Category: Intellectual Property



Just a quick note to say that I’m happy to be serving you fresh legal blog entries. No lard or preservatives will be used. And if there’s anything I can do to improve your dining experience, just let me know.

I thought I’d start with a tasty Second Life dish that is making the rounds. For those who don’t know, Second Life is a virtual world in which millions of people do virtual work, go to virtual dance parties, build and sell virtual things, and, well, spend a lot of their real lives in front a computer doing all that.

I’ve never played Second Life and don’t really want to. Nor am I really interested in the legal considerations that normally get Second Life into the news (questions like: “What is virtual property?” and “Can I be taxed on my virtual income?”) Indeed, I think the best thing about Second Life is that it inspired the clever parody site, Get a First Life.

So why am I going on about it?

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Real Estate Appraisals and Copyrighting Facts

As reported by the Washington Post, an interesting intellectual property dispute is brewing in the real estate appraisal business. On one side are traditional real estate appraisers, who charge several hundred dollars for an appraisal that typically involves an onsite inspection. On the other side are online appraisal services that, relying on their databases and some algorithms, offer lenders an instantaneous appraisal at a small fraction of the cost.

The traditional appraisers are upset because the online services may be extracting information from their appraisals and using that information to improve their databases (and thus the accuracy of their online appraisals). Taken to its logical extreme, as online appraisers get better databases by capturing data from the traditional appraisers’ inspections, traditional appraisers will destroy their own industry.

Not surprisingly, the traditional appraisers are looking for ways to preserve their market niche, and intellectual property doctrines can be great tools to hinder marketplace competition. So the WaPo article mentions that the traditional appraisers are considering their copyrights in their appraisals. After all, traditional appraisers put in their sweat of the brow, so shouldn’t they be rewarded? (The article provides some good quotes reflecting this paradigm).

We know how this argument goes. Copyright doesn’t protect the labor invested to generate facts. Appraisers probably can copyright the report in its entirety, and they may even be able to copyright their specific price estimate (see, e.g., CDN v. Kapes), but there should be no way for appraisers or anyone else to obtain copyright protection for a home’s basic specifications (e.g., square footage, age, number of rooms). As a result, copyright law does not provide appraisers with any effective way to restrict online databases from extracting facts from their reports. Thus, if traditional appraisers are looking for a tool to restrict competition from online factual databases, copyright law may not be very helpful.

Even if copyright law isn’t availing, traditional appraisers have other tools at their disposal, including:

* providing services that online database providers can’t, such as the increased accuracy associated with the onsite inspections.

* restricting access to the appraisals. Right now, it appears that the biggest online database service gets some data by providing an online tool for appraisers to submit their reports to lenders—thus, allowing them to extract facts from appraisals that cross the network. Traditional appraisers could try to discourage lenders from using this delivery service, thereby making it harder or impossible for the online service to see the appraisals. Alternatively, if they keep using this delivery service, traditional appraisers could negotiate a contract that limits the service’s ability to extract facts. (The contract is probably some standardized click-through agreement, but it’s negotiable in theory).

* if traditional appraisers really think they are losing money, they could just increase their fees to lenders to cover the lost value (good luck!).

But despite these options, the long-term prognosis may not be very good. A good appraisal always will need an onsite inspection, but just about every other aspect of the appraisal business can be replicated or eliminated through online mechanisms. Thus, it could be that the Internet is disintermediating the appraisal industry, and no amount of rear-guard intellectual property saber-rattling will change that fact.

Dream Makers, Dream Breakers

stars.jpgI recently saw Dreamgirls, a well-marketed movie that’s largely about Barry Gordy-style marketing of music from the 50s to the 80s. Although there’s a lot to viscerally enjoy in the film, I kept analyzing the action from a lawyerly angle. Compulsory licenses, payola laws, restrictive entertainment industry contracts–all play pivotal roles in the movie. Each becomes a tool in the hands of a mogul and his enemies, as they struggle for fans and creative control.

