Columns Archive

Vista’s Fine Print Raises Red Flags

Appeared in the Toronto Star on January 29, 2007 as Vista's Legal Fine Print Raises Red Flags

Vista, the latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system, makes its long awaited consumer debut tomorrow. The first major upgrade in five years, Vista incorporates a new, sleek look and features a wide array of new functionality, such as better search tools and stronger security.

The early reviews have tended to damn the upgrade with faint praise, however, characterizing it as the best, most secure version of Windows, yet one that contains few, if any, revolutionary features.

While those reviews have focused chiefly on Vista's new functionality, for the past few months the legal and technical communities have dug into Vista's "fine print." Those communities have raised red flags about Vista's legal terms and conditions as well as the technical limitations that have been incorporated into the software at the insistence of the motion picture industry.

The net effect of these concerns may constitute the real Vista revolution as they point to an unprecedented loss of consumer control over their own personal computers. In the name of shielding consumers from computer viruses and protecting copyright owners from potential infringement, Vista seemingly wrestles control of the "user experience" from the user.

Vista's legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user's knowledge. During the installation process, users "activate" Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.

Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components. In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for "spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software." The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software.

Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated "high" or "severe," even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.

For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that "this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights." For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software."

Those technical limitations have proven to be even more controversial than the legal ones.

Last December, Peter Guttman, a computer scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand released a paper called "A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection." The paper pieced together the technical fine print behind Vista, unraveling numerous limitations in the new software seemingly installed at the direct request of Hollywood interests.

Guttman focused primarily on the restrictions associated with the ability to play back high-definition content from the next-generation DVDs such as Blu-Ray and HD-DVD (referred to as "premium content").

He noted that Vista intentionally degrades the picture quality of premium content when played on most computer monitors.

Guttman's research suggests that consumers will pay more for less with poorer picture quality yet higher costs since Microsoft needed to obtain licences from third parties in order to access the technology that protects premium content (those licence fees were presumably incorporated into Vista's price).

Moreover, he calculated that the technological controls would require considerable consumption of computing power with the system conducting 30 checks each second to ensure that there are no attacks on the security of the premium content.

Microsoft responded to Guttman's paper earlier this month, maintaining that content owners demanded the premium content restrictions. According to Microsoft, "if the policies [associated with the premium content] required protections that Windows Vista couldn't support, then the content would not be able to play at all on Windows Vista PCs." While that may be true, left unsaid is Microsoft's ability to demand a better deal on behalf of its enormous user base or the prospect that users could opt-out of the technical controls.

When Microsoft introduced Windows 95 more than a decade ago, it adopted the Rolling Stones "Start Me Up" as its theme song. As millions of consumers contemplate the company's latest upgrade, the legal and technological restrictions may leave them singing "You Can't Always Get What You Want."


  1. web Guru
    I like this article very much. It shows the side they dont want you to see or will re-word like a politian.

  2. Vista for Noobs says:

    Thank you for the research. My gaming community has been debating Vista on our forums and someone posted this link. Vista looks a lot like Apple’s OSX. Link to our forum:
    [ link ]

  3. Andy Dabydeen says:

    More cause for concern, and I\’m even more afraid of installing Vista now. I wonder however, how are enterprise license agreements different from consumer agreements? Are they different? And why would another business be willing to give up such control to a software vendor? In my experience, such terms are never demanded by other software vendors.

  4. Jamie Red
    I would like to thank Michael Geist for his research with regards to the legal implications of installing the new operating system and to thereafter making it public. God bless you.

  5. Excellent article. With an increase in public awareness of these facts, and a coordinated marketing push by the Linux vendors there’s a real opportunity for the Linux desktop to take some market share from Vista. Here’s hoping…

  6. Once again an excellent article, Michael. The biggest question that comes to mind, however, is what can we do about it?

  7. Screw Microsoft–Linux rules!

  8. This article was picked up by BBC News website in the UK yesterday. This is an excellent piece and thanks for opening my eyes – I certainly won’t be installing vista anytime in the near or distant future!

  9. Activation/Validation
    I’m curious, isn’t the activation and validation stuff the same as XP is now? How is it different?

  10. With XP, Microsoft doesn’t actually know what your hardware is. You don’t activate immediately. You can sell it slightly easier, although after a certain number of transactions you have to speak to a rep to activate.

    But yes, XP’s system was already pretty invasive. Unfortunately MS was only testing the waters as is all too clear. If these restrictions don’t significantly hurt their market share I wonder how Windows 2012(TM) will look…

  11. Computer Geek
    One of the lines from that song Start me up.

    Is “you make a grown man cry”

    I will eather stick with XP pro as long as possable or move to OS X (apple)

    I do recording and I dont want any more cpu time taken away for DRM or any form of limtations. I want to be in compleat control of my system/s

    My 2 watts

  12. Excellent summary!!
    When do the actions of MS consitute an invasion of personal privacy?
    I think MS has gone too far!
    Linux and other shareware is looking better all the time.

