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Teacher on Trial for Using Pirated Microsoft Software
By Oleg Liakhovich The Moscow News

A principal from one of Russia's provincial schools who is on trial for using unlicensed Microsoft software has become one of the country's most talked about celebrities, with President Vladimir Putin and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev flocking to his defense.

Last May, prosecutors charged Alexander Ponosov, a principal in one of the middle schools in the Perm region, of violating Microsoft's intellectual property rights by using computers in his school that contained unlicensed copies of the firm's software. The principal, who claimed to not having been well versed in computers, insisted that he was innocent, saying he bought the machines for his school with the unlicensed software preinstalled.

While the case has been publicized from the start as part of Russia's recent high-profile crackdown on piracy in its efforts to join the World Trade Organization, many see it as a cynical smokescreen on the part of local prosecution, which picked out an innocent teacher to act as a scapegoat instead of trying to find the real criminals.

Russian Internet users were the first to rally in defense of Ponosov with a stream of blog posts, ranging from proposals to execute Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to confessions of using pirated software themselves, daring the authorities to prosecute them too.

In an interview to Russia's Channel One television, one such user, Anton Belov, an agent promoting beginner photographers, said he didn't even know which programs on his personal computer were licensed and which were not, adding that he was "grateful" to software pirates.

"In order to buy a software package for his computer, an active, working person may have to spend as much as $5,000. This is simply unreal. Without a pirate copy he would be able neither to get any work done, nor to earn even the $500 that he normally earns," Belov said.

Eventually the case received even wider press coverage, with President Vladimir Putin himself brushing off accusations against Ponosov during a live TV broadcast.

"I am not familiar with this case. I can only say thatЕour policy, one way or another, will be aimed at protecting intellectual rights. But this mustn't be done as a mere formalityЕ as with battling drugs, we must battle those who distribute and manufacture narcotics, not those who use themЕ If we must make changes to the law, which, as I can see, is far from perfect, we'll think about it. But to simply grab a person like that, just because he bought some kind of computer, and threaten him with prison, this is a bunch of rubbish," said the president while replying to a question about the Ponosov case at a televised press conference Feb.1.

On Monday, Ponosov found that he had yet another advocate whenformer Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev wrote a letter to Gates asking him to intercede on Ponosov's behalf. The letter was posted on the Gorbachev Foundation website.

"We have great respect for the work of Microsoft's programmers ... and are in no way casting doubt on the principle of punishment for intellectual property violations. However, in this case we ask you to show mercy and withdraw your complaint against Alexander Ponosov," the letter read.

Microsoft, however, repeatedly denied any part in Ponosov's misfortunes, with Kim Gagne, the company's corporate affairs director for Central and Eastern Europe going on record Tuesday, saying that Microsoft was only asked to verify whether the software installed on computers seized by the police in the Perm region was unlicensed and that the decision to persecute the school principal was made by the authorities.

The Public Chamber of Russia, established in 2005 by a presidential decree to monitor the activities of the country's government bodies, has also taken active part in the case, inviting Ponosov himself to one of its sessions to talk about the pressure that is being put on him by the prosecution.

According to Ponosov, even his students and their parents, who held a rally in his defense, are being threatened. "The whole problem to begin with lies with the quality of investigation," Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and member of the Public Chamber, said in an interview to The Moscow News.

"Sure, we must combat piracy, but the prosecutors should ask themselves whether they have the right man," Kucherena went on.

"Look how many markets there are around selling counterfeit software. Everyone knows this. You can buy pirated software in any underground passage, but nobody is doing anything about it. Our goal is to make the law enforcement authorities do their job and go after the real pirates, not some village school principal," Kucherena said.

According to Kucherena, this was not an isolated incident and "it was a miracle" Ponosov managed to have his case heard at all, inspiring the public to rise in his defense. "I've been getting letters from other regions as well," says the lawyer.

"Instead of bothering to prosecute the manufacturers of pirate software, the local authorities chose the easy way, going after the end user. This is all a giant soap bubble and has nothing to do with actually combating piracy," Kucherena said, pledging to use all of the Public Chamber's influence to see the case through.

"We will do everything in our power to stop this travesty," the lawyer promised

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