January 11, 2001, 8:57 AM — The Gripe Line
WHAT DOES IP stand for? Unfortunately, the growing legions of lawyers sending out cease and desist letters about material posted on the Internet indicates it now seems to stand for Intellectual Property.
There have been a number of recent examples of IP's new meaning on the Internet, but one of the most interesting cases involved Digital Convergence and Linux developers. As you're probably aware, Digital Convergence has given away several million free bar code scanners called CueCats. The idea is that users can scan a bar code in an advertisement and be taken automatically to a Web page. In the process demographic information about the scan is sent to Digital Convergence. (Privacy advocates have expressed concerns about how Digital Convergence might use the information it gathers, but that's not our issue here.)
Because the CueCats came only with Windows software, Linux users were soon writing their own drivers so they also could use the device. Decoding the algorithm used by the CueCat to scan bar codes turned out to be fairly simple, so soon there were a number of CueCat drivers posted on the Web. Not surprisingly, most users bypassed the step of sending the scan information through Digital Convergence's transaction engine.
As a result, most users quickly received a letter from Digital Convergence's law firm. The letters were virtually identical and menacingly vague. Recipients were informed that services or information posted at a particular URL were deemed in violation of Digital Convergence's intellectual property rights and they'd be held liable for any harm the company suffered as a result, including "any infringement which [the recipient] induces others to perform."
Needless to say, the sentiments expressed by the lawyer's letter rubbed the open-sourcers the wrong way. "Someone hands me a free piece of hardware but doesn't provide software I can use with it -- what am I supposed to do?" asks one outraged recipient of the letter. "If they can do this, they can ban reverse engineering of any type."
Attempts to get more information from Digital Convergence's law firm proved futile, although in a few cases it did produce a second letter that was just as threatening and just as vague as the first. Ultimately, a number of the Linux developers decided that discretion was the better part of valor and chose to remove the drivers from their Web sites. Their concern wasn't that Digital Convergence could make its intellectual property claims stick in court, but that the company could use the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to shut down the developer's Web site. (The DMCA has an appeals process, but in the meantime an ISP has little choice but to suspend a site accused of infringing a copyright holder's rights.)