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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Taking on software liability
In this follow-up, technology regular columnist Bill Thompson responds to the many messages about his call for software firms to accept liability for what they produce.

Firefox logo, Mozilla Foundation
Many readers objected to Bill using Firefox as an example
There has been a lot of discussion about my call for software liability in a column entitled Whose fault is it anyway?, and it shows that this is an issue which needs some serious attention.

Many people have taken the time to e-mail the BBC, and there has also been a lively debate on Slashdot, the technology discussion site.

Some of the criticism was based on an assumption that I just do not understand how programs are written. But I worked as a commercial programmer for several years, and I have seen how hard it is to write bullet-proof code.

Just because it is hard does not mean we should give up on the effort, but current licenses allow companies to pass on the risk to their customers in an unacceptable way.

Production and consumption

However, a few people have written to point out that there is a big difference between developers, the people actually writing the code, and the companies that employ them and distribute the final products to the market.

I should have made that clearer - the legalese of the license comes from the distribution side, and most developers are doing their best.

Bill Thompson
I still believe that the current situation is unsustainable, and that we should be working harder to improve the quality of the code out there.
Bill Thompson

There is also a big difference between consumer software like word processors and web browsers, and the massive information systems used internally in large companies.

The companies writing the large systems usually have contracts which mean they are liable for damages, and this increases both the cost and the reliability of the resulting programs.

We seem to want cheap consumer software, just as we want cheap food, and the result is that we get security holes and bugs.

Many readers commented on the difference between free/open source software and commercial software when it comes to guarantees, and criticised my use of the licence for the Firefox browser as an example.

I was not trying to undermine Firefox, and it is clear that there is a difference between something that is given away for free and something that is paid for when it comes to fitness for purpose and performance.

But liability for consequential damage is different from guarantees of proper working. One of the main challenges facing us is finding a licencing regime that can allow free software to flourish while still giving users some assurance that their program will not damage their system or their lives.

Perhaps fear of being sued, the most obvious consequence of liability, isn't the way to it, but we must do something to improve the situation.

I do not think we should automatically exclude free/open source software from our analysis simply because it is produced by teams of programmers working for nothing, and the fact that it is given away does not, of itself, provide legal immunity.

Watch the road

Man typing on keyboard, Eyewire
Doing a better job of writing code will take time and effort
Cars are a good example here. Motor vehicles have to be safe, and there are rules and regulations governing their development and production which, by and large, keep the roads safe from exploding cars.

It does not stop accidents caused by driver error or poor maintenance, but it does make us safer.

And if a group of people build their own cars then they have to follow those same rules in order to be allowed to use public roads, even if they gave their cars away.

It should be the same for software, especially in our networked world where other people's insecure computers host spambots and other malware that can cause damage to all network users.

It is possible to make error-free code, or at least to get a lot closer to it than we do at the moment, but it takes time and effort. Doing it will probably mean that commercially-available code is more expensive and cause major problems for free and open source software developers.

But I still believe that the current situation is unsustainable, and that we should be working harder to improve the quality of the code out there.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital



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