April 16, 2014

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I Join the EFF and Others in Calling for Craigslist to Drop CFAA Claims

[Cross-posted on my blog, Managing Miracles]

Craigslist is suing several companies that scrape data from Craigslist advertisements. These companies, like Padmapper and 3taps, repurpose the data in order to provide more useful ways of searching through the ads. I have written about this in earlier posts, “Dear Craig: Voluntarily Dismiss with Prejudice,” and “A Response to Jerry: Craig Should Still Dismiss.” Fundamentally, I think that the company’s tactic of litigating against perceived competitors is bad for Craigslist (because it limits the reach of its users’ ads and thus the success of Craigslist), it is bad for the law and policy of the web (because scraping of public web sites has historically been a well-established and permissible practice that beneficially spreads public information), and is in bad taste (given Craiglist’s ethos of doing well by doing good).

One of the most problematic aspects of the lawsuit is the set of claims under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and its California state-law counterpart. The CFAA, passed in 1986, introduces criminal and civil penalties for “unauthorized access” to “protected computers.” The CFAA was largely a reaction to generalized fear of “computer hacking,” and it did not envision the public internet as we know it today. Nevertheless, some have tried to apply the CFAA to public web sites. This approach has been widely frowned upon by both the tech community and the courts. For instance, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are actively pushing to reform the CFAA because it has been subject to prosecutorial abuse. Craigslist has nevertheless alleged violations of the CFAA based on access to their public web site.

Today I signed on to an an amicus brief written by the EFF–which was also co-signed by other scholars in the field–that urges the court to dismiss these ill-advised CFAA claims. The brief reads, in part:
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Copyrights, Fundamental Rights, and the Constitution

There was a lot to take issue with in Scott Turow’s recent op-ed in The New York Times. Turow, who is currently President of the Authors Guild, took to The Times to criticize the Supreme Court’s decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, which brought physical books manufactured and sold abroad within the protective scope of copyright’s first sale doctrine. Turow cast the Court’s decision as another blow to authors’ rights, which, by his account, are being pitilessly washed away by the digital tides. He blames the usual suspects: e-books, Amazon.com, pirates, Google, and—this last one may surprise you—libraries. The coup de grace, he asserted, will be the extension of first sale rights to digital copies of books. (It may comfort him to know that the possibility of that happening is more remote following Redigi’s recent defeat in federal district court.)
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Two Major updates to RECAP: Developers from Around the World Write Code in Memory of Aaron Swartz

A little over two months ago, we joined with the Think Computer Foundation to offer a set of grants in memory of our friend Aaron Swartz. Aaron worked on many issues in his too-short life, but one of those was liberating American court records from behind a pay-wall. He helped to inspire our RECAP project, which has allowed thousands of people to legally liberate and share millions of public records.

We didn’t know if anyone would take up the challenge, but today we are extremely pleased to award two of these grants. These awards recognize some truly amazing coding by software developers that were inspired by Aaron Swartz and his causes. Over the past several years, the two most-requested features for RECAP have been support for US Courts of Appeals (a.k.a. circuit courts), and a version of RECAP that works with the Chrome browser.

Ka-Ping Yee, Filippo Valsorda, and Alessio Palmero Aprosio represent the best kind of technological idealists. They are idealists that not only believe in worthy causes, but also have the engineering expertise and the dogged determination to see their vision through. Read more about them and install their code at recapthelaw.org.

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A Reivew of Oral Arguments in McBurney v. Young: State FOIA and State Rights

Yesterday, I attended oral arguments in the Supreme Court case of McBurney v. Young, which I have previously written about. The case involves two different petitioners who were denied access to state records under a Virginia “freedom of information” law that limits such access to Virginia residents only. McBurney is a former Virginia resident who wanted some records related to an ongoing child support dispute. Hurlbert is a government information aggregator and reseller.

