Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

The Blurred Lines of Copyright Infringement

It’s been two years since the “Blurred Lines” verdict, but the daze has just begun. According to a BBC report last week, recording artists are now being instructed not to talk publicly about their musical influences for fear of exposure to copyright infringement claims.

“Blurred Lines” was a chart-topping 2013 pop song by Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Calvin “T.I.” Harris. Marvin Gaye’s family successfully claimed that the track infringed on Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got To Give It Up,” winning $5.3 million in damages and 50 percent running royalties. The case is now on appeal at the Ninth Circuit.

If copyright law was focused on actual, you know, copying, this case would have never gone to the jury. The Gaye family holds the copyright to the sheet music, not the actual recording, so its claim should stand or fall based on the notes on the page. Which is to say, it should fall: the two songs are set in different keys and use different sets of chords (see good analyses here and here). Accordingly, “they sound similar” shouldn’t even be a relevant argument, much less a winning one.  

The Gaye family based its case on shared “elements” in both songs, as well as Pharrell Williams’ admissions that he was inspired by Gaye and that the song captured the “feel” of Gaye’s earlier tune. The trial court allowed the case to go to the jury and included an instruction that “substantial similarities” between elements of the two songs was evidence of infringement.

This way lies mayhem. If the liability standard set in this case were generally followed, the normal processes of musical creation—and artistic creation more generally—would be illegal. Artistic creation is inherently a social endeavor, each new work part of an ongoing conversation with other artists and the audience. Artists naturally pick up on what has been said previously in that conversation, borrowing elements from the past and rearranging them and adding to them to create something new. The existence of distinctive styles, genres, and movements in the arts is possible precisely because of the ubiquity of artists’ drawing on what has come before.

This unfortunate case demonstrates how copyright’s expansive coverage of “derivative works” is antithetical to the stated purposes of the law. Copyright is supposed to incentivize artistic expression, but now we have come to the point where artists are being urged to muzzle themselves to keep themselves away from the law’s reach. A decision by the Ninth Circuit to toss out the verdict would be welcome news—but only a small, first step toward reining in a law run amok.

This post was coauthored with Rachel Chiu.

No Surveillance Reform in Defense Policy Bill

As I predicted 72 hours ago, the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will not be a vehicle for reforming National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance authorities under Sec. 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA). The twist is that while the House Rules Committee did disallow an amendment to prevent “back door” warrantless searches of the stored communications of Americans (the full NDAA amendment list is available here), the author of all three surveillance reform amendments to the bill, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) withdrew the other two before a Rules Committee vote. Lieu’s office offered the author the following statement on the decision:

Mr. Lieu has always been a strong advocate for protecting our civil liberties and our privacy. He introduced these NDAA amendments (which have been offered previously by other Members) to prevent warrantless searches of Americans’ data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Warrantless searches are just one of many problems with the law, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The House Judiciary Committee is currently negotiating a package that reauthorizes the necessary foreign surveillance authorities while adding sweeping reforms to protect Americans’ civil liberties. We were asked to withdraw our amendments this week to allow those reform discussions to continue in good faith, and we obliged because we are optimistic about achieving our goals. The amendment decision in no way changes the fact that a broad, bipartisan coalition of Member’s will fight any attempt to reauthorize Section 702 without serious reform.

So where does that leave FAA reform prospects? That will depend in no small measure on how determined reformers are to push the House GOP leadership on the question. As I write these lines, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI) are working on competing FAA bills; while I expect the Conyers bill to offer more sweeping reform proposals, Goodlatte will no doubt not allow the Conyers bill to get a vote in committee. All of this means that unless at least 5-6 GOP House Judiciary members make it clear to Goodlatte that any FAA Sec. 702 reform bill brought up in committee must be amendable, what passes out of that committee and goes to the House floor for a vote may be just as anemic a reform measure as the 2015 USA Freedom Act

Supreme Court to Slants: Rock On!

In a unanimous judgment that splintered on its reasoning, the Supreme Court correctly held that the “disparagement clause” of the Lanham Act (the federal trademark law) violated the Constitution. The ruling boils down to the simple point that bureaucrats shouldn’t be deciding what’s “disparaging.”

Trademarks, even ones that may offend many people—of which plenty are registered by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)—are private speech, which the First Amendment prevents the government from censoring. As Justice Samuel Alito put it in a part of the opinion that all the justices joined (except Neil Gorsuch, who didn’t participate in the case), “If the federal registration of a trademark makes the mark government speech, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.”

At this point, the Court split. Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Breyer, explained why trademarks don’t constitute a subsidy or other type of government program (within which the government can regulate speech), and that the “disparagement clause” doesn’t even survive the more deferential scrutiny that courts give “commercial” speech. The remaining four justices, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, would’ve ended the discussion after finding that the PTO here is engaging in viewpoint discrimination among private speech. The end of his opinion is worth quoting in full:

A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.

