Microsoft claims the combination of its controversial Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) tool and its “Feet on the Street” compliance team has slashed the number of pirate copies of Windows XP.

The software giant said that since February 2006, the UK piracy rate for Windows XP has dropped from 16.7 percent to 12.4 percent on the basis of its tough stance on illegal software.

Under the Feet on the Street scheme, Microsoft representatives visit PC manufacturers to ensure they’re providing customers with genuine Windows software. The company claims the team educates partners on the terms and conditions of its licensing terms, although it also pinpoints those blatantly selling illegal software.

Since April, Microsoft has uncovered seven illegal traders and is taking appropriate legal action against each one.

The company has also sent out audit teams to verify businesses’ Windows installations, finding 13 organisations using over 5,000 units of pirate Microsoft Office, Windows or Server software.

These two initiatives have been set up to protect honest resellers, according to Microsoft, which said businesses had co-operated to help the cause.

But the WGA initiative, which Microsoft also claims played a part in the UK’s drop in piracy, has been far from a PR success, receiving heavy criticism for its heavy-handed approach.

Customers were angered earlier this year when they discovered WGA was sending out information from their PCs to an internal Microsoft server without their knowledge, leading to accusations that the software acted like spyware.

Furthermore, WGA has been accused of deeming some “genuine” copies of Windows as illegal, leaving PC owners furious that they could no longer download Microsoft updates. Only PCs that WGA judges as genuine can download Microsoft updates, other than essential security downloads.

However, at last month’s AMD Mobile Forum in Nice, Jerome Stewart, senior Windows product manager, dismissed the reports as exaggerated. “The instances of false positives are miniscule,” he said. “WGA has proved successful and if your PC is found to have a version of Windows that’s not genuine you have options ranging from free Windows software or a discounted price.”