At issue is whether this preferential treatment is constitutional under the Constitution’s “Privileges and Immunities” clause, as well as the “Dormant Commerce Clause.” In my previous post, I discussed these doctrines in more detail, but I devoted most of my time to describing the privileges and immunities argument — essentially that citizens must receive equal treatment across all states when it comes to “fundamental rights.” While waiting for arguments to begin, I was chatting with another person in the audience. I asked him whether he thought that the argument was going to focus significantly on states’ rights, and he said he expected more time to be devoted to the question of whether or not the rights in question were “fundamental.” It turned out that, with the boisterous support of Justice Scalia, states’ rights were the order of the day.

[Update: Transcript of the arguments is available here]

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My Bill to #OpenPACER in memory of #aaronsw – Open for Comment and Available on Github

I unveiled a draft bill at an event on Capitol Hill this week. It is drafted in Legislative XML, allows you to comment, and the code is available on github. Here’s the video:

The Open PACER Act provides for free and open access to electronic federal court records. The courts currently offer an expensive and difficult-to-use web site. They charge more than their cost of offering the service—more than Congress has authorized—violating the E-Government Act of 2002. This Act seeks to, once and for all, compel the courts to fulfil Congress’ longstanding vision of making this information “freely available to the greatest extent possible“.

More details are at openpacer.org. Twitter hashtag is #openpacer, of course.

Transcript after the jump.
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New Jersey Voting in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy has disrupted many aspects of life here in New Jersey. Even beyond the physical destruction, the state’s infrastructure is still coming back on line. Many homes are still without power and heat, and some roads are closed. Schools were closed all of last week, and some will be closed for longer.

Sandy has also disrupted plans for Tuesday’s election. The election cannot be rescheduled, so we have to find a way to let people vote. Here in Princeton, 63% of the voting districts will vote in temporary, relocated polling places.

In response to the electoral challenges, New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno has issued three orders (1, 2, 3), decreeing changes in voting procedures:
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NJ Lt. Governor invites voters to submit invalid ballots

On November 3rd, the Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey issued a directive, well covered in the media, permitting storm-displaced New Jersey voters to vote by e-mail.  The voter is to call or e-mail the county clerk to request an absentee ballot by e-mail or fax, then the voter returns the ballot by e-mail or fax:

“The voter must transmit the signed waiver of secrecy along with the voted ballot by fax or e-mail for receipt by the applicable county board of election no later than November 6, 2012 at 8 p.m.”

We see already one problem:  The loss of the secret ballot.  At many times in the 20th century, NJ political machines put such intense pressure on voters that the secret ballot was an important protection.  In 2012 it’s in the news that some corporations are pressuring their employees to vote in certain ways.  The secret ballot is still critical to the functioning of democracy.

But there’s a much bigger problem with the Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s directive:  If voters and county clerks follow her instructions, their votes will be invalid.
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The Latest in Nationwide Internet User Identification – Part 2 (the All-New, So-Called Federal Co-Conspirator Theory)

Since Part 1 in this series a few months ago, Plaintiffs have continued to file “pure bill of discovery” suits in Florida state court. These proceedings typically involve “John Does” who are accused of copyright infringement via peer-to-peer networks. The Plaintiffs (copyright-holders or their delegates) have continued to name as defendants in those “pure discovery” proceedings not the entities from whom they seek discovery (i.e., the Internet service providers) but instead John Does, from whom no discovery is sought. After filing their suits, Plaintiffs promptly seek and obtain an ex parte order for expedited discovery of the John Does’ names from the ISPs, even though the ISPs are not then represented or present in the proceeding. Because the ISPs are not technically parties, the Plaintiffs can use these orders to issue subpoenas to ISPs from across the country regardless of whether the ISPs or their subscribers would be subject to the jurisdiction of a Florida state court.

The Plaintiffs’ lawyers certainly must know that this is not right. For one thing, they tend to withdraw their subpoenas whenever it appears a court is actually going to hear the reasons why their use of the proceeding is improper.

Recently, several ISPs stood firm and proceeded to a hearing on their motions for protective order in a couple of these proceedings. The Plaintiffs’ lawyers, in typical fashion, tried to withdraw their subpoenas and argued that the judges should not listen to the ISPs’ arguments. Not surprisingly, the Plaintiffs did not fare well in an adversarial proceeding.

