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Dealing w/ Outside Interests in Your Projects?

Cliff posted more than 11 years ago | from the reality-intrudes dept.

Editorial 48

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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One Option (4, Funny)

AlexisKai (114768) | more than 11 years ago | (#6970660)

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....

Re:One Option (1)

eugene ts wong (231154) | more than 11 years ago | (#6970866)

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 (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#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 (4, Insightful)

ka9dgx (72702) | more than 11 years ago | (#6970707)

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).


Re:Send them packing (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | more than 11 years ago | (#6970894)

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 (2, Interesting)

BrynM (217883) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971177)

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 offer it as a paid members only section for alumni (and parents too - if your school is well-to-do enough) while you develop and build yours as a student body only site. With membership may come the ability to log into the student side an interact with "the future of their old school". Grant students access to the alumni section for the first two years after graduation (the hook) and charge them for one-time/monthly/annual membership after that.

This way, you get to interact with your fellow students and free reign to code and the alums get a donation business model. If you play your cards right and cooperate with them, you may even end up with a starter web design job right out of high school (either way, you've got resume material) and good standing in the associaion after you graduate. Remember to stay calm and bargain with them. If you can, find a way to maybe do some work on what they are developing as well.

Let them know that you have something to offer and that they could stand to create a renewable revenue stream. Two items not to back down on are:

  1. They host both sites. Since you're entering an agreement with them, they need to pay for the bandwidth and not risk losing it should you go to college.
  2. You are the lead programmer for your portion. Don't let them take your baby and hand it to someone who doesn't care. If you've gone this far, tell them that you did it out of school pride. They can hire any monkey to code but they can't just go out an contract school pride or loyalty.
Welcome to the software and web design business. You've got a good head start.

...But if you coded it alone, host it yourself and don't do any of it at school... Take your ball and go home. Keep the site going and strip it of any affiliation to the school. Apologize to the alumni and tell them that it will never again have any of your school's "branding". Develop it for a couple of years and - if it gets popular - sell it off. You can get a whole lot more money selling a popular finished site to some local company than the alumni association would be willing to give you, but it would take time and self promotion.

Good luck!

Re:Send them packing (1)

BrynM (217883) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971255)

Or I could finally just notice that you are and alum and keep my mouth shut. :)

Re:Send them packing (3, Funny)

Feztaa (633745) | more than 11 years ago | (#6972135)

(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."

Re:Send them packing (1)

Hard_Code (49548) | more than 11 years ago | (#6973956)

that would be redundant

IT IS NOT ILLEAL (2, Redundant) (562495) | more than 11 years ago | (#6970724)

tell them to go away.


Darth_Burrito (227272) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971602)

Better yet, it would appear that you have something they value. Perhaps a mutually beneficial arrangement could be reached.

Re:IT IS NOT ILLEAL (0, Flamebait)

burns210 (572621) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971900)

its not ILLEGAL, either. :)


Geraden (15689) | more than 11 years ago | (#6973735)

Ummm...if he uses graphics, verbiage or other items that violate the school's copyrighted items, then it very well might be illegal.

Similarly, if he uses the school's name in the site's domain name, they might sue him for that as well.

Sucks, don't it?

Fair Use (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#6970825)

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.

Alumni relations- don't worry about it (3, Interesting)

captainktainer (588167) | more than 11 years ago | (#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 (4, Insightful)

skookum (598945) | more than 11 years ago | (#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 (5, Informative)

Anthony Boyd (242971) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971723)

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 Mostly, I didn't want to pay $25 for a 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, but they looked on, 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, 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 (5, Informative)

captainktainer (588167) | more than 11 years ago | (#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. 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.

Re:Too vague (1)

neil_rickards (563887) | more than 11 years ago | (#6974145)

> 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 :)

Re:Too vague (1)

exhilaration (587191) | more than 11 years ago | (#6977215)

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.

Re:Too vague (1)

kzadot (249737) | more than 11 years ago | (#6973204)

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, unofficial etc." But you can live with that right?

Good Luck, and keep us updated if they try any more stunts. I bet they cant take it past the threating stage.

Re:Too vague (1)

nathanh (1214) | more than 11 years ago | (#6974103)

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

Threats are not allowed, even with free speech.

Sounds like the bullies never grew up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#6974030)

Sounds like the alumni association is populated by the bullies - and that they never grew up.

Tell them that they must issue a retraction, or you'll file a tortious interference suit against them.

Re:Too vague (1)

nathanh (1214) | more than 11 years ago | (#6974201)

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 written letter. If nothing else, perhaps the asshat who threatened you will lose his job over it.

Good luck.

Fight and, moreover, post your fight. (3, Interesting)

Tom7 (102298) | more than 11 years ago | (#6974434)

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 [] .

Re:Fight and, moreover, post your fight. (1)

Anthony Boyd (242971) | more than 11 years ago | (#6977527)

By the way, yes, this has happened to me several times. Most recently was my battle with the DMCA over flipping embedding bits [] .

