Why pirated Vista has Microsoft champing at BitTorrent

Microsoft is struggling to tackle the threat coming from P2P service BitTorrent

Microsoft popular with pirates

According to BayTSP's most recent figures from 2005, six out of the 25 most widely pirated software packages on BitTorrent and eDonkey, another P2P network, originated at Microsoft. Office 2003 was the second most-pirated software behind Adobe Systems's Acrobat 7. Other widely pirated Microsoft software includes InfoPath 2003, FrontPage 2003, Visio 2003, Office XP and Windows XP.

Cori Hartje, director of Microsoft's Genuine Software Initiative, remains confident that SPP, along with another effort by Microsoft to clamp down on the abuse of corporate volume license keys by pirates, can reduce the rate of piracy of Microsoft's latest products compared to previous ones.

But the company is taking no chances, fighting back on multiple fronts. To distract downloaders who may only be seeking a sneak peek at the new software, the company's offering free online test drives of Vista and 60-day trials of Office 2007.

To reach young people, who are the most enthusiastic users of P2P, Microsoft is putting comics up on the Web, mostly in foreign languages, decrying software piracy.

And on Monday, the company released statistics purporting to show that users downloading pirated software from P2P networks are at great risk infecting themselves with viruses or spyware.

According to an October 2006 report conducted by IDC and commissioned by Microsoft, nearly 60 percent of key generators and crack tools downloaded from P2P networks contained malicious or unwanted software. Similarly, one quarter of Web sites offering key generators -- software that create alphanumeric strings that users can type in to activate their pirated Microsoft software -- had such hidden software.

The perils of P2P?

Hartje claims that many pirates are irresponsibly uploading malware along with their cracked goods to BitTorrent.

"They may not be running a clean shop, and don't care if viruses are on the software," she says.

IDC researchers used popular antivirus packages from McAfee and Symantec to detect malware. However, the researchers did not differentiate between more serious viruses and spyware and less harmful unwanted code such as adware. IDC also conceded that some P2P networks deploy built-in virus scanning that "strip[s] out most of the malicious software" before it reaches users.

Some skeptics say that Microsoft's "education" campaign is primarily an attempt to sow FUD -- fear, uncertainty and doubt -- in the minds of consumers, a tactic the company has been called out for in the past, and which could backfire.

"Warning customers about viruses and spyware in counterfeit software is a nice PR thing for Microsoft, but for the most part, I doubt that it's really effective," says Paul DeGroot, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent consulting firm, who applauds Microsoft's other antipiracy efforts.

Microsoft hopes to scare consumers straight, he says, because efforts to guilt and shame consumers into not downloading, have had little success. Moreover, the company rarely targets end users of counterfeit software with lawsuits for fear of alienating customers.

"Our main concern is preventing pirates from putting counterfeits in the hands of unsuspecting customers," says Matt Lundy, a senior attorney at Microsoft.

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Eric Lai

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