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United States v. Jones is a Near-Optimal Result

This morning, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in United States v. Jones, the GPS tracking case, deciding unanimously that the government violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights when it installed a wireless GPS tracking device on the undercarriage of his car and used it to monitor his movement’s around town for four weeks without a search warrant.

Despite the unanimous result, the court was not unified in its reasoning. Five Justices signed the majority opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, finding that the Fourth Amendment “at bottom . . . assure[s] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted” and thus analyzing the case under “common-law trespassory” principles.

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, signed by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, faulting the majority for “decid[ing] the case based on 18th-century tort law” and arguing instead that the case should be decided under Katz’s “reasonable expectations of privacy” test. Applying Katz, the four concurring Justices would have found that the government violated the Fourth Amendment because “long-term tracking” implicated a reasonable expectation of privacy and thus required a warrant.

Justice Sotomayor, who signed the majority opinion, wrote a separate concurring opinion, but more on that in a second.

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"Stolen" LinkedIn Profiles and the Misappropriation of Ideas

The common law tort of “hot news” misappropriation has been dying a slow and justified death. Hot news misappropriation is the legal doctrine on which news outlets like the Associated Press have repeatedly relied over the years to try to prevent third-party dissemination of factual information gathered at the outlets’ expense. Last June, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to the hot news doctrine when it held that financial firms engaged in producing research reports and recommendations concerning publicly traded securities could not prevent a third party website from publishing news of the recommendations soon after their initial release. The rationale for the court’s decision was that state law claims of hot news misappropriation can only very rarely survive federal preemption by the Copyright Act, which excludes facts from the scope of copyright protection. The rule that facts are not eligible for copyright (called the fact-expression dichotomy) is at the heart of the copyright system and serves the interests of democracy by promoting the unfettered dissemination of important news to the populace. Creative arrangements of facts can be protected under copyright law, but individual facts cannot.

Given the declining fortunes of the hot news doctrine, I was a little surprised to discover a recent case out of Pennsylvania called Eagle v. Morgan, in which the parties are fighting over ownership of a LinkedIn account containing the plaintiff’s profile and her professional connections. The defendant, Eagle’s former employer, asserted a state law counterclaim for misappropriation of ideas. Ideas, as it happens, are—like facts—excluded from the scope of federal copyright protection for a compelling policy reason: If we permit the monopolization of ideas themselves, we will stifle the communal intellectual progress that intellectual property laws exist to promote. Copyright law thus protects only the expression of ideas, not ideas themselves. (This principle is known as the idea-expression dichotomy.) Accordingly, section 102(b) of the Copyright Act denies copyright protection “to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied.” The statute really could not be clearer.

In its opinion denying Eagle’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, the trial court did not consider whether the state law tort of misappropriation of ideas is federally preempted by the Copyright Act, which seems to me to be a really important legal question. The court explained that a claim for misappropriation of an idea in Pennsylvania has two elements: “(1) the plaintiff had an idea that was novel and concrete and (2) the idea was misappropriated by the defendant.” To determine whether a misappropriation has occurred, the court further explained, Pennsylvania law requires consideration of three factors:

(1) the plaintiff “has made substantial investment of time, effort, and money into creating the thing misappropriated such that the court can characterize the ‘thing’ as a kind of property right,” (2) the defendant “has appropriated the ‘thing’ at little or no cost such that the court can characterize the defendant’s actions as ‘reaping where it has not sown,’” and (3) the defendant “has injured the plaintiff by the misappropriation.”

Setting aside the oddity of classifying digital information as a “thing,” the first of these factors collides head on with the Supreme Court’s clear repudiation in Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service of the “sweat of the brow” theory of intellectual property.

In Feist, the Court held that “sweat of the brow” as a justification for propertizing information “eschew[s] the most fundamental axiom of copyright law—that no one may copyright facts or ideas.” Given copyright law’s express prohibition on the propertization of ideas, there is a strong case to be made that state law claims for misappropriation of ideas are in direct conflict with both the letter and spirit of the federal copyright scheme. On that basis, they are akin to claims of hot news misappropriation, and they should likewise be treated as preempted.