I want to consider software licensing practices in general, but with the specific facts and history in the Vernor vs. Autodesk lawsuit as a backdrop.
In the Vernor case, Tim Vernor purchased several boxes of AutoCAD software, and never even read, let alone agreed to, the terms of the license agreement inside the box. When Vernor listed the AutoCAD software for sale on Ebay, Autodesk sent Ebay a notice that claimed Vernor’s auction violated Autodesk’s copyright. In order to benefit from the safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Ebay was obligated to remove the auctions. Vernor responded by filing a lawsuit accusing Autodesk of making false copyright violation claims.
Additional facts have since come to light. For one, we’ve learned that the AutoCAD software that Vernor purchased had been previously upgraded to a newer version. Vernor did not know this when he purchased the software; and in any case, it’s not clear that this fact has any bearing on the outcome of the suit.
Given this set of facts, let’s analyze the Vernor case not from a purely legal perspective, but from a more abstract “moral” perspective. After all, society is the ultimate arbitrator of what is wrong and what is right with respect to our laws. We ultimately determine whether laws are fair by whether we follow them willingly (and whether we put pressure on our legislatures to change them).
Steve Johnson opines that Autodesk is morally right in the Vernor case, because the software Vernor purchased was “tainted” due to having been upgraded by the original owner.
In Steve’s view… [see Steve’s comment below where he chides me for ascribing this view to him – O.W.] Presumably, one who holds this view sees Vernor’s original purchase as akin to someone purchasing stolen goods. With stolen goods, the law (and hopefully our moral compass) recognizes that the purchaser of the stolen goods has no legal right to them.
Autodesk offered the original owner a discounted price for a newer version of AutoCAD in exchange for a promise to destroy the older version. The original owner reneged on its promise to destroy the old version, and sold it to an unwitting buyer instead.
It follows that both Autodesk and Tim Vernor were treated unfairly by the company that sold the AutoCAD software to Vernor. Despite the company’s history of using pirated software, Autodesk gave them the benefit of the doubt when selling them a discounted upgrade. Vernor, by all accounts, had no idea and no way of knowing that the software he purchased had been previously upgraded. This is a recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, this sort of disaster is all too common. In many cases, software users simply don’t read license agreements. If they do read license agreements, they don’t understand them. After all, most of us are not lawyers, and we can’t reasonably be expected to hire a lawyer to evaluate the license agreements of every software product we use. How then can we be expected to follow them exactly and without fail?
Consider that it’s entirely possible that the company from which Vernor bought his AutoCAD software had no idea that they had agreed to destroy the upgraded AutoCAD software. At least from a moral perspective, we can have some sympathy for the company if they honestly had no idea they were violating any agreements when they sold the software to Vernor.
Could Autodesk have required the upgraded AutoCAD software to be returned, or required certification by an independent “software recycler” that it had been destroyed? Sure they could have. In fact, such requirements did exist in the early days of software license agreements. Had Autodesk done so, the Vernor court would probably have concluded that AutoCAD was licensed, not sold.
Why even require the old version to be destroyed when upgrading? If we stop using the old version, why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell it at market value? Doesn’t recycling old software make just as much sense as recycling old tires? We have been conditioned to believe that discounted upgrades are good for us, but are they really?
Would we accept a legal regime under which tire manufacturers could force us to destroy our old tires as part of the new tire purchase agreement? Oh, you say, that comparison isn’t valid because tires eventually wear out of their own accord, whereas old software continues working forever! First of all, old software doesn’t continue working forever. How many people still use VisiCalc? Furthermore, what would this line of reasoning conclude about potential tires of the future that last forever? We’d have to start licensing tires instead of purchasing them!
What would happen if software vendors could not legally prevent “used” software from being resold on the open market, no matter how it was purchased or upgraded? For one, it would increase competition, because new versions of software would be competing not only against software from other vendors, but also against older versions of itself. In a world where software is priced based on what the market will bear, the net effect would be lower prices and higher quality (not to mention less frequent “upgrades”) for all software.
I think the Vernor case is just one example illustrating how the current software licensing system has sprung a leak, and is in need of repair. Can it be patched, or does it need to be replaced? Can the bleeding be stopped at the ankle, or should it be stopped it at the neck? This is a classical case of the Petcock Problem.
Software industry advocates like the Business Software Alliance (BSA) proclaim that the solution is educating consumers. Education may be important, but I think that “educating consumers” should not be left to an industry alliance.
I have some ideas about how the system can be reformed, but I think we have to start by recognizing that there’s a problem.