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Dealing w/ Outside Interests in Your Projects? 48

Posted by Cliff
from the reality-intrudes dept.
Anthony Boyd asks: "Last weekend, I built a web site that is a poor-man's version of Classmates. Except that it is custom-built just for my high-school, with no ads or fees. I got a fine response from the people that knew about it, and was busy reconnecting with lost friends... until [last week], when my school's alumni association called and gave me an earful of comments such as, 'that's a rogue site' and 'it may not be legal!' Turns out, they hoped to build something similar, as a platform to entice donations. So, I'm stuck. Before I do anything, I'd like to ask Slashdot: have the projects you built for 'just for fun' been overrun by outside interests? If so, what did you do, and what would you have done differently?"
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Dealing w/ Outside Interests in Your Projects?

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  • One Option (Score:4, Funny)

    by AlexisKai (114768) * on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:45PM (#6970660) Homepage
    Well, if you're pleasant and charismatic, you can always try selling them their very own customized alumni website, which you just happen to have right in this briefcase....
    • He should also see if they would be willing to pay him to web master it. They would have to get someone to do the job no matter what. Since he is only doing this for fun, he shouldn't have to many problems with prices.
    • Re:One Option (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:18PM (#6970999)
      I know you are only kidding, but there's usually one problem with this: whoever is pushing for this new site to get built usually has a nephew who got Frontpage for his birthday.
  • Send them packing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ka9dgx (72702) * on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:49PM (#6970707) Homepage Journal
    How can they stop you from wanting to talk with your classmates? As long as you aren't claiming to be officially sanctioned, what can they do? (I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV).

    --Mike--

    • In any case, if you have not plagiarised anything, defamed anybody or incited anyone to illegal actions, you have nothing to worry about.

      Put a copyright notice on your website (in case these guys try to rip you off) and tell them to get fucked.

      If you want to be a bit more professional than that, tell them to get professionally fucked. :-)

    • Re:Send them packing (Score:3, Interesting)

      by BrynM (217883) *
      Chances are, if he did it for the school and did it at the school at all, then they own it. To me, it sounds as if he's going to a private school (let me know if I'm right or wrong). I too went to a private school with a very fervent alumni association. Since they are what brings in the donations for sports, scholarships, arts projects and school renovations, you will have a hard time trying to fight them for dominance.

      I propose offering them a compromise. Change your scope. Let them build theirs and of

    • by Feztaa (633745) on Tuesday September 16, 2003 @12:50AM (#6972135) Homepage
      (I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV)

      So close, yet so far away...

      I'm waiting for the day that somebody says "I'm not a lawyer, but I play one on Slashdot."
  • IT IS NOT ILLEAL (Score:3, Redundant)

    by stonebeat.org (562495) on Monday September 15, 2003 @09:50PM (#6970724) Homepage
    tell them to go away.
  • Fair Use (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Unless they can prevent alumni from gathering and discussing their common interests (hint, freedom of assembly), then just make sure your site doesn't use any trademarks, and tell them that they are welcom to run their site too.
  • by captainktainer (588167) <captainktainer AT yahoo DOT com> on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:04PM (#6970871)
    Yes, it's legal. Assuming your school wasn't a private school, you can hook up as many people as you want for whatever price you want- as long as you make it clear that you're not an employee or affiliate of the school.. You're matchmaking based on a common interest, i.e. that school.

    If they contact you about it again, tell them politely that you're exercising your rights as a public citizen and serving as a resource for alumni. If they would like to cooperate with you to avoid competiting services, that would be lovely; however, in the interests of alumni relations you would suggest that they cease their threats of legal action to avoid the inevitable bad press and probable decline in alumni support, as well as the embarrassing and ultimately expensive legal battle. If you keep getting problems, use your alumni network to find legal representation.

    If it's a private school, though, you may well be screwed. I doubt it, but you may.
  • Too vague (Score:5, Insightful)

    by skookum (598945) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:08PM (#6970909)
    Well, I don't think anyone here is going to be able to help you much with this, since it really depends on the details. There's certainly nothing illegal about making a website for alums to coordinate. If they object based upon such a general reason, tell them to piss off as they're clearly just trying to get you to cave in.

    However, if you used any copyrighted logos or artwork swiped directly from their site or any of their literature, they could probably get an injunction based on that. So, make sure the site is either text-only, or that any logos that you do use are original works that you create. Since it sounds like this is a non-commercial endeavor I don't know exactly how trademark laws work but so long as you acknowledge all marks as being property of their owners and you're not selling something that's related in any way, then there's no reason that you can't use a logo of a product or institution.

