Microsoft to issue blanket license to NGOs

The company takes steps to distance itself from Russian authorities reportedly using software raids to harass dissidents

Microsoft will issue a blanket software license to nonprofit groups and journalist groups outside the U.S. after the New York Times reported that Russian police have used software copyright raids to seize computers of activist groups.

Microsoft will also hire an international law firm to investigate the allegations in the Times story, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said Monday.

Microsoft-hired lawyers have defended Russian authorities who raided advocacy groups and newspapers in the name of copyright enforcement, the Times story said. Russian authorities have carried out dozens of software piracy raids against dissent groups in recent years, the story said.

The Times story "suggested that there had been cases when our own counsel at law firms had failed to help clear things up and had made matters worse instead," Smith wrote in a blog post. "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."

The new blanket license should remove software piracy as an excuse for "nefarious actions" by enforcement authorities, Smith wrote. The new license "cuts in one swoop the Gordian knot that otherwise is getting in the way of our desired handling of these legal issues," he said. "The law in Russia (and many other countries) requires that one must provide truthful information about the facts in response to a subpoena or other judicial process. With this new software license, we effectively change the factual situation at hand. Now our information will fully exonerate any qualifying [nonprofit], by showing that it has a valid license to our software."

Microsoft will also set up a legal assistance program for nonprofit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, Smith said.

The blanket license for software builds on a software-donation program Microsoft already has, Smith said. While the company has donated US $390 million worth of software to NGOs in the past year, many nonprofits aren't aware of the program, he wrote. The new blanket license will last until 2012, and Microsoft hopes to move any interested NGOs to the existing software donation program by then, he said.

NGOs and organizations representing journalists will have to take no action to get the blanket license. Microsoft software running on their computers will be covered, Smith said.

A blanket license for NGOs makes sense, said Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director at Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. If Russian authorities are using software raids as an excuse to harass dissident groups, Microsoft can take away that excuse by not pressing for copyright enforcement, he said.

Granting licenses to NGOs "would remove any cause of action," he said.

Software piracy cases are a convenient way for authorities to target dissidents, because all software comes from a copy, Siy said. "If you're just looking for a jurisdictional hook to abuse, it's so easy under copyright," he added.

The Times story points to the need for U.S. companies to look at a broad picture when dealing with international issues, Siy added. U.S. companies need to look for a balance between IP protection and competing issues, Siy said.

"It shows that the interests of the United States, as a country, need to be evaluated as whole, as we constantly push protection of IP (intellectual property) across the globe," he said.

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