:20 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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More On Vista's New Social Copy Protection

After the flood of comments on my original post about Microsoft's radical changes to Windows Vista's copy protection, I thought I'd clarify my points. Let's get one thing out of the way first: I'm not advocating that anyone run Vista without buying a license key.  No, not even if you have it in for Microsoft.

After the flood of comments on my original post about Microsoft's radical changes to Windows Vista's copy protection, I thought I'd clarify my points. Let's get one thing out of the way first: I'm not advocating that anyone run Vista without buying a license key.  No, not even if you have it in for Microsoft.

I have a hard time seeing how I could say something like that with a straight face, especially after my last post about the MPAA violating Xubuntu's licensing. Windows has license terms, like any other program, and if you want to use the program legally you need to abide by those terms.  I was indeed using the term "freeware" in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

I am saying, though, that these changes to Vista make it far easier for someone to do that sort of thing than ever before. That doesn't mean piracy will automatically happen, either: a number of people pointed out that even if Vista were free, they wouldn't run it anyway.

As I mentioned, a key reason for these changes is to get and keep that many more copies of Vista out there in some form. One of the other commenters pointed out that Microsoft probably tried something of the same tactic with Windows 95 -- tolerating at least some degree of off-license use -- as a way to get older versions of Windows out of use. Here, the rationale is getting people to use the new code base in Vista, and trying to head off the growing specter of competition from Linux on the desktop.

Another key reason, and one I didn't really talk about the first time, is to remove one of the biggest objections to the way Windows's licensing works in general: the fact that it's too easy for a copy of Windows to fall out of license compliance and more or less self-destruct. If you're a perfectly legit user and you get hit with something that mangles the license-compliance components, you get punished for being honest, which is turning out to be the Catch-22 of copy protection in general.

Put that headache out of the way and you make a lot of existing Windows users a lot happier. It reinforces their loyalty, something Microsoft obviously wants, especially if there are far more opportunities now than ever before for a Windows user to flee and never return.  It also means that much less chance of legal action against Microsoft for punishing the honest, something a few other commenters also mentioned.

(Admittedly, in the entire time I've worked with Windows XP and Vista, I've only had to deal with a problematic Product Activation experience once, and it was probably my own fault -- but that didn't make it any less egregious, and its timing was just nasty.)

I have to say, I am curious as to how effective the nag-box system will be to compel people to legitimize off-license copies of Vista. I can see a couple of instances where this would work very easily.  If I had a server hosted at a data center, for instance, the data center admins could see very plainly that my copy of Windows Server 2008 wasn't licensed, and off to the BSA they'd go.  Plain old end-user desktop systems, though, I'm not so sure about.  And I doubt this will cause any of the pirates to stop finding ways to trick Vista into thinking it's licensed, but I also doubt Microsoft thinks that will happen, either; copy protection of any kind is an arms race.

It's the timing of the whole issue, also, that I want to underscore. It's now easier than it has ever been to drop out of the software-licensing and copy-protection rat race and switch to software that doesn't require such measures. Maybe not possible for everyone, but a lot more so than before. In the face of that, Microsoft wants to do what it can to retain its existing customers and maybe create a few new ones. And I can see it far more readily employing this sort of social copy-protection system than dumping its entire business model wholesale.

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