August 7, 2003 10:08 AM PDT

Supporters back away from software bill

The key supporters of a software-licensing bill that critics say promotes corporate rights over those of consumers have, in the face of mounting opposition, decided to quit lobbying for its enactment.

The Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA), drafted four years ago, is meant to protect software developers from intellectual property theft by resolving conflicting software licensing laws that vary from state to state.

But critics have complained that the proposed laws favor corporate interests over those of consumers. They say it grants software makers too much freedom in restricting the use of their products and in dictating settlement terms for conflicts.

UCITA has been enacted in only two states, Maryland and Virginia, since the group of law experts that drafted the bill began its enactment campaign.

The group, called the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL), anticipated that an additional two to five states would pass the bill after the group amended it last year to address concerns about consumer rights. But the bill's opponents, including the American Bar Association and the American Library Association, refused to back down.

Despite being introduced in Nevada and Oklahoma legislatures this year, UCITA never made any further progress. And four states--Vermont, Iowa, West Virginia and North Carolina--have passed anti-UCITA "bomb-shelter" provisions, which make UCITA laws in Maryland and Virginia inapplicable to residents of those states, according to the Americans for Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions. AFFECT is a national coalition that opposes UCITA.

The lack of acceptance has prompted NCCUSL to announce on Friday that it had pulled the plug on all efforts to help states introduce and enact the bill. Without that backing, UCITA is unlikely to gain further consideration from the states, according to Katie Robinson, a NCCUSL spokeswoman.

"Without the conference pushing UCTIA, I don't see any other legislative activity happening on it," Robinson said.

NCCUSL, which concluded its annual meeting in Washington this week, also disbanded the special committee that oversees its UCITA activity. Robinson said politics had interfered with the group's efforts in support of the bill, adding that the group may revisit the subject of state laws that govern software contracts and digital information in the future.

"It is heartening to see NCCUSL backing away from a very flawed statute, but it will never be able to write sound law for the information economy until it takes to heart the criticisms of the user sector," Jean Braucher, a member of AFFECT and a professor at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, said in a statement issued Wednesday.

"The debate is not just 'politics,'" Braucher added. "There are fundamental policy problems with UCITA."

Yet UCITA is not completely dead and buried, legal experts say. Because it's on the books in two states, courts across the country could be influenced by it, according to Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"However, the prevailing wind right now is against UCITA," von Lohmann said. "We think that's a good thing."

 

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