By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Microsoft Corp. has reached a $12.3 million settlement with Montana consumers who accused the computer software giant of violating the state's antitrust and unfair competition laws.
The agreement, disclosed Monday, requires payments be made in the form of vouchers that can be used toward purchases of computers and software. Half of any money remaining after a four-month period for those claims will be offered to the state's poorest schools for hardware, software or training.
Microsoft estimated that 325 Montana schools, with total enrollment of 38,325 students, will be eligible for leftover settlement proceeds.
Linda McCulloch, state superintendent of public instruction, said the benefit to Montana schools is badly needed.
''All our schools are facing daunting budget problems,'' she said. ''This settlement is most welcome and will be put to good use in classrooms across Montana.''
Jennifer Hendricks, one of the Helena attorneys behind the lawsuit, said schools are all but certain to get something from the settlement since it's unlikely all the money will be claimed by consumers.
The deal, which was preliminarily approved by District Judge Thomas Honzel of Helena on March 25, resolves a lawsuit filed three years ago by Blaine Olson of Lolo. In endorsing the settlement, Honzel ordered the suit apply to all other purchasers of Microsoft products between March 28, 1996 and Aug. 31, 2002.
The suit claimed that Microsoft used its monopoly power in the software market to charge ''unreasonable and unconscionable'' prices for its products. It said the company's illegal efforts to maintain a monopoly left consumers with no alternative operating systems for their Intel-based computers.