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6

Better Stories, Better Laws, Better Culture

I first happened across Julie Cohen’s work around two years ago, when I started researching privacy concerns related to Amazon.com’s e-reading device, Kindle.  Law professor Jessica Littman and free software doyen Richard Stallman had both talked about a “right to read,” but never was this concept placed on so sure a legal footing as it was in Cohen’s essay from 1996, “A Right to Read Anonymously.”  Her piece helped me to understand the illiberal tendencies of Kindle and other leading commercial e-readers, which are (and I’m pleased more people are coming to understand this) data gatherers as much as they are appliances for delivering and consuming texts of various kinds.

Truth be told, while my engagement with Cohen’s “Right to Read Anonymously” essay proved productive for this particular project, it also provoked a broader philosophical crisis in my work.  The move into rights discourse was a major departure — a ticket, if you will, into the world of liberal political and legal theory.  Many there welcomed me with open arms, despite the awkwardness with which I shouldered an unfamiliar brand of baggage trademarked under the name, “Possessive Individualism.”  One good soul did manage to ask about the implications of my venturing forth into a notion of selfhood vested in the concept of private property.  I couldn’t muster much of an answer beyond suggesting, sheepishly, that it was something I needed to work through.

It’s difficult and even problematic to divine back-story based on a single text.  Still, having read Cohen’s latest, Configuring the Networked Self, I suspect that she may have undergone a crisis not unlike my own.  The sixteen years spanning “A Right to Read Anonymously” and Configuring the Networked Self are enormous.  I mean that less in terms of the time frame (during which Cohen was highly productive, let’s be clear) than in terms of the refinement in the thinking.  Between 1996 and 2012 you see the emergence of a confident, postliberal thinker.  This is someone who, confronted with the complexities of everyday life in highly technologized societies, now sees possessive individualism for what it is: a reductive management strategy, one whose conception of society seems more appropriate to describing life on a preschool playground than it does to forms of interaction mediated by the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, and Amazon.

In this Configuring the Networked Self is an extraordinary work of synthesis, drawing together a diverse array of fields and literatures: legal studies in its many guises, especially its critical variants; science and technology studies; human and computer interaction; phenomenology; post-structuralist philosophy; anthropology; American studies; and surely more.  More to the point it’s an unusually generous example of scholarly work, given Cohen’s ability to see in and draw out of this material its very best contributions.

I’m tempted to characterize the book as a work of cultural studies given the central role the categories culture and everyday life play in the text, although I’m not sure Cohen would have chosen that identification herself.  I say this not only because of the book’s serious challenges to liberalism, but also because of the sophisticated way in which Cohen situates the cultural realm.

This is more than just a way of saying she takes culture seriously.  Many legal scholars have taken culture seriously, especially those interested in questions of privacy and intellectual property, which are two of Cohen’s foremost concerns.  What sets Configuring the Networked Self apart from the vast majority of culturally inflected legal scholarship is her unwillingness to take for granted the definition — you might even say, “being” — of the category, culture.  Consider this passage, for example, where she discusses Lawrence Lessig’s pathbreaking book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace:

The four-part Code framework…cannot take us where we need to go.  An account of regulation emerging from the Newtonian interaction of code, law, market, and norms [i.e., culture] is far too simple regarding both instrumentalities and effects.  The architectures of control now coalescing around issues of copyright and security signal systemic realignments in the ordering of vast sectors of activity both inside and outside markets, in response to asserted needs that are both economic and societal.  (chap. 7, p. 24)

What Cohen is asking us to do here is to see culture not as a domain distinct from the legal, or the technological, or the economic, which is to say, something to be acted upon (regulated) by one or more of these adjacent spheres.  This liberal-instrumental (“Netwonian”) view may have been appropriate in an earlier historical moment, but not today.  Instead, she is urging us to see how these categories are increasingly embedded in one another and how, then, the boundaries separating the one from the other have grown increasingly diffuse and therefore difficult to manage.

