Many a Windows system administrator is learning about the Windows Genuine Advantage software on the job, much to their annoyance. It is one of the latest in a long series of ever-more intrusive, restrictive, and overbearing measures Microsoft is employing in its fight against “unauthorized” use of Microsoft Windows operating systems. WGA has been called “spyware”, “adware”, and “malware”, which of course are epithets Microsoft noisily (and noisomely) disputes — but ultimately, the only substantive disputation in any meaningful sense is the simple fact that Microsoft produced it and it is implemented within the operating system environment by the vendor, rather than by some third party.
Windows Genuine Advantage is at present in its testing stages of completion, essentially a beta release. It has been distributed as a “high priority” update by the Windows Update system, however, which means that millions of Windows computers have been forcibly added to the list of beta testers. Many security vendors and other third-party Windows software providers are now offering instructions and/or tools for disabling or removing the WGA software, though there’s still some question about whether that might eventually become a prosecutable offense under the DMCA.
WGA is, among other things, “antipiracy” software. It automatically validates the install of the MS software installed on your system when Windows connects to services such as Windows Update, which is necessary to maintain currency with security patches and bug fixes (or as close to current as Windows ever gets, a matter of some debate). Originally, it also “checked in” with Microsoft upon each system restart, though this behavior has been eliminated after Microsoft received a surprising volume of complaints from end users and corporate customers.
Now, Microsoft has gotten so much heat over the manner in which it has implemented this new “feature” that it is actually offering uninstallation instructions for WGA Notification, a component of WGA that uses annoying on-screen notifications to inform users that they are using “pirated” copies of Windows.
WGA is only one of the more generally visible measures Microsoft is taking. It has come after businesses such as Ernie Ball, the world’s leading maker of “premium guitar strings”, with guilty-until-proven-innocent licensing compliance audits that can cost a company exhorbitant sums even if they ultimately turn out to be in compliance. Sterling Ball, the CEO, made the decision that Ernie Ball would never use another Microsoft product, ever. It has worked out splendidly: day to day operating costs were cut, the migration was relatively cheap and easy (many company-wide migrations to a new Windows version are far more onerous), and there are no more licensing issues to gum up the works. Not everyone is so lucky, however. Often, victims of Microsoft’s go-to-court approach to customer service risk going out of business entirely, unable to comply even with the audit, let alone licensing demands, within the limits of their budgets — including an Australian charity organization trying to help kids learn, as mentioned in this article about Microsoft strong-arming Oregonian schools that haven’t done anything wrong.
All of this really should be something of a wake-up call to all those Microsoft advocates that were complaining about the (mythical) likelihood of Linux users getting sued over copyright infringement in the Linux kernel — a bogeyman that was given grotesque, counterfeit life during the early stages of SCO‘s litigative attempts to stay financially afloat by profiting off others’ misery after discovering its legitimate business interests aren’t so profitable. The chances of getting smeared in court by Microsoft for making the mistake of being one of its customers (even indirectly) are thus far proven to be far greater than those of attracting any copyright or patent infringement suits for using open source software.
On the other hand, there’s the title of this entry. Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation has begun trying to impose rules for what sort of software you’re allowed to write with the development of its upcoming v3 of the GNU General Public License, more commonly known as the GPL. Draft versions of the new GPL “improve” upon previous implementations of the FSF’s IP policy by prohibiting DRM software — which, while odious and problematic, is a programmer’s mistake to make, and shouldn’t in my opinion be excluded from potential inclusion by open source projects. Worse yet, the FSF has started taking cues from Microsoft, and is issuing threats of litigation to small open source projects who are unlikely to be able to comply with overly strict three-year source code support clauses in the GPL (even in v2, though v3 becomes even more heavy a burden in this regard). I, for one, am highly unlikely to start producing my own Linux distribution any time soon, for fear that I might inadvertently find myself in noncompliance without the means of correcting the problem — especially considering that one must not only provide source code, but also for three years maintain the ability to provide source code for the previously released version of the software that is being distributed. Simply providing the source for the now-current version, or pointing enquirers after the source at upstream providers, isn’t good enough for the FSF any longer.
Linux, and GPLed software in general, is in danger of being priced out of the range of grass-roots support and development. Without a strong, powerful organization of some kind that is able to employ lawyers and maintain extensive software archives and high-availability servers and legions of archive maintainers, many Linux distributions risk becoming impossible to maintain. Expect, in the years ahead, to see a bunch of distributions (and even small-package software maintainers) to get frozen at the current version with source code provided on some low-bandwidth server for the next three years, after which the maintainers will cease supporting it.
This is the sort of problem that prompted me to create the Open Works License: it’s intended to address issues of legal restrictions that one sees with overzealous licenses such as the GPL. The venerable (though updated) BSD license, used unsurprisingly by the various *BSD operating systems (most famously FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD), provides the sort of freedom of use and distribution that is needed. (note: this paragraph has been edited to reflect some changes in circumstances)
In any case, with the appearance of the FSF’s recent zealousness in this regard, I’m taking another hard look at the advisability of shifting my efforts from Debian GNU/Linux to some flavor(s) of *BSD.