  13. Bad feeling about Vista.
    So all it would really take is for the MPAA or similar organisations to “request” that Microsoft not allow certain DVD or CD ripping software, or even certain P2P programs to be run on their operating system and before you know it, it’s been erased from your hard drive. Alternatively, armed with a list of MD5 or whatever checksums, Windows Defender could delete any files it sees as a copyright infringment.

    Those of you who say that you could get around it by using some sort of “crack”, be warned, if some sort of crack IS detected, then you would be violating Microsoft’s terms and conditions and potentially have your Vista licence cancelled, effectively disabling your PC…

  14. groovyjoker says:

    Apple here I come! Thanks for the great article. How can MS consider such invasions of privacy acceptable? Haven’t they learned something from the outcry against the Bush Administration’s Patriot Act?

  15. citizen
    I have been told that pirate versions of XP don’t have to be activated. I wonder if the same will be true for Vista? All of this makes pirate versions (and Linux)look more desirable. Is that the message that Microsoft wants to send?

  16. ‘Pirate’ versions of XP are usually from enterprise license or what used to be called ‘site license’ media. They don’t have to be activated and apparently pass validation too.

    What this gets to more than anything else is ‘1984’ and big brother breathing down your back in a horse heavy breathing.

    Anyone ever heard of the term ‘transference’? It’s where someone who shouldn’t be trusted ends up not trusting anyone else… It speaks VOLUMES about the current paranoia both from Microsoft, the MPAA, RIAA and especially the deep dark dank recesses of Washington DC!

    It is very likely that the next version of Windows will be in essence software ‘for lease’ that is installed and monitored over the internets. You get that new machine. You log into the Microsoft portal, choose the version, input your credit card number, the software is installed off the web and you pay for maintenance… It is the other edge of the technological sword that will bring us lightning fast internet speeds…

    It’s a ‘brave new world’ for our future… 1984 will probably not be anything like 1984. It could be worse…

  17. groc22
    To those who are going to switch to Linux or Apple. I think it’s only the matter of time before the same happens there as well. What’s happening is corporate assault on the population, and Microsoft is the first only because it has the biggest market share. Then they will go after all others. It’s the trend, and if you think about it for 5 minutes, maybe you will draw the parallel between illegal wiretapping by NSA and DRM on your computer; or between paying the fee for TSA strip-searching you in the airport – and your computer checking if you are not going to steal their “premium content” 30 times per second.

    It’s the same trend, and it will continue and grow.

    Unless it’s stopped.

  18. owner
    If you have seven people in a room, two will try to fuck the other five and then each other.

    Who are we?

  19. Extraordinaire
    It is bad when they make the OS have deliberate security holes, such as the graphic preprocessor, and then use the security issues as an excuse to force unwanted software down your gullet. They are a bunch of crooks and thieves in the first place, stac electronics. And now you all act surprised. You are a bunch of moronic suckers. Now they will have your hardware profile, and you will not be able to make an anonymous comment at all.

  20. Software Engineer
    Excellent article! It boggles the mind that MS would bow to corporate pressure and think the user community will accept whatever crap limitations they bestow upon us. Someone needs to come down from their ivory tower before it crumbles beneath them.

  21. Pixelmonkey says:

    It would seem that Microsoft has its own set of rules for everything. Don’t steal from them, but they’ve got your back if you steal from someone else.

    [ link ]

  22. Mr.
    The right to remove software is not necessarily anything devious, because if they don’t include that then Windows Defender wouldn’t be allowed to remove software automatically. You’ve never been legally allowed to use the same installation of Windows on more than one machine, and they’re essentially just taking measures to prevent piracy of their software. So how is this actually anything new, again?

  23. Bill Gates
    after reading this article i watched the video of bill gates getting pied and it made me feel a better

    check it out:
    [ link ]

  24. Mr. Freaky
    This is reminiscient of when Windows95 was released by Microsoft. Win95 would do a bus speed check, and if the speed exceeded 66Mhz, it would refuse to load.

    Ironically, I discovered this flaw when boosting my board speed to 75Mhz, and initially thought this an instability, even though DOS worked just fine. I later proved this was indeed the case when I purchased an early Pentium, which actually had a bus speed of 75Mhz, and Windows95 still caused an issue, even though Windows98 worked just fine.

    After some searching, I discovered that Windows95 was designed to check the bus speed, and if it exceeded 66Mhz, was designed to fail. This is extremely short sited of Microsoft, thinking that bus speeds would not increase.

