SAN FRANCISCO — The alleged ringleaders of a Chinese counterfeiting gang that sold at least $2 billion worth of bogus Microsoft Corp. software were sentenced Wednesday to prison terms of up to 6 1/2 years, believed to be the harshest penalties yet under China's tightened piracy laws.
The punishments meted out against the 11 defendants, announced by Microsoft, could help China improve its image as a country that doesn't crack down on copyright violators, though the technology and entertainment industries still say China has a long way to go. The sentences ranged from 1 1/2 to 6 1/2 years, according to the Redmond, Wash., company.
The fact that Microsoft, and not the Chinese courts, disclosed the sentences is not unusual. Lawyers are the only source of information in many cases in China because rulings often are not publicly announced. Court officials usually refuse to disclose details to reporters.
Microsoft calls the counterfeit software operation -- which was based in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and broken up by Chinese authorities with FBI help in 2007 -- the world's biggest phony-software syndicate.
The counterfeit software was found in 36 countries and 11 languages.
It was so sophisticated that it contained legitimate computer code written by Microsoft for programs such as Windows XP and Vista and Microsoft Office, but also had touches of the criminals' own coding. That was allegedly added to mimic security programs and fool users into believing the product was authentic.
Software piracy is still rampant despite individual countries' attempts at cracking down. Research commissioned by the Business Software Alliance, an industry trade group, found that 82% of the software used in China in 2007 was not legitimately purchased, more than double the worldwide piracy rate of 38%.