Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 4/30/18.

One of the recurrent themes on Techdirt is that law itself should not become a tool for unlawful abuse. No matter how well-intentioned, if a law provides bad actors with the ability and opportunity to easily chill others’ speech or otherwise lawful activity, then it is not a good law.

The CASE Act is an example of a bad law. On the surface it may seem like a good one: one of the reasons people are able to abuse the legal system to shut down those they want to silence is because getting sucked into a lawsuit, even one you might win, can be so ruinously expensive. The CASE Act is intended to provide a more economical way to resolve certain types of copyright infringement disputes, particularly those involving lower monetary value.

But one of the reasons litigation is expensive is because there are number of checks built into it to make sure that before anyone can be forced to pay damages, or be stopped from saying or doing what they were saying or doing, that the party making this demand is actually entitled to. A big problem with the CASE Act is that in exchange for the cost-savings it may offer, it gives up many of those critical checks.

In recognition of the harm removal of these checks would invite, EFF has authored a letter to the House Judiciary Committee raising the alarm on how the CASE Act would only aggravate, rather than remediate, the significant troll problem.

Per the letter, federal courts have been increasingly “reining in [trolling behavior] by demanding specific and reliable evidence of infringement—more than boilerplate allegations—before issuing subpoenas for the identity of an alleged infringer. Some federal courts have also undertaken reviews of copyright troll plaintiffs’ communications with their targets with an eye to preventing coercion and intimidation. These reforms have reduced the financial incentive for the abusive business model of copyright trolling.”

But under the CASE Act, these provisions would not apply. Instead

[L]egally unsophisticated defendants—the kind most often targeted by copyright trolls—are likely to find themselves bound by the judgments of a non-judicial body in faraway Washington, D.C., with few if any avenues for appeal. The statutory damages of up to $30,000 proposed in the CASE Act, while less than the $150,000 maximum in federal court, are still a daunting amount for many people in the U.S., more than high enough to coerce Internet users into paying settlements of $2,000–$8,000. Under the Act, a plaintiff engaged in copyright trolling would not need to show any evidence of actual harm in order to recover statutory damages. And unlike in the federal courts, statutory damages could be awarded under the CASE Act even for copyrights that are not registered with the Copyright Office before the alleged infringement began. This means that copyright trolls will be able to threaten home Internet users with life-altering damages—and profit from those threats—based on works with no commercial or artistic value.

And that’s not all:

Another troubling provision of the CASE Act would permit the Copyright Office to dispense with even the minimal procedural protections established in the bill for claims of $5,000 or less. These “smaller claims”—which are still at or above the largest allowed in small claims court in 21 states—could be decided by a single “Claims Officer” in a summary procedure on the slimmest of evidence, yet still produce judgments enforceable in federal court with no meaningful right of appeal.

Also:

[T] he federal courts are extremely cautious when granting default judgments, and regularly set them aside to avoid injustice to unsophisticated defendants. Nothing in the CASE Act requires the Copyright Office to show the same concern for the rights of defendants. At minimum, a requirement that small claims procedures cannot commence unless defendants affirmatively opt in to those procedures would give the Copyright Office an incentive to ensure that defendants’ procedural and substantive rights are upheld. A truly fair process will be attractive to both copyright holders and those accused of infringement.

The CASE Act appears to reflect an idealized view that the only people who sue other people for copyright infringement are those who have valid claims. But that is not the world we live in. Trolls abound, parasites eager to use the threat of litigation as a club to extract money from innocent victims. And the CASE Act, if passed, would give them a bigger weapon.

It also gives would-be censors additional tools to chill their critics through the use of a new subpoena power administered through the Copyright Office, without sufficient due process built into the system to ensure that these subpoenas are not being used as a means of unjustly stripping speakers of their right to anonymous speech.

