Class-Action Lawsuit Challenges Software with Bugs

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SAN FRANCISCO -- When does a software bug cross over from annoying glitch to class-action lawsuit?

A lawsuit filed in New Jersey challenged imperfect versions of software, in this case leading the software publisher to release a free fix.

"There has to be a line drawn between a bug and a design defect," said Michael Boni, the Philadelphia lawyer who filed the class- action case against Franklin Electronics Publishers of Burlington, N.J. "And the courts have to do that drawing." Computer users expect occasional software bugs, the errors that hamper a software title's performance. Consumers either wait for the software publisher to issue a fix or hope that the bug is repaired in the next version to appear, which they usually have to pay for. It's an uneasy relationship that's akin to buying a new car that sometimes refuses to start. In the case of the car, though, government-ordered recalls and consumer lawsuits are common remedies. In the case of defective software, users have been content to complain to customer support lines, hunt the Internet for fixes or simply give up and buy new software. A New Jersey man, Jacob Winigrad, refused to follow that route. In October 1997, Winigrad bought a REX PC companion, a best- selling credit card-sized electronic organizer that let him track his phone list, keep a calendar and to prioritize a to-do list. Sort of. According to court records, Winigrad's REX PC companion had an annoying habit of scrambling the order of his to-do lists, contrary to the claims of Franklin Electronics Publishers, the manufacturer. When Winigrad called Franklin's product support line, he was told the company knew of the problem, but that it could not, or would not, fix it -- an all-too-familiar scenario for home software users. Winigrad also alleged he was charged for every minute he was on Franklin's product support telephone line. "Thus," his complaint states, "plaintiff was advised that he would be billed $2 per minute, just to learn that the product he purchased, and which was under warranty, was defective and would not be repaired or replaced by the company. …