The implications of this view are compelling, especially where law and culture are concerned.  The psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  In the old, liberal view, one wielded the law in precisely this way — as a blunt instrument.  Cohen, for her part, still appreciates how the law’s “resolute pragmatism” offers an antidote to despair (chap. 1, p. 20), but her analysis of the “ordinary routines and rhythms of everyday practice” in an around networked culture leads her to a subtler conclusion (chap. 1, p. 21).  She writes: “practice does not need to wait for an official version of culture to lead the way….We need stories that remind people how meaning emerges from the uncontrolled and unexpected — stories that highlight the importance of cultural play and of spaces and contexts within which play occurs” (chap. 10, p. 1).

It’s not enough, then, to regulate with a delicate hand and then “punt to culture,” as one attorney memorably put it an anthropological study of the free software movement.  Instead, Cohen seems to be suggesting that we treat legal discourse itself as a form of storytelling, one akin to poetry, prose, or any number of other types of everyday cultural practice.  Important though they may be, law and jurisprudence are but one means for narrating a society, or for arriving at its self-understandings and range of acceptable behaviors.

Indeed, we’re only as good as the stories we tell ourselves.  This much Jaron Lanier, one of the participants in this week’s symposium, suggested in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget.  There he showed how the metaphorics of desktops and filing, generative though they may be, have nonetheless limited the imaginativeness of computer interface design.  We deserve computers that are both functionally richer and experientially more robust, he insists, and to achieve that we need to start telling more sophisticated stories about the relationship of digital technologies and the human body.  Lousy stories, in short, make for lousy technologies.

Cohen arrives at an analogous conclusion.  Liberalism, generative though it may be, has nonetheless limited our ability to conceive of the relationships among law, culture, technology, and markets.  They are all in one another and of one another.  And until we can figure out how to narrate that complexity, we’ll be at a loss to know how to live ethically, or at the very least mindfully, in an a densely interconnected and information rich world.  Lousy stories make for lousy laws and ultimately, then, for lousy understandings of culture.

The purposes of Configuring the Networked Self are many, no doubt.  For those of us working in the twilight zone of law, culture, and technology, it is a touchstone for how to navigate postliberal life with greater grasp — intellectually, experientially, and argumentatively.  It is, in other words, an important first chapter in a better story about ordinary life in a high-tech world.

0

Technology Musings

Recently the New York Times carried a front page story about an eighth grade girl who foolishly took a nude picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to a fickle boy – sexting. The couple broke up but her picture circulated among her schools mates with a text message “Ho Alert” added by a frenemy.  In less than 24 hours, “hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost.”  The three students who set off the “viral outbreak” were charged with disseminating child pornography, a Class C felony.

The story struck a nerve, not only with the affected community, but with the Times’ readers as well.  Stories about the misuse and dangers of technology provide us with opportunities to educate our students, and us. In a Washington State sexting incident, for example, the teen charged had to prepared a public service statement warning other teens about sexting to avoid harsher criminal penalties.  But the teen’s nude photo is still floating around.  Information has permanence on the internet.

Few of us appreciate how readily obtainable our personal information is on the internet.   Read More

3

The Age of Intellectual Property?

Are we in the Age of Intellectual Property?

It’s become a truism in IP scholarship to introduce a discussion by acknowledging the remarkable recent rise in popular, scholarly, and political interest in our field. Thus readers will recognize a familiar sentiment in the opening line of Amy Kapczynski and Gaëlle Krikorian’s new book:

A decade or two ago, the words “intellectual property” were rarely heard in polite company, much less in street demonstrations or on college campuses. Today, this once technical concept has become a conceptual battlefield.

Only recently, however, has it become possible to put this anecdotal consensus to empirical test.

In December 2010, Google launched ngrams, a simple tool for searching its vast repository of digitized books and charting the frequency of specific terms over time. (It controls for the fact that there are many more books being published today.)

If you haven’t already played around with this tool to explore your own topics of interest, you should. While you’re at it, take a stab at explaining why writing on the Supreme Court rose steadily until approximately 1935 and has dropped just as steadily ever since!

Back to our topic, though. What does this data reveal about the prominence of intellectual property in published discourse?

