Category: Intellectual Property


Hitting Back When Hit By Google

Tuesday’s European Court of Justice decision requires internet search engines to omit listing irrelevant or inadequate items in response to searches for individuals by name. The ruling is simultaneously hailed and condemned, depending on whether one stresses individual control over reputation or anti-censorship (e.g.. Henry Farrell in WaPo; Jonathan Zittrain in NYT; the ubiquitous Brian Leiter).  Two aspects of the incentive effects of the recurring problem seem overlooked, as illustrated by a true story (with minor fact changes in the name of privacy).

A few years ago, a colleague got a blistering review of his teaching from a student blog.  There may have been some underlying basis for the criticism, but the post blew it all out of proportion and offered no context for the specific objection and no counterbalancing assessment of the teacher’s considerable strengths. It was both authoritative and damning as well as inadequate and of dubious relevance.

My friend’s distress intensified when this url appeared first in all searches for his name using Ask, Bing, Google, Yahoo! and other search tools.  It came up ahead of the professor’s SSRN page, school biography, library bibliography, and laudatory references in numerous other urls on the web. The result magnified the post’s significance and caused my colleague anguish.

The blog publisher refused his request to take down the post, citing forum policies on open-access, autonomy, and self-regulation.  At that time, at least, the search engines could not be bothered. Day after day, we’d do a search of his name and the inflammatory post kept coming up number one, threatening the professor’s reputation.

Finally overcoming his frustration, the professor chose to fight fire with fire.  He created a new blog and began posting entries at a regular clip.  Gradually, these posts and responses or references to them rose up the lists of hits for his name.  Eventually, the objectionable link sank down the list into a more proportionate presence, there as part of a more complete portrait, not the salient bruise it started out as.

The episode also emboldened my friend to redouble his investment in teaching.  Accepting the old adage that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, he vowed to minimize the chances that such postings, however acontextual or lopsided, would reappear.  His teaching evaluations, in fact, rose from just above average to well above average.

There are obviously many more significant complex issues associated with the hierarchy or presence of misleading or irrelevant information on the internet.  For example, norms in Europe may differ from those in the U.S., and a ruling like that of the ECJ seems unlikely in America.  And there are probably better forums to solve the problem than courthouses, including legislators, markets, and think tanks.

But in struggling with associated trade-offs and conflicting values, the incentive effects should be noted.   I don’t want negative urls polluting my public persona.  But that produces two positive results: I try to avoid doing anything that would feed them and to engage enough to neutralize their effects on my profile.  It worked for my old friend.


Are You Missing the Market, Aspen?

Professors are in an uproar over Aspen Publisher’s new rules for textbooks. In short, if you thought you could buy a book and do what you wanted after that (i.e. sell it used), Aspen wants to change that system. Instead of a true, unbundled digital option, it has a system where students buy both a physical textbook and a “lifetime” digital book. Too bad as there is a market opportunity that they might be missing. On the legal doctrine front, Josh Blackman called it out. James Grimmelmann jumped on the bashing. Rebecca Tushnet has poked at the offer too. But where is the market here? Is there a way Aspen could make this shift work well? If so, would authors (i.e., professors with deals with Aspen) like it? And why not use dollars to tell Aspen what to do? Assign a different casebook from a competitor (FYI there is a free one out there, see below). There are some specific issues that illustrate sme of the problems in this space.

First, what about time and artificial editions? Rebecca nails this point by calling out that some areas of law (e.g., IP) change so fast that new editions and coverage issues make staying up with casebooks a problem. In those areas, does first sale do much work? Maybe it does much work in the few years between editions. But after that, the text is somewhat obsolete. Dusting of an IP text in digital or hardcopy from the 1990s would be dangerous except for fundamentals (and maybe even for those). Still, there are now seven editions for the Dukeminier casebook. Are the updates every four or so years needed? Even in other areas, are authors updating to add value or to create a new text that undercuts the used market? Do publishers lean on authors to issue new editions when there is not much to say as a market window or version control? If so, the publisher is setting up the demand for secondary or alternate markets that cut out the publisher.

So is this system functioning? As I noted before, the OpenStax system offers high quality texts for free and in a modular way. That means sections are updated for free and folks can assemble material as they wish. Law does not have that yet. The folks at Semaphore Press are close however. That press happens to publish a property text by Steve Semeraro (disclosure I am friends with the folks at Semaphore and introduced them to Steve). It is not quite OpenStax, but it is an interesting model with a shareware feel.

