Mapping Out the Copyright Semicommons

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Plan of a Mediaeval ManorMy previous two posts on the upcoming Nies Lecture (Thursday, April 16, at 4:30pm — it’s not too late to register!) attempted to sketch out where I think Prof. Smith is headed, based on the abstract and his previous work. In this post I want to reflect for a moment on the implications of viewing copyrights as a type of semicommons.

Copyright was born, in the eighteenth century, with a focus on who had the right to print, publish, and reprint works of authorship. That is, the concern was to exclusively reserve the manufacture of complete works — books, maps, and nautical charts — to the person who created them, or any downstream purchaser of those rights. Although the copyrighted work is intangible — it is the particular creative expression that is embodied within a book, map, or chart — for the first century or so of its existence that expression as a practical matter had a one-to-one correlation with physical objects. In that realm, it is easy to conceive of the property rights assigned by copyright, and the open access rights to the public domain, as dividing lines dividing up an imaginary space — this tract over here is the book Moll Flanders, which is owned by X; that tract over there is public domain, and thus can be used by anyone.

Over the course of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, that early, simple framework broke down as courts embraced the notion that the intangible object protected by copyright could be infringed in ways other than reprinting physical copies of the original. Read more »

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The 2015 Nies Lecture: IP as Semicommons

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cows-on-meadow-1410432-mThe title of the 2015 Nies Lecture, being given by Harvard Law Prof. Henry Smith on Thursday, April 16th, at 4:30pm (register here), is “Semicommons in Fluid Resources.” What’s a “semicommons,” and what does it have to do with intellectual property? (I should note that I haven’t talked to Prof. Smith about his lecture; Tuesday’s post and today’s are based just on the abstract read in light of Prof. Smith’s previous scholarship.)

Before I go further, let me recap Tuesday’s post. Prof. Smith has, in a series of articles, laid out a theory of property law that takes into account the informational costs of assigning property rights in various ways. Some ways of describing who has a certain right, and monitoring whether that right is being respected, are very concise: “Kerry owns that red ball.” “Hey, that’s not your ball, it’s mine!” I called these object-based rules, but Prof. Smith calls them “exclusivity rules.” The idea is the same: saying Kerry has the exclusive right to use the red ball for any purpose is a short and easily comprehended way of assigning all uses of that particular object to Kerry. It’s easy to identify who Kerry is, what the object is, and what Kerry (or anyone else) can do with it.

But that’s not the only way to assign rights to objects. Instead of giving all uses of a particular object to one person in an undivided lump, we could instead specify various uses of the object under various conditions, and say that different people can engage in those uses. In other words, we could manage access to the ball. Read more »

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The 2015 Nies Lecture: What Is “Intellectual Property,” Exactly, and How Does It Relate to Water Law?

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Fall StreamI’m very excited about this year’s Nies Lecture, which will be delivered by Prof. Henry Smith of Harvard Law School in just a little more than a week — Thursday, April 16th, at 4:30pm. (Register now to attend!) The title is “Semicommons in Fluid Resources,” but that only hints at the depth of the waters, so to speak, that Prof. Smith is likely to explore. As I understand it, the topic is nothing less than the nature of property itself, and how some forms of it — rights to water, and intellectual property — occupy a “middle ground” between communal governance and individual ownership. That has important ramifications for copyright law in particular, in which the dividing line between common goals and individual incentives lies at the heart of numerous doctrines.

The issue is this: suppose you have some sort of resource that multiple people want to use. Say it’s a particular piece of land. As Smith has written previously, there are two basic ways of specifying rules for what people can do with that resource: you could draw lines around objects, or you could draw lines around uses. That is, you could identify a particular object, such as a plot of land, and say that one person has the right to decide all permitted uses of it. (Or that everyone has the right to decide what they will do with it, turning it into a commons, or no one does, turning it into a forbidden zone.) Alternatively, you could draw lines around uses, not objects, and say that person X has the right to engage in activity A using the piece of land in question, and spell out rules governing each person or set of persons and telling them what uses they can make of the land and which they can’t, and under what conditions.

As Smith has argued, these different methods are best viewed as lying on a spectrum. Read more »

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Congratulations to Marquette’s 2015 Giles Sutherland Rich Moot Court Teams

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Congratulations to 3Ls Ariel Dade and Keith Reese-Kelly for reaching the quarterfinals of the Giles Sutherland Rich Memorial Moot Court Competition regionals in Atlanta. 3Ls Brian Brockman and Nathan Cromer also competed, and Professor Kali Murray served as the teams’ faculty advisor. The teams were coached by Attorneys Ryann Beck, Garet Galster, and David Hanson. This year’s competition problem involved two issues: first, the proper definition of a claim, and second, the public availability status of a printed publication.

