Rule of Law and of the free market (part 2)

Le procès de Guillermito, deuxième partie en anglais.

This is the second part of an article on Guillermito’s trial for criminal copyright infringement. The first part is here.

It is not my goal to summarise the entire case: I am not a lawyer, copyright law is different in every country (and my knowledge of it little more than hazy), and I also don’t have the time to sum up all the technical and legal details as far as I understand them. (I will be happy to answer any questions to the best of my ability, though.)

The following are notes and observations from a non-legal point-of-view: more about analysing the different players’ approach to the issue than about editorialising on French copyright law or the pitfalls of intellectual property. I am translating loosely (but as accurately as possible), paraphrasing minor bits I haven’t noted verbatim.

Guillermito: The impression he left was that of a researcher (which is, after all, his profession), of someone who is interested in finding out and understanding how things work; and who won’t let a company get away with lies and exaggerations about the quality of their products if he is capable of proving otherwise. Which is all he did, in all openness.

The judges: This sort of case is judged by a college of three judges, one of whom has the task of summarising the case. Some of the observers were a bit worried that the judges might be hampered by a (presumed) lack of understanding of computer matters (they were all over twice the age of the average member of the geek crowd, after all). But, pleasant surprise, the judge in charge of the case actually knew the file inside-out, had even understood the weaknesses of the expert’s report and asked relevant questions about technical details#[1]. Of the other two, one was looking at Guillermito as if he was her favourite grandson (I think it was to mask her fatigue, and I don’t blame her; I rather admire the court’s endurance), the other one was looking a bit frazzled sometimes, but attentive and interested.

The lawyer of the software company that filed the complaint: I think he was bad (yet, I heard the software company had hired an expensive and reputable firm). His technical explanations were, unlike the descriptions provided by Guillermito and his lawyer, incomprehensible. And the judges didn’t appreciate it, if their frowns are any indication. The public had a hard time to keep quiet (but managed) when he talked about all the infringing explanations on how to understand the workings of the anti-virus program, which were written down in “the program README.TXT, which is a text file” on G’s (closed down) server. Other than that, he was trying to be as insulting as possible, stopping short of calling G a terrorist (which his clients hadn’t shied away from in an advert), but by used and overused the sobriquet “byte apprentice” (apprenti-octet). And he told a woeful tale of the poor anti-virus program that G had endeavoured to break down, smash to pieces, batter, abuse and attack (I am not exaggerating), which is forbidden”. None of this seemed to make a good impression either.

The prosecutor:#[2] A formidable character, thundering down on Guillermito from the heights of his podium. He seemed to accept the results of G’s analysis — basically, that the program is a dud (un daube — suppressed laughter in the audience) — and even alluded to “companies that take 20 years to provide a stable operating system”.

What was particularly interesting, though, was the limpid and ideologically somewhat extreme approach he took. The first step was to compare Guillermito repeatedly to Robin Hood, thus covertly introducing the widespread but dangerous equivalence “copyright infringement = theft”. Robin Hood may be a good criminal, but every legal system that is based on the Rule of Law can’t but convict him. Then came his main point. In a society like ours, he argued, where “there is no room for legitimate resistance” (since it is a good one, regulated by Law), Guillermito, not being a computer scientist or programmer, gets to use the program in question in the capacity of a consumer only. If he is unfortunate enough to find out that the program doesn’t do what the company that distributes it claims, he has a choice: either to file a complaint with the police, or to write and market his own, superior product, thus putting his trust in the free market to weed out the duds. The law, he clarified, is there to protect consumers (and employees etc., ie the weak); other than in the cases written down in its books, “free competition is the best mechanism to improve products”. Exceptions may be made if public interest comes into it in other ways (like in the regulated drug market), but since software “has rarely killed anyone” and is generally considered harmless, property rights take precedence over intellectual curiosity. “You have to accept the restrictions.”

