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I certainly picked a good day to check up on my “local” news…

October 10, 2007, 8:08 PM

On my lunch hour today at work, I took some time to read about what’s going on in Stuarts Draft. I went over to The News Virginian and The News Leader‘s sites, and took a look around. By the way, Target’s now open at the site of the former Outlet Village.

But the story that really caught my eye was in the Staunton paper, about a man who is suing the Staunton city government over their swear/spam filtering system – a program called MailMarshal. According to the article, Dr. Adrian Riskin, a mathematics professor at Mary Baldwin College, filed papers in general district court seeking to obtain the list of words that triggers the software, after the city denied an earlier request for the list. The city denied his request on the grounds that it was proprietary information, and therefore was exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Riskin argued that if the city edited the list, it is no longer proprietary. Additionally, Riskin is quoted as saying, regarding an unmodified list, “it cannot possibly be proprietary since the software vendor provides it for a free download from their Web site.”

That last part really burns me up. Just because one makes something available on the Internet for download at no charge does NOT mean one is releasing it into the public domain. In fact, those software license agreements that nobody reads that you have to accept during the software’s installation often make it quite clear – the vendor owns the software, and you are being granted a license to use it, contingent upon a whole slew of terms that are spelled out in there. If you don’t agree, the software won’t install. Still, the misperception that if something’s available on the Internet at no charge means it’s in the public domain causes so much headache for online content providers such as myself, as I from time to time find materials from my site show up in various places online, particularly on eBay, with not even so much as a word of attribution with it, on the misperception that since it’s online, it must be free for the taking, to do whatever you want with.

Now my site is no longer “all rights reserved”, because on November 26, 2005, I adopted the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license, which is a form of copyleft. However, one still must at least comply with the terms of the license, which requires attribution, among other things. Still, it’s frustrating. It’s usually photos of fire alarms from my site that people use to sell similar items. I’ve had to send Emails to the little image thieves before, too, and tell them, in a nutshell, hey, you can use my images, but you have to comply with the license, which you are presently not doing. And usually the image pirates respond to me and apologize, and spell out the misconception under which they were acting. And I’m like, surprise, surprise. Still, copyleft has its advantages, as I think it was a contributing factor to a photo of mine’s being published in Weird Virginia earlier this year (I took that photo of the Roanoke Star on page 164!).

Now I went to the Web site for Marshal, and downloaded the trial version of the MailMarshal program that Staunton uses. In the license agreement for the program, in the sixth paragraph, regarding restrictions on use, it states the following:

you may not copy (except for back-up purposes), modify, port, adapt, translate, localize, reverse engineer, de-compile, disassemble or otherwise attempt to discover the source code of the Software

Additionally, in the eighth paragraph, regarding title to the software:

The Software and Documentation are confidential and proprietary information of Marshal and/or its suppliers. Title, ownership rights, and intellectual property rights in and to the foregoing shall remain with Marshal and/or its suppliers.

I’m not a lawyer, but it sounds to me like the city acted properly in denying the request. City spokesman Doug Cochran was reported saying that the city did not modify the filtering software, and that licensing requirements prohibited their releasing the list. So it sounds like Riskin has no case, and should prepare to get his case thrown out of court.

Now why is Dr. Riskin seeking to obtain the list? Curiosity. According to the article, in August, Riskin sent a message to the city Email address of a friend of his. The message reportedly consisted of a joke that contained the “f-word”. And it bounced. So he’s suing. And one can also tell how seriously he’s taking the whole affair when he was reported in the same article to have attempted to contact the city to tell them that he was forming an organization called “Fathers for Uncensored Communicational Knowledge”. Oh, dear. By the way, the Email was blocked by said filtering software.

So in the end, what do we have? A frivolous lawsuit. And from a college professor, no less – someone whom we would hope would have more important things to do in the middle of the fall semester, like, say, teach math, and also have the sense to know that his lawsuit had no merit going into this whole matter. Some people…

Web site: "Rebuffed by spam filter, professor takes city to court", from The News Leader's October 10, 2007 edition.

Song: "Everybody needs somebody to love..." (from The Blues Brothers)

Quote: By the way, I have half a mind to do a FOIA request of my own to get a copy of the results of the hearing on the matter that is scheduled for October 25.

Categories: Virginia local news