Category: Intellectual Property

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Will The Disruptors Be the New Dominants?: On Uber, AirBnB, and other seeming upstarts

Loving your online, decentralized model may not work when you care about safe drivers, clean rooms, and other real-world issues. Claire Cain Miller brings up this problem in today’s New York Times. She points out that AirBnB and Uber are trying to follow “a religion [from] Silicon Valley: Serve as a middleman, employ as few people as possible and automate everything. Those tenets have worked wonders on the web at companies like Google and Twitter. But as the new, on-demand companies are learning, they are not necessarily compatible with the real world.” I agree. In The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption, I point out that “transactions costs related to safety, quality, property rights, contracting, and knowledge may be more acute in a digitized, decentralized world.” Ms. Cain Miller (apologies if Miller is the preferred last name), hits on some great points about the differences between the types of harms in the online and offline world. As she looks at it, the lack of humans is a problem for the reality of the services and relates to politics: “The belief that problems can be solved without involving people is probably why many of these companies did not meet with regulators and officials before starting services in new cities.” I think there is something more going on here.

Yes, the big firms in the space will engage in lobbying, but part of their story (and practice) will have to be about how they meet the issues of labor, safety, and more that they affect. As I put it:

[E]ven with digitization, economic questions will remain, but we must understand what they are and why they persist to see what the future may be. Douglass North captures a paradox that goes with transaction costs. Greater specialization, division of labor, and a large market increase transaction costs, because the shift to impersonal transactions demands higher costs to: 1)measure the valuable dimensions of a good or service; 2) protect individual property rights; 3)enforce agreements; and 4)integrate the dispersed knowledge of society.26 Standardized weights and measures, effective laws and enforcement, and institutions and organizations that integrate knowledge emerge, but the “dramatic increase in the overall costs of transacting” is “more than offset by dramatic decreases in production costs.” Digitization forces us to revisit these issues. With digitization, we are seeing an abundance of person-to-person transactions, but with the problems of impersonal transactions.

In simplest terms, AirBnB , Uber, et al. may face some rocky times, but there is a good chance they will figure out how to address the current issues and end up being the dominant firm, not the small disruptor. As Ms. Cain Miller notes, AirBnB has added hotlines and insurance. Uber has also increased its insurance requirements. If the disruptors continue to address a decent amount of the issues North calls out, my bet is that “this era of disruption and decentralization will likely pass and new winners, who will look much like firms of old, will emerge, if they have not already.”

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Makeup as the Killer App for 3D Printing?

A woman named Grace Choi seems to have come up with a way to 3D print “lipstick, lip gloss, eye shadow, blush, nail polish, brow powder—pretty much everything except foundations and face power” at home. Her company, Mink, uses FDA approved inks (vegetable or edible). The goal is that a consumer could take a picture or using an online image of the makeup, the software would match the color and print out just enough makeup for that application. If the prototype holds up, this product could be one to bring 3D printers into many homes. But is it the killer app for all of 3D printing?

Put differently, a fair question that comes up when I talk about 3D printing is will it really be a device in every home? The answer depends on what one means by the question. First, at this point, you need a different 3D printer for different outputs (e.g., makeup or something in plastic as opposed to metal or ceramic). If Mink takes off, yes, a type of 3D printer could be in many, if not a majority, of homes. But as Gerard, others, and I have said, this device is not a replicator. So until a 3D printer is able to have multiple mediums in one printer, the spread of the devices will probably vary depending on the medium of the output. As such the killer apps for each medium will be specific to the device. That said, Mink may have a larger importance for 3D printing and home technology.

Mink could be a sign of where home inventors and makers are headed. Ms. Choi hit on her idea and took about a month to work through 20 printer prototypes, sort the ink issues, and have her working Mink printer. Granted she is a Harvard MBA and apparently has family support, but her approach could lead to new players in her field and others. As reported by CNBC, Ms. Choi, “Much of the make-up sold by high-end labels starts with the same base substrates, or ingredients, as cheaper ones.” This point is part of what motivated Patents Meet Napster. The core things needed to make many products are easier and easier for anyone to obtain. If Mink is priced at $300 to start as promised, that price will likely drop over time. If women adopt the technology and then tinker with it to improve on the hardware or the design colors, they may be inspired to launch their own companies and tinker with other technologies to get there. Like car and computer enthusiasts, cosmetic enthusiasts may find that playing with making what they want and love can lead to new products and businesses. And if that happens at scale in one sector, it may spur adoption in others. So maybe 3D printed makeup is not a pure killer app for 3D printing, but maybe it does not have to be to still have some great effects.

