April 20, 2014

Wendy Seltzer

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Stopping SOPA's Anticircumvention

The House’s Stop Online Piracy Act is in Judiciary Committee Markup today. As numerous protests, open letters, and advocacy campaigns across the Web, this is a seriously flawed bill. Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Darell Issa’s proposed OPEN Act points out, by contrast, some of the procedural problems.

Here, I analyze just one of the problematic provisions of SOPA: a new “anticircumvention” provision (different from the still-problematic anti-circumvention of section 1201). SOPA’s anticircumvention authorizes injunctions against the provision of tools to bypass the court-ordered blocking of domains. Although it is apparently aimed at MAFIAAfire, the Firefox add-on that offered redirection for seized domains in the wake of ICE seizures, [1] the provision as drafted sweeps much more broadly. Ordinary security and connectivity tools could fall within its scope. If enacted, it would weaken Internet security and reduce the robustness and resilience of Internet connections.

The anticircumvention section, which is not present in the Senate’s companion PROTECT-IP measure, provides for injunctions, on the action of the Attorney General:

(ii)against any entity that knowingly and willfully provides or offers to provide a product or service designed or marketed by such entity or by another in concert with such entity for the circumvention or bypassing of measures described in paragraph (2) [blocking DNS responses, search query results, payments, or ads] and taken in response to a court order issued under this subsection, to enjoin such entity from interfering with the order by continuing to provide or offer to provide such product or service. § 102(c)(3)(A)(ii)

As an initial problem, the section is unclear. Could it cover someone who designs a tool for “the circumvention or bypassing of” DNS blockages in general — even if such a person did not specifically intend or market the tool to be used to frustrate court orders issued under SOPA? Resilience in the face of technological failure is a fundamental software design goal. As DNS experts Steve Crocker, et al. say in their Dec. 9 letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Chairs, “a secure application expecting a secure DNS answer will not give up after a timeout. It might retry the lookup, it might try a backup DNS server, it might even restart the lookup through a proxy service.” Would the providers of software that looked to a proxy for answers –products “designed” to be resilient to transient DNS lookup failures –be subject to injunction? Where the answer is unclear, developers might choose not to offer such lawful features rather than risking legal attack. Indeed, the statute as drafted might chill the development of anti-censorship tools funded by our State Department.

Some such tools are explicitly designed to circumvent censorship in repressive regimes whose authorities engage in DNS manipulation to prevent citizens from accessing sites with dissident messages, alternate sources of news, or human rights reporting. (See Rebecca MacKinnon’s NYT Op-Ed, Stop the Great Firewall of America. Censorship-circumvention tools include Psiphon, which describes itself as an “Open source web proxy designed to help Internet users affected by Internet censorship securely bypass content-filtering systems,” and The Tor Project.) These tools cannot distinguish between Chinese censorship of Tiananmen Square mentions and U.S. copyright protection where their impacts — blocking access to Web content — and their methods — local blocking of domain resolution — are the same.

Finally, the paragraph may encompass mere knowledge-transfer. Does telling someone about alternate DNS resolvers, or noting that a blocked domain can still be found at its IP address — a matter of historical record and necessary to third-party evaluation of the claims against that site — constitute willfully “providing a service designed … [for] bypassing” DNS-blocking? Archives of historic DNS information are often important information to legal or technical network investigations, but might become scarce if providers had to ascertain the reasons their information was being sought.

For these reasons among many others (such as those identified by my ISP colleague Nick), SOPA should be stopped.

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Google+Motorola = Software Patent Indictment

Google’s announcement this morning that it had agreed to purchase Motorola Mobility for $12.5Billion sent MMI’s stock price soaring and set off another conversation about software patents and the smart-phone ecosystem.

