License to plunder

Microsoft raised the ire of critics and customers alike by sneaking a new EULA (end-user license agreement) into a critical security patch delivered in June for Windows Media Player. The EULA grants Microsoft the unrestricted right to automatically alter your copy of Windows so that it will "... disable your ability to copy and/or play secure content and use other software on your computer." Well, that only applies to home users of Windows. Surely vendors would never be stupid enough to antagonize corporate customers with such "guilty when charged" intellectual property protection policies, would they?

Alas, they would. Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Borland Corp., and other software companies should write Microsoft a collective thank-you note for being a flak magnet on the subject of licenses. Focusing on one company, or solely on commercial concerns, blinds observers to unconscionable terms imposed on them by other intellectual property owners.

I spent an afternoon studying licenses for software and media clips on my network. I suggest you do the same, but not on a full stomach. Pay particular attention to the clauses that subject you to changes without notice, that obligate you to the laws of every state and country except yours, and that saddle you with the bill for audits and lawsuits. Resellers and regional vendor reps tell companies that controversial license terms are just for home users and small businesses; they don't apply to major accounts. If they're wrong, do you think they'll pay your legal fees or downtime costs?

When you study your licenses, don't forget the free stuff. Much of the so-called free software on the Internet is copyrighted and protected by licenses containing tripwire clauses such as "free for noncommercial use" and "free for development only." Oh, and don't forget patents. Check in with IBM every couple of weeks to see if they're enforcing those Web services patents yet.

Of course you can't track every license, patent, and copyright that might apply to your company. Soon you won't have to; lobbyists are prodding state and federal legislators to give intellectual property owners the right to scan the files on your network and act on what they find. They want the law to allow them to identify and destroy suspect content or even cripple the computers they think are involved in the violation.

We're supposed to trust that the very developers who can't lock 12-year-olds out of our networks will create an infallible system of automated license validation and enforcement. Nevertheless, intellectual property holders of all sizes will line up to use it no matter how often the system accidentally targets compliant users and companies.

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