The CASE Act also gives the Copyright Office the authority to issue subpoenas for information about Internet subscribers. The safeguards for Internet users’ privacy established in the federal courts will not apply. In fact, the bill doesn’t even require that a copyright holder state a plausible claim of copyright infringement before requesting a subpoena—a basic requirement in federal court.

EFF was joined on this letter by many other lawyers (including me) and experts who have worked to defend innocent people from unjust threats of litigation, in the hope that it can help pressure Congress not to give the green light to more of it.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 4/23/18.

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: a decision from the Ninth Circuit in the Monkey Selfie case.

Upshot: the case remains dismissed, and the defendants get to recover attorney fees for the appeal. There’s also relatively little to say on the copyright front. This case has turned almost entirely into litigation about standing and proven to be a significant wrench in the works for any future litigation anyone, but PETA in particular, might want to bring on behalf of animals.

First, the court skewers PETA over the quality of its “friendship” with Naruto, casting significant side-eye towards PETA’s apparent settlement of the lawsuit, which led to its attempt to dismiss the appeal, while at the same time leaving some question as to whether Naruto himself was down with this settlement and plan to dismiss his appeal. From footnote 3:

We feel compelled to note that PETA’s deficiencies in this regard go far beyond its failure to plead a significant relationship with Naruto. Indeed, if any such relationship exists, PETA appears to have failed to live up to the title of “friend.” After seeing the proverbial writing on the wall at oral argument, PETA and Appellees filed a motion asking this court to dismiss Naruto’s appeal and to vacate the district court’s adverse judgment, representing that PETA’s claims against Slater had been settled. It remains unclear what claims PETA purported to be “settling,” since the court was under the impression this lawsuit was about Naruto’s claims, and per PETA’s motion, Naruto was “not a party to the settlement,” nor were Naruto’s claims settled therein. Nevertheless, PETA apparently obtained something fromthe settlement with Slater, although not anything that would necessarily go to Naruto: As “part of the arrangement,” Slater agreed to pay a quarter of his earnings from the monkey selfie book “to charities that protect the habitat of Naruto and other crested macaques in Indonesia.” See Settlement Reached: ‘Monkey Selfie’ Case Broke New GroundForAnimal Rights, PETA, https://www.peta.org/blog/settlementreached-monkey- selfie-case-broke-new-ground-animal-rights/ (last visited Apr. 5, 2018). But now, in the wake of PETA’s proposed dismissal, Naruto is left without an advocate, his supposed “friend” having abandoned Naruto’s substantive claims in what appears to be an effort to prevent the publication of a decision adverse to PETA’s institutional interests. Were he capable of recognizing this abandonment, we wonder whether Naruto might initiate an action for breach of confidential relationship against his (former) next friend, PETA, for its failure to pursue his interests before its own. Puzzlingly, while representing to the world that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way,” see PETA, https://peta.org (last visited Apr. 5, 2018), PETA seems to employ Naruto as an unwitting pawn in its ideological goals. Yet this is precisely what is to be avoided by requiring next friends to have a significant relationship with, rather than an institutional interest in, the incompetent party—a point made by ChiefJustice Rehnquist in Lenhard v. Wolff, 443 U.S. 1306, 1312 (1979). See infra page 9 for exact language.

But repudiating PETA’s “next friend” standing doesn’t end the inquiry. There is a 2004 case from the Ninth Circuit, Cetacean Community v. Bush, which established the precedent that animals might be able to sue for themselves, even without a “next friend” to do the suing for them. The court decides it has to defer to that precedent, although so reluctantly as to undermine its persuasive effect in future cases.

Reaching that conclusion didn’t end the inquiry, however. Cetacean Community means that animals might be theoretically able to sue for themselves in the Ninth Circuit, but it doesn’t mean they will necessarily have a viable claim. To figure out whether they do, we have to look at the applicable statute, which in this case is the Copyright Act. And here the court concludes that Naruto, being a monkey, has no standing to sue for copyright infringement.