Larry Page himself emphasized the patent angle of the merger in the corporate blog post:

We recently explained how companies including Microsoft and Apple are banding together in anti-competitive patent attacks on Android. The U.S. Department of Justice had to intervene in the results of one recent patent auction to “protect competition and innovation in the open source software community” and it is currently looking into the results of the Nortel auction. Our acquisition of Motorola will increase competition by strengthening Google’s patent portfolio, which will enable us to better protect Android from anti-competitive threats from Microsoft, Apple and other companies.

Android-users already faced several patent lawsuits, and after a coalition of Google’s opponents, including Microsoft, Apple, and Oracle, purchased Nortel’s patent portfolio for $4.5 Billion, Google and its Android partners (including HTC and Motorola) had reason to fear a deepening thicket. Without many patents of its own, Google couldn’t make the traditional counter-strike of suing its attackers for infringement. Motorola’s mobile portfolio (17,000 issued patents and 7,500 pending applications) adds to Android’s arsenal.

Of course Motorola also makes hardware — smartphones that run Android — but few analysts are emphasizing that point. There, the acquisition raises strategic questions for Google: Can it convincingly offer the Android platform to others with whom it now competes? Even if Google maintains Motorola as a separate business, as Page says it intends, will now-competing vendors such as HTC, Samsung, and Acer be reassured of Google+Motorola’s neutrality among them?

Owning a handset maker could improve Android, if it shortens the feedback loop for problem-reporting and new ideas, but it could hurt the platform — and its end-users — more if it scared off competing hardware vendors, shrinking the base to which new applications are written and reducing the diversity of options available to end-users. As proprietor of an open, multi-sided market, Google needs to serve Android’s hardware vendors, app developers, and end-users well enough that a good-sized group of each continue to bring it value — and so the end-users watch the ads whose sale puts money into Google’s pocket from it all. (Oh, and maybe the acquisition will revitalize GoogleTV, as Lauren Weinstein points out.)

The patent motivations are more straightforward. As we know, it doesn’t take deliberate copying to infringe a patent, and patents are granted on small enough increments of software advance that an independently developed application may incorporate dozens to hundreds of elements on which others claim patents, and at millions of dollars a lawsuit, it’s expensive to disprove them. At least if those others are also making phones or software, Google is now more likely to have patents on what they are doing too, paving the way for a cross-license rather than a lawsuit.

Wouldn’t we all be better off skipping those patent threats and cross-licensing transaction costs? As Google’s pre-Motorola travails showed, it’s almost* impossible to opt-out of the patent system by choosing to publish and not patent your own inventions. Unlike in copyright, where you can share under Creative Commons, for example, and just have to prove you never accessed another’s work if accused of infringement, you can only save yourself from patent claims by assuring that every bit of technology you use was published more than 17-20 years ago! (*Rare but not impossible: Richard Hipp of SQLite says he only uses 17-year old, published algorithms to keep his code free of patent clouds.)

In a work-in-progress, I argue that patent’s incentives aren’t working right for software, because they come at too early a stage in development. Patents for software motivate lawsuits more than they induce or reward product development. Google+Motorola may prove to have non-patent benefits too, but its early indications shine a spotlight on the thorny thickets of the patent landscape.

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Deceptive Assurances of Privacy?

Earlier this week, Facebook expanded the roll-out of its facial recognition software to tag people in photos uploaded to the social networking site. Many observers and regulators responded with privacy concerns; EFF offered a video showing users how to opt-out.

Tim O’Reilly, however, takes a different tack:

Face recognition is here to stay. My question is whether to pretend that it doesn’t exist, and leave its use to government agencies, repressive regimes, marketing data mining firms, insurance companies, and other monolithic entities, or whether to come to grips with it as a society by making it commonplace and useful, figuring out the downsides, and regulating those downsides.

…We need to move away from a Maginot-line like approach where we try to put up walls to keep information from leaking out, and instead assume that most things that used to be private are now knowable via various forms of data mining. Once we do that, we start to engage in a question of what uses are permitted, and what uses are not.