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CUT THE CORD!! HBO without Cable

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! It is about time! HBO has announced it will offer a streaming service in 2015. Earlier claims about the need for cable to market and to work with the cable industry seem to have fallen away. The claim is that there are 80 million homes that do not have HBO, and HBO wants to fix that. Can you say Netflix? Netflix subscriber numbers were flat today. Still, if HBO goes over the wall, I imagine that Showtime and others will too. So I may just succeed in cutting the cable. Atlanta has decent digital signals (though there should be more). The most interesting thing to watch: ESPN’s next move. It has a hold on cable a Brazilian jiujitsu master would respect. But if ESPN decides to go with a direct pay model, it could pick up many new viewers, especially the ones who are used to watching the special college version of ESPN they have for free while at some schools.

These markets may also be quite different. Some may prefer the ease of watching the pre-programed madness that is cable. Heck, if I am channel surfing and see that Ocean’s Eleven is on TNT, I will watch with commercials even though I own the blasted DVD. Oh yes, laugh. Because you know that you do it too. May not be Ocean’s but fill in the blank with Bridget Jones or whatever floats your boat; there is something oddly comforting or easy about finding a program in a guide and selecting it. It seems like a low-grade information overload problem. Rather than reaching for the DVD or searching Netflix or Amazon, having someone else narrow the options tips us into odd choices like watching that same movie for the umpteenth time with God help me commercials!

In any event, I hope the HBO experiment works. I know unbundling may threaten many offerings. But the current costs of cable are absurd and the best content is on just a few channels. I don’t think the new golden age of T.V. will suffer in this new world. It could grow as more people are reached with niche shows (that is how I see things like Breaking Bad and other winners that don’t need huge viewership to succeed). Subscriber shows should be a real thing soon. As I said before, Firefly could have been saved today, because enough viewers would likely have fronted the costs to get a 10-13 episode season. Add in many have the patience to just buy the series and binge, or stream on Netflix or Amazon or HBO, and maybe shorting cable companies is smart.

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3D Printed Cars: The Model T Redux?

3D printed cars were a growing possibility while I researched Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things. Now a company discussed in the article, Local Motors, has exceeded expectations in a wonderful way. It has produced a 3D printed car in a total of five days. The car, called the Strati, weighs about 2,200 pounds and can go about forty miles per hour. The expected retail price is $20,000. Now that seems less cool. But here is the really good stuff.

The design time and total number of parts is super low. Apparently, the design started in May and was complete four months later. Total number of parts 49 compared to 5,000 for a standard car. As one of the engineers, James Earl, put it in the article: “The thing that this lends most to is customisation-ality, [sic] so you can get a car that really suits your needs with very little monetary input from the design side.” These facts, if they hold up, are why car makers, or at least auto-parts suppliers may be excited or scared out of their minds.

We now have customized cars, with few parts, at a low cost. Let’s assume the cost could go down if the company scales up. Let’s also assume that some of these techniques are incorporated into other auto-maker’s manufacturing. The vast array of auto-suppliers that were in deep trouble when Detroit took a dive could soon be unnecessary. That network of industries Detroit supports could shrink and, in essence, vanish. At the same time, if India’s Tata Corporation, which aims to make low-cost cars for the growing middle class in India, jumps in, Local Motors could find a partner with cash to go big with its technology. High-end makers may allow for bespoke BMWs or Jaguars. Really tall or short people could have cars custom-built to their height and sight lines. Then again, Google may want the tech for its golf cart-like self-driving cars. Lots of possibilities, yes? That’s the point. Something amazing is bubbling up and fast. Which brings me to another point.