Several provisions of the Copyright Act also persuade us against the conclusion that animals have statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act. See Davis v. Mich. Dep’t of Treasury, 489 U.S. 803, 809 (1989) (“It is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”). For example, the “children” of an “author,” “whether legitimate or not,” can inherit certain rights under the Copyright Act. See 17 U.S.C. §§ 101, 201, 203, 304. Also, an author’s “widow or widower owns the author’s entire termination interest unless there are any surviving children or grandchildren of the author, in which case the widow or widower owns one-half of the author’s interest.” Id. § 203(a)(2)(A). The terms “children,” “grandchildren,” “legitimate,” “widow,” and “widower” all imply humanity and necessarily exclude animals that do not marry and do not have heirs entitled to property by law. Based on this court’s decision in Cetacean and the text of the Copyright Act as a whole, the district court did not err in concluding that Naruto—and, more broadly, animals other than humans—lack statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act.

So there you go. Our long national nightmare of not knowing whether any random monkey might be able to sue for copyright infringement has been resolved. We may now go about our lives confident in the knowledge that they cannot, at least not in the Ninth Circuit.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 4/13/18.

In today’s fast-paced news cycle it’s easy to overlook the important things: the copyright status of the monkey selfie.

Today we have learned nothing new about it, except that the case is not over yet. Which is itself significant, because the parties in the case had jointly moved to dismiss the appeal, and today that motion was denied. In its order denying the motion [pdf, embedded below] the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that while it had the power to dismiss an appeal if the parties so requested it, it did not have the obligation to do so if there were countervailing interests. And in this case, the Ninth Circuit found, there were countervailing interests requiring it to fully adjudicate the matter.

It cited several other cases as analogs. As in Albers v. Eli Lily, “this case has been fully briefed and argued by both sides, and the court has expended considerable resources to come to a resolution. Denying the motion to dismiss ensures that ‘the investment of public resources already devoted to this litigation will have some return.'” Furthermore, as was the case in Ford v. Strickland, “a decision in this developing area of the law would help guide the lower courts.”

Also, referencing Albers and Khouzam v. Ashcroft, the court noted that denying the dismissal of appeals prevents the parties from “manipulating precedent in a way that suits their institutional preferences.”

As one of our colleagues once warned in a similar context, “courts must be particularly wary of abetting ‘strategic behavior’ on the part of institutional litigants whose continuing interest in the development in the law may transcend their immediate interest in the outcome of a particular case.” Suntharalinkam v. Keisler, 506 F.3d 822, 828 (9th Cir. 2007) (en banc) (Kozinski, J., dissenting from the denial of rehearing).

In other words, enough of this procedural monkey business. The appeal remains a live matter, and at some point the court will presumably substantively rule on it.

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 4/4/18.

Once again, the Constitutional exceptionalism of the DMCA has reared its ugly head. Thanks to the way it has been interpreted we have already enabled it to become an unchecked system of prior restraint, which is anathema to the First Amendment. And now yet another court has allowed this federal law to supersede states’ ability to right the wrongs that misuse of the DMCA’s censorship tools inevitably causes, even though doing so arguably gives this federal law more power than the Constitution allows. Continue reading »

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 2/22/18.

Last week was a big week for dramatically bad copyright rulings from the New York federal courts: the one finding people liable for infringement if they embed others’ content in their own webpages, and this one about 5Pointz, where a court has found a building owner liable for substantial monetary damages for having painted his own building. While many have hailed this decision, including those who have mistakenly viewed it as a win for artists, this post explains why it is actually bad for everyone. Continue reading »

Sep 012018
 

This post originally appeared on Techdirt on 1/22/18.

Shortly after Trump was elected I wrote a post predicting how things might unfold on the tech policy front with the incoming administration. It seems worth taking stock, now almost a year into it, to see how those predictions may have played out. Continue reading »

Aug 222017
 

The following is a cross-post of something I wrote on Techdirt last week.  Some people have taken issue with the fact that I did not fully analyze exactly how VARA (see below) would specifically apply to the Confederate monuments, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that we added something to copyright law that very easily could interact with public art controversies and in a way that is not going to make them any easier to sort out.

