The “counterfeit” conundrum

February 16, 2007

I’ve been reading a book entitled Unspeak, by Steven Poole. “Unspeak” is Poole’s term for the use of language which attempts to prejudge or frame an issue in a particular way, particularly “by stealth”, i.e. without the reader / audient realising they’re being manipulated. There’s a website about the phenomenon which I find interesting.

Anyway, it occurred to me that one of the most flagrant [ab]users of “unspeak” is Microsoft. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some examples of what I mean. Here’s the first one:

“Counterfeit”
Microsoft doesn’t like to talk about “piracy.” They refer to “counterfeit” software instead, as in this extract from the WGA blog:

A colleague and friend of mine was travelling in Brazil recently and during her trip she took a few minutes to see what software was easily available on the streets of Sao Paulo. While Windows Vista was among the counterfeits available it was cheaper (about $5 vs $10 for other software titles) because the vendor said it ‘might expire’. While learning that a counterfeit copy of your product is suddenly cheaper than before might not obviously be a good thing in this case I think it is. The fact that the value of a counterfeit copy is dropping is a sign that the product is harder to counterfeit

(Try to ignore the illogic of the closing statement – it’s obvious what he means.)

Presumably Microsoft’s PR people have concluded that “counterfeit” software sounds less appealing than “pirated” software. And they’re right: a “pirated” copy of Windows is just a copy of Windows that you haven’t paid for – whereas a “counterfeit” copy of Windows isn’t really Windows at all!

(If you doubt this, consider the difference between a stolen Rolex and a counterfeit Rolex. Obviously the analogy isn’t perfect, but it points up that “not paid for” and “counterfeit” are fundamentally very different things.)

It’s a lie, of course. That $5 copy of Windows Vista is obviously a bit-for-bit copy of the Windows Vista install DVD (if it weren’t, why the worry about it expiring?). Stick it in your computer and hit “install” and the result will be exactly the same as if you’d used a £400 shop-bought copy. There’s nothing “counterfeit” about this software: the packaging may be counterfeit, but the software is the real deal. Unlicensed, but real. Nevertheless, Microsoft insists on referring to “counterfeit” software, not as a neutral choice of language but with the deliberate intention of manipulating perceptions of piracy by stealth. That would be unspeak.

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