I generated two graphs, both charting the terms “intellectual property,” “copyright,” “patent,” and “trademark.” First, the longview:
Read More

3

What to expect on Monday (Google Book)

The now defunct version of the Google Book Class Action Settlement is a complicated document consisting of 141 pages, 160 definitions, 17 separate articles and 116 separate clauses, not including the substantial provisions contained within the 15 attachments where several important features of the deal were buried.

The initial draft of the agreement dates back to October 28, 2008, when Google announced that it had reached a settlement of the highly publicized class-action lawsuit brought by the Authors Guild and another equally important lawsuit brought by the American Association of Publishers.

Opposition from various quarters caused the parties to reconsider the details of the settlement and a new version is due on Monday November 9, 2009. In my recent article I compared the settlement to the most likely outcome of the litigation the settlement resolves. In this post I speculate about the contents of the revised agreement.

The essential features of the old settlement agreement were:

  • Money. Google made some pretty significant financial concessions, including one-time payments of over $100 million dollars and a revenue sharing agreement.
  • Digitization, Indexing & Search. In return for these concessions Google received the right to continue to operate its book search engine, substantially in its current form which is arguably consistent with copyright law’s fair use doctrine.
  • Commodification. The settlement also gave Google the ability to explore new revenue possibilities in cooperation with authors and publishers. The highlights consisted of extensive book previews, consumer e-book purchases, institutional subscriptions to the entire Google Book database and various other “New Revenue Opportunities”.
  • New institutional arrangements. Beyond the mechanics of the agreement itself, the key elements of the new Google Book universe were to be the “Book Rights Registry” and the “Author-Publisher Procedures”. Although the Registry received more attention from critics of the settlement, the Author-Publisher Procedures appeared to be the key vulnerability from a class-action fairness perspective. These procedures determine who controls the exploitation of a work within the Google Book universe and who benefits from that exploitation. In many cases the Author-Publisher Procedures act like a standard form publishing contract that supersedes deals negotiated before the importance of digital rights was widely realized.
  • Orphan works exploitation. The treatment of orphan works pervades all aspects of the current Settlement agreement. The agreement increased public access to orphan works by presumptively including almost all works in most commercially significant uses. Orphan works could be digitized, indexed, made available for partial-previews, sold as consumer purchases and incorporated into institutional subscriptions. As well as benefiting Google, revenues attributable to these uses will flow in part to the Registry, and to registered authors and publishers.
  • Orphan works monopoly. In its current form the Settlement only solves the orphan works problem for Google.

    What should we expect on Monday?

    The most desirable change from an antitrust perspective would be to allow Google’s competitors to exploit orphan works on the same terms as Google. The problem with this solution is that it further strains the boundaries of class action law and looks more and more like private legislation. This should not, in my view, be enough to derail the deal if the parties can show that all of the relevant sub-class interests were adequately represented.

    The Author-Publisher Procedures enhance the coordinating function of the Settlement by streamlining the incorporation of existing author-publisher contractual terms into the framework of the Google Book universe. However, where an existing author-publisher contract gives both parties some control over electronic exploitation, or simply fails to make any provision for electronic rights, the Author-Publisher Procedures effectively overwrite those contracts. These new terms do not appear to systematically disadvantage either authors or publishers, but they strike me as a one size fits all solution that could be substantially improved upon.

    Finally, I expect the revenue sharing aspects of the deal to become more complicated.

    2

    Fear of a Google Planet

    Should we fear Google? This question, unthinkable ten, maybe even five, years ago, seems to dominate internet policy discussion today. AT&T is afraid of Google Voice. Apple might be afraid of the Google Phone. Microsoft is afraid that Google Apps will make its Office suit redundant. These fears are justified, but they are also good. In most cases Googlephobia is a condition suffered by competitors. Google will probably kill off some competitors, but it will force many more to continue to innovate and provide better products to the consumer at lower prices. So, yes, some people should fear Google. But should we the public?

