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Category: Movies & Television

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LSA Retro-Recap Day 0: Introducing VOSFOTWOAS

Greetings from (a plane on the way home from) Boston! In the past I really enjoyed Dave’s recap of CELS. I thought I’d carry things on with this retro diary (h/t Bill Simmons) of the Law and Society Association meeting.

Before getting to the presentations, here’s a post with some general thoughts on LSA. Like many of the most enjoyable things in life, this conference is a beautiful mess. Fully developed research programs are mashed together with provocative conjectures. Paradigm-shifting ideas comingle with stuff that would get a “good effort” if presented as an undergraduate term paper. How can you determine the formers from the latters? Read More

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From Madhavi to Mad Men

As Zahr Said points out, Madhavi Sunder is by no means the first to critique intellectual property from the perspectives of distributive justice or liberty. Indeed, the author of From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice not only gives due credit to the IP scholars who have written in this vein before her, but provides a compelling intellectual history of the field. What is striking about this particular book project is not so much its break with past approaches, but its breathtaking ambition in positioning the future of the field.

Read More

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Indecency and the Supreme Court

In FCC v. Fox, the Supreme Court once again took a pass on the first amendment questions raised by the regulation of indecent images or speech on broadcast television. It is a good thing that the justices want to take their time to get it right on the constitutional issues, but ten  years have passed since the case was first triggered by Cher’s use of the F-word at the Billboard Music Awards. And the Court’s decision today suggests it hopes the matter will just go away. As Justice Kennedy concluded for the majority, “this opinion leaves the [FCC] free to modify its current indecency policy.”

The Court’s discomfort with indecency is not surprising. The justices’ discomfort reflects that of much of society. Indeed, they could not bring themselves to actually say the F-word at oral argument.

But once again, it leaves us to wonder why our society seems to worry more about exposing children to even brief uses of profanity or depictions of nudity than it does about exposing kids to prolonged violence. The FCC does not restrict violence the way it does indecency on television, movie ratings are tougher on indecency than on violence, and the Court has a lower threshold for government regulation of violence than of indecency. Recall, for example, that last year, the Court invoked the first amendment to override California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, and two years ago, the Court rejected on first amendment grounds a federal statute that outlawed “crush” videos depicting the torture and killing of animals.

It may be correct to be as careful as we are about the harms to children from the media’s use of nudity and vulgar language. But we also should take more seriously the harm from the media’s depictions of violence.

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Ubiquitous Infringement

Lifehacker‘s Adam Dachis has a great article on how users can deal with a world in which they infringe copyright constantly, both deliberately and inadvertently. (Disclaimer alert: I talked with Adam about the piece.) It’s a practical guide to a strict liability regime – no intent / knowledge requirement for direct infringement – that operates not as a coherent body of law, but as a series of reified bargains among stakeholders. And props to Adam for the Downfall reference! I couldn’t get by without the mockery of the iPhone or SOPA that it makes possible…

Cross-posted to Info/Law.

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Stealing the Throne

Ever-brilliant Web comic The Oatmeal has a great piece about piracy and its alternatives. (The language at the end is a bit much, but it is the character’s evil Jiminy Cricket talking.) It mirrors my opinion about Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to offer any Internet access to the postseason, which is hard on those of us who don’t own TVs (or subscribe to cable). Even if you don’t agree with my moral claims, it’s obvious that as the price of lawful access diverges from the price of unlawful access (which is either zero, or the expected present value of a copyright suit, which is darn near zero), infringement goes up.

So, if you want to see Game of Thrones (and I do), your options are: subscribe to cable plus HBO, or pirate. I think the series rocks, but I’m not paying $100 a month for it. If HBO expects me to do so, it weakens their moral claim against piracy.

Unconvinced? Imagine instead that HBO offers to let you watch Game of Thrones for free – but the only place on Earth you can view the series is in the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. You’re located in rural Iowa? Well, you’ve no cause for complaint! Fly to LA! I suspect that translating costs into physical costs makes the argument clearer: HBO charges not only for the content, but bundles it with one particular delivery medium. If that medium is unavailable to you, or unaffordable, you’re out of luck.

Unless, of course, you have broadband, and can BitTorrent.

As a minimum, I plan not to support any SOPA-like legislation until the content industries begin to offer viable Internet-based delivery mechanisms that at least begin to compete with piracy…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Ben Stein and the ABA’s Facepalm

The American Bar Association is kicking off its 2012 tech show with an address by… Ben Stein. Yes, who better to celebrate the march of technological progress and innovation than a leading defender of intelligent design? Who better to celebrate rigorous intellectual discourse than a man who misquotes Darwin and fakes speeches to college audiences?