Sometimes when I presented the paper, there’d the law professor response of “I just don’t think the tech is there yet.” That view missed what motivated the paper. For once, I wanted to be ahead of the curve on law and technology. Being at Google solidified my view that one can assume the tech will come. “Whether 3D printing will realize all the dreams it currently inspires is not the question” is part of how the article engaged with this point. Local Motors and cars. 3D printed guns. The dreams or nightmares are coming true. Expect some incumbents to fight, some to fear monger, and some to embrace the change. As I offer in The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption “this era of disruption and decentralization will likely pass and new winners, who will look much like firms of old, will emerge, if they have not already.” For now, the car-world could be plunging into the disruption and decentralization phase. As Local Motors and others ramp up their factories and break through the regulatory issues, new players may find it harder to play. Until then, let the games begin!

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Process Matters: How, Corporate Reputation, and the Trademark Game

The New York Times reported about the fight over trademark rights around the word “How” and there was the usual chatter about how (yes very punny we law professors are) such a thing could be. But for me the more interesting point was that the issue of how something is made continues to rise as a market question. The dispute is between Chobani, which is pitching us ““A cup of yogurt won’t change the world, but how we make it might,” and that “How Matters,” and Dov Seidman whose company “is in the business of helping companies create more ethical cultures” and whose book is “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything.” As I argue in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market: A Corporate Public Figure Doctrine:

Corporations no longer exist in a purely commercial world. Corporate policies intersect with and shape a host of political issues, from fair trade to gay rights to organic farming to children’s development to gender bias to labor and more. Thus Google urges countries to embrace gay rights; Mattel launches a girl power campaign; activists question Nike’s labor practices, McDonald’s food processing, and Shell Oil’s business practices; and bloggers police the Body Shop’s claims about its manufacturing practices. The social, political, and commercial have converged, and corporate reputations rest on social and political matters as much as, if not more than, commercial matters.

The How of Seidman and Chobani is not limited to those companies. McDonald’s is now trying to engage with its customers about, yes, how, they make their food. I suppose using social media and the former Myth Buster Grant Imahara to reach young ‘uns is wise (then again if the goal is to reach Millenials as reported, they might see this tactic as a ploy). Regardless of success or failure, McDonald’s is another sign that Douglas Kysar’s Preferences for Processes: The Process/Product Distinction and the Regulation of Consumer Choice insight that process matters to the marketplace have force. As he put it “Because process preferences provide an outlet for the expression of public values through a market medium that is being endorsed simultaneously as a primary locus of choice, opportunity, and responsibility, individuals may well come to view such preferences as their most appropriate mechanism for influencing the policies and conditions of a globalized world.”

To date, activism over how has not seemed to gain major traction, if one looks to things such as labor and clothing or environmental issues in energy. Price still matters. Giving up our easier way of life (yes first world ACH! such a condescending term, high quality problem) to improve lives all over the world and for future generations is easier said than done. Try to buy clothing and food that is truly perfect (whatever that metric is, let’s assume fair labor and environmentally sound). Some sort of quasi-subsistence/commune hybrid life would be required and is not viable across society. Yet, as people speak up, and companies engage, make claims about their roles in addressing social matters, and adjust offerings (e.g. offering fruit in kids’ meals or refusing to sell cigarettes in a pharmacy), it may be that long term, incremental changes will emerge. When folks indicate preferences, options to buy something a little bit healthier or fairer could come on to the market. We might buy fewer things but buy better things. And another signal is sent so that the cycle might persist.

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The Future, Heaven, and Limbo Have Been and Will Always Be Apple Stores

If you saw Sleeper, Heaven Can Wait, or the last of the Harry Potter films, you might notice that they all have scenes that look quite like an Apple Store. White, seemingly floating desks, some robots, a sense of what it is all about. The likely reason is the design gurus of the 1970s like the stark white, sharp lines look. Steve Jobs was a student of that era and it informed Apple, The Sequel from iPods to the stores (the first Apple movie was design tools, the second was “we design, you buy”). As for Harry Potter, why fight the future and the masters? Tap into that vibe and viewers will be happy to know that even limbo, afterlife (whatever that was) is much as it has always been. White, simple, soothing, yet confusing too.

I wonder whether the Chinese group that copied the Apple Store perfectly could argue that the trade dress was generic?