At this point I was itching for someone to bring up free speech. The prosecutor touched on “the right to criticise”, but only in the negative: critique is legit “within the limits laid down in Media Law, and not as a hacker (pirate)”. On the contrary, he pursued, “our society is at risk if it isn’t credible when it comes to intellectual property, in particular in the international context”. What follows logically is that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, unless it serves immediate profit motives, is of no worth at all compared to the overwhelming importance of what derives from the free market and the protection of property rights. Empowering consumers (well, or simply people) and thereby opening an alternative to hiding behind the Law’s tutelage is not something the French Republic seems to consider as valuable. The enlightenment is a bygone era, its goals not worthy of further pursuit and made obsolete by newer and bigger challenges. This, I felt, was quite a big thing to swallow; it also captures what makes me feel out of phase with some of society’s norms. Not that I don’t care about whether I abide by the law or not; conflicts of principles are, however, possible.

Guillermito’s lawyer: Suffice it to say that he was excellent. Impressively, he called the prosecutor’s “Robin Hood” bluff with an elegant reference to how the prosecutor’s discourse actually created a Robin Hood out of a simple researcher interested in computer.

The stakes: I am not qualified to do them justice, so I will just briefly note that this is the first software copyright infringement case in France that isn’t about someone making and/or selling multiple copies of a proprietary program. On the basis of this alone, the case will set a precedent. Moreover, French law has recently incorporated some EU intellectual property directives, which will be put to test for the first time — in particular the part about what we are allowed to do with or to a program for purposes of testing, scientific investigation or review, even without the consent of the copyright holder. The legal technicalities will have to deal with the thorny point of whether or not you need a license in these cases (which is unfortunately a rather blurry issue in G’s case).

The sentence of 4 months of probation plus a fine of 6,000 € was put forward by the prosecution. The defence wants a non-guilty pronouncement. Oh, and the software company wants 900,000 € in damages, a sum that even the prosecutor seems to consider rather outrageous.

The saga continues with part three.

[1]: One exchange with Guillermito that made the geek crowd smile (paraphrasing): Judge — You’re talking about “attack programs” … api99 for example. What is this? Do you know about it? G — Oh yes, that’s a virus. J (slightly taken aback) — A virus?! G — Well, if you’re testing if an anti-virus program that claims to stop 100% of all viruses actually does what it says, you use viruses. You can download them on the internet. An anti-virus program is supposed to stop viruses by definition. J — Ah, yes, by definition. [2]: One point should be noted here. The French criminal justice system being an inquisitorial (and not adversarial) one, the role of the prosecution (in particular) is much different from what it is in the US or the UK (and many other English-speaking countries). The prosecution’s task isn’t to prove the guilt of the defendant. As far as I can see, their job is twofold: a) representing the Republic (or society) and thus referring to the rule of law and the public interest (they also propose the sentence and are the only ones to get to do this); b) playing the role of the bad guy; in this capacity they get to scold and lecture the defendant, and to gesticulate dramatically.

Rule of Law part one

Le proces de Guillermito pour contrefaçon de logiciel. Pour une excellente collection de liens en français, voir chez Laurent.

  • 2005-01-05
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The new year started with a bang#[1]: Steph is visiting Paris. The more common tourist attractions aren’t good enough for this Anglo-Swiss star of the francophone blogosphere, so after lunch and some pleasant conversation, we went to a criminal trial. Not any old trial, of course, but Guillermito’s.

French blogs are talking about the case all over the Internet, but there is little good information in English.#[2] In short, Guillermito is a French molecular biologist who works on plant immunity at Harvard. As a hobby, he is interested in computer security. For his critique (fr) of the anti-virus program Viguard, he has been charged with what it is misleadingly translated as “counterfeiting” works protected by intellectual property law: a better translation is, I think, criminal copyright infringement.

