A far-reaching bill that would govern computer software licensing in Maryland won approval in the Senate yesterday, as lawmakers overcame doubts about the complex measure's protections for consumers and small businesses.
After an hour-long debate sprinkled with personal anecdotes about their own forays into the digital age, senators voted 37-8 for a much-amended bill that would control those fine-print license agreements that accompany software sold in stores and over the Internet.
"This is a whole new territory, and God willing, we've done the right thing," said Democratic Sen. Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County.
The House of Delegates passed its own version of the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act last week. For the bill to become law, the two chambers must resolve their differences before the General Assembly ends Monday night.
The 88-page measure is the linchpin in a package of high-technology bills introduced by legislative leaders and Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Proponents hope to make Maryland the next Silicon Valley by becoming one of the first states in the nation to adopt a legal framework for computer commerce.
"This is what I call a new Industrial Revolution," said Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, who was the bill's chief proponent. The Montgomery County Democrat said the measure would set the ground rules for technology that is rapidly transforming society.
Although the bill was drafted as model legislation to be adopted by all 50 states, only Virginia has passed it. Virginia lawmakers approved it with little modification, but delayed its start until July 2001 so they could study possible changes. At least two other state legislatures are considering it.
Supporters of the bill include Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc., but lawmakers have revised the measure in response to opposition from consumer advocates, librarians and businesses who fear it could provide legal cover for market abuses.
The Senate and House versions would entitle buyers of off-the-shelf software to a refund if it does not work as advertised -- a guarantee not now included in many licensing agreements, which computer users must "click on" to accept before installing or downloading programs.
Both bills also bar software firms from disabling a consumer's computer via the Internet if there is a dispute over payment or an alleged violation of the license agreement. Software license agreements often allow such "self-help," a form of electronic repossession.
The Senate bill includes one consumer protection that the House narrowly rejected. It specifies that any disputes with out-of-state software companies will be resolved under Maryland law and in state courts.
Senators dropped a provision in the House bill, however, that would require companies to give Internet users three days' notice before cutting them off from the Internet. Businesses had complained that hackers could pilfer or destroy their online databases if such a provision were enforced.
Several senators argued for taking another year to study the issue, citing continuing objections from consumer advocates, librarians and some businesses.
"Let's not be the first one in the country to do this, and find out later on we've made a huge mistake," said Republican Sen. Martin G. Madden of Howard County.
"I haven't had any consumers call to say we need this," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, another Howard County Republican.
But others, while confessing that they do not fully understand the measure, urged its passage, saying the state cannot afford to wait. "There are no rules now," said Democratic Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County. "And the Bill Gateses of this world, with deep pockets, can rule, can be bullies. This bill sets some parameters -- so the little guy can't be pushed around."
Hank Greenberg, a spokesman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose office originally had joined with 25 other state attorneys general in opposing the model legislation, said changes made by lawmakers made it "a far better bill."