    In other words, I don't think it's illegal for me to put a picture of a box of "Kellogs Corn Flakes" on a web site, so long as I took the picture (i.e. I own the copyright), and I'm not trying to sell cereal.

    I know that colleges are often very protective of their Mascots and logos since they want a piece of the pie in terms of merchandising and they don't want thier image tarnished. If they continue to object to your site (moreso than a "please stop") then it will probably be on these grounds.
    • Re:Too vague (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anthony Boyd (242971) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:50PM (#6971723) Homepage
      Well, I don't think anyone here is going to be able to help you much with this, since it really depends on the details.

      Well, I'll be sad if I don't get any good feedback here, but I actually wasn't asking for advice on my situation in particular. I was hoping to provoke developers to comment on their own projects and the issues they have already faced. I find it is always more useful to hear about events that have actually happened, and how it played out, than to guess about what the best plan of action might be.

      Anyway, it has actually been about 10 days since I submitted this Ask Slashdot story. So I'll give you my own story, full of incompetence, as it was my first experience with outsiders barging in. Basically, I graduated from my high school in 1989. I've fallen out of touch with many classmates, so I built an "approximation" of classmates.com. Mostly, I didn't want to pay $25 for a classmates.com membership. The site is not very good yet, and doesn't have all the features. But what is there works well, and I'd hold it against the PHP alumni projects on Freshmeat with fair confidence. About 50 people signed up initially (mostly friends I had emailed). Then came a call at 10 PM a couple weekends ago, from a graduate of 1956. He told me my project needed to be HIS project, and as head of the alumni association, if I did NOT come on board, "well, the site may not be legal, so there will be a problem."

      I was non-commital on the phone, trying to say goodbye until about 11:15 PM, when I finally just said I was going to bed and hung up. The next day, other staff from the alumni association began sending nasty emails. One person got a rough list of who I had contacted, and sent an email out to my classmates warning that my site is (rough quote, off the top of my head) "unauthorized, unsanctioned, and running without the express permission of the alumni association." That same person sent a letter to the school board charging me with deception in the email I sent out (I said in the email that I didn't want to pay for classmates.com, but they looked on classmates.com, found my name, and incorrectly assumed I must have paid for access).

      I soon learned that these people actually draw a salary from the alumni association, and had plans to strengthen their reserves by putting up a similar site with a $1000 "donation" fee. Since I wasn't willing to pay the $25 fee for classmates.com, I really wasn't willing to give over my code so they could charge me $1000 to use it. So, after a few days of going back and forth, I just stopped responding. They sent follow-up emails that still sit in my inbox, unanswered.

      I have not retained a lawyer yet, as I feel that they are bluffing and have no case. However, if I have to interact with them at all in the future, my lawyer will do it. I just found them to be so hostile, that the bridge was burning even as they asked me to hand over my code and offered me a seat on the board. It's too bad. If they had been civil, I might have considered anything.

      • Re:Too vague (Score:5, Informative)

        by captainktainer (588167) <captainktainer AT yahoo DOT com> on Tuesday September 16, 2003 @01:38AM (#6972431)
        I responded earlier, but now that I know some of your story I can offer a more tailored response:

        1) They have absolutely no case whatsoever in the United States, in Canada, in Mexico, or any place other than China, North Korea, or any other totalitarian state. Even if it's a private institution. Classmates.com could probably sue you for patent infringement, and probably successfully, but that's not their concern. They're spouting off, they're wrong, they could well be committing barratry.

        2) If they sent an email or letter to the school board accusing you of deception, you might have a (relatively weak) chance of proving defamatory statements/libel. Get a copy of that letter. Even if for defensive purposes, get a copy of that letter. They're attempting to cast aspersions on your good moral character, and not only is that wrong, it's reason to countersue if they continue to countersue.

        3) It should be obvious by now, but don't delete any messages. Keep 'em.

        4) Make sure your classmates know that you're being accused falsely, that you have not broken any laws regarding the school, and that any emails they receive from the alumni association are false, potentially defamatory, and should be ignored.

        5) Make sure you know a lawyer, and that he's familiar with your situation. Read all of their emails, but don't respond unless you really need to. If you need to, call your lawyer.
        • > other than China, North Korea, or any other totalitarian state

          Sorry to get OT but surely this is misleading? China didn't even have copyright law until they joined the WTO - it's the western world that's going worryingly authoritarian on IP law.