O’Reilly’s point –and face-recognition technology — is bigger than Facebook. Even if Facebook swore off the technology tomorrow, it would be out there, and likely used against us unless regulated. Yet we can’t decide on the proper scope of regulation without understanding the technology and its social implications.

By taking these latent capabilities (Riya was demonstrating them years ago; the NSA probably had them decades earlier) and making them visible, Facebook gives us more feedback on the privacy consequences of the tech. If part of that feedback is “ick, creepy” or worse, we should feed that into regulation for the technology’s use everywhere, not just in Facebook’s interface. Merely hiding the feature in the interface, while leaving it active in the background would be deceptive: it would give us a false assurance of privacy. For all its blundering, Facebook seems to be blundering in the right direction now.

Compare the furor around Dropbox’s disclosure “clarification”. Dropbox had claimed that “All files stored on Dropbox servers are encrypted (AES-256) and are inaccessible without your account password,” but recently updated that to the weaker assertion: “Like most online services, we have a small number of employees who must be able to access user data for the reasons stated in our privacy policy (e.g., when legally required to do so).” Dropbox had signaled “encrypted”: absolutely private, when it meant only relatively private. Users who acted on the assurance of complete secrecy were deceived; now those who know the true level of relative secrecy can update their assumptions and adapt behavior more appropriately.

Privacy-invasive technology and the limits of privacy-protection should be visible. Visibility feeds more and better-controlled experiments to help us understand the scope of privacy, publicity, and the space in between (which Woody Hartzog and Fred Stutzman call “obscurity” in a very helpful draft). Then, we should implement privacy rules uniformly to reinforce our social choices.

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Debugging Legislation: PROTECT IP

There’s more than a hint of theatrics in the draft PROTECT IP bill (pdf, via dontcensortheinternet ) that has emerged as son-of-COICA, starting with the ungainly acronym of a name. Given its roots in the entertainment industry, that low drama comes as no surprise. Each section name is worse than the last: “Eliminating the Financial Incentive to Steal Intellectual Property Online” (Sec. 4) gives way to “Voluntary action for Taking Action Against Websites Stealing American Intellectual Property” (Sec. 5).

Techdirt gives a good overview of the bill, so I’ll just pick some details:

  • Infringing activities. In defining “infringing activities,” the draft explicitly includes circumvention devices (“offering goods or services in violation of section 1201 of title 17″), as well as copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting. Yet that definition also brackets the possibility of “no [substantial/significant] use other than ….” Substantial could incorporate the “merely capable of substantial non-infringing use” test of Betamax.
  • Blocking non-domestic sites. Sec. 3 gives the Attorney General a right of action over “nondomestic domain names”, including the right to demand remedies from (A) domain name system server operators, (B) financial transaction providers, (C), Internet advertising services, and (D) “an interactive computer service (def. from 230(f)) shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures … to remove or disable access to the Internet site associated with the domain name set forth in the order, or a hypertext link to such Internet site.”
  • Private right of action. Sec. 3 and Sec. 4 appear to be near duplicates (I say appear, because unlike computer code, we don’t have a macro function to replace the plaintiff, so the whole text is repeated with no diff), replacing nondomestic domain with “domain” and permitting private plaintiffs — “a holder of an intellectual property right harmed by the activities of an Internet site dedicated to infringing activities occurring on that Internet site.” Oddly, the statute doesn’t say the simpler “one whose rights are infringed,” so the definition must be broader. Could a movie studio claim to be hurt by the infringement of others’ rights, or MPAA enforce on behalf of all its members? Sec. 4 is missing (d)(2)(D)
  • WHOIS. The “applicable publicly accessible database of registrations” gets a new role as source of notice for the domain registrant, “to the extent such addresses are reasonably available.” (c)(1)
  • Remedies. The bill specifies injunctive relief only, not money damages, but threat of an injunction can be backed by the unspecified threat of contempt for violating one.
  • Voluntary action. Finally the bill leaves room for “voluntary action” by financial transaction providers and advertising services, immunizing them from liability to anyone if they choose to stop providing service, notwithstanding any agreements to the contrary. This provision jeopardizes the security of online businesses, making them unable to contract for financial services against the possibility that someone will wrongly accuse them of infringement. 5(a) We’ve already seen that it takes little to convince service providers to kick users off, in the face of pressure short of full legal process (see everyone vs Wikileaks, Facebook booting activists, and numerous misfired DMCA takedowns); this provision insulates that insecurity further.

