The Legal Process Sea-Change

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In the 1950s the active bench of the Second Circuit experienced nearly a complete turnover, one that changed how the judges approach copyright law.

Illustration of Ariel's Song from The TempestThere’s an old joke about scientific progress: that science advances one funeral at a time. The same might be said about judicial philosophies. Some judges might be persuaded to change their views over time, but it is just as likely, if not more, that change occurs through a changing of the guard. So it was with the Second Circuit in the 1960s. The Second Circuit had had a remarkably stable bench during the 1940s, when Learned Hand was the chief judge. Four of them, Hand, Hand’s cousin Augustus, Harrie Chase, and Thomas Swan served together in active or senior status for twenty-five years, from 1929 to 1954. The remaining two, Charles Clark and Jerome Frank, were with them from 1940 on.

But within six years in the 1950s, the active bench of the Second Circuit experienced nearly a complete turnover, except for Clark. The new judges, who included Henry Friendly, J. Edward Lumbard, Irving Kaufman, and Thurgood Marshall, obviously had different educational and professional experiences from those of the judges they replaced. What truly distinguished the new group, however, is that they had a very different approach to judicial decisionmaking, and in particular the proper role of discretion. No longer were the Second Circuit judges comfortable with leaving important substantive decisions on the merits of a claim to case-by-case equitable balancing. In the 1960s, the Second Circuit began crafting multi-part tests to replace the vague standards that had come before, to force lower courts and later panels to elaborate the reasons for their decisions. Whether they consciously subscribed to it or not, the new judges were heavily influenced by Legal Process ideology.  Continue reading “The Legal Process Sea-Change”

Learned Hand: You’re Reading Him Wrong

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Learned Hand wasn’t as skeptical of a court’s ability to decide issues of fair use and substantial similarity as he is often portrayed.

Photo of Judge Learned HandPossibly no judge had a greater influence on copyright law in the twentieth century than Learned Hand. Nichols v. Universal Pictures and Peter Pan Fabrics are foundational cases in most textbooks; Sheldon v. MGM and Fred Fisher v. Dillingham used to be. And although he did not write the opinion, Hand was on the panel that decided Arnstein v. Porter.

Part of the reason for Hand’s enduring popularity is that he was a brilliant writer, and his aphorisms about copyright law continue to appeal to a skeptical age. In Nichols, he famously declared with respect to the distinction between uncopyrightable idea and copyrightable expression, “Nobody has ever been able to fix that boundary, and nobody ever can.” In Shipman v. RKO Pictures: “The test is necessarily vague and nothing more definite can be said about it.” In Dellar v. Samuel Goldwyn, Inc., decided per curiam but attributed to Hand: “[T]he issue of fair use … is the most troublesome in the whole law of copyright.” In Peter Pan Fabrics v. Martin Weiner Corp.: “The test for infringement of a copyright is of necessity vague…. In the case of designs, which are addressed to the aesthetic sensibilities of an observer, the test is, if possible, even more intangible.”

To modern ears, these sound like (and are often quoted as) criticisms of copyright law. A vague, ineffable test is an unworkable test, one that offers no guidance to lower courts or juries and is therefore hardly better than no test at all. But to read Hand in this way to read him anachronistically. Continue reading “Learned Hand: You’re Reading Him Wrong”

Copyright’s Substantial Confusion

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The concept of substantial similarity, never clear to begin with, got even more confusing once juries started playing a larger role in copyright infringement suits.

A few weeks ago the 9th Circuit issued its decision in the long-awaited “Blurred Lines” case, Williams v. Gaye, and the reaction has generally ranged between dismay and anger. Here is a quick summary of the decision. The consensus among copyright lawyers, with some exceptions, appears to be that the original jury verdict against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke threatens to make musical styles copyrightable, that the majority on appeal got the law wrong, and that the dissent is correct that the jury verdict should have been reversed.

I disagree with some of that, but I want to take this post in a different direction. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading lately about the development of the test for copyright infringement over the course of the 20th century. Williams v. Gaye is, I believe, merely the predictable outcome of the 9th Circuit’s approach to proving copyright infringement, an approach that copyright scholars have been complaining about for a long time. But it’s worse than that. As Rick Sanders spelled out in a recent post, all of the modern tests for proving infringement by copying are deeply problematic. What is particularly intriguing with the Williams case is that the approach the dissent seems to be recommending actually pre-dates the modern caselaw. It’s the one that the modern test — first spelled out in detail by the Second Circuit in Arnstein v. Porter — was designed to replace. Look at the cases the dissenter, Judge Nguyen, cites—many of them were decided before Arnstein. And although I agree with the Williams majority’s assessment of the lack of support for the dissent’s argument, I think it’s no accident it has resurfaced.