          With you on the rest though :)
          • I think his point was that in China or North Korea, if you piss off a member of the local Communist party you're likely to find yourself in police custody, probably on the way to municipal torture chamber.

            It's got nothing to do with the law - it's a suggestion not to let people intimidate you with vague threats.

      • Assuming your in the USA, don't you have a constitutional amendment permitting free speech? Doesnt your website come under that?

        Sure, the alumni can whinge and spam and threaten too, thats their free speech.

        I cant believe they tried to charge YOU $1000 and snake your code! They sound just like SCO.

        You could consider charging them, to submit to their demands.

        You seem to be in safe ground anyway as a website like that is solidly in free speech territory.

        It is true however that its "unsanctioned, unoffici
        • Sure, the alumni can whinge and spam and threaten too, thats their free speech.

          Threats are not allowed, even with free speech.

      • Wow. The story sounds even more incredible with the details. What a bunch of pricks.

        I think you've done the right thing, even if you do have doubts. If they're defaming you, harrassing you, and threatening you, then they're certainly in the wrong. Even if your website is illegal (and I doubt that it is) they still can't act that way.

        If nothing else, you seem to hold the moral high ground. The alumni staff are a disgrace to your school, and if I were in your shoes, I'd let the school board know that with a
      • by Tom7 (102298) on Tuesday September 16, 2003 @09:17AM (#6974434) Homepage Journal
        If you don't like this kind of bullying, definitely don't give in. Post your correspondence on your web page, with as little editorializing as possible, and let others draw their own conclusions. If their behavior is outrageous enough, I'm sure you'll find that it results in a lot of bad publicity for them, and the last thing they want is for students to have a good excuse to hate the association when they call asking for money. Go ahead and stick a paypal link on the site that lets alums donate to the school at their discretion. Make sure you use trademarks carefully (you can check a primer about this many places online), and build your site with renewed purpose. ;)

        Spurious legal threats, be they from lawyers or just the old boys' club, are one of the worst problems in the legal climate today. Since there's so little cost to fire off a Cease and Desist letter that sounds scary but is essentially contentless, corporations do it as a last resort to harass small developers who they'd never be able to beat in court. The only way I know of to fix this situation is to make there be a *high cost* for waging war against the small guy, and this could easily come in the form of bad publicity if people don't just shut down their sites right away.

        By the way, yes, this has happened to me several times. Most recently was my battle with the DMCA over flipping embedding bits [cmu.edu] .
      • Tell them "No, you are wrong." I mean really what the heck is this all about. I thoght that the alumni association was supposed to help the alumni keep in touch. You are offering a free service to your high school class. If they want to charge for the same service then they have to do a better job than you so people are willing to pay. Heck I see nothing wrong with you offing adverts to help pay for the hosting if you want. Are they going to sue Classmates.com? I think not. I would be very tempted to contac
      • I saw that and flipped- I thought you meant Carmel, Indiana. I can definately relate to the 'grossmans' that run the schools thru their generous 'wealth' and donations.....

        When they call you on the phone state at first that there is a 150$ per minute consultation fee for communications and (check your wiretap laws) you are going to send him a bill :)

        Keep all your records and if you have to take up a civil action in court asking for relief.
  • i'd fight (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonvmous Coward (589068) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:09PM (#6970914)
    I personally have never been in that situation. That being said, I can't help but think I'd fight it. "Tell me why this is illegal. Tell me why you should be the only player in town. Tell me why we can't work something out."

    If they can't answer that, then I'd keep it going until I recieved a cease and desist. Assuming that there isn't any legal issues with the students names being printed there, what's the BFD?

    Like I said, I'd fight, though I wouldn't rule out compromise. Maybe you could support donations for them?
  • I believe HS year books are public record... or at least not 'illegal', so if you wanted to type in every person's name and have a website, they can suck it. Maybe you can't say it is the 'so-and-so alumni page' but you can say Society of Appreciation for Having Attended SASHS.. (IANAL)

    Odds are they are getting kick backs from Classmates. I really wonder sometimes because I went to a fairly large HS and they *HAD* a start of a webpage and it all disappeared.. Nothing, not even notices of Reunions. How
  • by nathanh (1214) on Monday September 15, 2003 @10:18PM (#6971002) Homepage

    Don't turn this into a battle. What was the original purpose of your site? Not fame. Not fortune. To be connected with classmates. Offer your website gratis to the association if they fund the hosting and give you due credit. Then everybody wins. You get free hosting. The alumni gets their donations. Classmates get a better quality service.

