May 8, 2002

Microsoft winds up on both ends of software piracy stick

- by Tina Gasperson -
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.

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