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There She Is, Your Homemade AR-15

I cannot give a talk about 3D printing without addressing the question of homemade guns. As Gerard and I pointed out in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things, this is America and making guns at home is legal. The issues many faced was whether the gun would work well, fail, or possibly misfire and harm the user. These issues are important as we look at the shifts in manufacturing. Many of us may prefer authorized, branded files and materials for home made goods or prefer to order from a third party that certifies the goods. That said, some gun folks and hobbyists are different. They want to make things at home, because they can. And now, Defense Distributed has made the “Ghost Gunner” “a small CNC milling machine that costs a mere $1200 and is capable of spitting out an aluminum lower receiver for an AR-15 rifle.” That lower is the part the the Federal government regulates.

Accoridng to Extreme Tech, Defense Distributed’s founder Cody Wilson, thinks that “Allowing everyone to create an assault rifle with a few clicks is his way of showing that technology can always evade regulation and render the state obsolete. If a few people are shot by ghost guns, that’s just the price we have to pay for freedom, according to Wilson.” This position is what most folks want to debate. But Gerard and I think something else is revealed here. As ExtremeTech puts it, “This is an entirely new era in the manufacturing of real world objects, in both plastic and metal. It used to be that you needed training as a gunsmith to make your own firearm, but that’s no longer the case.” That point is what motivated me to write about 3D printing and look deeper at digitization and disruption.

The first, short, follow-up on these ideas is in an essay called The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption that appeared in Hastings Law Journal this past summer.

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Aereo and the Spirit of Technology Neutrality

aereo_logoAereo is a broadcast re-transmitter. It leases to subscribers access to an antenna that captures over-the-air television, copies and digitizes the signal, and then sends it into the subscriber’s home, on a one-to-one basis, in real time or at the subscriber’s later desire. Aereo was poised to revolutionize the cable business—or hasten its collapse.

At least, it was.

Wednesday the Supreme Court unequivocally held that Aereo infringes copyright law, per Section 106(4) (the Transmit Clause). Aereo’s main backer, Barry Diller, quickly waved the white flag. Aereo is done—and it’s unclear what exactly Justice Breyer’s majority opinion portends for other technologies, despite the majority’s “believ[ing]” that the decision will not harm non-cable-like systems.

As James Grimmelmann succinctly noted amid a flurry of thoughtful tweets, “aereo resolves but it does not clarify.” And that might be an understatement. Eric Goldman notes four unanswered questions. (Amazingly, the majority opinion does not even engage Cablevision.) I’d add to that list the still incredibly vague line demarcating a public performance and the broader issue of technology neutrality in copyright law. (More on technology neutrality in a moment.)

The Court’s opinion relied heavily upon legislative history and, in particular, Congress’s abrogation of two earlier Supreme Court decisions on cable re-transmitters, Fortnightly Corp. v. United Artists Television and Teleprompter Corp. v. CBS. The Aereo Court limited discussion entirely to “cable-like” systems, punted on technologically similar non-cable-like systems, and left a big question about the dividing line.

Overall, the Court came off sounding blind to the technological realities of 2014—in stark contrast to its relatively technology-savvy decision in Riley v. California. (Dan’s take on Riley.)

Margot Kaminski has an excellent post for The New Republic addressing the varying treatment of cloud computing in Aereo and Riley, noting how cloud concerns were waved off in Aereo but factored into the Court ruling that the government normally must get a warrant to search an arrestee’s cell phone. The question, Margot asks, is why the different treatment?

The simplest answer would be that the Court was dealing with two different legal regimes: Constitutional privacy law versus statutory copyright. But at the heart of both decisions, the Court was asked to decide whether an old rule applied to a new technology. In one case, the Court was hesitant, tentative, and deferential to the past legal model. And in the other, the Court was unafraid to adjust the legal system for the disruptive technology of the future.

I’m a fan of simplicity, and I think it is particularly helpful in answering this question.

The Fourth Amendment is dynamic. As Orin Kerr has explained: “When new tools and new practices threaten to expand or contract police power in a significant way, courts adjust the level of Fourth Amendment protection to try to restore the prior equilibrium.” The 1976 Copyright Act is not. And by design.