In short, rather than “protecting” intellectual and creative industry, this bill would make it less secure, giving the U.S. a competitive disadvantage in online business. (Sorry, Harlan, that we still can’t debug the US Code as true code.)

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In DHS Takedown Frenzy, Mozilla Refuses to Delete MafiaaFire Add-On

Not satisfied with seizing domain names, the Department of Homeland Security asked Mozilla to take down the MafiaaFire add-on for Firefox. Mozilla, through its legal counsel Harvey Anderson, refused. Mozilla deserves thanks and credit for a principled stand for its users’ rights.

MafiaaFire is a quick plugin, as its author describes, providing redirection service for a list of domains: “We plan to maintain a list of URLs, and their duplicate sites (for example Demoniod.com and Demoniod.de) and painlessly redirect you to the correct site.” The service provides redundancy, so that domain resolution — especially at a registry in the United States — isn’t a single point of failure between a website and its would-be visitors. After several rounds of ICE seizure of domain names on allegations of copyright infringement — many of which have been questioned as to both procedural validity and effectiveness — redundancy is a sensible precaution for site-owners who are well within the law as well as those pushing its limits.

DHS seemed poised to repeat those procedural errors here. As Mozilla’s Anderson blogged: “Our approach is to comply with valid court orders, warrants, and legal mandates, but in this case there was no such court order.” DHS simply “requested” the takedown with no such procedural back-up. Instead of pulling the add-on, Anderson responded with a set of questions, including:

  1. Have any courts determined that MAFIAAfire.com is unlawful or illegal inany way? If so, on what basis? (Please provide any relevant rulings)

  2. Have any courts determined that the seized domains related to MAFIAAfire.com are unlawful, illegal or liable for infringement in any way? (please provide relevant rulings)
  3. Is Mozilla legally obligated to disable the add-on or is this request based on other reasons? If other reasons, can you please specify.

Unless and until the government can explain its authority for takedown of code, Mozilla is right to resist DHS demands. Mozilla’s hosting of add-ons, and the Firefox browser itself, facilitate speech. They, like they domain name system registries ICE targeted earlier, are sometimes intermediaries necessary to users’ communication. While these private actors do not have First Amendment obligations toward us, their users, we rely on them to assert our rights (and we suffer when some, like Facebook are less vigilant guardians of speech).

As Congress continues to discuss the ill-considered COICA, it should take note of the problems domain takedowns are already causing. Kudos to Mozilla for bringing these latest errors to public attention — and, as Tom Lowenthal suggests in the do-not-track context, standing up for its users.

cross-posted at Legal Tags

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Super Bust: Due Process and Domain Name Seizure

With the same made-for PR timing that prompted a previous seizure of domain names just before shopping’s “Cyber Monday,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement struck again, this time days before the Super Bowl, against “10 websites that illegally streamed live sporting telecasts and pay-per-view events over the Internet.” ICE executed seizure warrants against the 10, ATDHE.NET, CHANNELSURFING.NET, HQ-STREAMS.COM, HQSTREAMS.NET, FIRSTROW.NET, ILEMI.COM, IILEMI.COM, IILEMII.COM, ROJADIRECTA.ORG and ROJADIRECTA.COM, by demanding that registries redirect nameserver requests for the domains to 74.81.170.110, where a colorful “This domain name has been seized by ICE” graphic is displayed.

