September 13, 2010; TechDirt | Russian dissidents were targeted by police this week for alleged use of pirated software, igniting a fire under the Microsoft Corporation—provoking the software giant to finally speak out against the Russian government.

Microsoft has supported these kinds of raids in the past; their legal teams back Russian officials, and allegations have been made that Microsoft’s lawyers have colluded with Russian officials to extort money from the raided advocacy organizations and media outlets, many of them nonprofits.

Piracy in Russia is rampant, with some who keep tabs on these kinds of numbers reporting that anywhere between 65 percent and 80 percent of the market is comprised of illegitimate software. In recent years, the U.S. has pressured Russia to step up enforcement, threatening to keep the nation out of the WTO if its laws didn’t become more stringent, which it would seem they have—albeit selectively.

  FREE DELIVERY | Click Here to sign up for THE NONPROFIT NEWSWIRE, Delivered Daily >>

Officials have used alleged copyright infringement as an excuse to interfere with the workings of oppositional newspapers and advocacy organizations for several years, killing two birds with one stone, as the cliche goes. In many cases however, the seizures are of computers with paid, licensed copies of the software police claimed was pirated. Defendants easily refute these claims when they get their day in court, but the damage has been done; data and whole computers go missing in these raids, and the stoppage of normal operations is enough to trip up any organization, let alone one that now must address a new set of legal concerns.

This New York Times piece made waves in the tech community, and resonated with activists the world over, driving Microsoft to issue a blanket license for use of its software for any NGO operating outside of the U.S.

Microsoft’s senior vice president and general counsel, Brad Smith, claims the solution will “change the factual situation at hand. Now our information will fully exonerate any qualifying [nonprofit], by showing that it has a valid license to our software.” The licenses are granted automatically, no application is necessary.

The blanket license adds a new layer to the software donation program that Microsoft already operates for law-abiding NGOs in Russia and other countries. What remains to be seen is whether the change will be enough to deter officials from making anti-piracy raids, or if Microsoft’s move will just save face. One TechDirt commenter echoes Russian sentiment that Microsoft’s actions are too little, too late; activists there are wary of the company’s intentions.

The license only lasts until 2012—for Microsoft, a shelter from the storm perhaps – but a very temporary one. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s actions elsewhere bespeak another set of priorities, for example their Internet censorship agreement with the Chinese government. Microsoft may have granted global nonprofits a reprieve—however self-serving—but the software giant has a considerably long way to go to gain the confidence of Russian dissidents and their American counterparts.—James David Morgan