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February 2001: Legal constraints on Netizens: DeCSS, Napster,, etc.

At our February meeting, a panel of three (Neal McBurnett, Carl Oppedahl and Eric Robison) engaged with the audience in a lively discussion about legal constraints on netizens. There was a broad degree of concern and agreement among the panelists and audience, but several points caused divisions, as usual.

On the Domain Name/trademark front, Carl did not allow Eric to downplay his role in establishing some good legal precedents. Eric's determination to defend his rights, at considerable personal cost, in the face of a very well-funded adversary (Hasbro), has helped level the playing field for all of us. He won 4 important judgements against either NSI or Hasbro., one of the beneficiaries of one of those rulings was so appreciative of his efforts that they forced the people that sued them to pay damages to Eric's lawyers. Go to to read more and to donate to the cause. See Carl's advice about domain name disputes at And see the 1996 FRUUG meeting on this topic at

On the copyright/patent debate, Carl started off by noting that it is no surprise that the legal system is mostly focused on helping maintain the status quo, and help those that already have wealth and power try to preserve it. He said the patent laws end up helping the little guy against the big players more often than most laws. He recommended that even people who disagree with the current system of patents and copyrights should take advantage of the protections it offers. If you officially register your copyrights, you can recover legal fees, which is a rare and valuable privilege.

Neal suggested that given the large number of simply bogus patents in the software area, society in general loses out even if a "little guy" gets exclusive use of an idea for up to 20 years because of a patent. The very existence of patents and copyrights, unlike classical property law, is allowed in the constitution for a specific purpose: "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts". If they have the opposite effect in certain fields (e.g. software patents and digital copyrights) under current conditions, the laws ought to be updated.

One recent posting on the Copy Protection issue comes from John Gilmore, at

He points out many ways in which the media interests are lobbying for stricter laws controlling what end-users can do. And he makes the stronger point that they are combining those laws with technological measures which prevent even traditional "Fair Use" of materials the user has paid for. In fact many new products don't even let individuals make high-quality recordings and copies of their own work.

As the technological miracle of cheap duplication of information continues to work its way into society, conflicts with traditional ways to reward creative efforts will grow larger. How these conflicts are addressed will have major implications for the future. Pay attention!

The handout from the meeting is available at

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February 15, 2009

February 2008: FRUUG Enters Quiescent Phase
After 27 years running, we're suspending operations.

Future Meetings:
None planned

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