If there's one thing free software developers hate more than writing documentation, it's fighting a long-drawn out and unglamorous legal battle. But the latest episode in the UCITA saga bodes ill for any free software author based in the United States.
According to Richard Stallman, burdening free software developers with implied warranties threatens the community with "disaster".
UCITA is the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act, and it's written by a 110-year old US quango, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL), which seeks to harmonise state laws. Usually after several years of public hearings, draftings and redraftings.
It's been the subject of some debate concerning reverse engineering, but so involved is the consultation process that apart from some heroic exceptions, few in the community or media continue to pay much attention.
But a recent one word change to a text submitted with the approval of the Open Source Initiative attorney and executive director Larry Rosen has thrown the issue back at the community.
Carol Kunze and Rosen had asked UCITA to accept three proposals; however one of them was modified.
"They changed one word - an 'and' to an 'or' - and it demolishes the whole basis of our proposal," Rosen told us.
Rosen and Kunze were attempting to secure an exemption from implied warranties of merchantability, fitness, or non-infringement for a computer program, "provided under a license that does not impose a license fee for the right to the source code, to make copies, to modify, and to distribute the computer program."
The proposal would have brought the rest of the States in line with Maryland.
The replacement version, which reads "or to distribute..." is joined by a provision that nullifies the exception for software licensed to consumers.
So why are developers so keen to escape warranty obligations?
"I'd love to have the manufacturer obligated to say that its software meets its definition. But if I got if for free, what the hell are you asking me for?" says Rosen.
Warranty claims by consumers who paid nothing for the software could cripple small developers, he argues.
"Carol's done a magnificent job," says Rosen. "But there isn't enough of the community to be interested enough to be consistently agitating."
Lurking deeper is the true legal status of software libre licenses such as the GPL. Campaigners now face a state-by-state battle to oppose implied warranties. ®