Later in the weekend, I heard an interview with hip-hop impresario Ryan Leslie, who aims to be a 21st century starmaker. After scoring a perfect 1600 on the SAT, Leslie went to Harvard at 15, and is now precociously producing videos with Hollywood icons. Leslie’s career promises to be a lot less destructive than that of prior industry powerbrokers (for some spoiler-revealing reasons I’ll disclose after the jump). But what few fully realize is how important the law is to such a development.

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A Guest Blogger’s “Meta” Post About Guest Blogging

Thanks to Dan and the rest of the Concurring Opinions team for hosting me this month. Incredible as it may seem (given the number of law geeks involved and our sophistication about the applicable law), we enter into this guest-blogging arrangement without any contract of any sort. Thus, any legal consequences of my guest-blogging are governed by default rules…whatever those are.

Fortunately, with respect to liability to third parties, the default rules are generally favorable. 47 USC 230 absolutely immunizes my blog hosts from most types of liability for what I say or do. If I defame someone, I’ll be on the hook, but my peers won’t be. After the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Barrett v. Rosenthal, I think it’s also 100% clear that I’m generally not liable for the posts of my peers. (Pursuant to the reasoning of that case, I could claim to be a “user” of the Concurring Opinions interactive computer service). Even though Dan doesn’t like 47 USC 230 as much as I do, we all benefit from it in this case.

But 47 USC 230 doesn’t cover all types of third party liability—most critically, it leaves open the risk of copyright liability. For example, if I post an infringing photo to the site, not only would I be liable, but my blog hosts could face contributory or vicarious liability. A statutory safe harbor, 17 USC 512, putatively provides some relief, but (1) that safe harbor isn’t nearly as robust as 47 USC 230, and (2) more importantly, 512 has a number of prerequisite formalities, including the requirement that the website register with the Copyright Office, which Concurring Opinions has not done. (You can confirm that here).

As a result, default copyright doctrines apply to any infringing posts I make. Of most concern is vicarious copyright infringement, which would hold the Concurring Opinions folks liable for my infringing posts if they had the right and ability to supervise my infringing activities and a direct financial interest in those activities. (Because it’s a vicarious doctrine, scienter is irrelevant). Even though Concurring Opinions doesn’t generate any revenues (as far as I know!), the Napster court found that Napster had a direct financial interest in infringing P2P file sharing even though Napster didn’t generate a dime of revenues. Instead, the court said that the infringing materials acted as a “draw” to induce people to use Napster. So the principal issue in any vicarious copyright infringement claim would be whether my blog hosts had the right and ability to supervise my infringing activities. Many defendants do not find this a comforting standard…

(Note this analysis could work in reverse as well, where I could be liable for any infringements committed by my peers. As a guest-blogger, I feel a little better that I lack the requisite right and ability to supervise the infringing activities of my peers…but this may be a self-serving statement!)

If you’re interested in a more extensive analysis of liability for guest-blogging, see here.

While the liability situation could be disconcerting, I think the dynamics of being a guest blogger may alleviate some concerns. I am finding guest-blogging a little inhibiting because I don’t want to violate the norms of my blog hosts, which makes me even more cautious than normal. In this respect, guest-blogging feels a little like visiting a friend’s home. The friend may say “mi casa su casa,” but I’ll still carefully wipe the dirt off my shoes and try not to use the guest towels in the vanity bathroom. Similarly, I’ll blog politely here and save my reckless blogging for my own blogs.

What Would Europe Do?

Muni Wifi Router.jpgI went to a few trying panels at the annual law prof conference, but overall I felt presentations in my fields were great. (Perhaps it’s just like Congress–people hate the institution but love their own representative). My two favorite panels were on the internet & telecommunications, and on health insurance. But I felt the latter was ultimately more satisfying than the former, largely because many of the health scholars were deeply aware of comparative health policy, but the internet/telephony panel focused very tightly on U.S. policies.

