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Software licensing act amended

A group of legal experts modifies a proposed overhaul of state laws governing software licensing to address widespread concern about consumer rights.

A group of legal experts amended a proposed overhaul of state laws governing software licensing Thursday to address widespread concern about consumer rights that has stalled passage of the bill in most states.

The Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA), introduced three years ago, is meant to protect software developers from intellectual property theft by resolving conflicting software licensing laws that vary from state to state. But critics complained that the proposed laws favored corporate interests over consumers by granting software makers too much freedom in restricting the use of their software and dictating settlement terms for conflicts.

The act would have let software companies dictate the courts where people who sue them must file. For example, a license on a Corel product required those who purchased the software outside of the company's homeland of Canada to bring suit only in Ireland.

The controversy around the UCITA bill has bogged down its passage in all but two states, Maryland and Virginia.

The amendments ban a controversial practice known as electronic self-help, which allows software companies to electronically disable products if they perceive a breach of contract.

The amendments also protect the rights of customers to criticize and sue software makers as well as reverse engineer their products for the purpose of making them interoperable. In addition, they allow local consumer protection laws to override UCITA when they are in conflict and to make free open-source software exempt from the laws.

The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL), the legal body of about 350 law professors, retired judges and attorneys that drafted the bill, approved the amendments at their annual meeting in Tucson, Ariz.

The amendments should appease critics and clear the way for broader adoption of the bill, said Carlyle Ring, a NCCUSL commissioner and chairman of the UCITA drafting committee.

"I think they go a substantial way toward resolving the concerns," Ring said. "But there will be groups that continue to have concerns."

One of them, Ring said, is the American Library Association, which has deemed the amendments insufficient and loophole-ridden.

It remains to be seen whether the amendments appease other opponents of the bill, including nearly half of the country's state attorneys general, the Consumer Project on Technology, the Consumers Union, the American Bar Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Software Foundation; and whether original supporters, including Microsoft, America Online and the Business Software Alliance, remain in favor of the altered bill, which now faces the state-by-state battle.