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Microsoft winds up on both ends of software piracy stick

In Camera Obscura

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Did you know Microsoft was convicted of software piracy last year by a French court? Not many people do. The Commercial Court of Nanterre fined Microsoft 3 million francs because it illegally included another company's proprietary source code in SoftImage 3D, a top-of-the-line animation package.

The only authoritative report on the event was written by Lionel Berthomier and first published in the French paper, Le Monde Informatique. An English version was reprinted at PCWorldMalta on November 28, 2001 -- about two months after the court's decision. Both Le Monde Informatique and PCWorldMalta are affiliated with IDG, the parent of InfoWorld and LinuxWorld. Yet, neither of these sites published a word about Microsoft's conviction on September 27, 2001.

And nobody else in the segment of the tech media that's traditionally anti-Microsoft picked up the story, either -- not Slashdot, nor LinuxToday, nor NewsForge. Neither did any of the mainstream tech outlets. Nobody noticed this news. Nobody except Peruvian congressman Edgar David Villanueva Nuñez.

He's the man who is being hailed by some as Free Software's version of St. Thomas Aquinas because of his "Summa Compulogica" reply to a recent letter sent by Microsoft's Peru general manager, Juan Alberto González. That letter was deemed necessary by Microsoft because of a Peruvian bill that if passed would require its government to buy and use only Free Software.

Buried within the brilliant missive penned by Nuñez is this arrow:

"Questions of intellectual property fall outside the scope of this bill, since they are covered by specific other laws. The model of free software in no way implies ignorance of these laws, and in fact the great majority of free software is covered by copyright. In reality, the inclusion of this question in your observations shows your confusion in respect of the legal framework in which free software is developed. The inclusion of the intellectual property of others in works claimed as one's own is not a practice that has been noted in the free software community; whereas, unfortunately, it has been in the area of proprietary software. As an example, the condemnation by the Commercial Court of Nanterre, France, on 27th September 2001 of Microsoft Corp. to a penalty of 3 million francs in damages and interest, for violation of intellectual property (piracy, to use the unfortunate term that your firm commonly uses in its publicity)."

Nanterre? Microsoft? Violation of intellectual property? Piracy?

Yes, the corporation that created the term "software piracy" was actually found guilty of committing that crime. Using the facts in our reference article at PCWorldMalta, we put together a basic timeline of the events leading up to the court decision:

1. Late 1980s: Syn'X Relief, a Paris-based CGI animation company, develops Character, a proprietary animation tool, and registers it with the French National Intellectual Property Institute.

2. 1992: SoftImage signs a contract with Syn'X to integrate the unique functions of Character into SoftImage 3D in exchange for royalties.

3. 1994: SoftImage presents Syn'X with some nasty changes to the agreement: sign over your rights to the Character source code, or the deal's off. Syn'X refuses, and shortly after that, the news breaks that Microsoft has acquired SoftImage.

4. 1995: The contract term between Syn'X and Microsoft/SoftImage is over, and Microsoft asserts that "some or all" of Character has been removed from SoftImage 3D. According to Syn'X, Microsoft/SoftImage has only removed one function, and there are at least eight others still remaining. Syn'X sends cease and desist letters and toward the end of the year files suit in the French courts.

5. 1996: Syn'X, drained of resources, files for bankruptcy and goes out of business.

6. 1997: "Character" authors join the fight to preserve their rights against SoftImage.

7. Sept. 2001: The court issues a verdict: Microsoft is fined 3 million francs (a paltry USD $422,000). Microsoft says it will appeal the decision.

What the article doesn't mention is that in 1998, shortly after the trial started, Microsoft rid itself of the burden of SoftImage by passing it on to Avid, an entity in which MS ended up owning a minority share as part of the deal. Avid now owns the trademark for and sells the product that was once known as Microsoft SoftImage 3D. Avid's published legal information shows that it claims to own all copyright for all software on the site.

The biggest mystery is the obscurity of the story until now. "It looks to me as if the whole U.S. press missed the story," says Joe Barr, a technology journalist who frequently writes for IDG's LinuxWorld. "IDG has never held me back in writing stories about Microsoft, and I have written a few." Officials from IDG and SoftImage were not available for comment.

© Newsforge.com. All rights reserved.

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