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SoFurry loses custom chat after coder copyright claim

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SoFurry lost its custom chat last weekend after a key developer responded to a ban by filing a copyright-based takedown demand. [Conan/vivisector]

Site leader Toumal responded with assurances that a new chat module would be provided, and made a call for donations. A temporary chat has since been implemented.

Relations between DigitalMan and other staff were previously tense, and disputes flared up last month during an argument about exposing user customization options. DigitalMan also runs the New Anthro Empire, a site featuring chat- and forum-based roleplaying.

Under U.S. law, joint authors who intended to create a single work can exercise rights independently of one another, lacking a specific contract. However, the contributions are in dispute; some staff say it was a team effort, while DigitalMan claims to have written certain features himself:

So, what functionality did I add on my own? Well, for one, the chat sidebar. Yes, the whole sidebar.
[...]
Speaking of input fields, whispers. [...] And along with whispers, we needed ignores. Also not there, in any way, shape, or form.

Subsequent to the ban, DigitalMan also released quotes suggesting that the SoFurry designer Alex Vance sought to curtail user customization:

We are designers and engineers. We have better taste and vision than 99.9% of the SoFurry userbase, so anything that an average user can put together in terms of customizing the user interface is guaranteed to be uglier than anything we can give them. The users will have no concept of color theory, visual weight, the dynamics of type — but they’ll feel what’s sub-standard, and they’ll have no real way to fix the hideousness they put together.
[...]
I feel quite strongly that giving users excessive customization options is something we should be very careful about. It’s an easy way out for us, giving users the choice is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility ourselves. I suggest we keep in mind customization in developing 2.0, but think hard whether or not we reveal it to the user: choice is what we give the user only when we don’t have the ability to give them excellence.
[...]
As for allowing users to manipulate the navigation structure, I’m actually very strongly against that. It smacks of Microsoft Office 98, the notion that the user can make things better than a team of dedicated, trained designers and engineers. I really want to make a strong case for this: it’s our job to make the navigation and interface look and work brilliantly. Users don’t know what they want, and if we permit them to make choices that will make them unhappy they’ll feel as if SoFurry is crap despite the fact that they made it crap for themselves.

Comments

Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)

"And how in the flying fuck is a total of five messages, all legitimately in response to conversation, even close to spamming? He called it “flaming” a few minutes prior, which is it? (The correct answer is neither; it’s called “trolling”. A site administrator ought to know that, and at least pick the right reason for administrative actions.)"

He should stick with color scheming and working on his own website and should certainly not pick defense attorney as his career of choice, he just basically admitted guilt there.

Your rating: None Average: 4.5 (8 votes)

I'd like to make the following statement about this:

1) DigitalMan joined the sofurry team and worked as a contributor. He contributed parts to a larger whole, especially since the chat already existed well before he joined the team. I do not want to diminish his role in the chat development, for he contributed important parts to the chat. His contributions include an improved userlist, ban functions, ignore function, various chat commands, chat user settings, various chat refresh improvements, many chat frontend improvements, and the PM outbox. That he now claims never to have been part of the team however is dubious at best: He had a SVN account, dev mailinglist access, and access to all the other facilities used by our developers, and he was accepted as a team member, not an "outside developer". His work was a result of discussions and interactions with other developers. Key parts of the chat were developed by MJTF, Morghus and myself. And of course we have the SVN logs and emails to prove this. Whether or not he "feels" to have been part of the team today is of no consequence, the fact is that while he was given relatively free reign over the improvements made to the chat, he ultimately did that: improvements.

2) I strongly disagree with the notion that a former contributor can just pull out the very bricks he donated to a building, just because he is no longer part of the building team. DigitalMan was well aware that his contributions became part of SoFurry and he never stated that he did not want this when he joined or while he contributed to SoFurry 1.0. It's only over a year after he was removed from the development team that he started objecting to us using code he previously committed to our SVN.
DigitalMan claims that copyrights were never transferred - this may or may not be true, though permission can be given either implicitly or explicitly. The dispute is whether or not such a permission can be retracted lateron or not, and whether he implicitly gave permission to use his contributions by committing it to our SVN with the clear intention of having them become part of SoFurry.

It is our belief that since he did not write "the chat module" but only contributed parts of it, and his parts don't work on their own but need a chat core code to go with it (which was not written by him), implicit permission was given and cannot just be yanked away lateron.

3) Some parts of the copyright claim by DigitalMan are incorrect. For example, the chat userlist backend code was completely rewritten by myself to increase performance after he was removed from the dev team. The "PM outbox" code was a copy/paste affair of the existing inbox code with minor alterations, and such code duplication can hardly be called original work when only a handful of lines have been modified from the original function. Other parts were indeed his contributions, but as per point 1 and 2 I question the validity of a sudden change of heart and/or the "retraction of permission".

4) DigitalMan has not contributed any code to SoFurry 2.0, the few commits he made have been removed from our code repositories roughly a year ago.

5) Contrary to the statements made by DigitalMan, we have received confirmation from both a lawyer AND a written statement by the legal department of our US ISP that the DMCA notice has to be reacted upon within 24 hours, regardless of whether we agree or can prove otherwise. We can issue a counter-notice, which would then result in the ability for DigitalMan to file a lawsuit. Until we file such a counter-notice, Save Harbor provisions apply. I only mention this here because DigitalMan has claimed that our US ISP "examined the code for similarities", which is false.

6) We are in talks with our legal counsel and are considering our options here, but frankly, the fact that work on the 2.0 chat is progressing makes a costly legal conflict a questionable endeavor. But that, and any other legal steps, are for our lawyer to decide over the coming days. It may be that while the urge to fight back tempts for a legal defense against the DMCA, the best choice for our users could be focusing on the new 2.0 chat instead.

