American sent to the slammer for faking Windows certificates

Microsoft has a party

On Wednesday, an American man was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for pirating copies of Microsoft's Windows operating system - and Redmond wants the world to know about it.

After an FBI investigation and a trial in the US District Court for Northern Georgia, Justin Harrison is the first person sentenced under a new federal statute that targets pirates who use fake "certificates on authenticity" to sell pilfered software. Within hours of the court's announcement, Microsoft let everyone know that its hands were clapping.

"Microsoft applauds the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their efforts to protect consumers and intellectual property in the first prosecution under the Anti-Counterfeiting Amendments," read the statement that came flying out of Redmond. "The 46-month sentence...should serve as a strong message to others that distributing illicit software certificates is a criminal act that can result in a significant prison term."

Passed by Congress in 2004, the Anti-Counterfeiting Amendments Act makes it a crime to sell software and other copyrighted materials with "counterfeit labels, illicit labels, or counterfeit documentation or packaging." In other words, you can't slap a certificate of authenticity on a disk that isn't authentic.

According to US prosecutors, Harrison and his company, Sales International, used fake certificates to offload thousands of pirated copies of Windows XP Professional and Windows 2000 Professional, raking in more than $226,000. In addition to the 46-month jail term, Judge Orinda Evans ordered the Oxford, Georgia man to pay a $25,000 fine.

To Microsoft, Harrison's sentencing is a watershed moment in its ongoing battle with pirates - not just in the US, but across the globe. "The sentence recognizes the value of intellectual property and the threat that software piracy presents to the global economy and consumers throughout the world," read the rest of that statement out of Redmond.

At the very least, the Anti-Counterfeiting Amendments Act - which you can bet was pushed to the fore by Microsoft lobbyists - makes it more difficult for pirates to operate here in the States. Before the Act became law, piracy could only be punished through civil actions.

"To date, civil remedies, in and of themselves, have not been enough to dissuade people even in the US from committing copyright infringement," Jeffrey Glassman, an intellectual property lawyer with the California firm Moldo, Davidson, Fraioli, Seror & Sestanovich, told El Reg. Pirates weren't worried about paying civil damages, he explained, because their illegal software businesses were so darn lucrative. They could still come out ahead.

Now, pirates must consider the possibility of jail time as well. "What's happened on Capital Hill - and it's due in large part to companies like Microsoft - is that they've gone beyond civil remedies," Glassman said. "They've criminalized such behavior, and this [sentence] is a landmark in this area."

Of course, now that the US has put its foot down, it may have more leverage when it comes to fighting piracy overseas. "If you're giving people serious punishment for what they're doing, then you have the ability to demand that other countries do the same," Ethan Horwitz, an intellectual property lawyer with the international firm King & Spalding. You don't have "a legal ability" to change what other countries do, he says, but you do have "a persuasive ability."

Microsoft is hoping US trade representatives get busy in the Far East. ®

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