A warning for non-IP-interested readers: this is going to be a long, hard slog through the weeds of copyright law, maybe several long hard slogs. I also have some things to say along the way about the development of the law generally over the last hundred years. But consider yourself warned.  Continue reading “Copyright’s Substantial Confusion”

Welcome to the Line

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Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took up and reversed net neutrality.  If you are unfamiliar with net neutrality, it is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not allowed to discriminate against certain users, websites, content, or whatever else.  For example, Spectrum (formerly Time Warner) is not allowed to block its users from or charge them for accessing Facebook.  Or, for a real-life example, Madison River Communications was fined $15,000 by the FCC for restricting their costumers’ access to a rival service. John Oliver explains net neutrality here. (Language warning.)  In a way, you could think of net neutrality as an equal opportunity law for the internet.  Or, at least you could have.  On December 14, 2017, FCC chairman Ajit Pai and the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality, which leaves the internet in the United States in a fairly bad spot.

Luckily, in my opinion, the FCC has a gauntlet of lawsuits to go through now that it repealed net neutrality.  It also seems there is a fair number of people who share my viewpoint.  As it stands, the FCC had something around 22 million complaints filed against its ruling.  FCC Chairman Pai canceled his scheduled appearance at the to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas due to death threats.  On top of this, the Internet Association is bringing together powerhouse companies to join the fight against the unpopular ruling.  Companies like Google, Amazon, Etsy, and Alphabet have stated they are joining the lawsuit.  The Internet Association’s President and CEO Michael Beckerman stated, “The final version of Chairman Pai’s rule . . . dismantles popular net neutrality protections for consumers.  This rule defies the will of a bipartisan majority of Americans and fails to preserve a free and open internet.”    Netflix even took to Twitter and sent the message, “In 2018, the Internet is united in defense of #NetNeutrality.  As for the FCC, we will see you in court.”  Furthermore, a number of states have come forward stating their opposition to the repeal and have indicated that they, too, will join the fight.

Seeing this net neutrality issue unfold has solidified my choice to attend law school.  Continue reading “Welcome to the Line”

The Myth About Practicing IP

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I was recently visiting a relative in the hospital when the attending physician struck up a conversation with my family.  When he found out that I am an attorney, he asked about my area of practice.  I told him that I practice product liability defense and intellectual property litigation.  He then asked me the following question, a variation of which has been posed to me dozens of times over the past five years:  “What type of engineer are you?”

I am an English major, and I practice IP litigation.  Not only do I not have a science background, but I made a concerted effort to avoid science classes in college.  Law schools precipitate a myth that you can’t practice IP without a science background.  It’s a myth because it’s not true.  I’m proof.  (Disclaimer:  it is true that you can’t prosecute patents before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office without a science background.  But patent prosecution is only one part of IP.) Continue reading “The Myth About Practicing IP”

The Copyright Act: Standing and “Right to Sue” Assignments

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The symbol representing a copyrighted work, which is the letter "C" within a closed circle.Every now and then, plaintiffs attempt to leap into the shoes of a copyright holder by obtaining permission from the copyright owner to sue an alleged third party infringer.  But these type of bare “right to sue” assignments in many instances fall short of what is required under federal law.

Enforcement Action Rights under the Copyright Act

According to the federal Copyright Act, only “[t]he legal or beneficial owner of an exclusive right under a copyright is entitled, subject to the requirements of section 411, to institute an action for any infringement of that particular right committed while he or she is the owner of it.”  17 U.S.C. § 501(b) (emphasis added).

The Copyright Act lists the following exclusive rights of the owner of a copyright:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

17 U.S.C. § 106. But “a person holding a non-exclusive license is not entitled to complain about any alleged infringement of the copyright.”  HyperQuest, Inc. v. N’Site Sols., Inc., 632 F.3d 377, 382 (7th Cir. 2011).  In order words, to have the requisite standing to sue, a plaintiff must exclusively own one of the enumerated rights listed above.  Consequently, enforcement actions are limited to the specific rights exclusively owned.   For example, a plaintiff who owns the exclusive rights to perform a literary work can only sue to enforce that specific rights. Such a plaintiff, cannot go after alleged infringers making unauthorized copies of the literary work. Continue reading “The Copyright Act: Standing and “Right to Sue” Assignments”

Cosplay Wars: The Legal Implications of Fan Costume Competitions

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This past weekend, I attended the annual Milwaukee Mighty Con, a local comic convention.  While there, I watched one of the cosplay competitions where competitors dressed in fantastical recreations of iconic characters such as Star Wars’ Kylo Ren.  Yet while observing the competition and enjoying the efforts of the competitors, I pondered the legal implications of these derivative works.