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Marquette Law School to Host First Annual Mosaic Conference

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Category: Intellectual Property Law, Legal Scholarship, Public, Speakers at Marquette
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Canterbury-mosaicI am very excited to announce that this weekend, Marquette will host the First Annual Mosaic Conference: Diverse Voices in IP Scholarship, co-sponsored by Marquette University Law School and Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice, and with additional funding provided by William Welburn, Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion, Marquette University. The goal of this first Mosaic Conference is to bring together intellectual property scholars, policy makers, and activists of diverse and multicultural backgrounds and perspectives to explore socially progressive and non-traditional ideas in IP law, policy, and social activism. The Conference begins with a Reception and Dinner tonight and will conclude on Sunday morning.

Throughout the global community, intellectual property regimes play a critical role in human development, socio-economic empowerment, and the preservation and promotion of social justice. Many IP regimes, however, have been structured or interpreted to reflect only the interests of an entrenched status quo; socially cognizant IP theses are often ignored or rejected as tangential or antithetical to commoditization-centered theories of IP protection, often impeding broader social utility concerns including equitable access to IP protection and output and stimulating innovation. Through the First Annual Mosaic Conference, IP scholars and practitioners will come together with policy makers, social activists, and others to present ideas for progressive and activist-oriented scholarship for assessment as to social relevance, legal significance, and doctrinal integrity. Read more »

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Is Hachette Being Hoisted by Its Own DRM Petard?

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booksRebecca Tushnet points to this column by Cory Doctorow arguing that Hachette is being held hostage in its fight with Amazon over e-book versions of its books because of its “single-minded insistence on DRM”: “It’s likely that every Hachette ebook ever sold has been locked with some company’s proprietary DRM, and therein lies the rub.” Doctorow argues that because of the DMCA Hachette can no longer get access, or authorize others to get access to, its own books:

Under US law (the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and its global counterparts (such as the EUCD), only the company that put the DRM on a copyrighted work can remove it. Although you can learn how to remove Amazon’s DRM with literally a single, three-word search, it is nevertheless illegal to do so, unless you’re Amazon. So while it’s technical child’s play to release a Hachette app that converts your Kindle library to work with Apple’s Ibooks or Google’s Play Store, such a move is illegal.

It is an own-goal masterstroke.

Everyone loves irony, but I can’t figure out how to make Doctorow’s argument work. First, I can’t figure out what the anticircumvention problem would be. Second, I can’t figure out why Hachette wouldn’t be able to provide other distributors with e-book versions of its books. Read more »

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Why Isn’t Aereo a Cable System?

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Aereo tiny antennaThe Aereo case was argued this morning, and before Paul Clement could even get rolling on his introduction on behalf of the broadcaster plaintiffs, Justice Sotomayor hit him with this:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Why aren’t [companies like Aereo] cable companies?

MR. CLEMENT: They’re not ­­–

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I’m looking at the — everybody’s been arguing this case as if for sure they’re not. But I look at the definition of a cable company, and it seems to fit.

I’ve been wondering this too. The question presented in Aereo is whether Aereo is engaged in a “public performance” when its servers automatically save and transmit recorded broadcast television programs to subscribers at their request, or whether that activity is properly understood as only the users’ activity. (Scotusblog has a good backgrounder on the case.)

In debating that issue, both the broadcasters and Aereo have at separate points analogized Aereo to a cable system — the broadcasters in the course of claiming that Congress intended to define what Aereo is doing as a “public performance,” just as it did with cable retransmission; Aereo in claiming that it is engaged in disruptive innovation, just as the early cable operators did. But that raises a somewhat different question: why isn’t Aereo subject to Section 111 of the Copyright Act? If it is, then the Court could avoid the entire debate over public performances; the text of Section 111 provides a direct route to liability for certain retransmissions without even mentioning the words “public performance.” And yet, as far as I can tell, it has not been raised by the broadcaster plaintiffs as a basis for a preliminary injunction. Read more »

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Disney and Phase 4 Films Settle Lawsuit over Frozen Logo

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Earlier this year, Disney and Phase 4 Films settled a lawsuit over Phase 4’s attempts to capitalize on Disney’s latest animated success, Frozen. Phase 4’s film was originally titled The Legend of Sarila. According to the complaint filed by Disne​y, it was released November 1, 2013, a few weeks before Frozen’s release, to dismal box office revenues. Phase 4 then changed the film’s name to Frozen Land, and redesigned the film’s logo to mimic that of Disney’s Frozen. For a side-by-side look at the logos, see the complaint filed by Disney here. 

In the settlement, Phase 4 agreed to immediately stop marketing and distributing its film under the name Frozen Land, and pay Disney $100,000. At first I was skeptical of Disney’s claim, but after comparing the separate logos, it seems highly unlikely that this was anything but a blatant attempt to profit off of Frozen‘s success. The logos contain the same color scheme, the same shape, and almost identical fonts.

As far as the Lanham Act violation claim, it seems almost certain that consumers would be confused as to the relation between the two movies, perhaps reasonably assuming that Frozen Land is a spin-off of Frozen. They also settled an unfair competition claim that was based on Disney’s claims that Phase 4’s Frozen Land caused irreparable damage to Disney’s goodwill and reputation.

