Controversial ‘time bomb’ legislation fizzles

After nearly four years of intense debate, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL)–a group of more than 350 lawyers, judges, and law professors–said it is shelving efforts to pursue nationwide legislation that would give software publishers the right to shut down computer programs remotely when users, including school customers, are found in violation of their licensing agreements.

Known as the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act, or UCITA, the initiative sought to create the first state-to-state law governing all contracts for the sale, licensing, service, and support of commercial software or digital information products. The legislation would command greater respect for the terms set forth in “shrink-wrap” and “click-wrap” licensing agreements encountered by users when they download or manually install new software onto their machines; prevent the transfer of licenses from one party to another without vendor approval; and enable vendors to disable software remotely in the event that a user violates the terms of his or her software agreement, among other things.

But despite its adoption so far in two states–Maryland and Virginia–the law has struggled to gain momentum nationwide and, in some cases, has met with stark resistance from lawmakers and consumer-interest groups, many of whom contend that UCITA places too much power in the hands of software providers. Now the group responsible for drafting the law has announced it no longer plans to fight for UCITA’s passage.

NCCUSL President K. King Burnett attempted to explain the decision at the organization’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in August: “Clearly our efforts to find consensus and to bring all of the interested parties together has been extraordinary. Unfortunately, in the real world, sometimes doing the right thing at the right time is not enough. We have determined to focus [our] energies on the items related to our larger agenda and not expend any additional…energy or resources in having UCITA adopted.”

The decision is doubtless a disappointment to software companies such as Microsoft Corp. and other supporters of the bill, including the Business Software Alliance and the Software and Industry Information Association, which lobbied hard for widespread adoption of UCITA and were encouraged by NCCUSL’s commitment.

According to NCCUSL’s legislative director, John McCabe, UCITA attempted to bring a sense of uniformity to the chaotic world of internet commerce, where transactions–especially for software products–occur in the form of licensing pacts between vendor and consumer, rather than the outright sale of goods.

“Certainty is useful in commerce. Uncertainty is not useful,” McCabe said. “The assumption was that ultimately an adapted law for computer information contracts is likely to be necessary.”

But while pro-UCITA factions billed the law as a way to extend the protections of the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs the sale of tangible goods, to products in the digital realm, its detractors saw the law a as nod toward free reign for software manufacturers and attempted to thwart the bill’s adoption.

At the head of the opposition movement stands the Americans for Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions (AFFECT), a coalition of more than 60 retail, nonprofit, and consumer groups formed in 1999 to fight UCITA’s passage.

The group has lobbied with legislators in all 50 states to block UCITA, and its efforts have given way to a grassroots movement, garnering the support of the American Library Association, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Law Institute, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Federal Trade Commission, among others.

“UCITA is an extremely complex piece of legislation,” said AFFECT Coordinator Carol Ashworth. “On the surface it might look like a good thing, but the more you know about UCITA, the less likely you are to support it.”

At the heart of the UCITA debate is the law’s controversial “self-help” provision, which would enable software companies to repossess their products in the event that users fail to live up to the terms set forth in their licensing agreement. Specifically, the provision would enable software companies to use “time bomb” mechanisms that would disable software products remotely.

While UCITA’s supporters have said the terms of self-help are analogous to the same commercial code laws that allow banks to repossess a person’s house, they’ve also argued that UCITA provides sufficient protections for consumers.

Not so, according to Ashworth. “UCITA was far too sweeping in its scope,” she said. “One of the factors that led to its demise is that it really tried to be all things to all people.” Some legal experts argued that UCITA would permit software publishers to circumvent the fair-use exceptions in existing U.S. copyright law by enabling them to include language in both “shrink-wrap” and “click-wrap” licensing agreements that is contradictory to standard fair-use policy. Perhaps more important, software customers generally do not get an opportunity to read the fine print in licensing agreements until after the original point of purchase.

“UCITA is designed to give software and digital content producers the right to hold back their terms until after customers have paid and taken delivery, and it also invites publishers to try to cut back on fair-use rights by [using] boilerplate contract terms,” said University of Arizona law professors Jean Braucher and Roger Henderson.

Although a uniform law governing computer transactions would not be a bad thing in itself, legal experts who spoke with eSchool News said UCITA probably is not the best answer.

Instead, it would be desirable to have legislation that clearly requires advanced disclosure of contract terms, protects fair-use rights in mass-market transactions, and gives rights of transfer to the customer, so customers can make fair use of the products, Braucher said: “It would be better to do nothing than enact a law like UCITA that protects, rather than addresses, abusive practices of producers. There are tools in federal and state consumer law and in state contract law that can address the problems until a [better] statute is written.”

Jonathan Band, an internet lawyer and a partner at Washington, D.C.-based Morrison and Foerster LLP, said the use of “click-wrap” and “shrink-wrap” licensing tools is not necessarily a bad idea, as long as the terms of those agreements do not supercede existing copyright law.