Second, what about the cost to write and update a text? I know it takes tons of time. Whether RA’s do some work or it is all by the professors, the time to write a good casebook is real. I am grateful for the good books. A great teacher’s manual is also a huge help. For new teachers and even experienced, a rich manual provides insights about how the author(s) teach the material and where they see the comments to be headed. One can then choose to follow that lead or modify. But is the price point for texts (as many noted often close to $200) sustainable? Would the market collapse if the cost dropped to low or no charge? OpenStax indicates that the system could shift, and a small crowd of experts would be able to offer an excellent, up-to-date text. And as Pam Samuelson and many others have noted, scholarly works pay off in reputation. So having the most assigned text (or specific chapter on a subject) may stimulate just enough competition for reputation to get great texts (or chapters) but not a glut of roughly the same material from many high-priced publishers.

Third, what about that market opportunity? Would a publisher that offered A) a true digital copy for $40, $50, or even a $100 take share from others? B) What if the publisher said rent the hard copy for a reduced price (again it should be low)? Some might hate that idea as a matter of doctrine but that market is emerging on Amazon and at least lets the student know what is going on (though I think a rental model poses some issues for libraries in that no one should say that libraries should just be rental depots that is another debate for another time).

So Apsen, if you’d like to survive I am betting your authors would like that too. But I am also betting they want to work with you to offer much better solutions than the ones you have right now. The life time digital edition and the high price insult the authors and the marketplace. I think others will find ways to route around you. But you could take your current position and parlay it for the future. If not, I think you may have pushed the law text market to Semaphore or OpenStax. Hmm, maybe Aspen should stay with its model after all.

Now you can insist on control of your material. You can insist on veto power over everything; down to casting and choice of directors and script approval, you can insist on all those things. J.K. Rowling insisted on all those things. And J.K. Rowling got all those things because there were enough people interested in that. Now if you’re not J.K. Rowling, and you insist on all those things, the studios are not going to be very interested or less studios will be interested in it so you’ll get less money or none at all. Or alternatively, you can not insist on everything and you can just sell them the book and what they do with it is what they do with it and you have to live with it. You no longer have approval over anything, you no longer have…you know what I mean? And those are the two extremes. In between of course there’s a vast area of shades of gray.

— George R. R Martin


George R. R. Martin on Copyright, Inheritance, and Creative Control

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

This is Part 3 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For Part 2, click here. For the audio file, click here.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, but you just generally right. The trope something that really speaks to folks. I guess maybe that raises a question about your fans generally. You’ve obviously got a huge fan base and I’ve been reading a little bit about them. One question that comes up a bunch of different times is fan fiction and what do you think about fan fiction?

MARTIN: I’m opposed to fan fiction.


MARTIN: Well number one, its copyright infringement and it can potentially endanger my copyrights and my trademarks if I were to allow it. Also, yes maybe it’s a gesture of love that they love your characters and they love your world and all that but it’s not the kind of gesture of love that I really want. And for aspiring writers and some of these people, sure it’s a wide range of fan fiction writers, some who are terrible. Some of them are actually talented writers. I think for the talented writers it’s particularly tragic because they should be doing their own material.

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Business Method Patents Are In Trouble

The transcript of the oral argument in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. is now available.  My takeaway is that the Court may revisit its statement in Bilski that business methods are patentable.  Justice Ginsburg said twice that four Justices (including herself) had signed Justice Stevens’ concurrence in Bilski that took issue with the Court’s position, and did so in a way that sounded like she wanted a do-over.  More significant, Justice Kennedy (who wrote Bilski) kept pressing for an example of a valid business method patent and seemed unsatisfied with the answers.

Holding that business methods are unpatentable would be better than the alternatives of doing nothing (i.e., invalidating this patent on the narrow ground that is comparable to the patent invalidated in Bilski), getting rid of all software patents (nobody seemed interested in that), or coming up with a test for abstract ideas that could actually work (an almost impossible task).  And getting rid of business method patents would go a long way towards solving the problems posed by patent trolls.

Of course, this is what I thought the Court would do in Bilski.  We’ll see if there are five votes this time.

UPDATE:  After reading the transcript again, I’m less optimistic that the Court will do anything significant.  Maybe the only thing they can get five votes for is a judgment that this patent is no more concrete than the one in Bilski.




The Economist Notes that Patents Do Not Equal Innovation

The Economist had a recent piece about software patents and said, GASP “[P]atent issuance is a poor measure of innovation.” Amen. But wait! Don’t order yet! There’s more! “Patenting is strictly a metric of invention. Innovation is such a vastly different endeavour—in terms of investment, time and the human resources required—as to be virtually unrelated to invention.” (The applause and boos commence simultaneously).

Innovation is meaningless as well, but the first step is to admit the problem. There may be some relationship between patents and incentives to create certain things. But not all patents or all creations show a correlation to a general claim that patents equal innovation or whether innovation will occur without patents. Innovation as “Hey that rally changed the way we do things” probably can’t be identified until much after the event. Innovation as “Hey we made tons and tons of bitcoin, oh we mean cash” is easier to spot but a different metric as far as policy should be concerned. The better disposable razor or even iPhone is incremental while also important. Parsng the differences amongst what types of innovation is well-beyond a blog post. But should folks want to hurt their head and wear out their hands, please write at length. I will look forward to reading what you find.


