Category Archives: Legal/Ethical

Vedanti and Max Sound vs. Google

Vedanti Systems Limited (VSL) and Max Sound Coporation filed a lawsuit against Google recently. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care about corporate legal battles. However, this one interests me because it’s multimedia-related. I’m curious to know how coding technology patents might hold up in a real court case.

Here’s the most entertaining complaint in the lawsuit:

Despite Google’s well-publicized Code of Conduct — “Don’t be Evil” — which it explains is “about doing the right thing,” “following the law,” and “acting honorably,” Google, in fact, has an established pattern of conduct which is the exact opposite of its claimed piety.

I wonder if this is the first known case in which Google has been sued over its long-obsoleted “Don’t be evil” mantra?

Researching The Plaintiffs
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Internecine Legal Threats

FFmpeg and associated open source multimedia projects such as xine, MPlayer, and VLC have long had a rebel mystique about them; a bunch of hackers playing fast and loose with IP law in order to give the world the free multimedia experience it deserved. We figured out the algorithms using any tools available, including the feared technique of binary reverse engineering. When I gave a presentation about FFmpeg at Linuxtag in 2007, I created this image illustrating said mystique:

It garnered laughs. But I made the point that we multimedia hackers just press on, doing our thing while ignoring legal threats. The policy has historically worked out famously for us– to date, I seem to be the only person on the receiving end of a sort-of legal threat from the outside world.

Who would have thought that the most credible legal threat to an open source multimedia project would emanate from a fork of that very project? Because that’s exactly what has transpired:

Click for full threat

So it came to pass that Michael Niedermayer — the leader of the FFmpeg project — received a bona fide legal nastygram from Mans Rullgard, a representative of the FFmpeg-forked Libav project. The subject of dispute is a scorched-earth matter involving the somewhat iconic FFmpeg zigzag logo:

Original 2D logo enhanced 3D logo

To think of all those years we spent worrying about legal threats from organizations outside the community. I’m reminded of that time-honored horror trope/urban legend staple: Get out! The legal threats are coming from inside the house!

I’m interested to see how this all plays out, particularly regarding jurisdiction, as we have a U.K. resident engaging an Italian lawyer outfit to deliver a legal threat to an Austrian citizen regarding an image hosted on a server in Hungary. I suspect I know why that law firm was chosen, but it’s still a curious jurisdictional setup.

People often used to ask me if we multimedia hackers would get sued to death for doing what we do. My response was always, “There’s only one way to know for sure,” by which I meant that we would just have to engage in said shady activities and determine empirically if lawsuits resulted. So I’m a strong advocate for experimentation to push the limits. Kudos to Michael and Mans for volunteering to push the legal limits.

Swiss Patent Survey

Sometime ago, I complained about all those survey requests that F/OSS developers receive from grad students who insist on surveying people from an academic post vs. obtaining real employment. Normally, I ignore them summarily (and then get testy when the authors send multiple notices or actively follow up to demand why I have not done my part).

However, I have recently been getting survey spam with a slightly different focus. One Marcus Dapp, a Ph.D. student somewhere in Swiss-land, is conducting an exclusive, invitation-only survey about how software patents impact free software projects. Apparently, he doesn’t read Slashdot or any of the thousands of other geek sites out there that consistently lament the topic.

Ironically, I received the survey invite due to my activity with the old TuxNES project (because it’s a Sourceforge project and it’s technically “active” — 89.76% activity last week? huh?), and not due to being on the forefront of the IP powder keg that is multimedia technology. For TuxNES and other 8-bit NES emulators, the patent situation is fairly cut and dried — the NES hardware patents expired years ago.

The Almighty EULA

One of my favorite blogs, Coding Horror, recently had an intelligent discussion of end-user license agreements (EULAs). When I say “intelligent”, I of course mean that it doesn’t credit them as being the ultimate evil in the world that will enslave us all.

EULA Hotel
It’s a real hotel in San Francisco! Thanks to King Molan for the picture.

Seriously, I think EULAs are very important. Many EULAs contain clauses that forbid binary reverse engineering. Whenever I install a piece of closed, proprietary software, I skim the EULA specifically to locate the section that discusses RE and the forbidding thereof. My reasoning is that if the clause is missing, then the software’s creators may just have the source available for download somewhere which would make any RE task superfluous.

Remember, don’t RE if you don’t have to.