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My Official Super Bowl Television Post

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Category: Intellectual Property Law, Public, Sports & Law
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kitten bowlThe 48th annual Super Bowl is tomorrow, which means of course that people are thinking about intellectual property law. (Doesn’t everyone?) No, I’m not going to talk about whether your local grocery store infringes on the NFL’s trademark when they advertise “Super Bowl Savings,” except to pose the question of whether a single person ever has been actually confused about whether that indicates a relationship between the NFL and the grocery store. Or the makers of this thing. Rather, I’m going to talk about television. Specifically, what size television can you watch the Big GameTM on?

The NFL caused a bit of confusion on this score when they sent a cease and desist letter to an Indiana church back in 2007 that was planning on hosting a Super Bowl party for church members, with a fee for attendance and the game displayed on a “giant” TV. (I can’t find a description of the exact size.) In the letter and in subsequent pronouncements, the NFL took the position that it was a violation of copyright law to display the Super Bowl to a public gathering on a screen larger than 55 inches diagonally. In the face of likely congressional legislation in 2008, the NFL backed down and said it would not enforce its rule against church groups. But it still maintains that others cannot display the game publicly on sets larger than 55″.

News stories about the controversy have gotten some parts of the relevant copyright law correct, but are still a bit confusing on the 55-inch “rule” and where it comes from. So I’ll try to clarify. The short version: There is no 55-inch rule, at least not for the game itself. Read more »

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Redskins and Hog Rinds–Trademark Denied

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Category: Intellectual Property Law, Public, Race & Law, Sports & Law
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Pork RindsThe United States Patent and Trademark has recently refused to register the trademark “Redskins Hog Rinds” for a California food company on the grounds that the mark is “disparaging” and therefore prohibited by Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute.

The ruling, handed down on December 29 by an attorney-examiner, can be appealed. The decision concluded that there was no reason to deny registration of the mark except for the fact that it was disparaging to Native Americans. The examiner reached this conclusion on the basis of dictionary definitions that identified the term as disparaging and by the opposition to the continuing usage of the term “Redskins” by a number of Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Nation, as well as articles about Indian activist opposition to the term that appeared in the Washington Post and the magazine, Indian Country Today.

This is not the first time that the term “Redskins” has been ruled disparaging. In recent years the Washington Redskins football team has unsuccessfully attempted to register variations on its famous mark. Read more »

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It’s OK to Use the NSA Logo While Commenting on the NSA

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No, the NSA did not approve this.A couple of weeks ago Salon reported that the NSA had allegedly sent a request to self-printing site Zazzle asking that it take down a parody t-shirt that used an altered version of the NSA logo. When contacted, the NSA first claimed that “[t]he NSA seal is protected by Public Law 86-36, which states that it is not permitted for ‘ . . . any person to use the initials “NSA,” the words “National Security Agency” and the NSA seal without first acquiring written permission from the Director of NSA.'” But shortly after that, the NSA updated its statement to add that it had not contacted Zazzle to request the removal of any item since 2011, when it asked that a coffee mug with the NSA seal be removed from the site.

Putting the two statements together, it looked as though someone at Zazzle, remembering the earlier incident, mistakenly thought that all uses of the logo were forbidden. It seemed to be an isolated incident.

Except that now it’s happened again. This time, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins, Matthew Green, received a request from his dean that he pull down a blog post on university servers that linked to some of the leaked NSA documents and contained the NSA logo. The university later confirmed that the reason for the request was that it “received information” that Green’s post “contained a link or links to classified material and also used the NSA logo.”

Before this emerging folklore about the NSA logo gets any stronger, let’s be clear: the NSA misquoted the statute in its response to the Salon story. Use of the NSA logo merely to criticize or comment on the NSA is not illegal; and even if Congress tried to make it illegal, it would likely violate the First Amendment, as Eugene Volokh has noted. Read more »

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Edward Snowden: Whistleblower or Traitor?

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Category: Civil Rights, Computer Law, Constitutional Law, Intellectual Property Law, International Law & Diplomacy, Public
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1371935280000-AP-NSA-Surveillance-Snowden-1306221711_4_3_rx404_c534x401Earlier this month, I learned that as a Verizon Wireless customer, my cell phone records, and those of family, may very well be sitting in some National Security Agency (NSA) analyst’s cubicle.

According to The Guardian, which first reported the story June 5, Verizon is under a court order to turn over on an “ongoing, daily basis,” information such as “the numbers of both parties on a call . . . location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls,” and more.  However, no subscriber’s personal information or contents of a call are covered by the order.

Shortly after the story broke, Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former NSA contractor, came forward as the informant. Time Magazine quotes Snowden as saying, “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.” He has since been charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.  Snowden may currently be in Moscow and is rumored to be heading to Ecuador to seek political asylum there.

Because the information that Verizon turns over is considered metadata and not communications, the NSA needs no warrant to access it. Even so, by putting together enough metadata, one can fairly easily put together a profile of who is calling whom, for how long, and from where.  While no actual content is turned over to the NSA, the breadth of this program—code named PRISM—should frighten any American because the information is handed over wholesale; no probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing needed.  And, boom.  The NSA is keeping tabs on you. Read more »

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