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"Use the source," Microsoft is told

Windows Refund Day protesters, including one dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, are hopeful the movement still has the force to push on.

More than 200 computer users who don't partake of Windows software protested outside Microsoft offices in several cities yesterday, asking for refunds for their pre-installed operating system.

Protesters were responding to a clause in the license for Windows, often preinstalled on computers before purchase, which says users who don't agree with the terms of a license can request a refund. However, IBM and Compaq will not pay refunds to customers who have Windows but who won't use it.

About 200 Linux users showed up at Microsoft's offices in Foster City, California, but no refunds were issued. "We didn't get a 'yes' answer, as we expected, and we didn't get a straight 'no,'" said Don Marti, one of the event's organizers.

Instead, participants were directed to an area on the roof of the Microsoft building's parking garage, offered their choice of beverage, and advised to take the matter up with their PC makers.

After congregating on the garage, a group of protesters did attempt to gain access to the Microsoft offices, which were locked, according to Marti. Building management made the decision to bar users from the offices, said Rob Bennett, group product manager for Windows at Microsoft, not Microsoft.

"If you read [the user's agreement] it's very clear: You can contact your PC maker if you want a refund," Bennett said. "If you buy a pair of jeans, you don't return the jeans to Levi's. You return them to the store you bought them at.

"We always have free drinks in the office," Bennett said. "We treated it like any other business day, and any other large group of customers."

Microsoft is "neutral" on whether PC makers should offer refunds, Bennett said, but would not disclose whether Microsoft will reimburse vendors who choose to refund Linux users.

The event itself was fairly tame, according to both Bennett and Marti. One Linux enthusiast showed up dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Marti said, a reference to the open source movement's Stars Wars-inspired motto: Use the source.

The Windows Refund Center spearheaded the effort. The site tracks the months-long battle of one user, Geoffrey Bennett, who says he successfully lobbied for a refund from Toshiba, his notebook manufacturer.

Admittedly motivated by the possibility of a big payout, the organizers say the larger goal is to bring public attention to the open source movement and to Microsoft's licensing agreements with PC makers that preclude hardware vendors from loading non-Windows operating systems.

The Linux activists claim that this clause in the Windows user agreement entitles them to the refund:

"If you do not agree to the terms of this [agreement], PC Manufacturer and Microsoft are unwilling to license the software product to you," according to a copy of the Windows end user licensing agreement, "and you should promptly contact PC Manufacturer for instructions on return of the unused products(s) for a refund."

"The refund clause is printed in black and white," Marti said. "We didn't write the refund clause, Microsoft did."

The Windows Refund Day movement has disbanded, according to Marti, who said the protesters are investigating other options, including taking the world's largest software maker to small claims court.

"Today, people know that they're entitled to a refund, and know that other people are going through the same thing," he said. "The old status gone forever. The overall Windows Refund Day movement is obviously going to be a success."