But first, a little backTwo people dressed in costumesground information is in order.  The term “cosplay” was created by Takahashi Nobuyuki in 1984. Nobuyuki attended a science fiction convention in Los Angeles, and he was so impressed with the fans’ costume competition that he wrote about his experiences upon returning to Japan. Yet, no word in the Japanese language accurately represented the costume competition Nobuyuki saw. To remedy this predicament, Nobuyuki combined the Japanese equivalents of “costume” and “play” to describe what he saw.  This created the word “kosupure,” which in English roughly translates into cosplay. Today, this term universally refers to a fan’s wearing of costumes, props, and accessories to represent a character often originating from video games, comics, movies, and TV shows.  By extension, the individual who imitates the character is known as a cosplayer. Now, some cosplayers, like the competitors at Milwaukee Mighty Con, can have a monetary benefit from winning cosplay competitions.  Such monetary gains naturally bring up concerns regarding the copyrights and trademarks on the imitated characters.

Continue reading “Cosplay Wars: The Legal Implications of Fan Costume Competitions”

Microsoft President Calls for Protecting Privacy as the Cloud Reshapes Lives

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You only needed to read the title of the 2016 Nies Lecture in Intellectual Property presented Tuesday at Marquette Law School to know that Brad Smith was offering a generally positive view of the future of technological innovation. “A Cloud for Global Good: The Future of Technology—Issues for Wisconsin and the World” was the title.

Indeed, Smith spoke to the potential for what he called the fourth industrial revolution to improve lives across the world. But he also voiced concerns about the future of privacy and security for personal information in a rapidly changing world, and he called for updating of both American laws and international agreements related to technology to respond to the big changes.

All of this came from a standpoint of unquestionable knowledge of the subject matter. Smith is the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft. The Appleton native has been with the company since 1993 and his duties include overseeing corporate, external, and legal affairs for the global technology giant. Continue reading “Microsoft President Calls for Protecting Privacy as the Cloud Reshapes Lives”

Legal Issues and Pokémon Go

Posted on Categories Computer Law, Intellectual Property Law, Popular Culture & Law, Public, Tort Law2 Comments on Legal Issues and Pokémon Go

20160727_135932Okay, I admit it. I’m playing Pokémon Go. It’s frustratingly addictive.

For those who don’t know, Pokémon Go is an app for smartphones; the app is free, but players can make in-app purchases. The idea is for each player to “catch” creatures known as Pokémon, which the player does by “throwing” what is called a Pokéball at them. Once you catch the creatures, each of which has its own special powers and abilities, you can “evolve” them into stronger, more powerful creatures and you can go to gyms to “battle” other players.

Pokémon Go uses GPS to figure out where a player is located and presents the player with that “map.” Pokéstops (where players can go to get free goodies they need to play the game) and gyms are represented on the map as actual places, usually public places like parks, sculptures, or churches. To get to a Pokéstop or to battle at a gym, a player needs to physically move herself to that location. For example, the Marquette University campus is full of Pokéstops—e.g., a few sculptures on the southeast side of campus, one of the signs for the Alumni Memorial Union. Dedicated players certainly get some exercise.

Pokémon Go is also interesting because of how it mixes your real-life location with the mythical creatures. When a creature appears, you can take its picture, as if the Pokémon is right there in your real world. (See the pictures in this post.)IMG_20160722_084109

But Pokémon Go has been at the root of a number of accidents and incidents and it raises a number of interesting legal issues.

Continue reading “Legal Issues and Pokémon Go”

Silicon Valley’s Challenge to Intellectual Property Law

Posted on Categories Intellectual Property Law, Public, Speakers at Marquette1 Comment on Silicon Valley’s Challenge to Intellectual Property Law

 

Ted Ullyot titled his Helen Wilson Nies Lecture at Marquette Law School on Tuesday, “Innovation, Disruption, and Intellectual Property: A View from Silicon Valley.” He made it clear which two of those three elements are looked on favorably within that bastion of high-tech culture: innovation and disruption. That leaves one not looked on so favorably: intellectual property law, if you define that as protecting creative work through patents, copyrights, or trademarks.

Ullyot has gained great insight into what goes on between technological visionaries on one side and corporate lawyers on the other. From 2008 to 2013, he was general counsel of Facebook. That covered a period in which Facebook grew at an amazing pace, its stock went public, and it was sued by Yahoo! for patent infringement. Ullyot described the Yahoo! case in detail in his lecture, including the way that many of the leading figures in Silicon Valley who had no connection to Facebook were rubbed wrong by the Yahoo! suit because the culture of innovation was so oriented against asserting intellectual property rights. Continue reading “Silicon Valley’s Challenge to Intellectual Property Law”

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. Continue reading “Mapping Out the Copyright Semicommons”