That’s not to say the internet/telephony panel was at all bad–many big names in the field were there, they directly argued with one another, and a high-level senate staffer injected some political realism into what could have become a speculative discussion. Perhaps the most compelling arguments for the status quo (as opposed to “net neutrality intervention“) were offered by Christopher Yoo, who put forward a quasi-Gilderian vision of Darwinian competition unleashing quantum advances in communication services. For example, Yoo said it would be foolish for the FCC to protect Google from “gouging” by broadband networks, since the danger of such discrimination might just drive Google to massively invest in a satellite network to provide a third alternative to the the telephone/cable duopoly. Some would say it’s that duopoly that’s largely responsible for the US’s pathetic ranking of 21st in the world (right behind Estonia) in broadband penetration.

That makes a lot of sense as far as it goes, and reminds me generally of Schumpeterian visions of innovation–let monopolies rack up rents so they’ll either use profits to innovate or provoke someone else to swipe their customers. But another, gentler vision animates some European policy on the matter, where most customers get much lower prices for much faster services than Americans do.

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Fisking Posner on Inequality

In a recent post on the B-P blog, Richard Posner addresses soaring inequality. In the U.S., “since 1980 the percentage of total personal income going to the top 1 percent of earners has risen from 8 percent to 16 percent.” He concedes a few bad effects from this situation, but ultimately concludes that, aside from upping the estate tax, nothing should be done. My favorite part of the post involves Posner’s speculation that “[m]assive philanthropy directed abroad can interfere with a coherent foreign policy;” fortunately, the administration is already on the case.

It’s astonishing how assiduously Posner ignores the work of Robert H. Frank. In 20 years of rigorous articles and books, Frank has documented over and over the ways that growing inequality harms society. Some of us in the legal profession have applied his theories; Cass Sunstein on cost-benefit analysis, Richard McAdams in Relative Preferences, and my own work on luxury health care and the rise of low-volume, high-margin business models in IP.

But in this post, and even in longer treatments of the subject, Posner ignores the leading American theorist on the consequences of economic inequality. Frank takes his libertarian critics seriously, but somehow falls under the Posner’s radar. (Even in articles published in Westlaw, where a search for [au(posner) and (“robert frank” or “robert h. frank”)] got no hits evidencing engagement with Frank’s work on inequality.)

In what follows, I try to “fisk” Posner’s account of the effects of inequality.

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Chained Melodies

chainbest.jpgThe record industry is reportedly steamed that iPod users only buy, on average, 22 songs per device via iTunes. How could it possibly be that people aren’t rushing to fill up their iTunes library? Who wouldn’t entrust their music to a fragile digital demimonde so shackled by DRM that its best physical analogue would be CD’s chained to a bike rack? (The Zune makes the extraordinary concession of permitting one to “squirt” songs wirelessly for–get this–three days or three plays.)

After a couple of songs of mine disappeared during a computer switch, I swore the whole iTunes-purchase thing off. I get CD’s now, buying far less than I would if I could just get durable copies of songs I like. DRM is designed to minimize piracy, not to maximize sales, a “cut off your nose to spite your face” strategy long ago skewered by McKinsey & Co.

But what I find even more strange about the whole situation is the rigidity of pricing. Forget about the obvious equity issues–the almost spiteful flouting of the the principle of nonrivalry in consumption involved in denying content to those with no chance of paying. The industry and its partners appear to be shunning even profit-improving discounts. As Chris Sprigman noted in The 99 Cent Question, 5 J. Telecom. & High Tech. L. 87:

In 2003, the Rhapsody download service . . . [briefly] offered tracks at 99¢, 79¢, and 49¢. The prices do not appear to have been differentiated according to quality. . . . Rhapsody sold three times as many of the 49¢ tracks as the 99¢ tracks. Given that the marginal cost of selling each track is virtually zero, the 49¢ price yielded greater revenue. . . . Had Rhapsody sorted the tracks by quality (measured by demand at the previous uniform 99¢ price), it could have enjoyed additional sales for the lower-quality tracks (sales that would be profitable if the price Rhapsody pays to the major record labels for licenses to particular tracks were also varied to track demand), and maintained its margins for the higher-quality ones. But for some reason the music industry hasn’t absorbed this lesson.

