Microsoft sues U.K. retail chain for pirating Windows

Claims Comet made $2.2M selling superfluous recovery discs to customers

Microsoft today sued a U.K. electronics retail chain for selling Windows recovery discs to customers, claiming that the practice amounts to piracy.

Comet Group PLC, which operates about 250 stores in the U.K., countered, saying it believed it was on solid legal ground.

Microsoft filed suit in the High Court of London today against Comet, accusing it of illegally copying Windows XP and Vista to create operating system recovery discs. The alleged pirated copies were sold to customers who had purchased Windows desktop and laptops in 2008 and 2009, Microsoft said.

"Comet approached tens of thousands of customers who had bought PCs with the necessary recovery software already on the hard drive, and offered to sell them unnecessary recovery discs for £14.99," said David Finn, associate general counsel with Microsoft's anti-piracy legal team, in an emailed statement Wednesday.

At current exchange rates, £14.99 is equivalent to $23.50.

"Not only was the recovery software already provided on the hard drive by the computer manufacturer but, if the customer so desired, a recovery disc could also have been obtained by the customer from the PC manufacturer for free or a minimal amount," Finn added.

Once the norm, recovery discs have disappeared as major computer makers cut costs. Instead, OEMs typically partition the hard disk drive and place a recovery utility and the necessary startup operating system files on a portion of the drive.

Alternately, users can create a recovery disc themselves in Windows Vista SP1 or Windows 7.

Finn made it clear that Microsoft viewed Comet's recovery discs as pirated copies of Windows.

"Illegally replicating software and then selling it is counterfeiting," said Finn.

But Comet maintained it was well within its rights.

"Comet firmly believes that it acted in the very best interests of its customers," the company said in a countering statement on its website today. "It believes its customers had been adversely affected by the decision to stop supplying recovery discs with each new Microsoft Operating System based computer. Accordingly Comet is satisfied that it has a good defence to the claim and will defend its position vigorously."

Microsoft said that Comet had sold more than 95,000 recovery discs during the two-year period, which would put the U.K. retailer's total take at £1.4 million, or $2.2 million at today's exchange rate.

Like Comet, the U.S. developer claimed its move was customer-driven.

"Comet's actions were unfair to customers. We expect better from retailers of Microsoft products -- and our customers deserve better, too," Finn said.

Computerworld was not able to acquire a copy of the Microsoft complaint.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more articles by Gregg Keizer.

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