Gorbachev asks Microsoft for leniency in piracy case

Microsoft is sidestepping an appeal from a former Soviet Union leader to intervene in a piracy case involving a school principal.

Microsoft is sidestepping an appeal from a former leader of the Soviet Union to intervene in a piracy case involving a school principal.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who is credited with aiding the end of the Cold War, wrote to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Monday asking for help in halting the trial of Aleksandr Ponosov, 40, who could face up to five years in prison.

In the letter, posted on his Web site in Russian, Gorbachev wrote that his country finds the prosecution of Ponosov scandalous. Ponosov, 40, was charged in November with using more than US$10,000 in pirated Microsoft software.

The principal claims he bought the computers with the unlicensed software preinstalled. Police seized 12 computers from his school in the village of Vereschagino in western Russia in May 2006, but soon returned them so the school could conduct its computer science exams.

Gorbachev wrote that while Russian law allows for the prosecution of those who unknowingly use pirated software, the case against Ponosov is unwarranted. The former leader also made an emotional appeal, writing that Ponosov dedicated his life to teaching for a modest salary, which doesn't compare to those of Microsoft employees.

Gorbachev's high-level intervention comes as Microsoft continues an aggressive legal campaign to stop piracy of its software. Microsoft has launched dozens of civil lawsuits and aided law enforcement in criminal investigations throughout Europe and the U.S.

A Microsoft executive said Tuesday that Russian authorities contacted the company to verify the software was illegal. Microsoft did not request that charges be filed, and the decision to charge Ponosov was made by prosecutors, said Kim Gagne, corporate affairs director for central and eastern Europe.

Microsoft will not pursue a civil case against the principal. "We don't see this as a serious violation," said Olga Dergunova, who heads Microsoft's Russian operations.

The protection of intellectual property has become a key sticking point between Russia and the U.S., which has said lax enforcement hurts Russia's chances of entering the World Trade Organization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week the focus should be on the producers and distributors of pirated software.

"The law recognizes the concept of someone who purchased the product in good faith," Putin said at his annual press conference on Feb. 1. "It is easy to just grab someone and punish, but what we need to do is get to the bottom of each case, which is harder," he said.

During a visit to Moscow in November, Gates said Microsoft will do what it can to provide Russian school children with advanced software while also praising government efforts to protect intellectual property, according to the RIA Novosti, a government-owned news agency.

(Pavel Kupriyanov of Computerworld Russia contributed to this story).

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service

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