Microsoft is the first major software manufacturer to try to implement aggressive anti-piracy measures in its software. The press is treating it as something new, but it’s not – if you’ve ever used a program that’s been designed for a niche market, you’ve probably dealt with the same license requirements. For example, attorney case management programs (Amicus, Abacus) have been rigorously patrolling their licenses for years. The problem is, on the consumer level, we’re all accustomed to a great deal of latitude in installing Windows and Office on multiple systems from the same CD.

Windows XP and Office XP both require “product activation” before they start working. It’s a code transmitted to and from Microsoft that’s tied to a computer’s hardware configuration. If you attempt to install either product on a different computer, you’ll be politely refused unless you have a convincing explanation. If you change your computer’s hardware configuration, the programs may decide that it’s possible that you’ve installed them on a different computer, and they’ll stop working until you call Microsoft and explain.

Two issues come to mind.

The first is that Microsoft may have made the settings too sensitive for raising questions based on “hardware changes.” Here’s an article raising questions about how people will react when their software stops working because of changes that should be none of Microsoft’s business. And anecdotes are coming in of inappropriate shutdowns – here’s an article about a laptop that stopped working in the middle of an airplane flight. There were discussions on the radio today of travellers finding that Office XP stopped working because they unplugged PCMCIA cards from their laptops.

The second is that this is symptomatic of the bigger problem we’ll have with the copyright police. As consumers, we’re accustomed to a certain ability to deal freely with material in our hands – software, music, printed material. Knowingly or unknowingly, we violate copyright laws and software licenses all the time- and what’s more, we feel we have a “right” to use the programs and recordings and the rest. New technology allows manufacturers and copyright owners to prevent us from doing things that we’ve done freely up to now. You’re not going to like it a bit. This isn’t an issue with Microsoft, it’s a much larger question of whether consumers should have their use of material restricted simply because the technology exists to do so.

The new book Digital Copyright by law professor Jessica Litman is wonderfully written – clear, concise, jargon-free. It’s a great introduction to an issue that will be in your face for the next few years. Highly recommended.