Microsoft Patents Tech to Disable Software

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) this week granted to Microsoft this a patent on technology that apparently already underlies some of the company’s efforts to limit piracy and is also used to make it easier for users to upgrade from one edition of Windows to another.

“The invention relates to “restricting usage of software and hardware on a computer …. [making more features available] in exchange for an agreed upon sum of money,” according to the patent certificate, dated May 19, 2009.

If there’s something familiar about that description, it’s because Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has been using this or possibly related technologies for several years for anti-piracy measures and more recently to simplify users’ ability to upgrade from one edition of Windows to another, thus helping the company make more money.

However, Microsoft is not telling where it’s using the patent, which it applied for in 2000.

“While we will not comment on how it is being specifically deployed and in which products, the patent itself provides a detailed description of the invention,” a Microsoft spokesperson told in an e-mail.

That it does.

“The operating system restricts the functionality of the operating system, such as by making selected portions and functionality of the operating system unavailable to the user or by limiting the user’s ability to add software applications or device drivers to the computer. Additionally, various techniques can be used to remove or reduce the functionality limitations of the computer,” the patent’s abstract says.

The technology may also have powered the limited functionality mode of Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA) wherein, if the system sensed the version of Windows installed on a PC was not valid, it defaulted to very limited capabilities until the situation was corrected. WGA debuted in 2005.

However, Microsoft received so much negative feedback from customers who complained of problems, such as false positives for systems that were legally licensed, that it discontinued that so-called “kill switch” when it released Vista Service Pack 1 in March 2008.

The company also dropped WGA testing requirements for Internet Explorer 7.

In fact, Microsoft just finally killed off the WGA name in Windows 7 in favor of the warmer, fuzzier name Windows Activation Technologies (WAT).

That’s not the only type of application that such technology could be used for, either. For example, the company also a similar technology on both Windows Vista and with Windows 7 in order to enable multiple editions of a version of Windows to be present on the same DVD. The more the user pays, the higher the level of functionality that each edition provides — upgrades by typing in an access code.

It also makes it simpler for resellers and OEMs because all of the editions of an operating system — or other software — on a single DVD, eliminating a lot of hassle and confusion.

Microsoft has been active in seeking patents for decades, and in February celebrated its 10,000th patent.

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