It was the first time I’ve been to a trial, and of course Guillermito’s case (being the most complex of that afternoon’s lot) came last. Which is why I got to see, hear and learn a ton of interesting bits:

  • The public toilets at the Paris Palais de Justice are in an acceptable but not great state of cleanliness even in the mid-afternoon. To get there, you need to find the courtyard with the Saint Chapelle in the middle. The facilities you need are right below. (And if you’re confused now, this map of the premises will sort it all out; there are bad pop-up photos if you mouse over it.)
  • All those lawyerly professions are much more interesting than I used to think. You get to externalise your aggressive tendencies, accuse, even insult (within limits), do a spot of discourse analysis if you feel like it, be gentle … in short, play a role, but without anyone expecting any artistic value from your performance.
  • The prosecutor was particularly impressive: a massive man with a booming voice, who kept bunching up his robes, gesticulating, lecturing; he would have made a formidable headmaster, too (I had some flashbacks to my teaching experiences).
  • A beautiful painting of a wan, reclining Justitia in a flowing grey-blue dress, a heavy tome on her knees, her scales dangling from a tired hand, the other one being in constant danger of receiving a nasty cut from her sword, was looking resignedly down on the prosecutor from behind the judges. I understood most of the symbolism on the ceiling, except the hand mirror with a snake winding around its handle, all on a background of oak leaves.
  • After reading Eolas’s excellent introduction (fr), I expected the proceedings to resemble a church service. And they do: the hard benches, the handsome wood panelling, paintings, and beautiful ceiling, and above all the routinised solemnity taken as a matter of course. Still, all the getting up and sitting down business is much less dynamic than what a congregation manages to do, and in church, the public isn’t carefully observed by a police officer, who doesn’t hesitate to scold anyone who does something they shouldn’t.
  • Oh, yes, that police officer. I managed to attract his attention and was reprimanded for reading Bourdieu’s Langage et pouvoir symbolique on my knees. It had been a desperate attempt to stay awake during a particularly tedious case about the relationships between employers, employees, self-employed contractors and the office that collects social contributions (unemployment, medical and other insurance fees) from the first for the second but not for the third. Lawyers, on the other hand, get to sit on benches that are hidden from view by high backs and armrests, so they can do all kinds of stuff without anyone objecting.
  • Be prepared (fr) and ask at the information desk if in doubt. We (Steph, Michel and I) were and did, but a gaggle of geeks (a giggle?) hadn’t realized that “our” court had temporarily swapped court rooms with another one, which is currently hearing a case that requires a bigger dock that can hold 6 defendants at once. So they found themselves looking at a handful of suspected islamist terrorists instead of one poor hacker. (The terrorism case, though quite well publicised in the French press, appears to be of little interest to the general public. I was happy to confirm to one of the lost geeks that the logo “ABC” that one of said geeks saw on a TV camera does, indeed, belong to an American network. More on that other case in the NYT and in the Age, here and here.)
  • The sentence you risk if you sell a car without telling the buyer that a) it was repaired from the bottom up after a big accident, and b) during the repair, the broken km counter was exchanged for one that showed 17,000 km less than the car had actually run, even if the buyer manages to re-sell the car for the same price they paid you, is not substantially lower than if you are a butcher whose premises are in such a bad state that you might well poison your entire clientèle (I’ll pass on the nauseating details involving deadly bacteria and dozens of kg of rotting meat ready to go into sausages).
  • Courtroom N° 10 sits about 40 members of the public. I’d say there were about 50 Guillermito-supporters present, mostly bloggers and computer security specialists. Everyone was on their best behaviour (well, we tried). I hope Mr Peer’s feet have recovered. I was also happy to see neuro` again and was honoured to meet Veuve Tarquine, who is particularly charming, a lawyer and a blogger#[3]. She stopped long enough in-between zipping at lightning speed from one end of the Palais to the other to give us poor ignorants brief historical overviews and valuable pointers. And Guillermito himself, of course, who is adorable and articulate, dispensed buckets of patience to make the technical stuff as accessible to the court as possible, and left an excellent impression, I think.

Then, finally, Guillermito was called. My notes and impressions of his trial are covered in the second part.

