Arlan R. Levitan
The SIG Wars
It started in earnest when newcomer People Link became the first service to use the electronic-mail facilities and SIG message boards of its competitors to solicit new subscribers. While some telecomputing buffs appreciated both the irony and cleverness of this approach, People Link's competitors were not amused. CompuServe even amended its user agreement to specifically forbid solicitation of its customers by its competitors. The CompuServe user-ID of anyone sending such messages will be subject to revocation.
The People Link response was to take advantage of the ability of MCI's electronic mail to "gateway" to CompuServe's E-mail system. CompuServe was effectively checkmated since the only way to stop the unwanted message flow would be to shut off all messages using the MCI/CompuServe connection.
Since that time, things have been steadily heating up in a series of online border clashes. One of the most popular services offered by the commercial services is Special Interest Groups (SIGs), areas where like-minded users can exchange messages, chat online, and access public domain programs. A high-quality public domain program library is almost essential to the survival and financial viability of a SIG. The SIGs are minded by system operators (sysops) who receive a share of the connect-time charges racked up by SIG users.
About a year or so ago, some of the sysops who ran Special Interest Groups (SIGs) on CompuServe left to set up shop on other services. While most of the defecting sysops built their new libraries from private and user-group sources, some acquired a substantial portion of their alma mater's library and used it as a base to build on. To this day, it's common to see a lot of public domain material move freely between services. In an effort to expand their public domain libraries, GEnie eliminated connect-time charges for uploading programs early this year. Within a few months almost every other information service followed suit.
Even purveyors of popular "shareware" have begun to form liaisons with commercial services. In return for a percentage of the download charges, the shareware author grants an information service semi-exclusive distribution rights for a month or so. The early availability of new releases acts as a drawing card for new users.
The most recent spate of SIG controversy concerned a user (whose name we will change, in the tradition of "Dragnet," to "Dash") of a SIG on Delphi. Dash, a talented programmer, developed a great public domain terminal program for the Amiga called "Dashterm." When offered a lucrative sysop position on CompuServe, Dash accepted. Dash also modified his terminal program to include a notice that it was available only via CompuServe and could not be uploaded to other services or otherwise distributed. This made perfect sense to Dash since he would get a "cut" of the connect-time charges used to acquire his program. Dash's old crowd on Delphi strongly objected. Many who felt that they had helped find flaws in—or made suggestions that had improved—Dashterm felt that they were being given short shrift.
Enter another personality we'll call "Lear." Lear has been maintaining a set of public domain programs for the Amiga on disk, which he distributes to the public for a nominal media and copying charge. Lear asked Dash if his modification meant that Lear couldn't include Dashterm anymore in his public domain library. Dash replied that it could not be included, which Lear really didn't have any problem with. Lear was then informed by CompuServe that he is prohibited by the terms of the CIS User agreement from distributing any public domain software downloaded from CompuServe.
This touched off a tidal wave of messages within the SIGs of almost every commercial service. The populist argument: "If it's public domain software, there is no copyright. An information service can't claim rights to it and nobody can tell anyone what they can or can't do with such software." To be fair, there was a tendency on the part of the most vocal proponents of free exchange to characterize CIS as the Dark Side of the Force.
The Information Police Are At The Door
CompuServe's argument was simply that redistributing material from CIS in any form was contrary to the CompuServe user agreement. This includes giving a copy to a friend, uploading it to another service, or submitting it to a user-group library.
What's the bottom line of all this nonsense? As the legal eagles who joined in the online debate noted, CompuServe was within its rights. It's hard for any service not to be, since they all reserve the right to make any changes they deem necessary to their user agreements. The barristers also noted that attempting to enforce such "shrink-wrap license" policies is almost impossible…wait a minute—there's the doorbell; I gotta go. My wife says the information police want to ask me a few questions.
(Editor's note: For CompuServe's view on these topics, see "CompuServe and Public Domain"on the next page.)