Band suggested creating a “black list” of licensing terms, precluding software makers from incorporating language into their legalese that would adversely affect consumer protections.

Some states already have taken steps to undercut UCITA.

Iowa, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Vermont all have enacted “bomb-shelter” provisions to shield their residents against UCITA laws already in place in other states. Delaware and Massachusetts have introduced similar provisions for consideration in their state legislatures.

In 2001, a letter from 32 attorneys general opposing the law stated, “UCITA is so flawed that any amendments which could reasonably be expected…would not significantly ameliorate UCITA’s negative impact on consumers or on the marketplace in general.”

And earlier this year, UCITA initiatives in Nevada and Oklahoma fell flat when the law failed to win the support of the American Bar Association, which questioned its approval on the grounds that it could “present a significant security concern, potentially affecting key aspects of our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

“UCITA’s failure to take the state legislatures by storm was more than a matter of timing–it was the wrong act as well as the wrong time,” said Miriam Nisbet, president of AFFECT. “We are quite pleased that the [NCCUSL] has decided to expend no further energy on UCITA.”

At the school level, educators don’t dispute the need for companies to monitor the appropriate use of licensed software, but many have questioned their methods.

“While I don’t like the idea of a software developer being able to unilaterally uninstall a program, there need to be processes whereby they can monitor correct use and get compensation that is due them from misuse,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “Quite frankly, current law as I understand it allows for [that] compensation. I am not sure that giving a vendor access to organizational networks is appropriate–there must be some way of [crafting a better law] to ensure users are using software appropriately.”

In Maryland and Virginia, where UCITA already is law, experts say the best protection against potentially unfair licensing policies is to read thoroughly the terms listed in both “click-wrap” and “shrink-wrap” agreements.

While NCCUSL has no immediate plans to pursue further passage of UCITA in other states, it did not rule out the possibility of rewriting the bill down the road.

“Of course, we are not abandoning our interest in the subject matter. UCITA will remain in place as a resource for the American legal and political community and for reference by the courts,” Burnett said during the meeting. “At some time in the future, there will be opportunities for making contributions of law suitable for the information economy. The [NCCUSL] remains interested in making these kinds of contributions and will undoubtedly consider carefully any new opportunities that arise.”


National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws

Americans for Fair Electronic Commerce Transactions

Morrison and Foerster LLP


This innovative text reader includes a host of other features

Internet users with vision or reading problems can have the text of any web page read to them in a natural-sounding voice with the ReadingBar for Internet Explorer from ReadPlease Corp. But the software is much more than a simple text reader.

With the AT&T Natural Voices speech engine, ReadingBar’s synthetic speech sounds natural and realistic. Not only does it read web pages aloud; users also can employ it to create MPS sound files, magnify web pages, make text-only versions of any web page, look up words in the built-in dictionary, and translate web pages to and from other languages.

“This is a real advancement in speech technology,” said Rob McCormack, president of ReadPlease Corp. “Our software invention gives internet users a whole new experience.”

ReadingBar is not just limited to the web; you can also use it to read text from other applications as well. The ReadingBar for Internet Explorer costs $69.95, with an additional $30 when ordered with the AT&T Natural Voices CD-ROM.


Track and manage student behavior problems with this Curriculum Associates program

Throughout the school day, teachers, bus drivers, school nurses, librarians, and others might encounter students with behavior problems but have no easy way of keeping track or creating effective intervention plans. Now tracking, analyzing, and managing students’ bad behavior from day to day just got easier with the help of the Student Behavior Intervention Planner (S-BIP), developed by Curriculum Associates Inc.

S-BIP is a web-based behavior management system that automates, simplifies, and standardizes the way users track and analyze student behavior. The system creates a complete behavior history online for each student from information submitted on Incident Observation Forms, Behavior Analysis Forms, and more. S-BIP also creates and tracks discipline action plans. All forms are also available as printable portable document files (PDFs).

S-BIP costs $199.95 per building for the first year. Volume and multi-year discounts are available.


New software from Riverdeep provides assessment and skills-building activities

Riverdeep Inc. is distributing two new software series that assess students’ skills and knowledge, and then provide review and remediation as necessary.

The Skill Navigator Series, designed by online education company TestU, diagnoses the skills of students in grades 9-12 based on state standards and then offers a customized curriculum to help them prepare for state exams. It includes initial skills assessment, self-pacing, skills-based tutorials, effective test-taking strategies, continuous practice assessments, onscreen coaching and mentoring, and an interactive lab. The first products available in the Skill Navigator series address mathematics and language arts.

The Skill Detective Series, also developed by TestU, measures student knowledge of math and language-arts concepts as presented in Riverdeep’s most popular curriculum products. This series targets more than 75 math, language arts, reading comprehension, and critical thinking skills. The diagnostic tests, which correlate to state standards, quickly identify areas of need and provide additional opportunities for students to hone these skills. The first two products in this series are Skill Detective Upper Elementary for grades 3-5 and Skill Detective Middle School for grades 6-8.