There’s no issue of public interest that copyright law cannot make worse. So let me ruin your day by pointing out there’s a copyright angle to the monument controversy: the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), a 1990 addition to the copyright statute that allows certain artists to control what happens to their art long after they’ve created it and no longer own it. Techdirt has written about it a few times, and it was thrust into the spotlight this year during the controversy over the Fearless Girl statue.

Now, VARA may not be specifically applicable to the current controversy. For instance, it’s possible that at least some of the Confederacy monuments in question are too old to be subject to VARA’s reach, or, if not, that all the i’s were dotted on the paperwork necessary to avoid it. (It’s also possible that neither is the case — VARA may still apply, and artists behind some of the monuments might try to block their removal.) But it would be naïve to believe that we’ll never ever have monument controversies again. The one thing VARA gets right is an acknowledgement of the power of public art to be reflective and provocative. But how things are reflective and provocative to a society can change over time as the society evolves. As we see now, figuring out how to handle these changes can be difficult, but at least people in the community can make the choice, hard though it may sometimes be, about what art they want in their midst. VARA, however, takes away that discretion by giving it to someone else who can trump it (so to speak).

Of course, as with any law, the details matter: what art was it, whose art was it, where was it, who paid for it, when was it created, who created it, and is whoever created it dead yet… all these questions matter in any situation dealing with the removal of a public art installation because they affect whether and how VARA actually applies. But to some extent the details don’t matter. While in some respects VARA is currently relatively limited, we know from experience that limited monopolies in the copyright space rarely stay so limited. What matters is that we created a law that is expressly designed in its effect to undermine the ability of a community with art in its midst to decide whether it wants to continue to have that art in its midst, and thought that was a good idea. Given the power of art to be a vehicle of expression, even political expression or outright propaganda, allowing any law to etch that expression in stone (as it were) is something we should really rethink.

Jul 122017
 

The following was also posted on Techdirt.

It’s always hard to write about the policy implications of tragedies – the last thing their victims need is the politicization of what they suffered. At the same time, it’s important to learn what lessons we can from these events in order to avoid future ones. Earlier Mike wrote about the chilling effects on Grenfell residents’ ability to express their concerns about the safety of the building – chilling effects that may have been deadly – because they lived in a jurisdiction that allowed critical speech to be easily threatened. The policy concern I want to focus on now is how copyright law also interferes with safety and accountability both in the US and elsewhere.

I’m thinking in particular about the litigation Carl Malamud has found himself faced with because he dared to post legally-enforceable standards on his website as a resource for people who wanted ready access to the law that governed them. (Disclosure: I helped file amicus briefs supporting his defense in this litigation.) A lot of the discussion about the litigation has focused on the need for people to know the details of the law that governs them: while ignorance of the law is no excuse, as a practical matter people need a way to actually know what the law is if they are going to be expected to comply with it. Locking it away in a few distant libraries or behind paywalls is not an effective way of disseminating that knowledge.

But there is another reason why the general public needs to have access to this knowledge. Not just because it governs them, but because others’ compliance with it obviously affects them. Think for instance about the tenants in these buildings, or any buildings anywhere: how can they be equipped to know if the buildings they live in meet applicable safety standards if they never can see what those standards are? They instead are forced to trust that those with privileged access to that knowledge will have acted on it accordingly. But as the Grenfell tragedy has shown, that trust may be misplaced. “Trust, but verify,” it has been famously said. But without access to the knowledge necessary to verify that everything has been done properly, no one can make sure that it has. That makes the people who depend on this compliance vulnerable. And as long as copyright law is what prevents them from knowing if there has been compliance, then it is copyright law that makes them so.  Continue reading »

Apr 062016
 

The following is Section III.A of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Question #1 asks whether Section 512 safe harbors are working as intended, and Question #5 asks the related question of whether the right balance has been struck between copyright owners and online service providers.  To the extent that service providers have been insulated from the costs associated with liability for their users’ content, the DMCA, with its safe harbors, has been a good thing.  But the protection is all too often too complicated to achieve, too expensive to assert, or otherwise too illusory for service providers to be adequately protected.

