Microsoft, police trace global software piracy ring

$900 million piracy ring extended from US to Taiwan

Matching the Taiwanese counterfeits to copies found around the world, Microsoft gave law enforcement agencies ammunition for raids and criminal cases in the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Canada, Germany, Singapore, Australia, Paraguay and Poland. Dozens of big distributors, middlemen and retailers were convicted, including 35 people in the U.S.

One was Lisa Chen, who according to a Customs press release arrived at the scene of the 2001 shipping container bust with additional counterfeit software in her vehicle. Chen was prosecuted by the Los Angeles district attorney's office as a major U.S. distributor of the Taiwan fakes and received a nine-year prison term in November 2002. She has since been released, according to her lawyer at the time.

Microsoft would not say how much it spent on the investigation or how many counterfeit copies of Windows, Office and other programs were found in use on consumer or business PCs.

Spertus, the former federal prosecutor, said the burden is often on the company holding the brand to travel the world collecting evidence, doing undercover work and coordinating with law enforcement agencies.

Few companies are willing to devote serious resources to anti-piracy enforcement, especially because the return is hard to prove. People who buy counterfeit software aren't likely to have paid retail prices anyway, Spertus said. But a big bust adds significant weight to lobbying efforts for stricter international intellectual property laws.

After the Taiwan raids, the number of high-end Microsoft counterfeits dropped - but only for a while. A Chinese operation that stepped in to meet the worldwide demand for cut-rate software cranked out an estimated $2 billion in copies before it was brought down in July after a six-year investigation by the FBI and China's Public Security Bureau.

Today, sophisticated copies of Windows Vista and other programs continue to appear.

"I don't for a minute think that the final chapters have been written," Finn said.