November 15, 2004

How to protect your project, company -- and yourself -- from unwarranted IP attacks

Author: Jem Matzan

In this story, we'll examine a specific and well-documented situation in which unfounded accusations were leveled against a free software project, describe the tactics used by such assailants, and explain how to successfully deflect these attacks and diffuse the situation.

Corporate legal attacks on free software have increased in recent years as open source code works its way into mainstream consumer and enterprise markets and more media attention is placed on intellectual property rights. The highest-visibility case of this kind involves The SCO Group, a small, Utah-based Unix products and services company which filed a landmark $5 billion breach-of-contract lawsuit involving Unix and Linux code in March 2003 against IBM. Millions of words have been written about this case, many of those on this site; in fact, entire Web sites have been created around this and subsequent SCO Group litigation. The case is scheduled to go to court sometime in 2005.

Software IP lawsuits have involved most major IT companies, including AT&T, Red Hat, Novell, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and many others. (A good reference site for computer and Internet law is Megalaw.com, run by a San Diego, Calif.-based group of lawyers.)

More recently, the Mambo free software content management system came under attack from a former public relations representative named Brian Connolly, who runs a company called Furthermore. He insisted, despite convincing evidence to the contrary, that some of his self-described "proprietary" HTML was illegally contributed to the PHP-based Mambo, and proceeded to threaten and harass people connected with the project via email and on public message forums. As he received more attention in the press and in the forums, he grew bolder and more defiant.

Regular blog, mailing list, and message forum contributors will recognize this kind of behavior as trolling. The recommended course of action, according to common Internet wisdom, is to ignore the troll or -- if he or she is persistent -- to forcibly and permanently remove him or her from the community. "Feeding" the troll -- arguing with him, in other words -- only makes it worse. Those who attack publicly without the requisite evidence to support their claims could also classify as a kook, according to the Jargon File.

Regardless of labels, there was an obvious problem at hand, and it was not dealt with properly. What warning signs were there that this situation would get worse without strong and decisive action? What could have been done to prevent it in the first place?

The perfect troll

What separated Connolly from the average troll was his carefully crafted argument that Mambo contained his copyrighted code and his underlying plan to profit by the situation. But he would not identify the exact code -- only the particular functionality that it provided. He also refused to produce any official or legal documents that would suggest his claims were true. So his accusations of code theft and copyright infringement -- terms that Connolly did not appear to truly understand on the several occasions we spoke with him -- were made into a big mystery. No one could definitively deny Connolly's claims, because there were no details to dispute. In effect, Connolly employed an elaborate and intelligently designed smoke-and-mirrors argument to generate attention.

Connolly's argument was circular and therefore could stand longer than a more logical argument with the same amount of evidence. But what kept the issue alive was the threatened consequence of non-compliance: suing project members or end-users who have downloaded and installed the Mambo software. Most people can't afford to be involved in a lawsuit, so this threat is a terrifying prospect to those who downloaded and are using Mambo in good faith. Connolly's trap was perfectly composed to force people into submission. If he truly believed that his business was injured, his only beef should have been with the programmer that he says contributed the allegedly proprietary code to Mambo.

A long and inglorious history

On the surface, Connolly appeared to be in a position of power. His demands included such things as copyright attribution in the Mambo source code and on the front page component of every Mambo site, and exclusive proprietary rights to Mambo's code base. Mambo is, however, licensed under the GNU General Public License, and therefore can never have restrictions added to its license terms. What Connolly was asking for was both ludicrous and impossible to obtain. He told us that these demands were a "starting point" for some kind of negotiation that he assumed would take place, but there could not have even been a reasonable compromise because of the complete lack of evidence.

Connolly gave out his real name and contact information, and that's all that is required to do a little research to see if he has a past history of similar incidents. The people he has threatened would be better prepared to handle a future Connolly complaint if they know what he's done to others in the past. Using only Google and a request for tips on a public Mambo forum, NewsForge was able to collect numerous examples of Connolly's past online exploits. Indeed, it was not the first time that he had joined a public forum and proceeded to troll it.

Connolly has left a long and embarrassing trail of newsgroup, forum, and email messages that exhibit a certain pattern of behavior that in some ways remains consistent, and in others appears to be escalating. The latest of his messages deals with the Mambo project and are the most strange and vulgar of all his public campaigns. His tactics started out as blunderbuss attacks but have slowly been refined over time.