This domain name has been seized

As in a previous round of seizures, these warrants were issued ex parte, without the participation of the owners of the domain names or the websites operating there. And, as in the previous rounds, there are questions about the propriety of the shutdowns. One of the sites whose domain was seized was Spanish site rojadirecta.com / rojadirecta.org, a linking site that had previously defeated copyright infringement claims in Madrid, its home jurisdiction. There, it prevailed on arguments that it did not host infringing material, but provided links to software and streams elsewhere on the Internet. Senator Ron Wyden has questioned the seizures, saying he “worr[ies] that domain name seizures could function as a means for end-running the normal legal process in order to target websites that may prevail in full court.”

According to ICE, the domains were subject to civil forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 2323(a), for “for illegally distributing copyrighted sporting events,” and seizure under § 981. That raises procedural problems, however: when the magistrate gets the request for seizure warrant, he or she hears only one side — the prosecutor’s. Without any opposing counsel, the judge is unlikely to learn whether the accused sites are general-purpose search engines or hosting sites for user-posted material, or sites providing or encouraging infringement. (Google, for example, has gotten many complaints from the NFL requesting the removal of links — should their domains be seized too?)

Now I don’t want to judge one way or the other based on limited evidence. Chilling Effects has DMCA takedown demands from several parties demanding that Google remove from its search index pages on some of these sites — complaints that are themselves one-side’s allegation of infringement.

What I’d like to see instead is due process for the accused before domain names are seized and sites disrupted. I’d like to know that the magistrate judge saw an accurate affidavit, and reviewed it with enough expertise to distinguish the location of complained-of material and the responsibility the site’s owners bear for it: the difference between direct, contributory, vicarious, and inducement of copyright infringement (for any of which a site-owner might be held liable, in appropriate circumstances) and innocent or protected activity. As Joe Hall has written here, domain names can’t defend themselves.

In the best case, the accused gets evidence of the case against him or her and the opportunity to challenge it. We tend to believe that the adversarial process, judgment after argument between the parties with the most direct interests in the matter, best and most fairly approaches the truth. These seizures, however, are conducted ex parte, with only the government agent presenting evidence supporting a seizure warrant. (We might ask why: a domain name cannot disappear or flee the jurisdiction if the accused is notified — the companies running the .com, .net, and .org registries where these were seized have shown no inclination to move or disregard US court orders, while if the name stops resolving, that’s the same resolution ICE seeks by force.)

If seizures must be made on ex parte affidavits, the magistrate judges should feel free to question the affiants and the evidence presented to them and to call upon experts or amici to brief the issues. In their review, magistrates should beware that a misfired seizure can cause irreparable injury to lawfully operating site-operators, innovators, and independent artists using sites for authorized promotion of their own materials.

I’d like to compile a set of public recommendations to the magistrate judges who might be confronted with these search warrants in the future, if ICE’s “Operation In Our Sites” continues. This would include verifying that the alleged infringements are the intended purpose of the domain name use, not merely a small proportion of a lawful general-use site.

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Copyright, Censorship, and Domain Name Blacklists at Home in the U.S.

Last week, The New York Times reported that Russian police were using copyright allegations to raid political dissidents, confiscating the computers of advocacy groups and opposition newspapers “under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.” Admirably, Microsoft responded the next day with a declaration of license amnesty to all NGOs:

To prevent non-government organizations from falling victim to nefarious actions taken in the guise of anti-piracy enforcement, Microsoft will create a new unilateral software license for NGOs that will ensure they have free, legal copies of our products.

Microsoft’s authorization undercuts any claim that its software is being infringed, but the Russian authorities may well find other popular software to use as pretext to disrupt political opponents.

“Piracy” has become the new tax evasion, an all-purpose charge that can be lobbed against just about anyone. If the charge alone can prompt investigation — and any electronics could harbor infringing copies — it gives authorities great discretion to interfere with dissidents.

That tinge of censorship should raise grave concern here in the United States, where Patrick Leahy and Orrin Hatch, with Senate colleagues, have introduced the “Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act.” (PDF).

