Consumers v Counterfeits, A Right to (an) Original
When we think of fakes and copies, our minds each produce different thoughts and images, depending on our cultural references. Many of us would think of cheap and obvious items sold in situations far from those where we buy originals.
These continue to exist, and are the most noticeable, but over time the range and sophistication of what is copied and how it is sold has increased. Today credible counterfeits of mundane objects are regularly found at borders or in supply chains. The most recent examples I have heard from enforcement agents at conferences have been fake eggs (never seen a chicken) and fake office sprinkler systems.
As consumers, we rely on labelling and certification to provide us with information. We often skip over looking at these because of our trust in the brand. When that is simply copied at the point of manufacture, that lie is perpetuated all the way to delivery. It is not a logical necessity that a fake does not conform to these descriptions. It is simply a product of experience. Fakers have been cutting corners to increase profit for centuries. Some of them have ulterior motives for being in the business of making or supplying fakes.
When it comes to software, credible fake packages and especially PC systems already installed with illegal copies have been sold to unsuspecting customers, as well as willing ones, for many years.
I’ve spent nearly 12 years working in a team that targets the suppliers of these. The sophistication of the packaging and the chains of supply have changed over that time (see here), but the most significant change in recent times has been the feedback consumers now get for Microsoft software through periodic validation. As we uncover different scams we are able to update our systems and inform customers who have been affected. This in turn is leading to more feedback from customers. Consumers are complaining about being sold illegally copied software. They wanted an original. They paid for an original. They have a right to an original.
“Wait” I hear you say. This is software. Surely with software it should be a perfect copy every time? It’s a digital work. It was born to be copied. Doesn’t “original” simply mean “paid for” here?
Well, no, or at least often not. Groups alter the code to create versions which try to avoid detection, add code or leave access open for their own purposes. Alex Kochis has been blogging on what his technical team has found over the last three and a half years here. These altered versions are not just posted in places you’d expect to find pirate copies. They are also used in convincing counterfeits and used by some people that build or repair PC systems. When the PC builder pulls a copy from the internet or downloads a product key he exposes all his customers to the malware he risks picking up, such as the one described here, or described in research here. Security is a process, but creating end to end trust in that process ought to start with the software itself.
Last week we highlighted these complaints and our response, as well as the tools and support we give our customers, with a consumer action day. You can read stories from around the world here. There is a vibrant discussion about fakes in European society today, and hopefully these examples will help to inform that debate by highlighting that the sale of illegally copied software is a consumer fraud issue worth taking as seriously as the impact on the industry, economy and jobs. It is not an either/or situation.