To help Mambo users better defend themselves against FUD and legal threats, we offer this examination of Connolly's exploits. Here are just a few links:

Using the email address clast@interaccess.com, Connolly began posting messages to the chi.media Google Group, a newsgroup for members of the Chicago radio and television media, sometime in 1997. Messages were alternately signed as "Abbie" (no record of Abigail Baffing shows up on the White Pages or through Google; this may have been some kind of alias or alter-ego that Connolly created) and "Brian Connolly;" after October 14, 2001 "Abbie" stopped posting to the group, but Brian pressed on.

Although not a member of the media, Connolly trolled the newsgroups with odd, often offensive messages that garnered quite a number of negative comments. At one point his attacks seemed to be directed at a local CBS newscaster, an apparent attempt to indirectly attack an ex-girlfriend, according to a post by syndicated radio host and author Chris Witting. Two regular members expressed their concern with Connolly's mental health, saying his message was "like the post of a stalker."

With prior knowledge of these posts, the best course of action for the mamboserver.com and mambers.com forums would have been to ban Brian Connolly and possibly a range of IP addresses associated with him in order to cease his attacks. Most ISPs also prohibit this kind of behavior, and it would have been worth reporting him to his online service provider's abuse department. But there are more than just a few Google newsgroup postings. Even if the forums had put an end to his trolling, Connolly had other weapons of mass distortion in his arsenal.

A license to kill the competition

The second wave of Connolly's offensive was in the online media, and when the stories dealing with the Mambo dispute went to press, Connolly was able to again publicly voice his tales of code theft and misappropriation of his supposedly proprietary code into the Mambo core. In our followup to the original story, we showed that the code in question -- the "lead story block" functionality -- is nothing but a couple of trivial and common HTML table attributes which are widely used in content management systems for the same purpose. Not only that, but the code that Mambo uses to accomplish this function is about as different as it could possibly be from the code that Connolly claims ownership of. So it would seem that, licensing and distribution issues aside (yet equally detrimental to his argument), Connolly has no reason to be upset with Mambo end users and developers.

One would wonder, then, why his newest offensive against a free software project continues. To figure that out, we hit the Web again and found some interesting Connolly nonsense such as this message, where it's said that Connolly has gone on similar "crusades" in the past. These "crusades" against Connolly's various former employers are oddly reminiscent of the one that he wages against Mambo, except this time he seems to have become more aggressive and vulgar.

Amid many similar messages, Connolly posted the following threat to the mamboserver.com forums on Aug. 30, 2004: "Those of you who make a living with Mambo, send your prospects a link to this thread. Now imagine this thread times 500 all over the world. Okay? Maybe perhaps that's incentive to deal with this matter reasonably. Or not. I don't care."

And then this: "Again, I imagine these types of conversations repeated in 500 (more) forums all over the planet. That my friend would be the end of the project."

And in an email to several members of the Mambo community on Sept. 5, 2004, Connolly wrote: "As to timing, I think I told you Arnes, Rob Enderle's article on this comes out next week; that was my first reason to hold on the release of the Media Advisory (I promised to give him the scoop). Also, I want to coordinate the timing with my friend John Weathersby Chairman of Open Source Software Institute. He has agreed to mediate in the best interest of the OS Community. BUT... if that fails (which with Castley is likely) the media alert will be distributed directly to http://www.marketwire.com/mw/distribution_product_summary?racode=iw085. We've also identified 25 tech editor/writers who are predisposed to this issue. We've also targeted the major industry forums and maillists."

The common theme here is that Connolly was threatening to take his story to the press if a "resolution" was not reached by a certain date. Details of his conditions for resolution were not disclosed until much later, and then only in emails to individual people. Connolly acquired a list of media contacts from Blake Stowell of The SCO Group, and according to his public messages, he intended to ruin the Mambo project by creating an array of negative press stories with his new contacts. Connolly also told NewsForge and several other sources time and time again that "no business will touch Mambo" while it is involved in a legal dispute like the one he has started. This suggests that the primary target of his attacks may be his competitors -- companies that also sell customizations to the Mambo CMS. If Connolly were successful in his media campaign, other businesses like his would keep away from Mambo, and if his lawsuit threats amounted to wins in court, no other companies would even be able to use Mambo. All this would leave Connolly as the only person who could use, license, and distribute the popular and powerful Mambo CMS.

