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, www.gorby.ru 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.
Shades of Kafka
The one note of hope in this story is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly expressed anger concerning the twisted legal logic displayed in the Ponosov case. According to a BBC report, Putin called on investigators to “go after the distributors, not the users.” There was a time in Russia when a word from the nation’s supreme leader was enough to send citizens to the firing squad or free them from the gulags.
But Russia is now reputed to be a nation of laws not personalities. So Ponosov may find himself languishing in jail while he waits for the wheels of justice to grind to a conclusion.
Microsoft’s attitude in this case is strange and perplexing. Presumably the company is so happy that Russian prosecutors are doing anything to combat software piracy that it won’t dare to express regret that a confused middle school principal is going to prison for buying PCs loaded with bogus software.
If investigators took a close look at the PC distribution network in Russia, especially in the country’s vast hinterlands, they would likely discover that consumers like Ponosov would be hard pressed to find any new computers that were loaded with certified genuine Microsoft software. In fact that they would probably have a hard time even determining whether the software loaded on their newly-purchased hardware was bona fide.
So what should Microsoft do about this? It would help if it was willing to take another look at this pathetic case and see if there is a way to give the poor principal a break.
It could be that as far as the Russian criminal justice system is concerned, nothing that Bill Gates might say would make any difference in Ponosov’s case.
However, this case might actually prove to be a business and philanthropic opportunity for Gates and his charitable foundation. There might be a way for Microsoft as well as other software and hardware vendors to work with the Russian government and the private sector to see what needs to be done to build modern distribution channels throughout the country. This might actually increase the chances that consumers will be able to buy new computers that contain properly licensed software.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might find its way clear to donate PCs to some of those remote Russian school districts. This would help educate kids about the amazing things computers can do and train a rising generation of more affluent Russians who would be in a better position to afford genuine Microsoft products.
Such an effort might even convince a certain Russian middle school principal that his attempt to provide basic computing resources for his students wasn’t a futile nightmare after all.
John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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