Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 64 / SEPTEMBER 1985 / PAGE 105

Telecomputing Today

Arlon R. Levitan

SIG Wars
You may recall that last month we raised the question of what the commercial information services would do about system operators (sysops) of special interest groups (SIGs) or discussion forums who were beginning to set up branches of their SIGs on competing services.
    The shoe has finally dropped. In May, users of the Delphi information service noticed that the Delphi branch of MAUG (Micronetworked Apple User Group) mysteriously vanished after a couple of weeks of existence, to be replaced by a generically named Apple SIG with a new sysop.
    Apparently CompuServe, the current SIG heavyweight among information services, was still smarting from the wholesale defection of its Commodore forum sysops to another competing service. In any case, CompuServe won back the sysop of MAUG (its most popular SIG forum) with an offer that couldn't be refused.
    Shortly after the disappearance of MAUG/Delphi, MAUG/CompuServe became three SIGs: one for Apple II owners, a second for Macintosh fans, and a third for Apple software and hardware developers. All of the SIGs remained under the able tutelage of the original MAUG sysop, who ended up with three SIGs rather than one (or zero).
    This incident does raise some disturbing issues which should be aired and discussed within the telecomputing community. At the conclusion of this column, I'll give you a way to participate in this debate.

Two Points Of View
A lot of users cried foul after the MAUG affair, accusing one of the parties involved of restraint of trade and illegal chicanery. Much of this was mildly sour grapes from MAUG regulars who had regarded MAUG/Delphi as welcome relief for their pocketbooks. MAUG/Delphi's off-shift hourly rate for 1200 bits-per-second (bps) modems was half that of CompuServe's. In fact, Delphi's off-shift rate even for 2400 bps was still less than CompuServe's 1200 bps charges. (CompuServe is the leading information service, so its competitors are offering lower rates in an effort to entice customers.)
    Setting emotions aside for a minute, there is no evidence that anyone involved in the MAUG incident abrogated the legal rights of any other party. As for whether the negotiations tended toward "hard ball," all I can do is remind mild-mannered telecomputerists that in the words of Jack Tramiel, "business is war."

Users who regularly
upload public domain
software to SIGs get
little in return other
than bills for their
connect time.
Shouldn't there be a
greater reward than
simply a pat on the

    The situation does have aspects of David versus Goliath though, and since we love to root for the underdog (even when Sweet Polly isn't involved), it's hard on a gut level not to side with the sysops. Even the most influential sysops tend to have less bargaining power than corporations with legal staffs.

Who Owns The Info?
Another issue that tends to bother many telecomputing regulars is the question of who owns (or who they think should own) the information contained in a SIG. By the terms of most information service user contracts, the contents of both the message base and program download areas are the property of the service. Yet, the messages and the files uploaded to the program area are provided by the users. So SIG users pay the information service to distribute their messages and programs.
    There is little doubt that a case may be made for the information service owning the message base, but what about ownership of the public domain programs?
    Users who regularly upload public domain software to SIGs get little in return other than bills for their connect time. Shouldn't there be a greater reward than simply a pat on the back? Many noncommercial bulletin board systems offer special benefits to regular contributors. Why shouldn't commercial services do the same?
    To be perfectly fair, SIG users do receive value from the service in the form of replies to messages and software to download. Hopefully the value received is commensurate with the tariffs levied.

Time For An E-Poll
How do you feel about this issue? Am I being too tough or not tough enough on the information services? Am I off base or stealing home on a suicide squeeze? E-mail your opinions to me and I'll print the results of our electronic minipoll in the months to come.

Arlan R. Levitan
Source ID: TCT987
Delphi: ARLANL
People Link: ARLANL
CompuServe: 70675,463