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Book Review: SYSLAW: The Sysop's Legal Manual

by J. D. Abolins

SYSLAW, the Sysop's Legal Manual by Jonathan D. Wallace Esq. and Rees Morrison Esq.; LLM Press, 150 Broadway, Suite 607, New York, NY 10038; Copyright 1988. Price: $19 plus $2 postage (New York residents, include 8.25% sales tax.)

As the title says, SYSLAW is a guide to the legal issues faced by computer bulletin board system (BBS) systems operators (SysOps). After examining the current selection of computer law books, I believe that SYSLAW is the only book that deals with BBS's and computer law. It is good that such a book is available since the past few years have presented legal issues that can threaten BBS's as a current Indiana lawsuit well demonstrates. Fortunately for SysOps, this book is packed with useful, practical information written in standard English.

Both of the book's authors are computer-literate New York City attorneys. Both are SysOps. Jonathan Wallace is the Assistant SysOp of Compuserve's Law Forum and the SysOp of the LLM BBS. Rees Morrison is the SysOp of ABFORUM, the portion of the American Bar Association's ABA/net for the Economics of Law Practice Section. Jonathan Wallace has dealt directly with computer law issues by representing SysOps, and parties suing pirate BBS's. Mr. Wallace also publishes the Computer Law Letter, a "shareware" newsletter about computer law.

SYSLAW covers subjects such as ownership of information on a BBS, illegal material posted on BBS's, libel, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and search and seizure of BBS's. It also includes the texts for the ECPA and New York State's Computer Crime Law. At first glance through the book, many SysOps will be stunned by the array of legal issues facing them (especially if they thought of themselves as little deities in their own microcosm.) But the purpose of SYSLAW is anything but to discourage SysOps. It matter-of-factly presents the legal matters and then explains the safeguards SysOps should take. One section of the book even addresses BBS program developers, giving them suggestions how to make their software legally safer. (This is something that has been neglected by most of the existing BBS software.)

A great feature of SYSLAW is its presentation of the reasoning behind some of the legal issues. In discussing a SysOp's liability for illegal uploads on his/her BBS, the book explains the principle developed from liability lawsuits against grocery stores- the "banana peel on the floor" concept. One is not liable for the harmful condition being there unless one failed to correct the situation with a reasonable period of time. This and other such details are quite enlightening.

Anything that is lacking in this book is not due to negligence on the part of the authors but due to the vast territory of computer law. For example, the book's section on state computer laws focus mainly on New York State laws and nothing about other states.. There is no mention of legal issues affecting international computer telecommunications either. Again, this is not the fault of the authors. As the introduction to the section about state computer laws say, "It would require a book several times the size of this one to analyze computer crime laws of all fifty states." Hopefully, future books can fill in the gaps.

It must be mentioned that no book, even SYSLAW can be considered as a substitute for competent legal counsel in certain situations. The purpose of the books is to educate the reader, not to act as a "paper attorney". (However, SYSLAW has a chapter explaining how to seek competent legal advice and related matters.) With this disclaimer said, I advise any SysOp to get a copy of this book. Even many BBS users will benefit from it. The BBS world is advancing rapidly. With the new technologies come new versatility and more power. With all this comes new responsibilities. Ignorance of these legal responsibilities is foolhardy. SYSLAW is an excellent introduction to these responsibilities written with the SysOp in mind.


 J. D. Abolins  
 301 N. Harrison Streeet; # 197 (mail only)
 Princeton, NJ 08540

Source: LLM BBS (212) 766-3788 Downloaded from: Sappho's Exchange BBS - Online Communications & Information for Women 212-697-3793

By: The NY Transfer BBS 718-448-2358

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