Indeed. The difficult thing for everybody to realize is that there may well be no “right price” for digital music. Rather, the most efficient solution would have to involve a broadbased tax on either (or both) devices and ISPs. (As The Register puts it, “Free legal downloads for $6 a month. DRM free. [Terry Fisher] explains how.”) Verizon gets it. The RIAA gets it when it comes to compositions and lyrics. Why can’t they get it when it comes to recordings?

Photo Credit: Darwin Bell/Flickr.

Why Google is Taking Over the World (of Ideas)


I had just written the post to end all posts–seamlessly interweaving commentary on Fauxlovean grading, Cute Overload, Yochai Benkler, Ze Frank, reality television, Posner as Richard E. Neumann, The NYT Mag. Ideas of 2006 edition, and assorted oddities.

But then I accidentally hit the “back arrow” button, and it was gone.

Had this post been composed in Gmail, a draft would have been there. I cannot tell you how many times that feature has saved me from losing some rapid-fire composition to clumsy hands. Perhaps the auto-draft-save is only a way to assure that Google’s commercial database perpetually records, not only what I write about, but what I’m thinking writing about. But whatever sacrifice of privacy that entails seems rather minor compared to the infuriating experience of watching the winged words of e-conversation drift into the digital ether.

And now comes Google Patent Search, a nice improvement over the already useful USPTO interface.

So however much I may worry about Google, I have to admit, they are masters at organizing information. Governmental regulation here (such as this interesting Finnish intervention) has to take into account any potential drain of resources from a company that’s doing immense good. Geoff Rapp has worked out cognate ideas on “roundabout redistribution” here.

Photo Credit: greenergrassdesigns (great gift ideas here!)


Hewlett Packard Pays for Privacy . . . and Copyright?

hewlett-packard.jpgHewlett Packard has agreed to pay $14.5 million to resolve a lawsuit by the California attorney general over its phone records scandal. From the New York Times:

Hewlett-Packard said Thursday that it would pay $14.5 million to settle a lawsuit by the California attorney general over the company’s use of private detectives to obtain private phone records of board members and journalists.

The company is paying $650,000 in fines for “statutory damages,” but the bulk of the money, $13.5 million, is going to create a state-administered Privacy and Piracy Fund. The fund is to finance the investigation of consumer privacy violations and of intellectual-property theft, including the copying of movies and music.

“We wanted very much to enhance our ability to enforce our laws against property theft,” Bill Lockyer, the attorney general, said in an interview.

From the article, it sounds as though most of the money will go to helping the state help businesses police copyright. The purpose of the settled lawsuit was purportedly to protect privacy, and I am perplexed at how protecting against copyright piracy suddenly became an aspect of the settlement. I sure hope that the fund from the settlement is mostly used to protect consumer privacy, not as one more arrow in the music and movie industry’s copyright quiver.

For more about the HP scandal, see this terrific post by guest blogger Timothy Glynn.

Law & Technology Theory

prometheus.jpgI just wanted to plug a new forum that Gaia Bernstein, Jim Chen, and I recently launched–Law & Technology Theory. The big question we’re addressing is whether our experience of past regulation of technologies teaches generalizable lessons for future policy. Gaia has nicely summarized some of the key issues we’ll be considering:

Whether [a theory of law & technology] should have broad principles that apply to all technologies or whether it should offer narrower principles relevant to different categories of technologies?

[Can we] formulate a theory that differentiates on the basis of the social values or institutions a new technology destabilizes?

Our “virtual symposium” will host an international group of scholars with a wide range of theoretical commitments. We’ll be publishing the proceedings in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology this Spring. We hope you’ll consider reading and commenting as the discussion progresses. (Some of us will also be at the IASTS conference in Baltimore this February.)

By the way, on a completely untheoretical note, I have to say that the travel time involved in this symposium is great–zero! By developing a forum somewhere between a blog and a conference, we’re trying to promote a new kind of academic exchange. We hope it ends up being a bit more inclusive than the average conference circuit, which can be inhospitable to those who have a tough time traveling.

Art Credit: Elsie Russell, Prometheus (1994).