[1]: Well, actually it doesn’t. I’m still slow and tired, and the number of drafts I never seem to be able to finish or posts I want to write but can’t seem to manage is growing. Anyway. A very happy, healthy, fruitful and satisfying New Year to all friends and readers of ˌser.ənˈdɪp.ɪ.ti! [2]: Guillermito has written a short summary in English. There is also a Slashdot thread about the case, but I find most of it more misleading than helpful. [3]: Each segment of the blogosphere has its strengths and weak points. In France, there is an astonishing number of fabulous law blogs.

For many people, the one special date of the year is an occasion to reflect on other — more famous — anniversaries that fall on that day.

For me, this is the 6th of December. I used to think that this date wasn’t an extraordinary one, apart from being St Nicolas’ Day (which is important in Germany, as children put their stockings out over the night and find it in the morning filled with nuts, oranges and candy), and the birthday of Peter Handke and Ève Curie.

But I was wrong. There’s another, much more painful and, I fear, somewhat significant event that took place on this date. Here are the details on the CBC archive site. The perpetrator left a letter about his intentions, which is here — no one can say he wasn’t clear on what his acts signified.

One thing I find slightly disquieting is when the massacre at the Montreal Polytechnique University happened, I wasn’t a child any longer. I was a young adult, and should have been open to what happens in the world. Still, I only learnt about these events a few years ago.

For more links in French, see the French version of this article.

Enduring perpetual jeremiads

Les gardiens de la Langue commencent sérieusement à me gonfler.

Or maybe the title of this post ought to read “Pertannual insubdurience”. Why? You’ll see. I am dismayed. I care about language as much as the next blogger, probably a lot more. And I enjoy reading a good rant, too. But there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to bewailing the decline, decrepitude, dissolution, and […]

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Le meurtre de Theo van Gogh est suivi par une série d’actes de violence contre des institutions musulmanes. Cet article refléchit à la situation. J’ai aussi établi un tableau détaillant les actes de violence contre des personnes de la vie publique ou politique en Europe. Contient deux liens vers des articles en français.

This happened on Monday the 8th in Eindhoven: Dutch Muslim school hit by bomb (ici un lien vers un article en français). And today, another Muslim primary school in Ude was set on fire (in Dutch). The article says that graffiti saying “Theo R.I.P” and drawings of the “white power” sign were found […]

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Viewropa ist en neues, mehrsprachiges, europäisches Kollektivblog.

  • 2004-11-09
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A new group blog, a “Community Euroblog”, as they call it: Viewropa. It is beautifully designed, multilingual (English posts dominate, but when you register, you can set your preferred interface language), and pursues a worthy goal: … to provide a space for informed, intelligent presentation and civilised discussion of European issues, news and events Via […]

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Bitte nicht!

Deutschland: erstes teilprivatisiertes Gefängnis kommt in Hessen.

  • 2004-11-08
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And I had hoped that this sort of, er, innovation would remain a UK-only phenomenon, as far as Europe is concerned. But no, the British are exporting their services to the German land (federal state) of Hesse, which is getting Germany’s first partially privatised prison. It’s not as if north of the Channel some people […]

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Electoral scribblings (the aftermath)

Ont voté. Suivez les liens pour des petites réactions anti-chagrin. Je suis trop lessivée pour gribouiller en français.

  • 2004-11-03
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Well, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet, officially. A friend on irc, on the other hand, says she’s singing right as I type this. Or he? What’s the appropriate pronoun gender for a fat lady who is neither fat nor a lady? Be that as it may, even though there’s no much doubt that, barring […]

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Electoral scribblings (part 2)

Ils votent toujours.

  • 2004-11-03
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We’re way behind schedule as indicated on various election guides/cheat sheets. Not that I feel like going to bed. Still, why is it that the US with all their high-brow electoral technology (optical scanners at least, voting computers in many cases), which ought to give instant readouts as soon as the polls close, take at […]

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Electoral scribblings (part 1)

Aux Etats-Unis, ils votent.

  • 2004-11-03
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The big US election day is, where I live, technically over, and the first states are about to close their polling stations. This is about the worst day it could have happened: my ADSL connection is down and has been for over ten hours now. DSLAM non joignable (unreachable) says my ISP’s network status page. […]

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