Yep, There It Is, Amazon Embraces 3D Printing

In the mists of yore (i.e., December 2, 2013), I wrote that Amazon seems well-placed to embrace 3D printing to cut labor costs and offer same-day and/or back-catalog things, as in physical goods; now Amazon has. Similar to Amazon’s move of buying one of the major on-demand publishers of books, it has partnered with 3DLT which has been called thethe first store for 3D products. Amazon has also opened a 3D printing store-front. WaPo’s Dominic Basulto gets the point that Gerard and I have been making in our paper Patents Meet Napster, and I keep seeing in so many areas of technology. Basulto notes that just in time retail could take on a new meaning. As he puts it:

[T]he future is one in which users simply upload or download 3D design files and print them out with 3D printers. Everyday consumer products, in short, will eventually follow in the wake of plastic toys and plastic jewelry. In this radically new business model, Amazon would be selling the 3D design files and the 3D printers and the 3D printer filament, but wouldn’t be selling actual “products” as we currently think about them. The consumers would print the products, not buy the products.

Yep. That’s about right. And as Gerard and I argue, this shift will highlight questions about patents and also trademarks. Folks may want to know that the files and the materials for the things they print are safe and trust-worthy. Enter brands and enter Amazon (and eBay to be fair) which have been brilliant at setting up online trust-systems so that we can do business with random company in random place and have a high probability that the deal will occur, be as promised, and not leak our credit cards (Amazon does this by not sharing your credit card with third parties last I checked).

Now all we need is nano-goo-fueled replic– er uh, excuse me, 3D printers — and the Diamond Age will be here.


Digital Futures, Why Bother?

I enjoy thinking about the implications of technology but some recent “Theses about the digital future” at Pew are not satisfying as compared to a recent article by Neil Gershenfeld and JP Vasseur called “As Objects Go Online.” Pew does some excellent work, but this one is rather odd. The predictions are vapid, and some contradict each other. In contrast, the Gershenfeld and Vasseur piece focuses on one idea, The Internet of Things, and offers much more. My work on 3D printing with Gerard was partly inspired by the digitization of things. The idea there is about digital mapping and reproducing tangible goods. Gershenfeld and Vasseur are looking at how we are already networking objects:

Thanks to advances in circuits and software, it is now possible to make a Web server that fits on (or in) a fingertip for $1. When embedded in everyday objects, these small computers can send and receive information via the Internet so that a coffeemaker can turn on when a person gets out of bed and turn off when a cup is loaded into a dishwasher, a stoplight can communicate with roads to route cars around traffic, a building can operate more efficiently by knowing where people are and what they’re doing, and even the health of the whole planet can be monitored in real time by aggregating the data from all such devices.

The connection between Gershenfeld (also a leader in 3D printing) and my ideas is the drive to show that many battles will be about “command-and-control technology [versus] distributed solutions.” Gershenfled and Vasseur believe open, distributed ideas will win. I am hope they do. I am not as certain that such outcomes are necessarily where we are headed. That is why even with its somewhat thin offering the Pew Report may help. The collection of obvious observations may help draw attention to pressing issues of today, not Digital Life in 2025, as Pew has dressed up its report. The descriptions are decent but not prescient. They are below in case you want to see them here. THe key take away, I think, is that anyone who thinks the implications of digitization have been addressed, understood, and solved by our experiences with copyright and privacy to date is mistaken. This world and the one coming are quite different. I must admit that I can’t pinpoint exactly how and why it is different. That is my goal over the next several years. But I can say don’t expect the analogies, frameworks, and laws of old to make much sense as we move forward. That does not mean all is lost. Rather it means we get to shape what happens next, just as folks did at the dawn of Western capitalism and individualism in England and at the Industrial Revolution. Should be fun and frightening; so buckle in.

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Bottlenecks and copyright

Yes, you read that headline correctly. This post explores how Joseph Fishkin’s new theory of equal opportunity applies to… copyright law. As I hinted earlier, this is seemingly an unlikely connection. It is thus a connection that uniquely demonstrates the generativity of Bottlenecks.

Other posts in this symposium by Wendy Greene and Jessica Roberts have explored how Bottlenecks applies in the context of workplace anti-discrimination rules. Brishen Rogers extends the workplace focus by exploring how labor unions fit into the theory. And my own earlier post connects Bottlenecks to legal education reform.

Copyright scholarship, however, is not where we expect to encounter a new theory of equal opportunity. Yet that is where I found myself applying Fishkin’s framework, which finally provided the language and conceptual clarity to express what struck me as so profoundly problematic within my own field.

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