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Recently Microsoft and other software companies have created several technologies and marketing awareness campaigns around buying genuine software. Windows activation was the first major attempt from Microsoft to clamp down on pirated copies of windows on home computers and the first time it decided to stop offering enhancements and updates unless you first agreed to be verified as a genuine windows user. But while the software companies battle piracy with increasingly complex anti-tampering techniques and internet based licence verification, the pirates are learning fast and are coming up with increasingly genuine looking fakes.

My recent encounter with this happened when I decided to buy MS Office 2003 Professional offered on Play.com by a third-party trader (Later I found the same trader also sells on Amazon under a different name). While the product was not cheap, the trader was selling the software for around £20 cheaper than the latest 2010 version of MS Office. This made it a very attractive deal as being only an occasional user I didn't need features in the newest version and I thought this was a good way forward on getting my hands on a genuine version of MS Office at a bargain price albeit an older version.

I promptly received my disk next day together with a USB drive containing a copy of the software and an explanation that if the disk did not work, or if I had a Netbook with no CD drive, I could still use the USB drive to install the software. How thoughtful I said to myself, but why would the disk not work? The disk itself seemed genuine with holographic print and the word GENUINE embossed all over it. It was wrapped in a very high quality case with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) from Microsoft attached on the back. Casting my doubts aside I put the disk into my computer only to find that it was being read very slowly. Finally the computer rejected the disk as unreadable - ah hence the USB stick I thought to myself. But it was unacceptable, why would Microsoft burn software on a cheap disk that does not work? On closer inspection I found the software was marked as Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and to be used by system builders. Looking at the sellers order history I found he had sold several copies of it. Usually such OEM disks are in limited supply as they are intended for computer manufacturers to setup the computers before sale. How could this seller have obtained such a large batch of OEM media. I compared the holographic print on the disk to the holograph on my Windows Vista disk which I had obtained directly from Microsoft. The holograph was of slightly lower quality on the OEM Office disk. Probing around I found the disk was laminated with plastic film to protect the holograph and the plastic film could be peeled off. The holograph was printed directly on the disk. No such plastic film on the Vista disk. The holograph on the Vista disk was part of the plastic of the disk. Finally inspection of the COA on the back of the case confirmed my suspicion. The COA usually has a holographic threaded edge, while this one was a print imitating the edge. The print was of such amazing quality that it had me fooled when I first looked at it. A quick search on the internet revealed that I had like some others received a high-quality counterfeit disk which was designed to make it almost indistinguishable from the original. Making such disks is big business and pays better than selling drugs! Even the software on the disk was original but volume licensed1, which meant that the "Genuine Check" tools provided by Microsoft would test it and report it as genuine. But the software was clearly counterfeit and I returned the disk to the seller for a full refund.

So what does "genuine software" mean?

This question becomes important in the light of facts that:

  1. I paid for the software, I did not download a free copy from some dodgy internet site.
  2. My antivirus scanned the USB stick and reported no viruses or malware on it.
  3. The software was supplied on a disk and quality packaging that were hardly distinguishable from the genuine ones. If the disk had not failed and if I did not have the Vista disk on hand to compare it I would never have known.
  4. The tools provided by Microsoft claimed that the software was genuine. So I was eligible for all updates and enhancements from Microsoft.

The points above search for genuineness in the physical manifestation of the software. But the fact remains that a software cannot be faked, because it is not a physical entity. There is only one MS Office from Microsoft and it is genuine no matter how many copies are made from it. There is no fake MS Office. So if you have a copy of MS Office or Windows from Microsoft and it does its job it is genuine. "Genuine" is a misleading term to apply to software or any other digital file be it music or video. The correct term is "legitimate". When thinking about software try to think of "genuine" as being "legitimate". When you buy legitimate software you in reality buy a licence to use a copy of it. Part of the sum of money you pay for that licence goes to the company involved in designing, developing and supporting the software. So legitimate copies of software benefit the people who spend their days working developing the software. It gives them a job helps pay their salary, perhaps lead a better life. It also helps keep the price of the software low because the company earns enough from the copies it sells to keep it afloat. So you can download or buy a copy of a software from any place you see fit, but if you pay the creating company for a legitimate licence to use it, it becomes legitimate even if your original source was illegal2. The copy I bought was not legitimate (though the software itself was a genuine copy) because the money I spent on it paid some very clever people who were then using it to create more counterfeit disks of software. It didn't pay a penny to a single soul working at Microsoft. So the real deal behind buying legitimate software is ethical. There may be no physical or digital difference between a genuine and non-genuine version, they are after all copies of the same original source, but the difference is that the non-genuine version helps make money for the wrong guys.

How can you tell and what can you do?

So how can you tell if a copy of software you purchase is genuine? Microsoft have a website exclusively for this, they also have a page with pictures of counterfeit disks. The problem is that the techniques Microsoft use are not consistent and change with every product and version. Besides if you have never seen the original disk, it really is hard to tell. Other software companies will probably employ other techniques, some will have no way of distinguishing genuine from fake.

Counterfeit Vista (the left one is genuine)
Counterfeit Vista (the left one is genuine). Source: Genuine Windows Blog

So the best thing to do is to purchase a licence for the software directly from the company that develops the software. Buy from reliable on-line malls like Amazon or Play.com who can investigate sellers and offer full refunds out of their own pockets in case of disputes. Buy software on a credit-card which makes the credit-card company liable if you are duped.

Finally remember to exercise your distance selling and consumer rights. If you believed you were ordering a genuine disk then received a counterfeit disk or licence then the product is "not as described" and therefore can be returned to the seller for a full refund. Most such sellers will be happy to refund you because they have more business to do than getting into an argument with you and risk being exposed and losing their business. Also sometimes even the seller may be unaware they are selling a fake if they have received a few copies from a dodgy source.

  • 1. Popular software like MS Windows and MS Office is occasionally provided on a special disk to large companies so they can install it across several computers without having to manually enter the serial and go through activation. The software is pre-activated and the disk is called a volume licence disk. The licence on the disk allows the company to which it is issued infinite uses of the software within the company. The disk is not intended to leak out of the company.
  • 2. Obtaining software from an illegal source has the added risk that the software may be accompanied by unwanted viruses or malware which may get installed together with the software, compromising your system.