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About this weblog
Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.

What Does "Copyfight" Mean?

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Monthly Archives

March 23, 2009

Anti-Staples Ruling Troubles Free-Speech Advocates

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Staples' slogan is "That Was Easy." Now it appears that the ease of mass-mailing something to a large number of employees may have brought trouble not only to this company but to everyone - bloggers, journalists, critics, etc - who relies on the notion that truth is an absolute defense against charges of libel.

Nobody debates that Jay Baitler, an executive VP at Staples, sent out a mass email giving information about the causes for firing Alan S. Noonan. The ostensible purpose of the email was to remind employees to follow certain Staples procedures. But the cause for action was the inclusion in the email of details about the cause for firing that Noonan claims are defamatory.

Initially these claims were dismissed because MA law, like that of the US, provides "an absolute defense to a defamation action" based on the truth of the statement. This principle was established for the US in a 1964 SCOTUS decision known as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The situation is a bit complicated in the States because not only is there Federal law about defamation but many states also have relevant clauses in their constitutions and state law books. Even so, US District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker determined in his dismissal of Noonan's claim that MA law and US law were consonant on this matter.

However, Noonan appealed to the First Circuit, which recently reversed an initial upholding and instead allowed a claim to go forward for "actual malice" based on an obscure 1902 Mass. law. The three-judge panel reasoned that Noonan might be able to convince a jury that Baitler met a standard of ill will provided for in the law. Since Staples is a private company and Baitler is not himself a public figure, the argument is that different standards apply. In particular, the Sullivan decision refers to public officials and Noonan's lawyer is claiming that this decision does not have First Amendment implications.

That argument isn't convincing many people, and may still be reversed if the Circuit agrees to review the decision en banc. Meanwhile, news organizations are left scratching their heads over whether they can publish this story or whether that act of publication could itself bring a suit for "ill will."

Regardless of whether or not a paper or blogger could win such a suit, the mere possibility that it could be filed might chill publication of information, not least of all reporting on the incident itself. With so many newspapers teetering on the financial edge, the last thing they need is to spend thousands more on lawyers' fees.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Speech

March 20, 2009

Is Silence the Price of Patents?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I've written in this blog about the drug industry before, most emotionally in regards to the dangers to life posed by intellectual property restrictions in copying AIDS medication. I've also noted that drugs, which rely most heavily on patent protection, tend to lead to higher-quality patents than we see issued in the software field.

Patents, unlike copyrights, have not had their term of exclusivity repeatedly extended. Thus, drug companies are continually faced with the expiration deadlines of patents on huge money-making drugs. Sometimes they resort to frivolous lawsuits to keep generics off the shelf.

Other times, it seems, they just flat-out lie. In a sad story published in this week's Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam describes a series of studies that were silenced by drug maker AstraZeneca International.

The purpose of these lies of omission was to remove possible roadblocks to approval of a new drug (Seroquel) that was set to replace an expiring old drug. I find it inconceivable that the series of events reported here is unique. This is almost certainly indicative of a pattern of behavior that, in very real terms, put the acquisition of intellectual property - and the riches that flowed from that - above the health and safety of everyone.

It's ironic to me that I'm writing this note almost exactly four years after my first impassioned note about IP killing people. Seems we're slower to learn than I had hoped.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Markets and Monopolies

"Mash Up" Just Seems So Inadequate

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

These days lots of people send me links to things they think are interesting and Copyfight-able material. I don't want to discourage people, but I can't possibly blog every one. Cory Doctorow I am not.

But I did want to use this video of interesting images from Google Earth to jump off into a bigger thought or more like a set of related questions. I'm sure there are dozens or hundreds of such videos, and this one combines many individual interesting 'finds' that people have discovered and posted. This one isn't unique but it's got me thinking.

It seems like we've got several things going on here, and we lack language for it. I feel like this is a new art form, but I don't know how to talk about it, much less what to call it. When someone makes art that's only visible from space because he KNOWS satellites will photograph it, and then someone else puts the image into a montage of deliberate art and found objects and natural-things-that-look-like-they-were-made-as-art, and someone else sets that montage to music with dramatic timing, gorgeous camera swoops, and almost narrative pauses built in... what do we call that?

Mash-up, the hip term of the day, seems so horribly inadequate. Plus the term is overused. I first heard it in reference to a style of musical mixing that involved taking two tunes and beat-maching them while intersampling parts like lyrics and vocals. That in itself is a fun art form, if somewhat copyright-transgressive. But what's the relationship of that to this? Not much that I can see.

And isn't there something essential to this art in that it's placed on the net for free distribution? Wouldn't it be something different if we saw it in a movie theater, confined to our seats? Would it be different yet again if it was played on the wall of a club and we were encouraged to dance to it?

I have a lot of questions, and no answers. But I'm convinced that if this isn't being taught in design schools right now then they're doing their students a disservice.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts

March 18, 2009

Reverse Image Search

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

This is billed as pure tech, but its use in tracking material, possibly copyrighted material, are obvious: TinEye, a reverse-image search.

The idea is that you upload a picture to it and it tells you where else on the Web it has seen that picture. One obvious use would be sourcing material - I have this picture, who might it have come from - and another would be finding people who are using your images. Imagine a widget that would let you feed a full Flickr stream or Picasa album to it, rather than trying to upload one image at a time...

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Tech

March 14, 2009

Thru-You, the YouTube Mashup

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Enough people have sent me this one that I feel obliged to blog it, though I'm not sure I have anything new or original to say: "Through You" is a massive mash-up of clips from films found on YouTube. It makes for some interesting music, and the author goes to some lengths to give complete credits. Seven tracks - effectively a complete album. Pretty impressive.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Use

March 2, 2009

Newspapers are Laughably Expensive

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Amid the mourning for the death of yet another paper, an interesting bit of back-of-envelope math.

First, though, the Post has it completely right - newspapers screwed the pooch and are killing themselves as a result. As good a paper as the Rocky Mountain News was - and by all accounts it was first class - it could not change the basic fact that people are no longer relying on newspapers for... well, "news." As the social concept of what it means to be up to date and informed changes, the medium has to change. Evolve or die.

Which brings me back to Nicholas Carlson's posting from a month ago in Silicon Alley Insider, in which he works out a rough estimate that it would cost about half as much to ship every New York Times subscriber a Kindle as it does to ship them the physical paper.

Which is not to say he's recommending that the Times do such a thing; he's just pointing out the economics of newspaper delivery are heavily weighted against the current model and continuing to push it is pretty likely to fail. See, for example, his column from today on "The Next 9 Newspapers To Die."

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Tech