    “Fear is often preceded by astonishment, and is so far akin to it, that both lead to the senses of sight and hearing being instantly aroused. In both cases the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised.” Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

    In its pre-settlement incarnation, the Google Book Search (GBS) project was merely an astonishing attempt to build a comprehensive search engine to allow full text searching inside millions of books. The GBS envisaged in the Settlement (before the DOJ sent the parties back to the drawing-board) was much more ambitious. Not satisfied with digitization, indexing and limited display of books consistent with copyright law’s fair use doctrine, Google, the Authors Guild and a handful of publishers struck a deal which allowed for the commoditization of digital books as direct substitutes for paper copies. Subject to an opt-out and a few other exclusions, the Settlement swept in almost all books subject to U.S. copyrights and established an entirely new institutional framework for clearing digital book rights.

    My personal view is that justified astonishment at the GBS Settlement has, in too many cases, given way to unjustified fear. Google is still far from being the new Microsoft as the Department of Justice’s Christine Varney has asserted. It certainly does not act like it. Google’s track record of openness and innovation are heartening and there is very little evidence so far that they plan on abandoning their “don’t be evil” corporate culture.

    Googlephobia appears to be the foundation of some pretty wild assertions in the context of the Google Book dispute in particular. Google conceives that it is set to liberate out-of-print books from their dusty dungeons on the relatively inaccessible shelves of the worlds great libraries. Critics of the deal (and the initial more modest GBS) see plans for monopolization of hitherto non-existent markets, the destruction of libraries, universities and even the book itself.

    The Google Book Settlement was not perfect, but my own fear is that Googlephobia and the intervention of the Department of Justice have left us worse off than we would have otherwise been. The Google skeptics are right about a number of the Settlement’s shortcomings, but now that the parties renegotiating the deal we had all better hope that GBS version 3 is better, fairer, and more accessible — not just smaller and less ambitious.

    It might be naive to simply trust in Google, but the fear Google now inspires seems equally misplaced.

    1

    Academic Books, Non-Academic Books, BitTorrent, and Google’s Brand Power

    D is for Digital is over now. I urge anyone interested in the Google Book Deal (aka the Google Book Search) to check out the schedule page and the webcast links (the stream links are at the top of the Friday and Saturday schedules respectively). James Grimmelmann put together a conference that aired out pro and con views rather well. In fact, I’d say although many were questioning the deal, I learned a good amount about the views of those in favor of the deal. I was not convinced that the deal is good and should go forward, but I appreciated hearing more about how the deal evolved and defenders’ views.

    I highly recommend the keynote lunch with Pam Samuelson and Paul Courant. That panel warmed up the group. Some really good questions about transparency of the process, responsibility, and more came up. Pam’s key point that if one builds a pubic good this big, public trust responsibilities go with it was dead on for me. I highly recommend watching the video for all that was said.

    The next panel C is for Culture was excellent. James asked a question that has been on my mind and we had kicked around at WIP IP last week. Is Google Book Search irrelevant?

    Here is why that is good question. First, the day so far emphasized that the majority of the books in question are academic books. As Pam explained and Paul Duguid echoed, if scholars’ books are at stake, scholars should be involved. Paul made clear that scholarly standards should guide the project.

    Now, consider that many books are becoming available on BitTorrent. In addition, one panelist, Dan Reetz has a fascinating project. His DIYscanner project is a wild moment in grassroots digital activism. The story of how he chose to build his low-cost, open source DIY scanner (we’re talking maybe $300-$400 total) so that one could scan personal (and other books) at the rate of a few seconds per page and without destroying the book merits another post. (for now here is a link to the plans to build your own scanner) In addition, Reetz noted that majority of new books are leaked prepublication. As a general matter, a key claim is that users will pay for a book but copy the book so that they can search and take many books with them. The importance of these changes is that crowd-sourced and other approaches to digitizing text is on the move. One can see this shift as indicating market failure or that ereader functionality will be more and more the case.