With the 1976 Copyright Act, Congress adopted the principle of “technology neutrality” for copyrightable subject matter and exclusive rights—to “avoid the artificial and largely unjustifiable distinctions” that previously led to unlicensed exploitation of copyrighted works in an uncovered technological medium.  Rather, the 1976 Act was written to apply to known and unknown technologies.

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Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank

The cries and lamentations you hear are coming from patent attorneys and the Federal Circuit as they try to figure out what to with the Supreme Court’s latest pronouncement on the definition of an “abstract idea” in patent law.  Today the Court ruled unanimously that the patent claim at issue was too abstract to be patented, but the opinion offers little help on figuring out when that is the case.  Take a look at page 10:

In any event, we need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the “abstract ideas” category in this case.  It is enough to recognize that there is no meaningful distinction between the concept of risk hedging in Bilski and the concept of intermediated settlement at issue here.  Both are squarely within the realm of “abstract ideas” as we have used that term.

While it is true that the Court did not need to do more to decide this case, they did need to  “labor” to clarify the law, which is the actual problem.  “Totality-of-the-circumstances” is not a great test for this area, and sadly there are now only three votes to say that business method patents are ineligible (down from four in Bilski).  Expect a lot more litigation on software patents, more divided opinions from the Federal Circuit, and another grant of certiorari in four or five years.

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Tesla encourages free use of its patents—but will that protect users from liability?

Tesla Motors made big news yesterday with an open letter titled, “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.”

The gist of the letter was that Tesla Motors had decided that, in the interest of growing the market for electric vehicles and in the spirit of open source, it would not enforce its patents against “good faith” users. The key language was at the end of the second paragraph:

Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

Tesla made clear it was not abandoning its patents, nor did it intend to stop acquiring new patents. Rather, it just wanted clear “intellectual property landmines” that it decided were endangering the “path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles.”

The announcement, made on the company’s website, immediately attracted laudatory media attention. (International Business Times, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Wall Street Journal, etc.) As one commentator for Forbes wrote:

[H]anding out patents to the world is smarter still when you think how resource-sapping the process is. Engineers want to build not fill out paperwork for nit-picking lawyers. Why bog them down with endless red tape form-filling only to end up having to build an expensive legal department to have to defend patents that would likely be got around anyway?

Patents are meant to slow competition but they also slow innovation. In an era when you can invent faster than you can patent, why not keep ahead by inventing?

That’s a pretty concise summary of the general response: Patents are bad, Tesla is good, and all friction in technological innovation would be solved if others followed Tesla’s lead.

Setting aside a pretty loaded normative debate, I had a practical concern. Just how legally enforceable would Tesla’s declaration be? That is, if a technologist practiced one of Tesla’s patents, would they really be free from liability?

The answer isn’t clear. (At least, it wasn’t to a number of us on Twitter yesterday.) Certainly, Tesla could enter into a gratis licensing arrangement with every interested party; a prudent GC should demand that Tesla do so, but it’s unlikely Tesla would want to invest the time and money. In a nod to the vagueness of Telsa’s announcement, CEO Elon Musk also told Wired that “the company is open to making simple agreements with companies that are worried about what using patents in ‘good faith’ really means.”

But assuming Tesla offers nothing more than a public promise not to sue “good faith” users, this announcement may be of little social benefit. Worse, it seems to me that such public promises could provide a new vehicle for trolling.

Sure, Tesla may be estopped from enforcing its patents—though estoppel requires reasonable reliance and this announcement is so vague that it’s difficult to imagine the reliance that would be reasonable—and Tesla isn’t in the patent trolling business anyway. (Sorry, patent-assertion-entity business). But what if Tesla sold its patents or went bankrupt. Could a third party not enforce the patents? If it could, patents promised to be open source would seem a rich market for PAEs.

Tesla is not to first to pledge its patents as open source. In fact, as Clark Asay pointed out, IBM has already been accused of reneging the promise. (See: “IBM now appears to be claiming the right to nullify the 2005 pledge at its sole discretion, rendering it a meaningless confidence trick.”) The questions raised by the Tesla announcement are, thus, not new. And, given enough time, courts will have to answer them.