Prices for Skills Navigator start at $249 per license, and prices for Skill Detective start at $99.


ThinkFree offers a cost-effective alternative to Microsoft software

For just $1 per student, K-12 schools can purchase a site license to ThinkFree Office–a Microsoft Office-compatible suite of productivity tools for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations–from ThinkFree Corp. of Cupertino, Calif.

ThinkFree says its software can create, open, edit, and save any Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. ThinkFree also eliminates the hassle associated with maintaining software licenses by only charging a one-time licensing fee, the company says. Through the ThinkFree Academic License Program, schools receive a perpetual site license and product upgrades for three years. However, ThinkFree does require a minimum purchase of 100 licenses.

Students, faculty, and staff may use this cost-effective alternative on any computer on campus, including computer labs, classrooms, libraries, and administration offices. Students and teachers also can purchase copies of ThinkFree Office at a reduced price for use at home from Scholastic Inc.


Schedule resources and events quickly and easily with WebEvent View

WebEvent View, a new web-based calendaring solution from WebEvent Inc., gives every school district stakeholder–including administrators, teachers, staff members, students, and parents–a fast and easy way to keep track of their personal schedules, school events, homework, projects, and more.

According to the company, WebEvent helps school systems better inform parents and students about what’s happening in their schools. But it also features a resource reservation tool that educators can use to book shared resources such as projectors, gymnasiums, telescopes, or mobile computer labs.

WebEvent View’s scalable architecture reportedly works with desktop calendaring systems, personal digital assistants, course-scheduling applications, and school web portals. It also offers both distributed and centralized storage of calendar information, and because it’s web-based, users can access the system from any location. Enterprise-license pricing for schools starts at $10,000 for installations of 500 to 1,000 users.


New videoconferencing solution offers high-end features at an affordable price

Advanced Media Design Inc. offers a new, scalable videoconferencing system priced at $29,900. Designed for multiple participants in a business or education environment, MediaPOINTE SystemTwo is a self-contained system that plugs into an ISDN or IP-based network and includes a camera, monitor, and conferencing software.

“SystemTwo is unique in the industry because it provides an easy-to-use interface in an economical system while offering nearly the same level of performance as fully integrated, high-end media collaboration systems,” said Steve Villoria, the company’s president and chief executive.

MediaPOINTE SystemTwo works in virtually any size venue, the company says. Its features include collaborative on-screen annotation, remote-end system control if those systems are MediaPOINTE environments, and support for all types of display devices, including computers, electronic whiteboards, and audio-visual sources (VCRs, DVD players, cameras, document cameras, etc.). The system also outputs a multimedia archival feed in a variety of video formats, so users can store and play back sessions.


Funds for improving teaching and learning with technology

The AT&T Foundation awards grants to education projects that focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning through the effective use of technology; developing workforce skills for the information technology industry; and advancing diversity in education and the workplace, especially in the fields of science, math, engineering, and technology. Accredited public and private elementary and secondary schools, accredited public and private two- and four-year institutions of higher education, and educational nonprofit organizations are eligible for consideration. AT&T funds are typically distributed through invitational programs or through projects that it proactively develops with nonprofit organizations. Unsolicited applications are reviewed, but rarely are supported. Those who wish to submit an unsolicited proposal should send a brief letter of introduction and description of their organization and project to: Secretary, AT&T Foundation, 32 Avenue of the Americas, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10013.


Funds to foster girls’ and minorities’ interest in math and science

The RGK Foundation awards grants in the broad areas of education, community, and medicine or health. The foundation’s primary interests within education include programs that focus on formal K-12 education (particularly mathematics, science, and reading or literacy), after-school tutoring and enrichment, integrating technology into the curriculum, teacher development, and higher education. The foundation is particularly interested in programs that attract female and minority students into the fields of mathematics, science, and technology. The foundation does not consider unsolicited grant proposals; instead, applicants are required to submit an electronic Letter of Inquiry on the foundation’s web site. Letters of Inquiry are reviewed on an ongoing basis, so there is no deadline for submission. The foundation will respond to letters by eMail within three weeks to let applicants know if they should submit a formal proposal.


Funds to improve K-12 urban public education

The Broad Foundation’s mission is to improve K-12 urban public education through better governance, management, and labor relations. The foundation seeks applications that aim to enlist talent, redefine roles and authorities, develop high-performing leaders and systems, provide incentives for results, and honor and showcase success. Organizations seeking funding should carefully review the foundation’s web site to ensure that their proposals are consistent with its mission and that the focus of the work is located in one of the eligible districts. The foundation considers concept papers at the end of the month in which they are received. All concept papers will receive a response within 60 days, and applicants whose concept papers are of interest to the foundation may be asked to submit a full proposal. Note that the foundation funds less than five percent of unsolicited inquiries.