7) I do not condone the sharing of internal email conversations from the dev mailinglist - made public despite the fact that this was specifically forbidden.

8) Addressing that email by Alex Vance, our goal is and was to provide the best possible service for our almost 200.000 users. Furthermore, that email is pretty old and our current todo list includes both alternate designs as well as user-customizable color schemes, to be implemented after the switchover from 1.0 to 2.0 - I think if you look into the way SoFurry 2.0 has progressed, you will find that we're going back and re-working parts that don't work quite right, like for example the watchlist which is being completely re-implemented right now, using an improved layout and a much faster backend.
Also, another little fact: We had color customization during the early days of SF 2.0 development. We disabled (but didn't remove it) when the layout was being finalized. It will become part of SF 2.0 again in due time.

We've revisited many of our decisions in the past, and I think that's the major strong point of SoFurry: Our development is centered around user demands. Almost all the items on our short-term todo list at http://beta.sofurry.com/report/progress are based on user feedback - in fact you'll find that the "Watch folder/series feature" requested from a user in another flayrah news article is on there. Color customization is not on our short-term list, but it is scheduled for after 2.0 replaces 1.0, which will happen soon.

Finally, I wish DigitalMan would focus on his own site. I'm more than happy to let the matter rest, time will tell if DigitalMan sees it the same way.

Your rating: None Average: 3.7 (6 votes)

Another small update: At the very least something good has come out already. Thanks to the consultations we've received so far, all our developers are now signing a CLA which should prevent such issues from reoccuring the future. Going into a collaborative software project, I never would've anticipated having a legal dispute over code ownership against against a former contributor. The SoFurry dev team and I have certainly learned a lot from this incident, and I hope we can leave this whole thing behind us as soon as possible.
Another side effect is that our devs are very motivated after these events.

I'd say both are very positive outcomes.

Your rating: None Average: 3.3 (3 votes)

Pretty much any software project of any size should require explicit agreements of who the copyright goes to. Even if there are no issues with one trying to pull some stunt like this, minor stuff comes up all the time about exactly what license is going to be used for the code and the off chance of wanting to change licenses or have the code under multiple licenses in the future. The agreement can be as simple as just telling all contributors they can only contribute if they release under some specific open source license.

Your rating: None Average: 3.7 (3 votes)

I agree. Suffice to say we learned our lesson here. Do note that even such an agreement does not prevent such a dmca complaint! You can have a sogned license and still have to take down the stiff. A lawsuit can still be brought on and the validity/applicability of the license be brought into question.

Your rating: None Average: 2.3 (3 votes)

I really disagree with that philosophy of "knowing better" if your users want customization and it won't break the site for everyone else, give it to them, don't be a snobby designer prick.

Your rating: None Average: 3.7 (3 votes)

Please read my comment above. Thank you.

This email was sent a year ago. Whether or not users want/need such a thing was unknown at the time, and sometimes just asking does not work. And other times users know exactly what they want/need and you should give them exactly that.

In this case I have changed my mind. What more can you ask for?

Your rating: None Average: 2.7 (3 votes)

I'm sorry, but I have to say it: This is why you use an open-source system like Drupal. I count a half-dozen chat modules at least for it, all of them free and without the threat of copright claims like this one.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

Drupal does not have the functionality we need, we'd need custom development either way. SoFurry is not based on Drupal, and with good reason. None of those chat modules have the required featureset, compatibility with our distributed setup and/or the needed performance either.

Plus our chat is tied in with our group system, any user can form a community group and create their own private/public chat rooms and forums... coding integration for such things, and the subsequent maintenance, is a nightmare. I know, we did exactly that for many years: We used phpbb and SMF as forums, and VOC and phpchat as chat software.

I'm not saying that rolling your own is always the better thing to do, but for us it definitely was worth it.

For 2.0 we're using the Yii Framework because we want to focus on the actual application, not the internal plumbing. Yii gives us a flexibility that Drupal doesn't have, for Drupal is a CMS and Yii is truly just an application framework that gives you many common things for free while encouraging the creation of clean and maintainable code.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (3 votes)

Alex Vance here.

DigitalMan was a prick to quote out-of-context, year-old e-mails from an internal discussion board. While I think it's a pretty dim-witted move on his part, quoting his quotes as part of this article is legitimate.

For the record, the quotes in the above article and DM's blog are selected excerpts from a longer discussion among the internal SoFurry dev team from about a year ago. That's it.

To take these context-free snippets as some sort of statement of SoFurry's policy or my guiding attitudes toward users in general and SoFurry specifically would be silly.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

It's basically true that a good designer is going to make a better design than most users are. This is something users don't always like to hear, but it's pretty obvious when you think about it. Heather Bruton is going to make a better illustration for a story than most authors are, too. DigitalMan -- and a few others, apparently -- are trying to paint that truism as something horribly elitist, but it's not.

The best solution is probably to give users the most sensible defaults you can -- to say, "Hey, without you doing anything, we're going to make your work look pretty good" -- and then to let people customize from that point if they want or need to. In theory, that way everybody's happy. (In theory.)

- Chipotle

Your rating: None Average: 4 (4 votes)

It would be... and clearly some people are silly...

I visited his website by the way, the Website title literally ate up the subtitle so that the subtitle was illegible.

Your rating: None Average: 1 (4 votes)

Now why didn't anyone tell me about this? I am amused!

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About the author

GreenReaper (Laurence Parry)read storiescontact (login required)

a software developer and Norn from London, UK, interested in wikis and computers

Small fuzzy creature who likes cheese & carrots. Founder of WikiFur, lead admin of Inkbunny, and Editor-in-Chief of Flayrah.