Thursday, August 14, 2008

US court upholds free / open source licences

Great news for the free software / open source world - in Jacobsen v. Katzer the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (a leading US IP court) has upheld a free software licence in a way which makes it much easier for the authors of free software to prevent its misuse. (The particular licence is the Artistic licence, but the principles apply across the board).

This is hugely significant as it resolves what has, until now, been a major dispute as to the effect of free software licences in US law.

The mainstream view - that of the proponents of free software (1, 2) - has been that free software licences set conditions on the use of the software. Breach those conditions (e.g. by modifying and then distributing code under a proprietary licence, or by failing to attribute) and the licence evaporates so that you are then infringing the copyright of the author. The full force of copyright law can then come into play - you can, for example, have an interlocutory injunction awarded against you restraining you from using the code.

Some, though, have argued that a free software licence amounts to a general licence to copy, modify, etc. with mere contractual restrictions on what the licensee can do. (E.g.) If true, this would mean that breaching the terms of the licence would merely be a breach of contract, not a breach of copyright. This would, for example, make it more difficult for the author to obtain an injunction against the infringer. It might also cast doubt on the enforceability of free software licences, for example by requiring authors to show that the elements of a contract were present before they could enforce restrictions against infringers.

Jacobsen v. Katzer resolves this argument conclusively in favour of the mainstream view, and holds that while free software licences may also have a contractual element, the restrictions they impose are conditions and not merely contractual restrictions. It also contains a striking judicial endorsement of the objectives and legitimacy of open source / free software generally.

Lessig and Groklaw have more.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Judge: Bulletin board users "say the first things that come into their heads"

In Smith v. ADVFN Plc & Others Mr Justice Eady of the English High Court recently showed a keen insight into the world of bulletin boards by noting that users are prone to reacting in the heat of the moment, not thinking about what they are doing, and saying the first thing that comes into their heads. A statement of the blindingly obvious? Perhaps. But the underlying point is important.

A perennial problem with defamation on the internet has been that of tone. Casual conversations - on bulletin boards or blog post comments - can feel as though they are transient and ephemeral. People write in a way which they would never use in a more formal setting such as a newspaper's letters page. But this perceived informality may clash with the approach taken by libel lawyers and courts, who are used to parsing newspaper articles closely for any possible defamatory meaning and who may apply this approach to turn the loose language of a post into something defamatory.

Offline, casual conversations also benefit from the more relaxed rules of slander, where oral (as opposed to written) communications generally don't give a person a right to sue for defamation unless they have suffered actual damage as a result. Online, though, the distinction between slander and libel evaporates so that (in most jurisdictions) an internet posting - however casual - will be treated as libel rather than slander, giving a person a right to sue irrespective of whether they have suffered any actual harm.

Significantly, however, in Smith v. ADVFN Mr Justice Eady took the informal nature of bulletin boards into account in deciding whether a claimant had a chance of succeeding in a defamation action, holding that these cases should often be treated as closer to slander so that the casual nature of posts should be taken into account when interpreting them. His summary of "the nature of bulletin boards" is worth quoting in full:
13. It is necessary to have well in mind the nature of bulletin board communications, which are a relatively recent development. This is central to a proper consideration of all the matters now before the court.

14. This has been explained in the material before me and is, in any event, nowadays a matter of general knowledge. Particular characteristics which I should have in mind are that they are read by relatively few people, most of whom will share an interest in the subject-matter; they are rather like contributions to a casual conversation (the analogy sometimes being drawn with people chatting in a bar) which people simply note before moving on; they are often uninhibited, casual and ill thought out; those who participate know this and expect a certain amount of repartee or “give and take”.

15. The participants in these exchanges were mostly using pseudonyms (or “avatars”), so that their identities will often not be known to others. This is no doubt a disinhibiting factor affecting what people are prepared to say in this special environment.

16. When considered in the context of defamation law, therefore, communications of this kind are much more akin to slanders (this cause of action being nowadays relatively rare) than to the usual, more permanent kind of communications found in libel actions. People do not often take a “thread” and go through it as a whole like a newspaper article. They tend to read the remarks, make their own contributions if they feel inclined, and think no more about it.

17. It is this analogy with slander which led me in my ruling of 12 May to refer to “mere vulgar abuse”, which used to be discussed quite often in the heyday of slander actions. It is not so much a defence that is unique to slander as an aspect of interpreting the meaning of words. From the context of casual conversations, one can often tell that a remark is not to be taken literally or seriously and is rather to be construed merely as abuse. That is less common in the case of more permanent written communication, although it is by no means unknown. But in the case of a bulletin board thread it is often obvious to casual observers that people are just saying the first thing that comes into their heads and reacting in the heat of the moment. The remarks are often not intended, or to be taken, as serious.
More on this case - including the way in which the claimant attempted to use defamation actions to silence his critics - at The Register.

Fake Facebook profile case - Full decision now available

Remember the libel action brought by a businessman against a former friend who created a false Facebook profile under his name? The full text of that decision is now available on BAILII as Applause Store Productions Ltd and Firsht v. Raphael. The bulk of the decision is unremarkable and deals with the (unconvincing) attempts by the defendant to deny that he was responsible for creating the page, but there are some interesting comments showing how judges are putting a figure on damages where material is only available for a short period of time to a relatively small number of people:
Ultimately, I have to approach the question of damages in the same way as a jury would, giving a verdict without a reasoned judgment. I bear in mind, of course, that the profile and group were only available on Facebook between 19th/20th June and 6th July 2007, when Facebook appears to have taken the material down at Mr Firsht's request. Given the times when the material was put up and taken down, that is a period of 17 days (for the profile) and 16 days (for the group). I bear in mind also the limited extent of proved publication, but I accept that Facebook is a medium in which users do regularly search for the names of others whom they know, and anyone who searched for the name Mathew Firsht during those few days will have found the false group without difficulty. In my view, a not insubstantial number of people is likely to have done so. By that I have in mind a substantial two-figure, rather than a three-figure, number. I also accept that the Defendant has increased the hurt and upset of Mr Firsht by the allegations which he rashly made in his original Defence and by his persistence in a defence which I have founded to be built on lies, which has compelled Mr Firsht to give evidence and face lengthy cross-examination in a public trial.

The libel is, as Ms Skinner rightly said, not at the top end of the scale, although it is serious enough to say of a successful businessman that (as I have found the words to mean) he owes substantial sums of money which he has repeatedly avoided paying by lying and making implausible excuses, so that he is not to be trusted in the financial conduct of his business and represents a serious credit risk. I do take into account also the effect on Mr Firsht of the unpleasant allegations against him which the Defendant made in his original Defence, and the fact that the Defendant has persisted to trial in a case which I have found to be no more than a lie. It seems to me that a proper award for the libel of Mr Firsht, to include an element for aggravation of damage, is £15,000. The pleaded meaning in the case of the company - against which the allegations of debt and dishonest prevarication are not directly made - is just the consequential meaning, that as a result of Mr Firsht's conduct the company is not to be trusted in the financial conduct of its business and represents a serious credit risk. It seems to me that a substantially lower award should be made in respect of the company, and in my judgment the right figure is £5,000.