Microsoft Corp. is trying to annoy Chinese software users into buying genuine copies of Windows software.
The software giant drew criticism from a top copyright official and howls from consumers here over its new anti-piracy strategy: When it detects that an improper copy of Windows is running, it turns the computer screen black.
Users can switch it back manually, only to have the process repeat itself every 60 minutes amid a stream of warnings: "You may be the victim of pirated software."
The Redmond, Wash.-based company's Windows Genuine Advantage initiative, started in 2005 to fight software piracy, goes further in China than in other countries. Microsoft says it wants to protect its intellectual property and help users avoid virus attacks.
But the program has left many users disgruntled in a market where pirated software is widespread.
Yan Xiaohong, vice director of the National Copyright Administration, told the state-run New China News Agency late Monday that his agency supported corporate efforts to safeguard their copyrights but questioned this approach.
"Whether the blackout method should be adopted is open to question," Yan said. "Measures for safeguarding rights also need to be appropriate."
Some computer users said they appreciated that their government was protecting their interests but weren't too worried about the inconvenience. A rash of free fixes has sprung up, including one called 360 Guard, which allows fleet-footed users to filter out Microsoft downloads that aren't pirate-friendly.
"No matter how severe the anti-piracy efforts are, Chinese users will figure out how to get around them," said Yang Fangzhou, a 25-year-old brokerage worker from Fujian province. "Most people here don't want to spend the money, and have no moral qualms about using pirated software."
Recent polls on Chinese Web portals, including QQ.com, Sohu.com and 21cn.com, found most respondents used pirated copies of Windows XP and Vista, and more than 70% strongly disliked Windows Genuine Advantage.
Last week, Beijing attorney Dong Zhengwei sent a complaint to China's Ministry of Public Security urging the police to go after Microsoft for economic damage and collective inconvenience. He termed the company's program a "hacker-style attack" that infringed on users' privacy.
An estimated 82% of software in China is pirated, according to the Business Software Alliance industry group, compared with 93% for world leader Armenia and 20% for the U.S.
"I think Microsoft is doing the right thing to protect its legal rights," said Su Wei, a 31-year-old real estate consultant, before acknowledging he's never purchased genuine software and probably won't.
Over the years, Microsoft has tried various strategies to stem piracy in China, including giving away software to schools and government offices in hopes of building a legitimate base and offering discounts to users of pirated products who switch over. Experiments with disabling programs in other markets met with such an outcry that the company backed off, and it is wary of angering the Chinese government, given its power over markets.
In 2007, Microsoft supported a series of raids in southern China on groups that reportedly made and distributed $2 billion in counterfeit software in 27 countries. And in August, at the behest of the company, Chinese police shut down a website offering free downloads of pirated Windows XP.
Some critics in China, however, argue that such an integral and strategic part of the Chinese economy as computing software should not be in American hands. They also complain that Microsoft charges too much in a country with widespread poverty.
Legal Windows XP software goes for about $140 in China, compared with a few dollars or less for pirated versions.
Some online forums have needled Microsoft by offering downloads of "genuine pirated" black desktop wallpaper.