Microsoft plays the ethics card

I'm not a big fan of people who use pirated software, and I have managed in the course of my online life never to have shared or downloaded a song or movie.

But does this make me more ethical than the 43 percent of the British public who admitted that they own counterfeit goods, or the 23 percent who said they willingly have bought pirated software?

I don't know. It just seems to make me confused, because I find myself on the side of a mega-multinational software vendor in its defense of intellectual property rights, even as I find myself doubting its claims that pirated software means lost revenue for the U.K. government. According to Microsoft, when those Britons buy pirated software, it's not just the company that suffers; no, the British government and all that it supports are hurt, too, because no taxes are paid. This seems reasonable enough, but there's more to it than that, as I'll explain.

Believe it or not, Microsoft is likening itself to small-scale coffee growers in Third World countries.

What's behind this? A Microsoft-sponsored survey by YouGov that basically proves that people are a bundle of contradictions.

On the one hand, 89 percent of the sample group said they perceive themselves to be ethical consumers, defined in the survey as people who try to buy free-trade coffee and non-genetically-modified food. But a lot of people in this group still don't seem to mind using the odd bit of pirated software. Microsoft is trying to make the connection between itself and coffee growers, claiming that there is a double standard when it comes to software and free trade.

Ah, contradictions and double standards -- two topics that Microsoft happens to be an expert on.

About those taxes. Microsoft makes software in the Republic of Ireland, where taxes on profits are lower than those in the U.K. The U.K. operations are really just a marketing vehicle for Microsoft software.

So would buying genuine Microsoft software boost the tax revenues of the U.K. government? Would paying full price for authentic versions of Windows and Excel help Britain build new hospitals?

Not likely, because most business users get to claim back the 17.5 percent value-added tax that is tagged onto each software purchase.

As for Microsoft, it ships most of the software that's destined for Europe directly from Ireland. If the company is so dedicated to paying taxes, it could sell its goods from the U.K. That would help the government here.

Microsoft tries to make the point that intellectual property is the same as coffee but strangely doesn't seem to recognize that pushing IT property rights isn't the same thing as trying to ensure that small-scale farmers earn a living wage. "People who pay a little more for free-trade coffee hope that at least part of the premium will end up in the pocket of the grower," says Robin Littau, general manager of Don Pedro Coffee. Microsoft knows it can't persuade people that they should make sure part of the price of the software they buy ends up in the pocket of Bill Gates, so it sets up the U.K. tax man as the injured party.

As I said, I'm no fan of the movement that believes software, music and video are free for the sharing without in some way compensating the author, musician or artist.

But what I don't like even more is a corporate hypocrite.

Pimm Fox is a London-based journalist.Contact him at

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