This Bill would give the Attorney General the power to blacklist domain names of sites “offering or providing access to” unauthorized copyrighted works “in complete or substantially complete form, by any means, including by means of download, transmission, or otherwise, including the provision of a link or aggregated links to other sites or Internet resources for obtaining such copies for accessing such performance or displays”; as well as those offering items with counterfeit trademarks. The AG could obtain court orders, through “in rem” proceedings against the domains, enjoining the domain name registrars or registries from resolving the names. Moreover, in the case of domains without a U.S. registrar or registry, other service providers, financial transaction providers, and even advertising servers could be caught in the injunctive net.

While the Bill makes a nod to transparency by requiring publication of all affected domain names, including those the Department of Justice “determines are dedicated to infringing activities but for which the Attorney General has not filed an action under this section,” it then turns that information site into a invitation to self-censorship, giving legal immunity to all who choose to block even those names whose uses’ alleged illegality has not been tested in court. (Someone who is listed must petition, under procedures to be determined by the AG, to have names removed from the list.)

Finally, the statute’s warped view — that allegations of infringement can only be good — is evident in the public inputs it anticipates. The public and intellectual property holders shall be invited to provide information about “Internet sites that are dedicated to infringing activities,” but there is no provision for the public to complain of erroneous blockage or lawful sites mistakenly or maliciously included in the blacklist.

Hollywood likes the Bill. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of reason to believe that allegations of infringement will be misused here in the United States. Even those who oppose infringement of copyright and trademark (myself included) should oppose this censorious attempt to stop it.

cross-posted at Legal Tags.

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Jailbreaking Copyright's Extended Scope

A bit late for the rule’s “triennial” cycle, the Librarian of Congress has released the sec 1201(a)(1)(C) exceptions from the DMCA prohibitions on circumventing copyright access controls. For the next three years, people will not be ” circumventing” if they “jailbreak” or unlock their smartphones, remix short portions of motion pictures on DVD (if they are college and university professors or media students, documentary filmmakers, or non-commercial video-makers), research the security of videogames, get balky obsolete dongled programs to work, or make an ebook read-aloud. (I wrote about the hearings more than a year ago, when the movie studios demoed camcording a movie — that didn’t work to stop the exemption.)

Since I’ve criticized the DMCA’s copyright expansion, I was particularly interested in the inter-agency debate over EFF’s proposed jailbreak exemption. Even given the expanded “para-copyright” of anticircumvention, the Register of Copyrights and NTIA disagreed over how far the copyright holder’s monopoly should reach. The Register recommended that jailbreaking be exempted from circumvention liability, while NTIA supported Apple’s opposition to the jailbreak exemption.

According to the Register (PDF), Apple’s “access control [preventing the running of unapproved applications] does not really appear to be protecting any copyright interest.” Apple might have had business reasons for wanting to close its platform, including taking a 30% cut of application sales and curating the iPhone “ecosystem,” those weren’t copyright reasons to bar the modification of 50 bytes of code.

NTIA saw it differently. In November 2009, after receiving preliminary recommendations from Register Peters, Asst. Secretary Larry Strickling wrote (PDF):

NTIA does not support this proposed exemption [for cell phone jailbreaking]…. Proponents argue that jailbreaking will support open communications platforms and the rights of consumers to take maximum advantage of wireless networks and associated hardware and software. Even if permitting cell phone “jailbreaking” could facilitate innovation, better serve consumers, and encourage the market to utilize open platforms, it might just as likely deter innovation by not allowing the developer to recoup its development costs and to be rewarded for its innovation. NTIA shares proponents’ enthusiasm for open platforms, but is concerned that the proper forum for consideration of these public policy questions lies before the expert regulatory agencies, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress.