    Vista has all the hallmarks of control again. We should be buying an operating system to fit our hardware, not the other way around. The PC was originally an IBM PC, and clones, and DOS and Windows were designed to work with this hardware. Over the last ten years, we have seen this reversed, whereby new hardware is often marked as being Windows compatible. What a sorry state of affairs, when hardware has to conform to software, rather than the original way it was.

    Microsoft have way too much power. They are, without doubt, a monopoly. I know we have linux, Unix and some other OSes (OS/2?), but what real choice do we have, when such a large chunk of software development is purely for the Windows platform, with no possibility of a port to other OSes. All the time developers cater for Windows only, the end user, be it a consumer or a business user, will suffer.

    I understand the necessity for manufacturers and producers to protect their wares, regardless of whether it is software, movies, music or any other entertainment medium, but the level of control these people are exerting is beyond rediculous.

    I have just read about Sony BMG and the FTC ruling that states that the action of installing DRM onto consumers machines without their knowledge is indeed illegal. It appears that Microsoft is doing exactly the same thing, but using the EULA to make it legal.

    I always thought of the OS as a layer between the hardware, and the applications the end user wishes to run. We now have an OS that is more than just a layer, but a complete control environment that decides for itself what an end user can run.

    Looks like the end of freedom to me.

  25. When will Apple port OSX to use on the PC? Now that would break the monopoly. I know that it could be done. If Windows can now run on a Mac why not the other way around? I mean fair is fair, right?

  26. from the Fedora Forum
    *Check this out! Vista DMCA*
    I have a dual boot system with fedora 5 and Vista (I just put it on to
    check out thier progress or lack there of). I \’ve been using it off and
    on for the the last month and not downloaded any torrents, mainly
    because Vista has some sort of protection built in to not let the client
    software work right. Anyway I downloaded one file using bittorrent and a
    day later I get this message when I tried to get online. in order to
    reinstate my internet connection I was routed to a site.

    The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, known as DMCA, was signed into law
    by President Clinton in 1998 to provide certain remedies for a copyright
    holder who has reason to believe that an Internet user is infringing his
    or her copyrights. This law permits copyright holders, or their
    representatives, to notify Internet service providers that specific
    customers have been identified as having files containing infringing
    material. As an Internet service provider, Cox Communications respects
    the privacy of our customers but must also meet our legal obligations
    when a DMCA infringement notice is received.

    We have received a notice stating that your computer contains files that
    infringe copyrights of a third party. Under the DMCA, we have the
    responsibility to temporarily disable your Internet access, until such
    time as you take the necessary steps to remove the infringing files and
    to prevent further distribution of copyrighted material. Please take the
    following steps immediately in order to address this request and have
    your Internet access restored:

    Step 1. Remove the copyrighted files. the following files must be
    deleted from your computer:


    Title: xxxxxxxx
    Filesize: 32435467


    Step 2. To avoid any future infringement, we highly recommend turning
    off the sharing feature of your peer-to-peer software, such as KazAa,
    Morpheus, Grokster, etc. For specific instructions on how to disable the
    feature for your specific software, consult with the software vendor.

    Step 3. After deleting the files and disabling file sharing, you may
    click here to reactivate your service. Please note that reactivating
    your connection without cleaning your computer first may result in
    additional suspensions or permanent termination of your Cox High Speed
    Internet service

    Thank you for using Cox High Speed Internet.
    Cox Online Privacy Policy and related terms and agreements

    I download stuff all the time with fedora and I used to download even
    more with winXP. what I\’m wondering first of all is how they did this.
    My guess is that vista has monitor system set up in it and they reported
    it to COX internet, and that COX had to suspend my account. I would be
    greatful for more info on that. Does anyone know?

    The other thing I\’m wondering is if there is a safe way to reinstall
    windows xp on the partintion that I have vista on now. It seems like
    every install I do with fedora first and windows second that the master
    boot record gets trampled by window and I can\’t boot up fedora. So I\’ve
    always installed windows first and then fedora. I\’d like to try doing it
    the other way around this time….anyway……stay the hell away from
    vista…\’s horribly slow and dumbed down.

  27. Bryan
    Thanks for posting the article on vista, I received some sales literature from Dell Computers that had the vista operating program in with their products, I was going to give it a try but after reading, I think I will choose not to it. thanks. Bryan

  28. Student
    Great article. I had been debating purchasing Vista and this article is more than enough info for me to come to the conclusion that I WILL NOT be purchasing Vista.

  29. Solution for your boot issue
    quote < Naomi>
    “It seems like
    every install I do with fedora first and windows second that the master
    boot record gets trampled by window and I can\’t boot up fedora.”

