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Microsoft is shaking up its licensing in Russia after reports that authorities are clamping down on the use of Redmond software by government protest groups.

The company has announced a sweeping software license for protest groups and small, independent media organizations that extends to all copies of Microsoft software they already own. The Unilateral NGO License will run until 2012, giving NGOs enough time to get on to its existing licensing program of discounts, the company said. With the program comes the NGO Legal Assistance Program, which helps groups prove to authorities that their software is legal.

In announcing the license change, Microsoft's chief legal counsel Brad Smith said: "The law in Russia (and many other countries) requires that one must provide truthful information about the facts in response to a subpoena or other judicial process.

“With this new software license, we effectively change the factual situation at hand. Now our information will fully exonerate any qualifying NGO, by showing that it has a valid license to our software."

Microsoft is also working to ensure the company's lawyers in Russia are fully trained and up-to-speed on the Unilateral NGO License.

Furthermore, Microsoft is tightening up on who represents it in piracy cases, with plans for a program to stop third-parties pretending to represent Microsoft as counsel.

It's a package of measures announced following a New-York-Times report at the weekend that showed a pattern of intimidation conducted by the state in Russia against protest groups in the name of seizing illegal copies of Microsoft software.

It's a practice that's seen police seize groups' PCs and take people to court, with individuals claiming to represent Microsoft taking a particularly aggressive stance.

Further, Microsoft's Russian operation has proved unwilling to help those targeted, even when they've produced receipts to prove their software is legal.

The NYT focused on the case of Baikal Wave, an environmental pressure group that was protesting against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to re-open a paper factor in Lake Baikal, estimated to hold 20 per cent of the world's fresh water. The factory is blamed for polluting the lake.

Police seized 20 PCs from Irkutsk-based group with prosecutors now considering charges.

Investors claimed the group was running $3,000 worth of illegal software on its PCs, and even though Baikal Wave has produced receipts to prove their software is genuine, neither the authorities nor Microsoft Russia has proved interested. Group co-chair Marina Rikhvanova told the NYT that Microsoft did not want to help and had told the outfit that the matter was best handled by the security services.

A Microsoft spokesperson issued a blandly balanced response to the Times, saying Microsoft had to protect its products from piracy while having a commitment to respect fundamental human rights.

Smith gave a more committed response on Microsoft's official blog on Monday. "None of this should create a pretext for the inappropriate pursuit of NGOs, newspapers, or other participants in civil society. And we certainly don't want to contribute to any such effort, even inadvertently," Smith said.

"Whatever the circumstances of the particular cases the New York Times described, we want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain. We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behavior."

Smith said Microsoft will appoint an independent legal firm to investigate the NYT's claims. ®

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