CompuServe and Public Domain
Selby Bateman, Features Editor
(Editor's note: See "Telecomputing Today" on the previous page before reading this article.)
Philosophical differences have long existed between those computer users who favor free access to software and those software producers and distributors who see computer programs solely as a commercial market. Between those two points of view, however, lies a great deal of territory relating to software ownership, access, and distribution.
One of the most recent and heated debates, as noted in this month's "Telecomputing Today" column, concerns the question of free access to public domain software and a telecommunications service's right to control distribution of the programs and information it provides to its members.
A Bum Rap?
While some telecomputing enthusiasts have recently fired salvos at CompuServe for limiting distribution of the public domain programs it carries, the CompuServe organization believes it's getting a bum rap. CompuServe officials say their policies—including the user agreement copyright of all material on the service—are a positive, contributing force in the distribution of public domain software.
What CompuServe wants to protect, says Rich Baker, director of corporate communications for CompuServe, is its members' rights as well as the programs and information on the system. CompuServe's user agreement copyright notice does say that the information and programs there are for the express purpose and use of the owner of a CompuServe identification number. That means no copies of any public domain software can be made legally for distribution without prior written permission from CompuServe, he says.
"The purpose of the [CompuServe] copyright is to protect the work that is on the CompuServe Information Service. That is for the benefit of our customers, so that if someone does indeed download some of the material and resells it for commercial gain, there's some recourse that can be taken to protect our customers. That's the whole purpose of the copyright.
"From that has spun off a number of opinions, some that I think are inaccurate," he adds. "As it relates to public domain software, we encourage very much the use of CompuServe to post public domain software.
"First, we make a tremendous amount of storage available to hold those kinds of programs. Second, we turn off the clock for people who are uploading the programs to us now. So it doesn't cost them anything to upload the programs. And third, we actually publish an electronic—and soon to be printed—column that's called "The Best of the Uploads.' We work with our system administrators and a free-lance writer to collectively take a look at the software that's been uploaded, and some of the more popular ones. Then we'll write about them and bring them to our customers' attention so that they can use them, too. So, we really encourage the use of public domain software an awful lot on our system."
Encouraging Public Domain Software
One recent article in a Southwestern newspaper claimed that CompuServe's copyright rules were, in effect, a claim of ownership of public domain software, says Baker.
"It was quoted there that our policy evades the spirit of public domain, and I took real exception to that because it really doesn't. Everything we do encourages the public domain software concept, everything from our free uploads to the fact that we publicize the good programs for our customers.
"It can easily be summarized by saying that the copyright is instituted as a measure of protection, not necessarily as a measure of ownership. And it's something we feel is important for the feeling that our customers have that they can use our service, and what goes on there is protected and is in their best interests," he says.
Is such a copyright enforceable? Baker admits that, to his knowledge, no one has challenged the legality of the user agreement and the copyright.
"I think once people understand the intent, they don't have a problem with it. And the term copyright—you know, this is just such a different medium. We're applying rules, laws, procedures from different media onto this new medium. And therefore, in many ways, the opportunity for misinterpretation might be a little bit greater. But our goal is to continue to educate people and help everybody understand what it is the medium has to offer—and the rights that people have to the information and the rights that the people have who supply the information. It's a continuing process."
For those members of CompuServe who may wish to distribute copies of downloaded software, Baker says there is a procedure. "It's just like any other copyright. They would make application in writing to us, and we would review it and respond in writing with permission or denial.
"We look at every situation as a unique situation. And we follow pretty much the guidelines that are a part of the copyright policy. With very few exceptions, permission is granted," adds Baker. "It very heavily reflects on whether it's a program or whether it's information. It really reflects on how it's going to be used."