    Instead of fighting them, or bunkering down at the first threat of litigation (which was probably an ignorant threat with no merit), talk with them and work out how you can both benefit.

    Unless they're assholes. In that case, tell them to get stuffed.

    PS: I've never been in the situation that you describe but that's what I'd do.

    • Unless they're assholes. In that case, tell them to get stuffed.

      It looks like they are (judging from the follow on comments).

      People who fear for thier jobs are not reasonable.

    • Oh puh-lease! They accuse him of possible illegal activities and he's supposed to just turn the other cheek (no, his *other* cheeks) and take it? Fuck them. They could have approached this better. Any wrath brought upon them is their own fault.

      Tell him to save the olive branch for when he's truly done something wrong.
    • I disagree - it might be the case that they're just waiting to take the site over and then remove him
      from it completely. It's been done before even when agreements have been involved.

      Perhaps you can post a request on your site with information on donations for the alumni.
  • Choose one:
    • Use my site, pay me to change it to your interests.
    • Make your own site, leave me alone.
    • FUCK OFF.
  • by Dr. Photo (640363) on Monday September 15, 2003 @11:05PM (#6971392) Journal
    You have a site frequented by many people from your high school. The alumni association survives by the goodwill of that same group of people.

    Post a bulletin on your site explaining the situation, and provide the alumni association's contact information so your classmates ---who presumably enjoy your site and want it to continue--- can ``express their concerns''.

    Then sit back, wait a bit, and enjoy the newly friendly and polite alumni association. :)
    • by jtheory (626492)
      This is a great suggestion.
      You aren't doing anything illegal, but you don't want to get them all hot and bothered either (don't give them any excuse to go into that "at any cost" mode.. that's when things start to suck, no matter who's "right").

      Here's the strategy I'd use:
      * Ignore their most inflammatory claims/demands. Just pretend that they are being completely reasonable, and ignore anything that doesn't fit that.
      * Save copies of all of their emails.
      * Tell them you would be willing to help out however
  • Using some software that I wrote [sourceforge.net] I am planning on setting something similar up for my high school [k12.wi.us] class, in time for our 10 year reunion. Although since I was also class president I don't think the alumni association will be bugging me about it.

    But enough about me! I would have to say that you are perfectly within your rights to setup whatever you want and charge whatever you want for it. Although I wonder if classmates.com might come down on you with some lame "process for talking to classmates" IP sui
  • Dear Alumni Association:
    "expletia deleted."

    Yours,
    fish.
  • I'm confused. Unless I'm missing something really obvious, the alumni association is so far out of line it's not even funny.

    If the website is hosted on school property, then the school itself would have a say in the matter. But the alumni association is not the school, no matter how much influence they might have with it. If you're not disregarding any school rules with the website, then I would say ignore the alumnis, politely present your side to the school, then wait for a school administrator to make a
  • Limits on freedom. Click here [rtmark.com] for my audio clip of saying this.
  • How are you stuck? Just tell them to fuck off. It seems like we cant scratch our asses these days without someone telling us its "illegal". Im sick of this shit. We are being legislated into a new dark ages. Lawyers are in charge now, and unfortunatley what they do is destructive rather than constructive.

    Businesses are simply not developing new stuff, for fear of getting sued by some patent-holder. They are only maintaining existing revenue streams.

    Its a total mess. Aotearoa has recently set up another 5
  • by twistedcubic (577194) on Tuesday September 16, 2003 @12:12PM (#6976293)
    If it's true that they want to use such a site as a vehicle for alumni donations, why not try to help them? If you liked the school, you're probably not opposed to improving it, no? Just ask them what they would like, and see if you can accomodate their wishes. If they refuse to talk, just ignore them, and your site will be much more popular than theirs.
  • Online communities tend to run off in unforseen directions. The Rumor Mill--the tiny little discussion area I put up for Speculations [speculations.com] in 1996--quickly turned from a place to promote the magazine to a major clearinghouse for information about literary scams: book doctors, fee-charging agents, vanity presses, and other fellow travelers. I've had Dances with Lawyers over several Speculations articles and corresponding Rumor Mill threads, and have had to be very careful about appearing to exert editorial co
  • That Anthony Boyd...that young man was always a trouble maker. Never had any respect for authority. If he was here right now, he'd be in detention. He has no affliation with this school anymore, and is stealing the thunder from my pet project. Something has to be done about these rogue Internet sites. The principal and the board need to get a handle on this whole Internet thing. I'm sure he's violating some laws or even worse school policies...kids these days...

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