Monday, February 19, 2007

Probably overblown time issue shows deeper problem

There are plenty of reports about the new "time bug" affecting computers using software produced before 2005, when the US Congress passed a law requiring that daylight-saving time should start three weeks earlier and end one week later, from 2007. So, since computers and other devices automatically correct their time by using a date that has been programmed, those devices using pre-2005's law dates would not change to daylight-saving time on, strangely enough, time. While the impact that the situation may actually have on people's lives and business' functioning is to be seen (and probably going no further than a nuisance), the implicants from the solutions are far reaching.
In order to solve the problem, if somebody is part of the alleged 97% market share that Microsoft Windows has on operating systems (2006 data), the only thing it would need to do is to download the forthcoming patch to be released tomorrow (Tuesday, February 20). However, that is only true if the user is between those using Windows XP Sever Pack 2, because for anything older Microsoft does not provide updates or patches any more, in accordance with its Support Lifecycle Policy. While it can be argued that the policy does not constitute an unfair term (it also can be argued the opposite and probably with more serious legal support) due to the life cycle of the product, the same argument contradicts completely the level of protection that software gets under different categories of intellectual property rights. Since it seems that it was Microsoft founder the one that started the comparison with the automobile, it is worth to pursue the same line and understand support and updates as a car service and repairs. Needles to say that when a security issue is discovered, the position of the software makers in general is completely untenable because the bug or mistake does not constitute, paraphrasing the law of tort, a novus actus. The damage or potential damage is caused by a mistake in the original programming and it is not the result of a change in the rules as this new time-bug seems to be (the previous paragraph does not ignore court rulings on the contrary, it just argues that those court rulings are plainly wrong and only justified by judges following the ill-conceived economic analysis of the law that incorrectly implies that it is possible to know with certainty the economic impact of a decision. Economic analysis of the law is a very interesting and useful tool for academic and policy making analysis, but too base judicial decisions on it is simply not in accordance with the legal system of most modern societies, thus wrong). However, in order to follow the car example, we can focus on supervening causes (those that were not there when the product was produced, as the example of the Congress-induced time-bug is).
There was some controversy when Microsoft first announced that it was going to stop supporting and updating old versions of Windows, and that it would have for limited time (five years) a paid service to that respect, being the strategy clearly directed to make users to upgrade to the following versions of the popular operating system. Again, it would not be very difficult to show with both legislation and case law that such a change of the original terms of the contract are not necessary legal and probably violating too many sections of consumer protection laws of too many jurisdictions, but experience has shown that the Redmond's company has enough power to convince judges and policy makers otherwise. On the other hand, and keeping with the car analogy, it can be said that when a car needs servicing or repairing the manufacturer is not expected to carry out the service or the repairs for free (unless under guarantee, but that is not compulsory and it is offered normally as a selling strategy). Thus, software producers paid-support should be normal and acceptable. However, although it is true that it might void the guarantee, there is no provision in the purchase of a car prohibiting the use of a third party mechanic. Furthermore, there is no legislation making illegal to look for such a third party solution or repair, and there is an extended and flourishing market of repair shops and third party brand parts. And that is the problem with the "lifecycle policies" for software.
It is illegal to look for a third party "repair" when the original manufacturer stops providing support and in some instances it could be even a criminal offence to do so. How can be justified to protect software with copyright that gives 95 years of protection in the US (if the copyright holder is a company) or with a patent that gives 20 years of protection when , the same companies recognize that the life cycle of the product is, at the very most (yes, is a literary licence I have taken), ten years? So it seems very explicit that the law that is supposed to "promote the progress of science and useful arts" actually only promotes monopolization and monopolistic profits, which the state is supposed to try to avoid.

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