The debate affects what an end-user buys when purchasing a product with embedded software, and how far copyright law can be leveraged to control that experience and the market. Is it, as Apple would have it, only the right to use the phone in the closed “ecosystem” as dictated by Apple, with only exit (minus termination fees) if you don’t like it there? or is it a building block, around which the user can choose a range of complements from Apple and elsewhere? In the first case, we see the happenstance of software copyright locking together a vertically integrated or curated platform, forcing new entrants to build the whole stack in order to compete. In the second, we see opportunities for distributed innovation that starts at a smaller scale: someone can build an application without Apple’s approval, improving the user’s iPhone without starting from scratch.

NTIA would send these “public policy” questions to Congress or the Department of Justice (antitrust), but the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress properly handled them here. “[T]he task of this rulemaking is to determine whether the availability and use of access control measures has already diminished or is about to diminish the ability of the public to engage in noninfringing uses of copyrighted works similar or analogous to those that the public had traditionally been able to make prior to the enactment of the DMCA,” the Register says. Pre-DMCA, copyright left room for reverse engineering for interoperability, for end-users and complementors to bust stacks and add value. Post-DMCA, this exemption helps to restore the balance toward noninfringing uses.

In a related vein, economists have been framing research into proprietary strategies for two-sided markets, in which a platform provider is mediating between two sets of users — such as iPhone’s end-users and its app developers. In their profit-maximizing interests, proprietors may want to adjust both price and other aspects of their platforms, for example selecting fewer app developers than a competitive market would support so each earns a scarcity surplus it can pay to Apple. But just because proprietors want a constrained environment does not mean that the law should support them, nor that end-users are better off when the platform-provider maximizes profits. Copyright protects individual works against unauthorized copying; it should not be an instrument of platform maintenance — not even when the platform is or includes a copyrighted work.

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Bilski and the Value of Experimentation

The Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Bilski v. Kappos brought closure to this particular patent prosecution, but not much clarity to the questions surrounding business method patents. The Court upheld the Federal Circuit’s conclusion that the claimed “procedure for instructing buyers and sellers how to protect against the risk of price fluctuations in a discrete section of the economy” was unpatentable, but threw out the “machine-or-transformation” test the lower court had used. In its place, the Court’s majority gave us a set of “clues” which future applicants, Sherlock Holmes-like, must use to discern the boundaries separating patentable processes from unpatentable “abstract ideas.”

The Court missed an opportunity to throw out “business method” patents, where a great many of these abstract ideas are currently claimed, and failed to address the abstraction of many software patents. Instead, Justice Kennedy’s majority seemed to go out of its way to avoid deciding even the questions presented, simultaneously appealing to the new technological demands of the “Information Age”

As numerous amicus briefs argue, the machine-or-transformation test would create uncertainty as to the patentability of software, advanced diagnostic medicine techniques, and inventions based on linear programming, data compression, and the manipulation of digital signals.

and yet re-ups the uncertainty on the same page:

It is important to emphasize that the Court today is not commenting on the patentability of any particular invention, let alone holding that any of the above-mentioned technologies from the Information Age should or should not receive patent protection.

The Court’s opinion dismisses the Federal Circuit’s brighter line test for “machine-or-transformation” in favor of hand-waving standards: a series of “clues,” “tools” and “guideposts” toward the unpatentable “abstract ideas.” While Kennedy notes that “This Age puts the possibility of innovation in the hands of more people,” his opinion leaves all of those people with new burdens of uncertainty — whether they seek patents or reject patent’s exclusivity but risk running into the patents of others. No wonder Justice Stevens, who concurs in the rejection of Bilski’s application but would have thrown business method patents out with it, calls the whole thing “less than pellucid.”

The one thing the meandering makes clear is that while the Supreme Court doesn’t like the Federal Circuit’s test (despite the Federal Circuit’s attempt to derive it from prior Supreme Court precedents), neither do the Supremes want to propose a new test of their own. The decision, like prior patent cases to reach the Supreme Court, points to larger structural problems: the lack of a diverse proving-ground for patent cases.

