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Breaking news: On April 4 we announced that LWN has been acquired by Tucows.com. Please read the announcement for all the details; suffice to say that we think it is going to be a good arrangement that, among other things, insures complete editorial freedom for LWN.
Mattel and cphack. Well, we printed a lot of links to articles about Mattel's cphack lawsuit today, after this Wired article claimed that cphack had been released under the GPL. This was false, as can now be verified from Matthew Skala's homepage and Eddy's posting to Slashdot. Matthew and Eddy are the authors of the three programs, cndecode, cph1_rev and cphack, which were the subjects of the lawsuit with Mattel. They came to a settlement and assigned the copyright and ownership of their software over to Mattel. Mattel is still legally pursuing mirror sites that hold copies of this software, even though they've closed the security hole that cphack exploited. This essay describes the issue in detail and is also apparently threatened by the lawsuit.
The media frenzy today, though, turned up lawyers who were willing to state that they felt the GPL could have been challenged on two counts. The first was the issue of whether or not the authors of a piece of software actually create a written instrument, "using paper and pen and a signature", to assign over their rights. Without such an instrument, the authors may be able sell their rights to someone else, who can then revoke the earlier license.
In this article, Eben Moglen, FSF general counsel and a law professor at Columbia University, urged authors to create a written instrument, signing over their rights to the Free Software Foundation, if they really want to make sure their software remains under the GPL. This would presumably be sufficient to prevent a challenge on these grounds.
The second challenge, though, is more disturbing. In the same article, Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, indicated that he felt the GPL could be challenged because no money changed hands. "'Nonexclusive licenses given for free are generally revocable, even if they purport to be irrevocable,' Volokh said. 'Even if the GPL license in cphack is treated as signed and is covered by 205(e), it might still be revocable by Mattel as the new owners of the cphack copyright.'"
This challenge would be based on the idea that, if no consideration changes hands, then there is no contract between the author and the person using the software, just a free gift which is therefore revokable.
It could be argued that, under the GPL, the person using the software does give something of consideration, as ToLu the Happy Furby commented, "when you are the liscensee of a GPL'ed program you most certainly do give the liscensor something: you agree not to use their code in any proprietary programs. That can be quite a large restriction--certainly worth more than giving a dollar as you suggest--without taking away your rights to use the software as you wish for your own personal use--"
Note that the above are just "potential" reasons for totally theoretical challenges. Because the cphack software was not released under the GPL, they will not be put to the test in this court case. This is possibly a bad thing, because the fear that they might be effective might be more damaging than finding out they are or are not effective. If they were proven ineffective, they could be forgotten. If they were proven effective, then actions could be taken to prevent their effect in future situations, such as by getting authors to sign over their rights to the FSF or by finding a way to include some form of consideration in the GPL that would make it enforceable. (Many thanks to the following posters and others on Slashdot: blakestah, Spud Zeppelin, Anomalous Canard, for information and comments provided in their postings.)
UCITA update. UCITA is an issue that we've almost burned into the ground, so we won't go over the gory details again. For those of you that have been following it, you know that UCITA passed in the state of Virginia. The next battle is being fought in Maryland. UCITA passed the full House of Delegates on Tuesday, March 28th, with a vote of 83 for, 50 against, 8 abstaining. That is an improvement over Virginia, where it was passed almost unanimously.
This may be particularly encouraging because the Maryland UCITA bill has actually been watered down slightly, compared to the original that passed in Virginia. This article in the Baltimore Sun claims that the Maryland version does allow consumers to get their money back if the software "doesn't work" and prohibits "electronic reposession". That is to the good.
On the other hand, House members also "exempt the banking and insurance industry from the measure, and included special provisions for the movie industry." Talk about one big special interest group taking care of another ... such exemptions are clearly a way to pacify groups that have the money to fight this bill, while leaving the individual customer without equivalent protection. For example, no mention is made of the provision that makes reverse-engineering illegal, which is of most concern to the free software community. In addition, companies can still demand that lawsuits be tried in their own home state, where they may find the legal climate more favorable to their case.
Colorado Linux Info Quest (CLIQ). This will be our last update for the CLIQ, since the conference will be held only two days from now. Early registration is going well. However, we still may have to process a few hundred people the morning of April 1st, so if you want to get in to see the keynote, please register in advance via the website. If you make it to the event, be sure and stop by the LWN booth and say hello! Jonathan Corbet, Rebecca Sobol, Denney Tenney and Forrest Cook will all be there, at least for some portion of the day. If you're looking for Liz, though, you'll have to watch the halls ... she'll be out making sure the talks, BOFs and demos are moving smoothly.
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March 30, 2000