Relatedly, Question #2 asks whether courts have properly construed the entities and activities covered by the safe harbor, and the answer is not always.  But the problem here is not just that they have sometimes gotten it wrong but that there is too often the possibility for them to get it wrong.  Whereas under Section 230 questions of liability for intermediaries for illegality in user-supplied content are relatively straight forward – was the intermediary the party that produced the content? if not, then it is not liable – when the alleged illegality in others’ content relates to potential copyright infringement, the test becomes a labyrinth minefield that the service provider may need to endure costly litigation to navigate.  Not only is ultimate liability expensive but even the process of ensuring that it won’t face that liability can be crippling.[1]  Service providers, and investors in service providers, need a way to minimize and manage the legal risk and associated costs arising from their provision of online services, but given the current complexity[2] outlining the requirements for safe harbors they can rarely be so confidently assured.
Continue reading »

Apr 052016
 

The following is Section II.C of the comment I submitted in the Copyright Office’s study on the operation of Section 512 of the copyright statute.

Veoh was a video hosting service akin to YouTube that was found to be eligible for the DMCA safe harbor.[1]  Unfortunately this finding was reached after years of litigation had already driven the company into bankruptcy and forced it to layoff its staff.[2]  Meanwhile SeeqPod was a search engine that helped people (including potential consumers) find multimedia content out on the Internet, but it, too, was also driven into bankruptcy by litigation, taking with it an important tool to help people discover creative works.[3]

History is littered with examples like the ones above of innovative new businesses being driven out of existence, their innovation and investment chilled, by litigation completely untethered from the principles underpinning copyright law.  Copyright law exists solely to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.”  Yet all too frequently it has had the exact opposite effect.

The DMCA has the potential to be a crucial equalizer, but it can only do so when the economic value of what these service providers deliver is considered by policymakers with at least as much weight as that given to the incumbent interests who complain that their previous business models may have become unworkable in light of digital technology.  Service providers are economic engines employing innumerable people, directly and indirectly, and driving innovation forward while they deliver a world of information to each and every Internet user.  We know economic harm is done to them and to anyone, creators and consumers, who would have benefited from their services when they are not protected.

But what needs careful scrutiny and testing are economic arguments predicated on the assumption that every digital copy of every copyrighted work transmitted online without the explicit permission of a copyright holder represents a financial loss.  This is a presumption that needs careful scrutiny, with reviewable data and auditable methodology.  It is quite a leap to assume that every instance (or even most instances) of people consuming “pirated” copyrighted works is an instance they would otherwise have paid the creator.  For example, it tends to presume that people have unlimited amounts of money to spend on unlimited numbers of copyrighted works, and it also ignores the fact that some works may only be consumable at a price point of $0, which is something that institutions like libraries and over-the-air radio have long enabled, to the betterment of creators and the public beneficiaries of creative works alike.  Furthermore, even in instances when people would be willing to pay for access to a work, copyright owners may not be offering it at any price, nor are they necessarily equitably sharing the revenues derived from creative works with the actual creators whose efforts require the remuneration.[4]

The DMCA does not adjust to reflect situations like these, nor does it incentivize copyright holders to correct their own self-induced market failures.  On the contrary; it allows them to deprive the public of access to their works and to threaten the service providers enabling their access with extinction if they do not assist in disabling this access. None of these outcomes are consistent with the goals and purpose of copyright in general, and care must be taken not to allow the DMCA be a law that ensures them.
Continue reading »