July 5, 2001

Microsoft to Open Source editor: Register licenses, or else

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

About a week ago, I get what many people would consider a threatening note in the mail from our friends at Microsoft.

Addressed to Grant Gross, managing editor of OSDN -- apparently Microsoft is giving me a promotion -- the threatening brochure is printed in friendly soft blues and yellows and includes the headline, "There's no such thing as a free lunch," printed on the cover.

There's a couple of ironies here, one being that this brochure came on the same day as a Microsoft brochure offering a free Visio trial CD. Well, OK, Visio wasn't really free -- if you had to fill out a card telling Microsoft about your organization, including how many PCs you have at your location. (Which makes you wonder if the two brochures were put together by the same Microsoft department.)

Ignoring the irony of Microsoft claiming there's no free lunch to an editor of a Web site that covers the Free Software movement, I opened the free-lunch brochure to find more threatening language. "Here's a tip: Double-check your software licenses today. (Or you may pick off the bill for big penalties tomorrow.) Software piracy is illegal. And the BSA is cracking down."

If that doesn't get the heavy-handed point across, the brochure quotes Bob Kruger, vice president of the Business Software Alliance, as saying, "Unless you have no past or current unhappy employees, you're only one phone call away from being the target of a BSA investigation. This is not a traffic ticket."

The BSA isn't just making idle threats with this tell-on-your-neighbor campaign. Wired.com reported Tuesday that disgruntled, laid-off dot-com employees are reporting their former employers to the BSA, with a potential of court-ordered damages of up to $150,000 for each copyright violation.

Of course, if I had something to worry about, I wouldn't be writing this story. My primary work machine runs Linux Mandrake 7.2, and my work/personal laptop has Mandrake, from the same CDs even, loaded as a dual boot with the copy of Windows 2000 that came with the laptop when I bought it. The only reason I keep Windows around is to play Shogun: Total War or Thief II on airplanes. My personal desktop has a Windows 98 partition, also primarily for gaming.

Even if I was running "illegal" software, or my co-workers were, we wouldn't know enough to rat each other out. I work at home, as many OSDN employees do, and my dog doesn't know much about software licensing issues.

The free-lunch brochure ends with a toll-free number, 1-888-200-9062, to Microsoft partner Zones, which is offering a "free, no-obligation software consultation." Then, after the consultation, "if you find you need licenses, you'll receive up to 20% savings on Microsoft Windows upgrades and Office products through the Microsoft Open License Program." Gee, I wonder what definition of "open" they're using, and I don't even want to think what happens if Zones determines you need licenses, but you opt for the no-obligation route.

But because I'm always up for anything resembling a free lunch, I decide to call for the free consultation.

Me: Hi, I got a flyer in the mail the other day from Microsoft about double-checking your software licenses. I have a question for you: What if you don't use Microsoft products?

Zones: Then you don't use Microsoft at work? Where are you calling from?

Me: [Pausing, with visions of black BSA helicopters buzzing my house.] Umm, Baltimore, Maryland.

Zones: That letter's from Microsoft, and it's kind of letting you know that the BSA is going around and doing random audits on companies. The BSA is more than Microsoft products, it's ... the gamut. Are you on a Mac?

Me: No, I actually use Linux.

Zones: Oh, OK. Basically, it's a notice to take care of your licensing. Obviously, Microsoft put it out there because they want you to buy Microsoft licensing, if you don't have it. [Chuckles]

Me: I guess I'm wondering, I don't think I have anything of Microsoft's to license.

Zones: Sure. We here at Zones are more than just licensing for Microsoft. The reason we're on this campaign for Microsoft is because we're their primary vendor. They knew we'd be able to handle it for them.

Me: So I guess you can't help me, is what you're saying.

Zones: I'm not sure what it is you want help with.

Me: I'm wondering about a Linux license.

Zones: Actually, I do have, ahhh [pause] access to Linux products, but it depends on what version you're running. Isn't Linux kind of a free program in some cases? So I'm not sure ... there's different flavors of Linux.

Me: So I should check with the manufacturer of my distribution of Linux?

Zones: Yeah, definitely.

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