If the experience of the world's largest software vendor is any guide, the industry's best hope for reducing piracy rests with anti-copying technologies rather than in policing the legalistic user agreements that restrict how software can be used.
While a copyright crackdown by the Business Software Alliance and other industry players has been in force for years, piracy rates — as measured by BSA-commissioned studies — have stopped falling.
So a few years ago, Microsoft Corp. began concentrating harder on locking software down through a program it calls its Genuine Software Initiative.
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The technology has provoked some hostility, because it enables Microsoft to remotely examine user computers.
After analyzing such information as the computer's manufacturer, hard drive serial number and Windows product identification, Microsoft can block access to certain software functions if it suspects the product was illegally copied.
Microsoft does not offer piracy statistics specific for its software. But the company says it appears its plan is working.
As evidence, the company notes that in the last quarter, Windows sales were up 20 percent while worldwide PC sales were up only 14 to 16 percent.
Microsoft said the difference reflected the fact that people with counterfeit copies of Windows were having to put the real thing on their existing computers.
Cori Hartje, who heads the genuine-software team for Microsoft, cautions that the lockdown is just part of the company's plan for reducing piracy. BSA-style enforcement and user education remain important elements, she said.
To be sure, other lockdown technologies — like requiring users to enter a specific numeric key when they install a piece of software on a PC — have been tried by multiple vendors, with limited success.
Those programs often are hacked pretty quickly, or the keys get shared, greatly inhibiting their power to reduce improper copying.
But the industry also has not put as much effort into the subject as it might have. Bob Kruger, BSA's enforcement director from 1993 to 2005, said he often asked its member companies why they couldn't come up with ways to prevent copying.
Kruger said the companies told him they feared new controls would annoy legitimate users and send market share to rivals that lacked copy blocks.
Logical as that decision may have been, it has put the onus on customers to track the various things their software licenses allow.
Now, however, Robert Holleyman, who has headed the BSA since 1990, said he was optimistic technology might soon have a better answer.
"It's not a silver bullet," he said. "At the same time, technology is increasingly a tool that is customer-friendly, that will reduce levels of piracy ... and make it easier for customers to interact with the product."