More public-forum shenanigans

The May Report has a few gems from and about Brian Connolly, including this interesting quote from Ron May on 9/27/2004, which supports Connolly's anti-Mambo media efforts. May and Connolly are apparently friends, according to the above-linked May Report message, and May was reluctant to support any of the anonymous negative comments about Connolly. May said at the end of his message, "if you cross [Brian Connolly]... watch out."

Searching the forums at ePrairie will also turn up some of Brian Connolly's "self-styled crusades" against former employer Ruder Finn, a public relations agency.

A list of Connolly's posts on a GNU mailing list can be found here; he was banned for trolling, after having been a subscriber for only a short while. One list member observed that Brian Connolly doesn't understand free software.

We stopped looking after we found these posts; presumably there are more, but Connolly's public behavior was clear enough from these that we did not believe it necessary to search further.

More on page 2: the battle gets personal

The battle gets personal

This is where the email begins. Connolly had a rather vivid exchange with Peter Lamont of Australia-based Miro International, Robert Castley of the Mambo project, and Steve White of Websdezined.com, a small Web design firm based in Paris, Illinois. Although they appear to all be in the same boat, their conversations with Connolly were made in isolation, and the three do not know one another very well -- or at all in some cases. All three people, in three separate narratives, share a common story of a man named Brian Connolly who used abusive, abrasive, and often highly vulgar language in an attempt to strong-arm them into submission. At least two of these sources plus other Mambo-related programmers offered separately and privately to make an effort to completely remove any supposedly infringing code if Connolly would only tell them what it was.

According to the emails, Connolly would neither tell anyone what specific code was being misused (presumably because he did not know; Connolly told NewsForge that he has not examined any of the code in Furthermore or Mambo to verify its function or origin) nor accept removal of this code as the sole condition of settlement. If someone offered to take the lead story block out of Mambo's core, Connolly would respond with vague terms such as, "it's much more than that" -- a phrase he used when NewsForge asked him what code he had issue with besides the lead story block. Connolly even told NewsForge that he didn't care about the lead story block, that Mambo could have it, so long as he personally received credit for the work and no other Mambo-based sites had the "newspaper" look that his Furthermore template has.

The most serious of Connolly's maneuvers involved contacting one of White's customers, a small-town newspaper which had contracted Websdezined to make and implement a Web site. They chose the Mambo open-source CMS to accomplish this task, and when Connolly found out about that and saw the lead story block in use, he immediately assumed that White had stolen code. That wasn't the first time that Connolly had dealt with White; the incident actually stretches back a bit further, to August 2004.

Steve White read a LinuxWorld article on Connolly and Furthermore (coincidentally, that LinuxWorld article was written by Robert G. Hamilton, who is listed as an associate of the Literati Group, which is in turn associated with Furthermore; we do not understand how anyone can take the LinuxWorld article seriously, because it was written by an agent of the company being profiled), and decided to visit the Furthermore site to see what it was about. After viewing the site and signing up as a member, White received his first email from Brian Connolly, telling him that they were not yet open for business, but if Steve had any questions he should feel free to call. Mysteriously, two days later Connolly sent another email equating bandwidth usage with code theft. Connolly grew more and more accusatory with each successive email, causing Steve White and his business partner Ross Carrell to demand evidence of any theft of code from Connolly's Web server. Connolly merely saw a higher-than-usual bandwidth usage originating from Websdezined and assumed that they had somehow "stolen" his Web site. To any moderately knowledgeable Web professional, this is a laughable proposition. This reporter tried on two occasions to slowly and carefully explain to Brian Connolly that his code could not have been "stolen" in the way that he is proposing, and that Apache's usage logs are not evidence of anything except hits and the IP addresses of visitors.

The situation got to the point where Carrell said that he could not help Connolly, because Connolly refused to identify any files that he claims were stolen. Connolly responded with more smoke and mirrors, threats, and accusations that had no basis in fact. Connolly specifically took issue with the fact that Websdezined was designing a Mambo-based site for a local newspaper -- this is the market that Connolly had hoped to capture. The newspaper's site used the lead story block, so to put the matter behind him, Carrell temporarily disabled that feature in their newspaper customer's Web site. Upon speaking with their legal counsel, White and Carrell decided that it was safe to re-enable the block. This again attracted the ire of Connolly, who was closely watching the newspaper's site. Brian Connolly referred to the Web site as a "derivative work" and quoted a section of the U.S. copyright law, among other things.

