The French subsidiary of one of the world's most vocal opponents of software piracy has itself been convicted of pirating a French 3D animation program. This is the first ruling on a matter that dates back to 1995, when Microsoft bought 3D-specialist Softimage, whose software violated the intellectual property of a small French software house.
The Commercial Court of Nanterre fined Microsoft France 3 million francs (around £290,000) in damage and interest for software piracy. "It's a start," said a lawyer for the plaintiffs, "although Microsoft continues to stall on the provisional execution of the judgment."
The company was sued in the place of Softimage France, a former wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft France which it decided to close in June 1997, assuming all rights and responsibilities associated with the dissolved company. By then, Softimage France had already been pursued for two years for software piracy and unfair competition. The plaintiffs were the two French authors of a piece of 3D animation software swallowed up by Softimage in the early 1990s - and then digested by Microsoft.
The software in question was developed by Raymond Perrin and Isabelle Cuadros, owners of CGI animation company Syn'x Relief, based in Montreuil, just outside Paris. Disappointed by the quality of the software tools available to them at the end of the 1980s, they developed a proprietary application, Character, the source code for which they registered with the Institut National de Propriété Intellectuelle (INPI), the French National Intellectual Property Institute. Registering source code with the INPI is a necessary step in protecting software copyright under French law.
The first film they produced with the Character software won a number of prizes, and came to the attention of Daniel Langlois, founder of Softimage. In 1992, Softimage beat Disney, Georges Lucas and Thomson Digital Image to the punch, signing a contract with Syn'x Relief to integrate the unique functions of Character into its own package, Softimage 3D. However, the integration was delayed until, at the start of 1994, a new agreement was put to Character's developers: They would have to sign over all their rights to Softimage if they wanted to continue, hoping to earn royalties at some time in the future - royalties some 55 per cent lower than those foreseen in the initial contract. Syn'x Relief refused, and on Feb 10 of that year read in the press of Softimage's acquisition by Microsoft.
Cut and paste functionality
In March 1995, the divorce between Microsoft-Softimage and Syn'x Relief was declared final: The contract was not renewed, and Microsoft-Softimage certified that "some or all of Character" had been removed from Softimage3D. In fact, only one function, covered by French and American patents, had been removed. Eight other functions are still present in the various modules of Microsoft's Softimage 3D. Today, at least four are still unique in their market.
Two letters were sent to Softimage in 1995, and copied to Microsoft, demanding the removal of Character's functions from its software, but to no avail. On Nov 6 of that year, in desperation, Character's creators had a court order served at the headquarters of Softimage France, preventing the sale of goods, and began legal proceedings against the company for software piracy. A second order was served on Microsoft-Softimage at its stand at Imagina, a CGI trade show, in 1996 before Syn'x Relief, bled dry, was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Character's authors then decided to assert their rights in their own name. Around that time, in 1997, Perrin took up the post of technical director of the infographics division of the Institut National d'Audiovisuel, a giant, state-owned library of multimedia materials.
That year, the court ordered a second legal opinion. Four years later to the day, and with no publicity, the verdict was delivered. On Sep 27, 2001, Microsoft, standing in for its long-gone subsidiary Softimage, was sentenced.
The software publisher, usually verbose on the subjects of software piracy and respect intellectual property, would admit to nothing beyond its desire to appeal. At Microsoft France, neither Pascal Brier, director of communication, nor Philippe Prétat, financial and administrative director responsible for legal matters, were prepared to speak about the matter.
A spokesman for Microsoft's law firm, August & Debousy, said, "My clients do not wish to make any comment. We are confident and have decided to appeal the Tribunal's decision."
Microsoft's muteness doesn't surprise Perrin: "Since the start, we have been treated with disdain," he said. "It's such a waste! This terrible affair, which forced me to break up my team, has stopped me from making the animated films I dreamed of for 10 years."