Microsoft will hire a law firm to conduct an independent investigation into whether its anti-piracy practices helped fuel the stifling of political dissent in Russia, and will create a new software licence to protect non-government organisations "from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of anti-piracy enforcement," the company said Monday.

Microsoft is acting swiftly to repair public relations damages suffered in the wake of a New York Times report that said Russian security services are confiscating computers from advocacy groups and opposition newspapers "under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software."

The article goes on to say that Russian "authorities are receiving key assistance from an unexpected partner: Microsoft itself." Microsoft's lawyers "have staunchly backed the police" in these cases, the New York Times reported.

Microsoft will now "accept responsibility and assume accountability for our anti-piracy work, including the good and the bad," pledged Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and senior vice president, in a post on the official Microsoft blog Monday morning.

Smith described the New York Times article as depicting "instances in which authorities had used piracy charges concerning Microsoft software to confiscate computers and harass non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and others engaged in public advocacy," including instances in which "our own counsel at law firms had failed to help clear things up and had made matters worse instead."

"We want to be clear that we unequivocally abhor any attempt to leverage intellectual property rights to stifle political advocacy or pursue improper personal gain," Smith writes. "We are moving swiftly to seek to remove any incentive or ability to engage in such behaviour."

Microsoft's legal officials in Moscow, Paris, London and Seattle met via phone to discuss the Russian anti-piracy issues Sunday morning, and the company "will retain an international law firm that has not been involved in the anti-piracy work to conduct an independent investigation."

Regardless of the investigation's outcome, Microsoft has decided to take a few immediate steps. "To prevent non-government organisations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of anti-piracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products," Smith writes. This will "fully exonerate any qualifying NGO, by showing that it has a valid license to our software."

Microsoft will also create a legal assistance program for NGOs in Russia to help the organisations document to authorities that they have legal rights to use Microsoft software, and will take actions "against third parties pretending to represent Microsoft in order to extort money for illegal software use."

Microsoft devotes significant financial resources to fighting software piracy, but has sometimes been criticised for being overzealous in the quest to protect its intellectual property.

"Ultimately, our goals are straightforward," Smith writes. "We aim to reduce the piracy and counterfeiting of software, and we aim to do this in a manner that respects fundamental human rights."