Since 1982, patent cases, unlike most other cases in our federal system, have all been appealed to one court, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Thus while copyright appeals, for example, are heard in the circuit court for the district in which they originate (one of twelve regional circuits), all patent appeals are funneled to the Federal Circuit. And while its judges may be persuaded by other circuits’ opinions, one circuit is not bound to follow its fellows, and may “split” on legal questions. Consolidation in the Federal Circuit deprives the Supreme Court of such “circuit splits” in patent law. At most, it may have dissents from the Federal Circuit’s panel or en banc decision. If it doesn’t like the test of the Federal Circuit, the Supreme Court has no other appellate court to which to turn.

Circuit splits are good for judicial decisionmaking. They permit experimentation and dialogue around difficult points of law. (The Supreme Court hears fewer than 5% of the cases appealed to it, but is twice as likely to take cases presenting inter-circuit splits.) Like the states in the federal system, multiple circuits provide a “laboratory [to] try novel social and economic experiments.” Diverse judges examining the same law, as presented in differing circumstances, can analyze it from different angles (and differing policy perspectives). The Supreme Court considering an issue ripened by the analysis of several courts is more likely to find a test it can support, less likely to have to craft one from scratch or abjure the task. At the cost of temporary non-uniformity, we may get empirical evidence toward better interpretation.

At a time when “harmonization” is pushed as justification for treaties(and a uniform ratcheting-up of intellectual property regimes), the Bilski opinion suggests again that uniformity is overrated, especially if it’s uniform murk.

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Chilling and Warming Effects

For several years, the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse has cataloging the effects of legal threats on online expression and helping people to understand their rights. Amid all the chilling we continue to see, it’s welcome to see rays of sunshine when bloggers stand up to threats, helping to stop the cycle of threat-and-takedown.

The BoingBoing team did this the other day when they got a legal threat from Ralph Lauren’s lawyers over an advertisement they mocked on the BoingBoing blog for featuring a stick-thin model. The lawyers claimed copyright infringement, saying “PRL owns all right, title, and interest in the original images that appear in the Advertisements.” Other hosts pull content “expeditiously” when they receive these notices (as Google did when notified of the post on Photoshop Disasters), and most bloggers and posters don’t counter-notify, even though Chilling Effects offers a handy counter-notification form.

Not BoingBoing, they posted the letter (and the image again) along with copious mockery, including an offer to feed the obviously starved models, and other sources picked up on the fun. The image has now been seen by many more people than would have discovered it in BoingBoing’s archives, in a pattern the press has nicknamed the “Streisand Effect.”

We use the term “chilling effects” to describe indirect legal restraints, or self-censorship, because most cease-and-desist letters don’t go through the courts. The lawyers (and non-lawyers) sending them rely on the in terrorem effects of threatened legal action, and often succeed in silencing speech for the cost of an e-postage stamp.

Actions like BoingBoing’s use the court of public opinion to counter this squelching. They fight legalese with public outrage (in support of legal analysis), and at the same time, help other readers to understand they have similar rights. Further, they increase the “cost” of sending cease-and-desists, as they make potential claimants consider the publicity risks being made to look foolish, bullying, or worse.

For those curious about the underlying legalities here, the Copyright Act makes clear that fair use, including for the purposes of commentary, criticism, and news reporting, is not an infringement of copyright. See Chilling Effects’ fair use FAQ. Yet the DMCA notice-and-takedown procedure encourages ISPs to respond to complaints with takedown, not investigation and legal balancing. Providers like BoingBoing’s Priority Colo should also get credit for their willingness to back their users’ responses.

As a result of the attention, Ralph Lauren apologized for the image: “After further investigation, we have learned that we are responsible for the poor imaging and retouching that resulted in a very distorted image of a woman’s body. We have addressed the problem and going forward will take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately.”

May the warming (and proper attention to the health of fashion models) continue!

[cross-posted at Chilling Effects]