Computer users are learning the hard way that Microsoft is serious about cracking down on pirated copies of its Windows operating system and Office software. Several dozen people in China recently turned on their PCs to discover that their personalized screen wallpaper had been replaced by blank black walls, the Wall Street Journal's China Journal reports. The reason, according to the Journal: the company's Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) program detected pirated software on the computers and painted the screen backgrounds black to inform users that they might be using counterfeit or illegitimate software. (FYI: The desktop background can be reset in the usual way, but it will change back black hourly until authentic Microsoft software is installed.)

WGA and OGA (Office Genuine Advantage), which Microsoft routinely installs on computers running its software during normal updates, has come under fire since it was first introduced in July 2005 to determine whether customers were using the genuine article.

Microsoft says the tool has helped it catch software counterfeiters, but users object to the way it works: once installed on a PC, it notifies Microsoft of any versions of Windows XP or Vista it detects that may not be properly licensed. Users have the option of declining to install WGA, but most people end up with it on their computers, because they do not bother to read this—or most other, for that matter—licensing agreement that they click to okay installation.

Microsoft has already been sued in China on the grounds that WGA notifications violate computer owners' privacy and exposes personal information (stored on their computers) to the company's prying eyes. U.S. computer users have sued Microsoft as well, accusing it of spreading so-called spyware (software surreptitiously installed on someone's computer that gathers information and sends it back to the person who installed it).

Microsoft insists that WGA "collects no information that can be used by Microsoft to identify or contact the user." But  it has changed its approach a bit in response to complaints. An earlier version of WGA suspended some features of Windows—such as the Aero graphical interface included with the Vista version of the operating system—when it suspected improperly licensed software. A year ago Microsoft backed away from this approach and announced WGA would provide users with "clear and recurring notices about the status of their system" and inform users how to get legit software.

Users now see what Microsoft calls a translucent "persistent desktop notification" (like a digital watermark) on their screens, which remains there until the problem is addressed. "One of the reasons we've implemented the plain black background is to emphasize this new persistent desktop notification," Alex Kochis, Microsoft's director of product marketing management for WGA, cautioned back in August when explaining the latest changes.

Although WGA isn't restricted just to China, it caused a stir there because of the high rate of software piracy. The U.S.-based Business Software Alliance (BSA), a nonprofit trade alliance comprised of about three dozen software companies (including Microsoft), in May released a report that showed that 82 percent of software used in China is pirated. The countries with the highest rates of software piracy, according to BSA: Armenia (93 percent), Bangladesh (92 percent), and Azerbaijan and Moldova, both 92 percent. The lowest rates of bogus software: the U.S. (20 percent), Luxemborg (21 percent) and New Zealand (22 percent).

(Image courtesy of Microsoft)