Windows Vista is here, but not everyone is paying for it. PC Advisor investigates how Microsoft plans to tackle the filesharing epidemic

This article appears as part of the April 07 issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents

Just weeks after the consumer release of Windows Vista, Microsoft is already facing a formidable foe it lacked at its last major consumer software launch five years ago: the popular filesharing network BitTorrent.
This third-generation P2P (peer-to-peer) service, already used by millions of internet users to swap digital music and movies for free, is becoming a popular mechanism for those looking to obtain pirate software.

"Any software that is commercially available is available on BitTorrent," according to Mark Ishikawa, chief executive of antipiracy consulting firm BayTSP.

Both Vista and Office 2007 have been available via BitTorrent for some time now – 'cracked' copies were in circulation before their November business release. By mid January, more than 100 copies of Office 2007 and 350 copies of Vista were available on the service.

The pirates that cracked early copies of Vista all sidestepped Microsoft's latest antipiracy technology, SPP (Software Protection Platform), which is supposed to shut down any copy of Vista not registered to Microsoft within 30 days. The company has admitted to finding three workarounds to SPP. It can defeat one, Frankenbuild, but it has yet to announce fixes to several others – including one that allows Vista to run unactivated until 2099.
"Pirates have unlimited time and resources," Ishikawa says. "You can't build an encryption that can't be broken."

Microsoft fights back

According to BayTSP's 2005 figures, six of the 25 most widely pirated software packages on BitTorrent and eDonkey, another P2P network, originated at Microsoft. Office 2003 was second in the list of pirates' favourites, behind Adobe's Acrobat 7.0. Other widely circulated 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 licence keys, can reduce the rate
of piracy compared with previous products.

But the firm is taking no chances, and is fighting back on multiple fronts. To distract downloaders who may only be seeking a sneak peek at the software, Microsoft is offering free online test drives of Vista and Office 2007 (find a 60-day trial of Office 2007 on this month's DVD).

Furthermore, to reach young people – the most enthusiastic users of P2P – Microsoft is putting comics up on the web, mostly in foreign languages, decrying software piracy. And at the end of January, the company released statistics purporting to show that users downloading pirated software from P2P networks are at great risk of infecting themselves with viruses or spyware.

According to an October 2006 report commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by IDC, nearly 60 percent of key generators and cracking tools downloaded from P2P networks contained malicious or unwanted software. One quarter of key generator sites 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 didn't differentiate between more serious viruses and spyware and less harmful unwanted code such as adware. IDC conceded that some P2P networks deploy built-in virus scanning that "strips out most of the malicious software" before it reaches users.

Some sceptics say that Microsoft's 'education' campaign is primarily an attempt to sow doubt in the minds of consumers – a tactic the company has been criticised 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, who applauds Microsoft's other antipiracy efforts.

The software giant hopes to scare consumers, because efforts to guilt and shame them into not downloading have had little success. Moreover, the company rarely targets users of counterfeit software with lawsuits for
fear of alienating customers, according to DeGroot.

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

The rise of BitTorrent

P2P technology has advanced greatly since Microsoft released Windows XP in late 2001. At the time, P2P networks such as Napster and Gnutella were used solely to exchange music files. Since then, Napster has closed and re-opened as a legitimate pay-for music service, while Gnutella has waned in popularity because of ageing technology and a flood of fake files planted by record companies.

Enter BitTorrent, which boasts faster file transfers and more reliable downloads than other P2P networks. BitTorrent was not the first P2P network to host pirated DVDs and software, but it was the first to make the trade of such hefty files practical. Moreover, BitTorrent claims it automatically cleanses its network of viruses and decoys.

BitTorrent's other great advantage is its ease of use compared with the 'darknet' services used by more sophisticated pirates, such as Internet Relay Chat channels, private FTP (file transfer protocol) sites and Usenet newsgroups. For most internet users, darknets remain hard to find and intimidating to use.

Microsoft's worst nightmare would come to pass if P2P software piracy became as pervasive as film and music piracy. The number of songs swapped illegally online outnumbers those sold legally, says Eric Garland, chief executive of online research firm BigChampagne.

Victory by assimilation?

Faced with this situation, music and film companies are starting to co-opt P2P. Record companies are using services such as BigChampagne to scout music trends and sign up-and-coming bands, while movie studios such as Paramount and Fox sell movie downloads via BitTorrent.

The software industry, meanwhile, is lagging behind. Microsoft is allowing consumers to download and buy Vista from its own website for the first time. Otherwise, Microsoft has "nothing new to announce with regards
to any new distribution channels", Hartje says.

For Microsoft to ink a deal with BitTorrent to sell full software or even put up free trials would send out mixed messages, Ishikawa explains. "If you ever want to litigate, don't send out any freeware," he says.

Still, Eric Garland points out that P2P software piracy remains a drop in the ocean compared with video piracy, which involves similarly hefty files. His explanation is that downloaded movies are just entertainment, but business software is used to run companies, sort out people's taxes and perform other important duties. For those functions, most users still prefer the security blanket – technical support, access to software fixes, updates and manuals – that only buying the software can provide.

"Forget backdoor viruses or Trojans," Garland says. "There are some things that are worth paying for."