    As scanners, ereaders, and companies like Stanza offer better ways to access, search, mark, and read, the walled or controlled version of the text experience that the Google Book Deal offers seems odd. I doubt, however, that it will be irrelevant. Google’s brand, the ease of searching (even with its errors so far), and the ability to trust Google over BitTorrent or other sources will likely make it relevant to many. Nonetheless, the growth in alternative sources would suggest that Google will need to choose between a web search that captures all useful book offerings or a Google Book Search that only gives Google Book results. As the last panel on antitrust explored, Google is already dominant in search. It arguably killed a little company called MapQuest. Once Google offered its maps and its maps became the default listing when one entered address information into the search, MapQuest was done. That seems awfully close to the MS bundling issues of the last decade. When it comes to books, Google’s lead and dominance will give it massive power and leverage over how we all access knowledge. Nonetheless, it may be that grassroots, crowd-sourced movements will permit an end around for the control the publishers want through this deal. To be clear an end-around is insufficient protection against the lock-in problems the Google Book Deal poses, but it may help push Google to reach a deal that is less run by publisher interests.

    1

    Google = ICANN?

    One way to think about the Google Book Deal is that Google will end up as the super-gateway to books. It will in effect be the ICANN central authority of online books. So when Amazon and others have objected to Google’s claim that it will let everyone play in its sandbox, they are smart. No company should want to be a reseller (registrar in domain name terms). Insofar as one is competing with Google, who may also sell books, having to go through Google, the competitor, is undesirable to say the least. As the D is for Digital conference highlights, the way non-U.S. interests are not well-covered and represented is a problem. Insofar as the class action process is hijacking these international and domestic interests, the deal could be understood as an instance of arrogant law making with problems analogous to what one finds in Internet governance matters.

    0

    Danger Will Robinson: Google Book Deal Is at DEFCON 2

    The Google Book Deal is suspended. Time to cheer, correct? No. As Pam Samuelson noted in the New York Times, that probably is too little time to resolve the issues at hand. In fact I think right now is when the GBD is at quite a dangerous stage.

    First neither party represents the public. One cannot expect them to represent the public, and one ought not trust they will do the right thing for the public. To be clear, I am not making a moral judgment here. I expect, as we all should, that each party will seek to maximize its position. Understanding why I refuse to call this situation a settlement helps understand this point. As many know, this action encompasses far more than the claims at issue in the suit. Many think that Google was on strong grounds for its fair use clam and its original use. The Publishers (aka the Registry seeming to be working for authors) saw the chance to get ahead of the digital curve. Unlike music and film, they realized they could look good and capture publishing’s future. They offered Google a deal that Google did not need. Or did it? Although Google is a data vacuum and does well with the ad-based business model, the search giant has been searching for a new revenue stream. Online ads can’t be the only source of revenue from any viewpoint. That is a precarious position. Indeed, the online ad market just took a big dip. The Deal presents Google with the chance to make money from something other than ads.

    With this perspective one sees that expecting or trusting either party to look out for the public’s interest is foolish. My guess is that the public choice literature could yield some useful ways to think about the problem too, but I have not thought that through as yet.

    Second, Google and the Publishers now have a wave of information from all quarters that they can use to their benefit. Here is the strategy that I expect to see. Assess the most severe and some of the less severe criticisms. Incorporate some of them in changes. Keep the deal as is for the most part (Note that is precisely what the Registry said will be the case “the core agreement is going to stay the same.”). Then when the time to approve, deny, or move the Deal to another form comes, one claims “We acted in good faith. We can’t keep everyone happy. Without this deal no one wins. Can’t we get along, move forward, and sort the details later? That is a more reasonable way to proceed.”

    More importantly, those who have kept paying attention to the problem may start to lose focus or fade out. People may become tired or say is this thing still going on?

    And that is why I say Danger Will Robinson. The Google Book Deal is at Defcon 2.

    3

    Google, Glenn Beck, and AP: Are Results Being Squashed?

    So some of you may have heard that Glenn Beck has managed to upset advertisers by calling President Obama a racist. I don’t have much to say about Beck. I was more interested in the advertiser reaction. I saw the article on Yahoo! but wanted a more stable URL. So I copied the AP news story title and pasted into the Google. Here are the results.

