Microsoft funds anti-piracy exhibit at Royal Ontario Museum

A Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) exhibit, partly funded by Microsoft Canada Corp., will include a display featuring several Microsoft products and warns against the dangers of software piracy.

Dubbed “Fakes & Forgeries: Yesterday and Today” the exhibit will open at the ROM Jan. 9, 2010. Microsoft Canada is a “presenting sponsor” of the travelling exhibit alongside the Bank of Canada.

The 1,500-square foot show has 11 display cases dedicated to a different category of authentic items and corresponding forgeries.

A “Computer Software Piracy and Counterfeiting” display contributed by Microsoft focuses on pirated software and highlights risks associated with counterfeit products. Displayed are several Microsoft products, including an Xbox 360 video game, Office Professional software, and a label of authenticity from Windows XP.

The exhibit’s coordinating curator, Paul Denis, says he decided on what items to feature in the exhibit.

“I don’t feel it’s [like] an advertisement for Microsoft,” he says.

But when asked if Microsoft products would have been featured if the company wasn’t a sponsor, he responded: “The funding helped, yes, of course.”

Denis says there were no strings attached to the funding and he asked Microsoft to contribute the software for the display.

But the perception of influence isn’t erased, says John Lawford, a lawyer with the Ottawa-based Public Interact Advisory Counsel.

“This is the problem when public institutions take private money,” he says. “That’s the way museums seem to operate these days.”

But analyst Paul DeGroot doesn’t have a problem with it. He is with Directions on Microsoft, an independent firm that is dedicated to examining Microsoft’s software and policies.

“It’s really important for people to realize that counterfeiting in the digital age is different from counterfeiting analogue products,” he says. “The case can be made that Microsoft products are the most counterfeited software in the world.”

Microsoft often takes the lead on anti-piracy initiatives around the world. It is one of the major software companies that fund the Business Software Alliance, an enforcement group that seeks fines from small and medium-sized companies using unlicenced software. That group accepts tip-offs to launch its investigations from the Web site www.nopiracy.ca.

The Redmond-based software giant also creates technological protection measures — such as Windows Genuine Advantage — to prevent its software from being copied. It offers educational materials such as www.howtotell.com, a Web site that helps consumers identify counterfeit software products.

The ROM’s exhibit is also meant to be educational, says Chris Tortirice, corporate counsel of anti-piracy for Microsoft Canada. It’s not advertising.

“It’s one part of the whole exhibit,” he says. “It’s certainly given the ROM the opportunity to mount this entire exhibit that they were interested in doing.”

Microsoft won’t disclose what it donated to the exhibit, only that it was a portion of the overall funding. Microsoft says no funding was contingent on displaying its products.

Counterfeit computer software can be dangerous to consumers because it could be infected with viruses or allow fraudsters to steal credit card information, Denis says. When counterfeit software is sold, governments also lose out on taxes they would collect on the sale of the legitimate version.

Exhibit viewers will walk away with a better ability to identify such products, the curator adds.

Tell tale sings of counterfeiting include “shoddy packaging, typos, the actual colour of the underside of the disk, and the quality of the labeling on the disk itself.”

Little is known about the impact software piracy has on the Canadian economy. Studies that have sought to quantify the degree of piracy have been found lacking in credibility.

Denis looked for empirical data to include in the display, but couldn’t find any he was satisfied with.

That includes a Business Software Alliance and analyst firm IDC’s Global Software Piracy Study for 2008. It claims that about one-third of all software installed on computers in Canada for the year were pirated, at a retail value of $1.2 billion.

Denis doubted those numbers. “I wasn’t 100 per cent positive,” he says. “I’m not a computer expert.”

The study’s credibility was called into question because Canadian firms were never reviewed for that year’s data. The statistics are based on analyst estimates and inventory spot checks.

Microsoft has worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to bring counterfeiters before the courts in the past. A Dartmouth, N.S. raid last December saw seizure of counterfeit copies of Windows XP and Office 2003, and the arrest of an individual accused of importing counterfeit software and selling it on eBay.

In April, four Canadian resellers were sued by Microsoft for illegally installing unlicenced software on computers, and distributing counterfeit software to customers.

The ROM could help avoid the perception of Microsoft’s influence by shedding light on the wider copyright debate, or including other software products in the same display case, Lawford suggests.

“It makes you wonder if the curator had examples from Apple, but didn’t put them in,” he says.

The display could also refer viewers to this past summer’s government-held copyright consultation. That public discussion included debate about technological protection measures and their place within the law. Microsoft employs such means to protect its software.

Fakes & Forgeries will be on display at the ROM until April 4, 2010. Then it will travel across Canada to other museums.

The travel schedule hasn’t been released yet, Denis says, but the exhibit is booked for the next three years.

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