Tom, thanks for posting this. I went through and read all the letters, and I think I've learned a lot. It appears that the end result was the same -- you stopped responding, and they gave up on intimidating you. Is that correct? It is good to see someone stand up to legal threats.

Re:Fight and, moreover, post your fight. (1)

Tom7 (102298) | more than 11 years ago | (#6977748)

Yes, that's right. Though they never actually sent mail saying, "Man, we give up!!!" they haven't e-mailed me in over a year, so I consider that a victory!

Re:Too vague (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 11 years ago | (#6977985)

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 I think not. I would be very tempted to contact the ACLU. You may have a case.

Carmel? (1)

purduephotog (218304) | more than 11 years ago | (#6984932)

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 (3, Interesting)

Anonvmous Coward (589068) | more than 11 years ago | (#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?

Tell them to suck it.. (1)

glassesmonkey (684291) | more than 11 years ago | (#6970939)

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 come every high school doesn't have their computer programming /web classes make a school website?? How hard can a Forum really be or to let people update their personal info.. Schools would get current contact info to hit people up for money.. None of it makes sense. And my tingling tin-hat says Classmates (TM) is to blame.

War is the last resort (4, Insightful)

nathanh (1214) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971002)

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.

Re:War is the last resort (1)

Spoing (152917) | more than 11 years ago | (#6973962)

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.

Re:War is the last resort (2, Interesting)

Atzanteol (99067) | more than 11 years ago | (#6974733)

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.

Re:War is the last resort (1)

wolverine1999 (126497) | more than 11 years ago | (#6983493)

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.

My response would be (1)

flikx (191915) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971313)

Choose one:
  • Use my site, pay me to change it to your interests.
  • Make your own site, leave me alone.

Bad advice- don't do it. (1)

purduephotog (218304) | more than 11 years ago | (#6984897)

First that 'old-boy's club' you mock with your third choice may be the one that gets you places in the future. Don't burn that connection unless you absolutely have to....

Play to your strengths. (4, Insightful)

Dr. Photo (640363) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971392)

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. :)

Nice (1)

jtheory (626492) | more than 11 years ago | (#6972354)

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 you can, but don't ever mention closing your site.
* Kindly offer to link to any site they set up, to suggest donations on your homepage, whatever (within your own reasonable limits). Present your choices as obvious ("selling my work is also possible, but the price might be higher than you'd want to pay, since anything less than $2K would be like paying me under minimum wage).
* If they don't snap out of it, kindly offer to post the discussion to the alumni to let them help decide, since they should have some say in the fate of your site (suggestion above).

As long as you keep everything nice, you can leave them plenty of escape routes. Yes, you do want that. The enemy is most dangerous when they feel they have no escape (or something like that... from the Art of War).

Will be doing same thing (1)

rizzo (21697) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971556)

Using some software that I wrote [] I am planning on setting something similar up for my high school [] 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 might come down on you with some lame "process for talking to classmates" IP suit.

My response... (1)

FFFish (7567) | more than 11 years ago | (#6971922)

Dear Alumni Association:
"expletia deleted."


I'm confused (1)

Brandybuck (704397) | more than 11 years ago | (#6972687)

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 decision.

If it's not hosted on school property, then the alumni association can go take a long walk off a short pier. At least be thankful that you learning today what alumni associations are all about, instead of ten years down the road after you've already given them some of your hard earned money.

There ought to be (1)

GeorgeBushJr (707594) | more than 11 years ago | (#6972911)

Limits on freedom. Click here [] for my audio clip of saying this.

How are you stuck? (1)

kzadot (249737) | more than 11 years ago | (#6973131)

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 year moratorium on genetic engineering, totally wasting millions of invested funds, along with a 5 year moratorium on building casinos.

Apparently people dont make their own minds about whether to gamble or not.

What we fucking need is a 5 year moratorium on Governments banning stuff. When was the last time the law was used to permit something rather than ban it? The last thing I can think of was the un-banning of sodomy in the 70s. Not exactly the most economically stimulating, job creating activity in the world.

We just got to stand up to bullshit laws. Infringe copyrights, use drugs if you want. Its wrong to let the lawyers and governments legislate us further and further backwards.

You should compromise (2, Insightful)

twistedcubic (577194) | more than 11 years ago | (#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.

tell them to go pound sand (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#6976329)

or goat ass.

Yep, happened to me. (1)

Kent Brewster (324037) | more than 11 years ago | (#6980942)

Online communities tend to run off in unforseen directions. The Rumor Mill--the tiny little discussion area I put up for Speculations [] 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 control over what's posted. (Short answer: don't, or it may appear that you're in agreement with what's being said, and not just a carrier for the message.)

Oh, and yes, we've been Slashdotted [] once ... gosh, that was fun. :)

Heard from the teacher's lounge... (1)

vt0asta (16536) | more than 11 years ago | (#6981903)

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 these days...
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