    As Windows is a poor OS, it will rewrite your MBR (Master Boot Record) and allow nothing to load but itself. To fix this, boot with you Linux Live CD and fix the MBR (using LILO or GRUB). If you don’t know how to do that, just google “mbr fix lilo windows”.

  30. F**CK MS!
    I HATE MICROSOFT!! END OF STORY! They make Software pay their Workers poor money! and Sell it at €400! FECK THAT! I have No problem Ripping Software. Were Software Company’s try to Rip my Wallet!

  31. An Apple a Day
    You have all said it eloquently, the next computer on my desk will have an Apple logo…………..

  32. Epic Fail.
    I will not be purchasing Vista.


    Well.. maybe. Just so I can soak the box in gasoline and light it on fire. :]

  33. Stupid Microsoft…LEARN
    I’ve never trusted Micro$oft. EVER. It was a waste of my money when I purchased an Xbox with Halo. It didn’t please me at all. The next-gen of online gaming? Feh, yeah right. I hated the game so much (including the Xbox) that I wrote Micro$oft an angry letter, returned the system and game and bought myself a GameCube with Super Smash Bros. Melee. I’m WAY happy with that.

    PLUS, I had complications this past weekend with Micro$oft over issues with DRM on my Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. I had to restore my laptop to factory default, but I had an external to put my files and music on. When I put my music onto my new OS of XP, I COULD NOT play most of my songs due to losing the licenses. They were songs (and albums) from which I hardly listened to.

    So I called Micro$oft’s customer service to help me reset the DRM license loss. I kept getting my call dropped during each teleconference session (it might’ve been just my phone, because my university is out in the middle of nowhere lol) and I went through 6 sessions and got nowhere with them. Then one of the service representatives emailed me saying they have no way of helping me with my lost licenses.

    So now I have to get the CDs again and reburn them back onto my hard drive…and some of them I bought through online stores. And SOME of the albums had their records lost on the website (Wal-Mart music), so I had to REPURCHASE albums again of the CDs I lost license to.

    t(-_-t) @ Micro$oft.

  34. pissed off pirate says:

    MS can lick my balls
    yeah thats right MS can lick my nut sack… thats how low it has become, oh im sorry i mean how low it IS. I LOVED seeing bill gates get pied haha serves him right the fucking nerdy invader and his low life crew too im gonna try find these programs on the ISO i downloaded of vista delete them out of it completely and whipe them off the setup list… see what happens (prolly wont work but yeah… you get that) APPLE HERE I COME! p.s. FUCK MS

  35. Haliburton says:

    add this to your email segnature: FAA &
    hi all,

    Following is my new email signature. if your friends, family, business associates (and anyone else you email) value their privacy, you can save them a lot of grief by letting them know.

    – –
    National Institute of Standards and Technology bans Windows Vista
    [ link ]

    Federal Aviation Administration bans Windows Vista, Office 2007 and Internet Explorer 7
    [ link ]

    Vista requires users to agree to allow Microsoft “back door” access to their computers
    [ link ]

  36. keep your hopes up
    My brother got a new pc and it came with Vista preinstalled. Most programs out now don’t support vista, so he’s unable to use anything (except he can play Fable, but we know who made that game [microsoft]). When he contacted Microsoft, they said it was up to him to work with the other software companies for compatability. The other companies really don’t care too much about that, since they’re probably busy trying to run a business. When all said and done, he paid a fairly decent price for a flashy box of nothing.
    But, seriously, people. Vista isn’t supported now, but as things progress, it may be the new best thing. Just think of all the protection if offers for… ok, I can’t even keep a straight face while typing this. Vista is the joke, and all us idiots who bought it are the punchline. What I don’t understand, and answer this for me, Bill Gates: how is it Microsoft continually and incessantly releases horribly faulted software and they’re still on top? I’d buy a Mac if they had more software support and, this is a big one for me, multibutton mouses.
    When it’s all said and done, microsoft is the epitome of power corruption. And we’re the ones lined up by the open mass grave awaiting our digital bullets.

  37. Apple Apple Apple
    Is it just me or have there been many trends in all the forums discussing vista? Windows must be looking on with horror. I think in the coming few years most of us will have apple. Not to say that all windows is bad, i love XP. It wasent perfect but it got the job done but with the new direct x requiring vista any hope of playing new games means you cant use xp anymore. Mac here i go, never liked mac but is there really any other option, at least they look good on the desk.

  38. Heh, this is like OnStar checking actual speed limits by GPS and mailing you tickets. This is great, gonna start loading some linux and if some game doesn’t come with a linux executable, they’re not getting my money.

  39. CY31Jeniffer says:

    People try to find the thesis summary referring to this topic. When they know about your good issue, they would plausibly order the dissertation writing.