FOSS licenses upheld!

After a five-year struggle in US Federal District Court, Robert Jacobson recently prevailed in his copyright infringement claim against Matthew Katzer as a result of Katzer’s alleged misappropriation of open source code from Jacobson’s Java Model Railroad Interface project.

You can read all of the story in more detail at ConsortiumInfo.org.  The end result is a huge win for open source developers as a result of three key findings by the District Court:

  1. Violation of an open source software license constitutes copyright infringement, not just breach of contract (this was first upheld by the Federal Appeals Court in 2008 in this case).
  2. Use of open source code without attribution is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
  3. These violations entitle the Plaintiff (Jacobson) to monetary damages – which, as they’re based on violations of copyright law, are potentially much more substantial than those which may have been limited by contract law.

There are some mitigating circumstances in that the results in this case are not yet dispositive of all future violations, as the ruling of a US District Court is limited to absolute applicability only in its geographic district.  The concern is that a Federal Appellate Court (including the US Supreme Court) could overrule or otherwise reverse this decision.  Worse yet would be another US District Court coming to a different conclusion with a similar set of facts.

But for now, FOSS developers can rest a little easier knowing that their creations are protected by copyright law.

Things that shouldn’t count as force majeure

Define the term “force majeure” for me.  Looking online, there are several:

  • it’s French for “superior force”
  • act of God: a natural and unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the expected course of events  (WordNet)
  • a common clause in contract which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties (Wikipedia)
  • an unavoidable catastrophe (Wiktionary)

So what’s the common theme?  It’s the ability to AVOID a particular set of actions.  In other words, force majeure events are those which are unavoidable or unforeseeable.  If you only click one link above, do the one for Wikipedia and learn about the three-part test in French and international law for what constitutes a force majure event.  UCC Section 2-615, “Excuse by Failure of Presupposed Conditions” and the Restatement of Contracts 2d, Section 261 “Excused Nonperformance” also include multi-part tests.

But we’ve gotten lax in contract drafting in the US and folks have assumed that force majeure clauses (those that allow a party to not perform as a result of one of these types of events) were continually written with actual unavoidable events listed.  In fact, almost every force majeure clause I now see contains at least one, if not more, of the following things as force majeure events:

  • strikes/labor disputes
  • telecommunication difficulties
  • supply chain problems
  • terrorism and war (sometimes even phrased as “acts of the public enemy”)
  • riots
  • government regulation

Unfortunately, these are not force majeure events.  Why?  Because most of them can be planned for… and even something like terrorism and war (especially when they’re happening right now), should be planned for.  If you can plan for them, they’re foreseeable.  And if they’re foreseeable, they’re not unforeseeable.  See where I’m going with this?  :)

So when you strike these items out of the force majure event clause, you’re going to get push back because people don’t want to be responsible for planning in all eventualities.  You’re not asking them to do it.  Rather, you’re asking that contract performance not be hindered or halted as a result of things that are capable of having a backup plan.  Which means that you could, if you were so inclined, draft language which allows for these items to be force majeure only if they were part of a backup plan that still was impeded.  In other words, you’ll give these items force majure weight if the party claiming force majeure can show that they had planned for them properly, but still ran into trouble.

Oh, and by the way, force majeure also isn’t one-size-fits-all.  Would you EVER list telecommunication difficulties in a contract with your telephone service provider?  Additionally, force majeure protections should benefit BOTH parties, even if one party’s sole obligation is to cut a check.  Payment can be made quite difficult by floods and hurricanes, just ask the good people in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi about business deals during Katrina.

Third Party Providers

Happy New Year!

I saw an interesting article today that high-tech vehicles were posing problems to some mechanics.  The mechanics claim that they can’t afford the thousands of dollars that are necessary for them to obtain the specialized diagnostic tools for each auto manufacturer.  The manufacturers are claiming that they’re trying to protect their intellectual property.

Sound familiar?  Yup, it’s exactly like the issues Frank Scavo and Ray Wang have written about with regards to third-party software providers being blocked from performing various maintenance/implementation tasks by the contracts and software licenses and services agreements of certain primary vendors.

On the automotive side, it’s apparently gotten to be such an issue that there’s a congressional bill called the Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act of 2009.  The stated purpose of this Bill is to “protect the rights of consumers to diagnose, service, maintain, and repair their motor vehicles”.  What’s really interesting are the Bill’s findings, among which say that:

  • Motor vehicle owners are entitled to choose which service provider will diagnose, service, maintain, or repair their motor vehicles.
  • Promoting competition in price and quality… will benefit consumers.
  • Only service technician with the necessary tools and information can access the computers to perform diagnosis, service, maintenance and repair…

And the requirements of the Bill, specifically:

  • Duty to Make Tools Available:  The manufacturer of a motor vehicle sold, leases or otherwise introduced into commerce in the United States must offer for sale to the motor vehicle owner and to all service providers on a reasonable and non-discriminatory basis, any tool for the diagnosis, service, maintenance, or repair of a motor vehicle, and provide all information that enables aftermarket tool companies to manufacture tools with the same functional characteristics as those tools made available by the manufacturers to authorized dealers.
  • Replacement Equipment: The manufacturer of a motor vehicle sold, leased, or otherwise introduced into commerce in the United States must offer for sale to motor vehicle owners, and to all service providers on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, all equipment for diagnosis, service, maintenance, or repair of a motor vehicle.

