Sentenced to the Intellectual Property Gulag

A Russian middle school principal is waiting to see whether an act of mercy by his nation's president or by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates will save him from serving time in a Siberian prison camp on a software piracy conviction.

For years the software industry, with the support of the United States government, has been calling on countries around the world to crack down on software piracy to demonstrate their commitment to free trade and the rule of international law.

However, software piracy remains rampant in developing nations, and especially in China and Russia, despite the rapid development of capitalist market economies in those countries.

So it seems natural that the software industry would rejoice when the news emerged recently that the police in Russia have arrested a software pirate, prosecuted the malefactor to the full extent of the law and are preparing to send the miscreant to a Siberian prison camp.

But the real story is that the Russian courts have convicted Alexander Ponosov, the principal of a middle school in a remote Ural Mountains village, for unwittingly buying PCs for his students that were loaded with unlicensed copies of Microsoft software.

This information is coming to the worlds attention mainly because former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev published an open letter on the Web site, of his charitable foundation calling on Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to intercede on Ponosov's behalf on the grounds that the teacher wasn't aware that PCs contained pirated software.

The letter describes Ponosov as a teacher "who has dedicated his life to the education of children and who receives a modest salary that does not bear comparison with the salaries of even regular staff" at Microsoft.

"In this situation, we ask you to show mercy and withdraw your complaint," said Gorbachev's letter, a rough translation of which is available through Google.

However, Microsoft intends to keep hands off the case. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Microsoft's public relations agency in London released a statement that the company was "sure that the Russian courts will make a fair decision."

The statement also lauded the Russian government's effort to prosecute software privacy cases, according to the Times report. "We do respect the Russian governments position on the importance of protecting intellectual property rights," the statement said.

Sadly what the case shows is that the Russian legal system has failed to progress from the Kafkaesque logic that over the past century sent millions of people to the misery of imprisonment in Siberian gulags on the whims of politicians, bureaucrats and secret police.

Russia is under pressure from the western software industry to crack down on software piracy. So what does the criminal justice system do? It sends Ponosov, a software consumer and victim of piracy, to Siberia. Meanwhile the producers and distributors of pirated software are untouched and continue to reap millions by ripping off consumers as well as legitimate software producers.

Next Page: Lost in the Gulag

John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...