This is a pretty embarrassing misstep. The ABA is irrelevant in the IP / tech world, and this facepalm is a nice microcosm of why. (Wait, what is the ABA relevant to? Now that’s a hard question.) We geeks don’t like it when you dis science. Thanks anyway, ABA – maybe you should stick to having your judicial recommendations ignored.

Hat tip: health law expert Margo Kaplan.

Update: I found the perfect keynote speaker for ABA’s 2013 TechShow: Marshall Hall!

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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The Hardest Thing to Predict Is the Future

SOPA and PROTECT IP are dead… for now. (They’ll be back. COICA is like a wraith inhabiting PROTECT IP.) Until then, Michelle Schusterman has a terrific graphic about the movie industry’s predictions of doom with each new technological revolution. (Ditto the music industry: the player piano, radio, CDs, the MP3 player, etc., etc.) One reason for this is that it’s difficult to predict the effects of a new communications technology. People thought we’d use the telephone to listen to concerts from afar. But another reason is that content industries see advances not as an opportunity but as a threat – a threat that they deploy IP law to combat, or at least control. And in a policy space where lawmakers don’t demand actual data on threats before acting, trumped-up assertions of job loss and revenue loss can carry the day. This puts the lie to the theory that IP owners will move to exploit new communications media, if only they are protected against infringement. We didn’t get viable Internet-based music sales until iTunes in 2003, and Spotify is the first serious streaming app (the “celestial jukebox“). Think about prior efforts like Pressplay and MusicNow, and how terrible they were. Letting the content industry design delivery models is like letting Matt Millen draft your football team.

This is why piracy is a helpful pointer: it tells us what channels consumers want to use to access content. Sometimes this is just displacement of lawful consumption, as when college students with copious disposable income download songs via BitTorrent, but sometimes it indicates an unaddressed market niche (as with me and the baseball playoffs). To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, I think a little bit of infringement now and again is a good thing. It is only when there is a viable threat in a new medium that existing players innovate – or cut deals with those who do. In that regard, even if SOPA and PROTECT IP are effective at reducing infringement, we might not want them.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Censorship on the March

Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.

Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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The Fight For Internet Censorship

Thanks to Danielle and the CoOp crew for having me! I’m excited.

Speaking of exciting developments, it appears that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is dead, at least for now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that the bill will not move forward until there is a consensus position on it, which is to say, never. Media sources credit the Obama administration’s opposition to some of the more noxious parts of SOPA, such as its DNSSEC-killing filtering provisions, and also the tech community’s efforts to raise awareness. (Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has been working overtime in reporting on SOPA; Wikipedia and Reddit are adopting a blackout to draw attention; even the New York City techies are holding a demonstration in front of the offices of Senators Kirstin Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. Schumer has been bailing water on the SOPA front after one of his staffers told a local entrepreneur that the senator supports Internet censorship. Props for candor.) I think the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill is important, but I suspect that a crowded legislative calendar is also playing a significant role.

Of course, the PROTECT IP Act is still floating around the Senate. It’s less worse than SOPA, in the same way that Transformers 2 is less worse than Transformers 3. (You still might want to see what else Netflix has available.) And sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested that the DNS filtering provisions of the bill be studied – after the legislation is passed. It’s much more efficient, legislatively, to regulate first and then see if it will be effective. A more cynical view is that Senator Leahy’s move is a public relations tactic designed to undercut the opposition, but no one wants to say so to his face.

I am not opposed to Internet censorship in all situations, which means I am often lonely at tech-related events. But these bills have significant flaws. They threaten to badly weaken cybersecurity, an area that is purportedly a national priority (and has been for 15 years). They claim to address a major threat to IP rightsholders despite the complete lack of data that the threat is anything other than chimerical. They provide scant procedural protections for accused infringers, and confer extraordinary power on private rightsholders – power that will, inevitably, be abused. And they reflect a significant public choice imbalance in how IP and Internet policy is made in the United States.

Surprisingly, the Obama administration has it about right: we shouldn’t reject Internet censorship as a regulatory mechanism out of hand, but we should be wary of it. This isn’t the last stage of this debate – like Wesley in The Princess Bride, SOPA-like legislation is only mostly dead. (And, if you don’t like the Obama administration’s position today, just wait a day or two.)

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Don’t Break the Internet

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a piece by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post on the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act. In Don’t Break the Internet, they argue that the two bills — intended to counter online copyright and trademark infringement — “share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.”

They write:

These bills, and the enforcement philosophy that underlies them, represent a dramatic retreat from this country’s tradition of leadership in supporting the free exchange of information and ideas on the Internet. At a time when many foreign governments have dramatically stepped up their efforts to censor Internet communications, these bills would incorporate into U.S. law a principle more closely associated with those repressive regimes: a right to insist on the removal of content from the global Internet, regardless of where it may have originated or be located, in service of the exigencies of domestic law.

Read the full article, Don’t Break the Internet by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Note: Corrected typo in first paragraph.