Connolly then called the FBI, who telephoned White at his home to ask some questions. With legal counsel present, all agreed at the end of the telephone conversation that there was probably no reason to pursue the matter further, and to date Steve White has not heard back from the FBI.

After that, Connolly contacted the newspaper that had its new Websdezined-authored, Mambo-based Web site going live soon. At first, he demanded a public announcement from the newspaper saying that the matter had been "amicably resolved," or alternatively, a non-public settlement of $10,000, or a lawsuit. Connolly stressed the public announcement as the best option, apparently revealing his intention to get public attention from the matter above all else. In addition to his email, he also sent along a suggested press release to announce the matter, should this company choose to accept the agreement. Steve White told us on the phone that he specifically asked Connolly what code was being used that belonged to him, and Connolly told him that it was the lead story block, plus a "whole backbone" of code that he knew nothing about and could not identify or locate.

Steve White faced the worst of Connolly's attempts to use the legal system as a weapon, but the Connolly-authored email he received was positively rosy compared to what Robert Castley endured.

Castley approached Miro International in 2001 to offer to form a community of Mambo programmers to continue its development; up until that time, Mambo was a commercial project, and Miro had released an alternative version under a free software license. Development was practically nonexistent on the free software edition of Mambo, and Castley and a group of other developers wanted to do more with it.

Fast-forward to August 2004; Mambo OS has become a wildly popular CMS, and Brian Connolly decides that he'd like to make some money off it. After posting a number of somewhat elementary tech questions and offering a littlepromotion of his Furthermore template, Connolly again directed his wrath in a public forum. At the same time, Connolly emailed a number of Mambo developers and community members. In his usual style, Connolly emailed Robert Castley, leveling his various demands. NewsForge only had access to the conversation after Sept. 1, beginning with a highly belligerent letter from Connolly to Castley. The letters that followed contained unprintable language from Connolly as well as the suggestion that some of the members of the Mambo community want Castley to "die of cancer" because of this incident that Connolly engineered, executed, and continued to pursue.

Thirdly, we read through Brian Connolly's communications to Miro CEO Peter Lamont through John Weathersby of the OSSI. Weathersby initially offered to mediate the dispute, but then backed out of it when Connolly made rather bold demands and Lamont refused to accept them. Connolly submitted to NewsForge (and presumably other media outlets) what appears to be a kind of press release in which he again threatens innocent people with unknown consequences. It was not widely printed in the online press; by that time, editors were sick of hearing about empty threats and a lack of evidence to support them.

We asked Peter Lamont what he thought of the situation. He told us: "Miro was not at all eager to have discussions with Connolly in the first place, as we believe he is incorrigible. On the basis of the ridiculous demands of the email and its attachments, we replied to Weathersby that 'We will not enter into any further communication with yourself or Connolly.' "

Weathersby characterized Connolly's list of demands to Lamont as "a first step ... and I look forward to your insight and proposals." Connolly wanted the list of demands to be a starting point for negotiations; like before, he told NewsForge that he expected Lamont to issue a similarly unreasonable list to Connolly (via Weathersby) and then commence with some sort of haggling dialogue. In the eyes of Lamont, this list of demands merely supported his belief in Connolly's incorrigibility. Lamont, in true Aussie fashion, abhors a prevaricator, and upon seeing Connolly's continued public media campaign and general attitude toward everyone involved, Lamont considered his list of demands to be a big steaming pile of prevarication, and he refused to deal with Connolly further.

Additionally, Connolly had referred to Weathersby as his "friend" in a prior email to some Mambo developers, and that made Peter Lamont suspect that Weathersby was not an impartial mediator. Weathersby told Lamont, however, that he had only spoken with Connolly once before and had no kind of personal relationship with him. As noted above, Lamont did not want to deal with Connolly because of the public statements that had already been made. In an email to Weathersby, Lamont said of Connolly: "I am stunned at his behaviour. His use of threats, personal insults, and self-serving 'quotes' cannot be condoned, and Miro will proceed with legal action to restrain him."

Peter Lamont handled the situation properly and professionally, but the others involved made the mistake of giving Connolly more room for argument. Connolly did eventually make good on his threat to send out a cease-and-desist email -- apparently authored by Connolly himself -- to Websdezined's newspaper customer. The only reply necessary was a note from Websdezined's legal counsel informing Connolly that continued harassment would result in legal action. His bluff called, Connolly replied that he and the involved parties had reached an "understanding" and that Connolly would again "revisit the matter" if Websdezined or their customers infringed Connolly's alleged copyrights.