    Google Search Beck Story

    Notice how the results indicate that there are “365 related articles”? Usually I click that and indeed see a rack of articles. Today, however, this is what happened when I clicked on the link promising a cornucopia of news stories:

    Articles Results

    Just one result! And it is only to AP page hosted by Google! (not sure whether Google is hosting all or most AP content, but it looks fishy). Maybe everyone was just running the AP story, but maybe those other outlets would have had more information of interest. Could it be that AP and Google are somehow in bed with each other on these results. (For all I know that is the case, and I missed that memo as I have been getting an article out the door and cleaning up a book chapter). Is this all part of AP’s claims regarding the ability to control its copy?

    In short, watch the Google. It is creepy at times.

    UPDATE: A quick commenter noted that the right side has a link that shows all the results “Sort by date with duplicates included.” THANKS!

    I did not see that. Still I seem to recall that the related articles page used to have many of the redundant results. So the new approach could be helpful and efficient, but I wonder whether this new streamlined version of results applies to all news or just AP.

    Furthermore, I throw open the idea that people may prefer the redundancies at the outset. That way they can go (as I did when I was on the web results page) to a source such as ABC or some other source one may trust or that one hoped would provide more than the AP coverage (be it vitriol over the boycott or praise for it).

    7

    Could Yahoo! + Bing = Death to Google?

    informationsign2Yahoo! continues to be in the news as company that has lost its way. After failed merger problems, Yahoo has now sold its search business to the formerly evil and now oddly white knight(ish) Microsoft. It seems that Yahoo! and MS are now in a deal where MS’s Bing will power (and have some brand palcement) Yahoo!’s search. Others can go into the drop from about $46 billion to $4 or 5 billion sale price and other Yahoo! acts that make one wonder what the company is doing. For now, I want to remind folks about a little relationship called Yahoo! search powered by, wait for it, Google. Yes, Google. I wonder whether the G would be where it is today if Yahoo! had not given it that key placement. As one article pointed out

    In a unique twist, Yahoo didn’t simply renew the deal for Google to be its “backup” partner, used only when Yahoo itself doesn’t have an answer. Instead, the company has embraced Google’s results even more tightly. Unveiled to the general public today is a new Yahoo search results page, where there is no longer a separation between Yahoo’s own human-powered listings and Google’s crawler-based results. Instead, the two are blended together.

    Read the whole article for some fascinating perspectives on Yahoo! versus Google when Y was the big player. To be fair, Yahoo! appears to have had small chances to buy Google (but one might also say that after being apparently turned down for help by Yahoo!, the Google folks knew that they should not sell even at $3 billion). I for one don’t think I can say that Yahoo! should have known that Google was going to pop its IPO the way it did. For that matter had then CEO Terry Semmel bought Google, he would have had to take it public to show that it was worth the money. As Wired notes “Google’s revenue stood at a measly $240 million a year. Yahoo’s was about $837 million. And yet, with Yahoo’s stock price still hovering at a bubble-busted $7 a share, a $5 billion purchase price would essentially mean that Yahoo would have to spend its entire market value to swing the deal. It would be a merger of equals, not a purchase.”

    So now we have the Yahoo! MS deal. It could be that Yahoo! is again running up the white flag about its ability to be a real technology/engineering company (“But now we have empirical evidence: At Yahoo, the marketers rule, and at Google the engineers rule. And for that, Yahoo is finally paying the price.”). But it may also be a way that MS will be able to grab Yahoo!’s customers, compete on search, and show that it still has the chops to beat back Google’s relentless drive to be all things to everyone. If so, maybe the two companies will balance each other out for a bit. Either way, it seems that as the NY Times pointed out, Yahoo! has exited the search game because as its CEO admits it cannot play in it at the level that MS and Google can (billions of dollars). Whether Yahoo! can find a new way to be relevant is another issue. The Times article describes Yahoo!’s severe dysfunction and what to me reads like classic Internet company arrogance. That being said, maybe Yahoo! is picking its best fight and with a little MS mixed in, Google will have to stay honest too. Or maybe this move is Yahoo!’s way of taking on Google while Yahoo! heads out of our world.