The only thing the Bill protects for the manufacturer are things that are actual trade secrets.

Wow.  Of course, there are a LOT of people (and more specifically, a lot of trade association and advocacy groups) behind this Bill.

Could you imagine what would happen if this passes and someone realizes that software in cars isn’t that dissimilar to plain old enterprise software?  If only there was a trade association group for buyers of enterprise software apps.  ;)

But let’s talk about the other side of the issue for a moment.  Do consumers have a right to have third-party companies provide service?  A right?  No.  I don’t think there’s a right to be able to have third-party providers.  [Keep in mind, when we’re talking about rights, we’re talking about things equal to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”.]

Absent a right, should third-party providers still be allowed/encouraged?  I’m really torn on this.  On one hand, I’m all in favor of things that inspire commerce.  I like behaviors that create business, allow more people to work… and of course, things that drive down costs and dissipate apparent monopolies.  On the other hand, an individual or organization who creates something should be able to protect their idea/invention and not have to give up the secret sauce simply so that other people can benefit.  But there seems to be a line somewhere that once you cross it should allow for third-party companies to fill available niches.  Maybe it’s where the original vendor is no longer able to provide a quality-level of service.  Maybe it’s a situation where the original vendor is charging exorbitant rates.  I’m not sure.

Anyone have a solution?

As the year draws to a close

Hopefully, most of you are done with work for the year.  But for those of you about to close end of year, firesale-type deals in the remaining 6 days of the year (the end of the year is even a Thursday, so you don’t have to “work” a weekend if this is your fate), here is a list of articles on how to get the most out of your transaction time:

Start with fundamentals on negotiation.  Think outside the box.

Then go through the basics on firesales.  If you want more, buy the Firesale Concall Recording.

Understand pricing, and when it might pay to avoid maintenance costs.

Start your deals from good templates.

And, lastly, consider the reasons for agreeing to renegotiating deals.

To my faithful readers: Thank you for listening to me for another year.  I hope you have a very joyous holiday season and a happy New Year.  See you in 2010 (unless something really awesome in the licensing world happens between now and then).

The Numbers All Go To Eleven

A few years ago, I got into a little issue at work.  I had found that my negotiation dial could go all the way to 11.  Being the Type-A person that I was, I learned how to crank it to 11 on a regular basis.  And like the child whose mother warns him to not make that face because it’ll freeze like that, sure enough, I got to a point where I couldn’t turn it off.

No, I don’t mean dial it down, I mean turn it off at all.  There was no 0.  Oh, and 11 became the new 1.  Which meant that there were even higher and much more intense levels above 11, too.  It took about a month for it to impact my then-new marriage.  A few days later, folks at work started to bristle, too.  Uh oh.

With some patience, time and a little vacation, I reset my meter – only this time, 0 was 100% off and 5 was the new 10.  Guess what?  I didn’t lose any effectiveness at all.  I was able to accomplish the exact same results as before – only this time, I didn’t piss people off in the process.

As with anyone who has undergone this type of behavioral transformation, it makes me more sensitive to others’ similar behavior.  So when I see a slew of articles recently on negotiating everything from a raise to a new car or better ISP rates, I think back to being “at 11″ and wonder about when it’s ok to NOT negotiate.

It’s ok.  I really did just say “not negotiate.”  And I meant it, too.  (The world is not coming to an end.  I promise.)  There just happen to be times when it’s absolutely recommended to simply agree with the other party and take what they offer in the form in which it’s offered.

The question, of course, is: “When?”

Well – it’s up to you.  But I recommend agreement without negotiation when the proposed solution/offer/etc is:

  1. Within your means to provide.
  2. Within your previously-considered range of acceptable offers.
  3. Not necessarily going to create a precedent that you’ll be tied to in the future.

Does this mean you might pay a little more?  Maybe.  Do a little more?  Maybe.  Get a little less?  Maybe.

In exchange, you’ll keep your sanity… and your friends.  Those are way more important than “winning” every negotiation.

[My apologies to Nigel and Spinal Tap for the stolen quote as the topic.]

Updating Contract Language for the 21st Century

Holly Towle wrote an excellent article on the boilerplate contract language issues that might now exist in your contract language.  Read the article… consider the issues… review your templates.  Make some changes.  Of course, you can always just call me and I’d be happy to review your contracts for you.  ;)