Connolly attacks NewsForge

When we first published the Mambo story, we had hoped to hear the "other" side of Connolly's story but could not contact anyone by phone in time to publish the article. Emir Sakic quickly sent us a formal email response along with a link to the Mambo project's official response on the matter. We added this information to the article immediately and modified the story to let readers know that an update had occurred. Sometime in the very late evening on that same day, Brian Connolly phoned this reporter to talk about the updates. He insisted that adding Emir's reply to Connolly's accusations made the article "biased" and "unbalanced." He also expressed great concern with what he viewed as highly negative posts on the OSTG-owned Slashdot.org site, which had published a link to our story on its front page. We assured Mr. Connolly that such things are to be expected and that he must learn to deal with negative Slashdot comments on his own. Connolly was also told that under no circumstances would Sakic's reply be changed or removed, and that we felt it completed the article in a balanced and appropriate way.

After our second article on the Mambo situation, Connolly immediately posted a puzzling, meandering, and mostly nonsensical response to this reporter's analysis of Connolly's claims in the NewsForge article comment section. We also tracked his IP address "What to do if you're involved in code-dispute litigation" piece, attacking both Miro International and the Mambo project, perhaps in defiance of the excellent expert advice printed in that very article. When he was trolled in return, Connolly demanded that we remove a brief post, which calls Connolly's actions, "psychotic." Twice Connolly demanded that this comment be deleted because he viewed it as "defamatory." After Editor-In-Chief Robin "Roblimo" Miller told him that he didn't feel that it was defamatory and that the post would not be removed, Connolly ceased further communication with us regarding the matter.

Reflection

Although it's likely that Formosa's Law may apply, the free software community -- and the technology and PR communities at large -- need to become aware of Connolly and people like him. The situation with Mambo, as we've shown, is not an issue of "proprietary versus open source" as one misguided analyst claims; this is an entirely separate issue that both proprietary and free software programmers and supporters should remain vigilant to defend.

We did not explore all of our research opportunities in this story. We did not call, for instance, Brian Connolly's supposed business partners in the Literati Group, nor did we call any of his former employers or former business partners. We believe that the public and personal statements that Connolly himself made are damning enough and warrant no further investigation. Connolly himself can best be summed up in a quote from a paper (a post that doubles as yet another attack on Ruder Finn) that Connolly himself claims to have written, entitled "Cluetrain Redux:"

A few weeks ago, Tribune columnist Barbara Rose reminded us to "Revisit, revive Cluetrain's Net declaration."

"Listen up," she quoted. "The Internet isn't a place to post mission statements. It exposes lies and laughs at phoniness."

Arm yourselves

Connolly's tactics amount to the following:

  • A public accusation that is difficult or impossible to verify
  • A lack of details critical to the success of the accusation
  • A sense of mystery surrounding the accuser's claims
  • Demands as conditions of resolution; ideally they are realistic and easily accomplished, but in Connolly's case they were not
  • Consequences that genuinely frighten the accused or other victims

For those affected by Connolly's threats, a few Google searches at various times should have rung enough warning bells about the perpetrator. If he'd been treated as a forum troll throughout his public "crusade," the worry that he caused his competitors and to the Mambo community that helped him build his business to begin with would have been greatly reduced. Peter Lamont's example of dealing with the situation seriously and professionally, with a strongly critical eye toward the accuser's unfounded accusations, is one that everyone involved in this sort of dispute should keep in mind. In general, people with genuine copyright or code theft claims will not use public arguments as a way to reach a serious resolution; if they do, their intention is probably not to solve the problem but to generate publicity.

Free software or proprietary, we should all be wary of public smoke-and-mirrors attacks on any person, project, or company. We in the media need to resist the urge to get the scoop and rely more on good research and investigation, or we'll succumb to our own lust for page views at the expense of factual reporting. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Reeves, "Real news is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms." The online media is only part of the equation, however. We in the many moderated public communities on the Internet need to eliminate the trolls and stop them before their need for attention is dominated by destruction.

Brian Connolly, if he ends up being at all successful with his "crusade," undoubtedly will spawn more ethically challenged businessmen to launch copycat attacks and/or supercilious lawsuits on other targets. Let us hope this is not in the future of technology and public discourse.

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

Category:

  • Legal
Click Here!