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Microsoft released the following statement:

"Starting on December 11, 2009, customers using Office 2003 will not be able to open Office 2003 documents protected with the Rights Management Service (RMS) or save Office 2003 documents protected with RMS...This symptom affects Office 2003 products used in conjunction with RMS, including Word 2003, Excel 2003, PowerPoint 2003 and Outlook 2003. It does not affect Office 2007."

Microsoft released a hotfix to resolve this issue, although they recommend waiting until they have done some more testing and release it as a normal automatic update. Here are the knowledge base pages with the hotfixes:

Office Client: http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=978551
Word Viewer: http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=978558
Excel Viewer: http://support.microsoft.com/?kbid=978557

This isn't the first time that Microsoft's Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems have inappropriately cut off access to the owner's files. In April 2008, Microsoft announced that it was closing its DRM authentication service for music, which meant that any actions requiring authentication (such as moving a music file from one computer to another) would simply stop working, even though the users paid for this ability. They originally planned to shut down the service by August 2008, but they decided to delay it until 2011 due to protests from users.

The problem isn't specific to Microsoft though. Yahoo made a similar decision with their music store, and Apple threatened to do the same with their iTunes store if a certain copyright royalty increase proposal were passed. In general, when you're using any file access control system that works by authenticating with a remote server, your access to the file is inherently dependent on that remote server functioning correctly. If they accidentally delete their key file, let a certificate expire, or shut down the service entirely, then the authentication process can't complete and your access to the file is denied. <>