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Sony Wins Crucial EU Case over Pre-Installed Windows

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The European Union’s highest court on Wednesday issued a ruling that should spark a collective sigh of relief across much of the PC industry—it is not illegal to sell a computer that comes with pre-installed software, without offering a “barebones” option that’s free of software.

The case dates back a whopping eight years, to when a man named Vincent Deroo-Blanquart bought a Sony (SNE) laptop in France for €549 (around $850 at the time). He proceeded to challenge the idea that the machine came with Windows Vista Home Premium, which he did not want.

To illustrate just how long ago this was, Microsoft’s (MSFT) operating system is now three generations along and Sony stopped making laptops two years ago.

Anyhow, after buying the laptop Deroo-Blanquart sued Sony, demanding €450 for the software plus €2,500 in damages for what he claimed were unfair commercial practices, designed to distort economic consumer behavior. Such practices are illegal in the EU.

He argued that the unfairness lay in forcing the consumer to buy the PC without any option of buying it sans software, and that it was also a misleading practice to sell laptops without indicating the price of each piece of pre-installed software.

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The French courts asked the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to settle the matter according to EU law, and on Wednesday the court handed down its verdict.

According to the CJEU, it is not necessarily an unfair commercial practice to bundle computers with pre-installed software, so long as “such an offer is not contrary to the requirements of professional diligence and does not distort the economic behavior of consumers.”

The court pointed out that people tend to expect their computers to come with pre-installed software, and Deroo-Blanquart knew when he bought the Sony laptop that it would come with specified pieces of software. What’s more, when Deroo-Blanquart first complained to Sony, the company offered him a full refund in exchange for the laptop (which he refused).

So that’s a fair amount of evidence for the French courts to consider when judging whether Sony exercised its professional diligence—the CJEU’s rulings are supposed to guide the national courts that asked for them.

“The national court must determine whether, in the situation where a consumer is informed before the sale that the model of computer is not marketed without pre-installed software and that he is therefore free to choose another model of computer, of another brand, with similar technical specifications and sold without software, the ability of that consumer to make an informed transactional decision was appreciably impaired,” the CJEU said in a statement.

As for whether Sony broke the law by not breaking down the value of each piece of software when advertising its laptop’s price, the CJEU said this definitely does not constitute a misleading commercial practice.

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Why not? Because the consumer doesn’t need that breakdown to make an “informed transactional decision.”

There are arguments to be had (particularly involving fans of alternative operating systems such as Linux) about whether or not all computers should come in an operating-system-free form, in order to encourage more competition in the OS market. It is indeed difficult for most people to get a “barebones” laptop these days, though rather easier when you’re building your own desktop.

But in terms of whether failing to provide the option is actually illegal in the EU, the court has spoken. Even if Sony itself is no longer in the PC business, the ruling will certainly be music to the ears of Microsoft and Apple (AAPL) and probably also to those of manufacturers who get to keep their product lines relatively simple.