Register Your Software--or Else!

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - Still contemplating an upgrade to Office 2000?

Here's something to think about: You won't be able to disregard the annoying digital suggestion to register the product. Beginning this spring, Microsoft Corp. added the Registration Wizard to copies of Office 2000 sold in the United States and Canada. And this wizard has clout. If you ignore it, your software will quit working after the 50th use.

I rarely register software. My job requires me to install so much that registering it all would eat up far too much time. And on the rare occasions when I have registered, I've promptly gotten hammeredWith junk mail. Some of the deluge consists of software upgrade announcements, but I also get showered with ads for other products. So I was annoyed when my copy of Intuit's QuickBooks informed me that it would go on strike if I didn't register. And now, as I ponder upgrading to Office 2000, the Registration Wizard rears its hairy head.

Intuit Inc. has always insisted on registration, a company spokesperson says.

QuickBooks handles users' critical financial data, so the company may need to supply updates to users. In the past, Intuit has contacted users to give them late QuickBooks changes dealing with Y2K issues and reflecting amendments to payroll tax laws. Okay, I can see that. I want my taxes to be right, and I'd rather not doubt my financial software.

Some software registration is less critical, though. Getting the latest update to Word, for example, hardly qualifies as necessary to my existence. But Microsoft has another reason for requiring registration for Office: It wants to prevent software piracy.

Battling Software Thieves

The entire software industry has gone on a rampage against pirated software recently, and it's easy to see why. The Business Software Alliance estimates that $12 billion was lost worldwide in 1999 to unlicensed, illegally reproduced software. As Bill Gates might say, $12 billion here, $12 billion there--pretty soon you're talking real money.

"There are a lot of good reasons for mandatory registration," says Anne Kelley, a senior corporate attorney for Microsoft. "Registration gets [consumers] upgrades, warranty protection, and tech support. So there is a consumer benefit to mandatory registration. But at the same time, we want to make it clear that it is really not okay to make extra copies of software."

And the Registration Wizard makes that point crystal clear. The software license permits users who have a desktop and a laptop to register the same program for both. However, the program creates a unique identification code based on your hardware--so you can reload the program on your computer if your hard disk dies, but you can't load the software on a third PC or pass it along to someone else.

Mandatory registration is a mixed bag for people like me who hate to give out personal information. Some companies, including Intuit, insist that you provide your name and address. Microsoft and some others, fortunately, do not. The Registration Wizard requires you to enter the software's 16-digit ID code and the country you live in. Of course, if you don't give out any contact information, you won't receive update announcements about Office 2000. But you'll get to keep using your software, and that's nice, isn't it?

That's why I got hot under the collar when I heard about mandatory registration. Is Microsoft seriously willing to disable a piece of software I just paid almost $250 for, if I refuse to register it? Yep. There's no way around it. If you don't register, Office 2000 will stop working.

On the plus side, you can get it working again by registering. Whether you call in your registration, send an e-mail, or snail-mail a little registration card, Microsoft will assign you a code to get the program back up and running.

Not Just Microsoft

Now if mandatory registration strikes you as another conspiracy by the Evil Empire, consider something before you start a chain e-mail or go shopping for another office suite: Microsoft is not alone. There's Intuit, of course, and Autodesk Inc.; and Adobe Systems Inc. requires users to insert a dongle (a kind of hardware key) into a port to use After Effects. Other companies impose similar requirements.

The Registration Wizard is there to prevent legitimate buyers from making copies of the software for friends or coworkers. But the software industry faces a second, more organized form of theft: counterfeiting. To address that problem, Microsoft has gone high-tech in the CD pressing arena. The Office 2000 CD has an edge-to-edge hologram, a high-tech process that Microsoft owns the sole license for. The company hopes that the edge-to-edge hologram will give prospective buyers an easy way to distinguish genuine software from fakes.

The Office 2000 upgrade also marked the debut of a new certificate of authenticity for software that comes preinstalled on a computer. The certificate will be plastered on the side of the machine--if you buy from a legitimate reseller.

Industry executives make some forceful arguments about why everyone should care about software piracy. The country that loses the highest dollar amount to piracy and counterfeiting is the United States. "This costs 109,000 jobs--mostly in high-tech fields--in the U.S. every year," argues Microsoft's Kelley.

For two years, Microsoft has been buying software over the Net and examining it to determine whether it's legitimate. So far, more than 90 percent of the software the company has purchased from Net auctions and other secondary channels on the Internet has been counterfeit. Much of the stuff has other shortcomings, too: It's incomplete, riddled with viruses, or otherwise not what the buyers paid for. Kelley, the BSA, and recent news reports say that the money you spend on illicit software supports a crime network involved in other, more violent crime. Many counterfeiters, investigators say, have ties to Asian crime gangs involved in drug smuggling, illegal gambling, and prostitution. For more about this issue, see "Is Your Software Stolen?"

(www.pcworld.com/dec98/piracy).

Shades Of Napster

Sure, software executives have a vested interest in making piracy seem as dire as possible. But I have to agree with Microsoft's Kelley that the issue of intellectual property rights is only going to heat up as people continue to store and digitally deliver more art and other stuff we value. (The Napster Inc. brouhaha is a prime example of this.)So while I can't get too upset about piracy costing rich guy Bill Gates a few bucks, I am willing to register my software--as long as the vendor doesn't send me any junk mail afterward.

After all, I put up with those magnetic doohickeys stores attach to new clothes and CDs to keep me from stealing them. I lock my door when I leave my house or car. So why should I expect Microsoft--or any other software company--to rely on the honesty of strangers?

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