Fundamentally, this somewhat unusual case brought by an Asian-American electronic-rock band shows that government can’t make you choose among your rights. The Lanham Act’s disparagement clause placed an unconstitutional condition on those who consider the use of an edgy or taboo phrase to be part of their brand: either change your name or be denied the right to use it effectively. Whether you’re a musician, a politician, or a sports team—the Washington Redskins’ moniker will now be safe—it’s civil society (consumers, voters, fans) who should decide whether you’re being too offensive for polite company.

For more, see my previous writings here and here—and of course reading Cato’s “funny brief” is all the sweeter after this ruling.

Pushing Back on an Anti-Social Network

Power Ventures, Inc. offers a service to amalgamate various social-media platforms into one system; each user gives the company his usernames and passwords, including for Facebook. Facebook objected to Power Ventures’ use of Facebook in this manner and sent a cease-and-desist letter. When Power Ventures refused to comply, Facebook sued under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”).

The CFAA was designed to prevent hackers from accessing a computer system “without authorization” and has criminal penalties of up to five years in prison. The district court found that Power Ventures had indeed accessed Facebook without authorization and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision. Power Ventures has petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case; Cato has filed an amicus brief supporting that petition.

We explain that there’s a split among the circuit courts as to the legal basis for an entry to be “authorized” under the CFAA. The Fifth and Seventh Circuits use agency law (scope of employer permission), the First and Eleventh Circuits use contract law (established policies), and the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuits use property law (the common law of trespass). The ideal resolution would involve an analogy to physical trespass, which various members of Congress involved in drafting the CFAA used to discuss the computer crimes that the law was designed to prevent.

In applying trespass law here, the facts begin to look like a landlord-tenant dispute over a third-party guest. A landlord typically can’t prevent a tenant from inviting guests to access the tenants’ property by using the common areas of the building, without a limitation in the lease. Here, Facebook’s users own the data (information, pictures, etc.) they put on the social network, as Facebook acknowledges, and there’s no guest-access restriction in the terms of service.

Many people share social-network, email, or other passwords without considering such actions to be criminal and the common law is presumed to conform to the customs of the people unless there’s explicit statutory text to the contrary. Otherwise millions of people could unwittingly be made criminals.

This is also the reason why the “rule of lenity” applies in Power Ventures’ favor, because an (at best) ambiguous statute cannot be used to punish someone.

The final reason that the Supreme Court should take the case is its importance to the online economy. Power Ventures is trying to compete with Facebook and Facebook’s ban prevents the market from being able to determine who has the better product. Many other companies, including Google, use a method of automated access similar to that which Power Ventures uses and could be imperiled by the lower court’s ruling. Internet companies need clear legal rules so they know what they can do nationwide without the threat of civil liability or criminal prosecution.

The Supreme Court may decide whether to take Power Ventures v. Facebook before it breaks for its summer recess at the end of June, or it could hold the decision over till the start of the next term in the fall.

More Data, More Problems

In recent years, criminologists, law enforcement organizations, government agencies, and other criminal justice experts have been experimenting with various methods of data collection to improve American criminal justice. For example, some researchers look at recidivism—that is, how likely a person who has been incarcerated will end up back in jail or prison—to stem the tide of mass incarceration. Others have turned to “hot-spot policing” to better focus limited police resources on preventing new crimes in highly specific, high-crime areas.  Each method typically has its strengths and weaknesses, and much can be learned from new techniques.

But more data isn’t always a good thing. After a long battle with the Sun-Times, the Chicago Police Department released its “Strategic Subject List.” From the report:

“We have 1,400 individuals that drive this gun violence in this city,” police Supt. Eddie Johnson said in August, assuring the public his department was keeping tabs on the people on its closely guarded “Strategic Subject List.” “We’ve gotten very good at predicting who will be the perpetrators or victims of gun violence.”

Yet the list is far broader and more extensive than Johnson and other police officials have suggested. It includes more than 398,000 entries — encompassing everyone who has been arrested and fingerprinted in Chicago since 2013.

Nearly half of the people at the top of the list have never been arrested for illegal gun possession. About 13 percent have never been charged with any violent crime. And 20 of the 153 people deemed most at risk to be involved in violent crime, as victim or shooter, have never been arrested either for guns or violence.

Why ‘Net Neutrality’ Is a Problem

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to reverse Obama administration “net neutrality” rules governing the internet that were put in place in 2015. Some commentators are criticizing the announcement as a give-away to large telecom companies and an attack on consumers. But the Obama rules create some serious problems for consumers—problems that Pai says he wants to correct.

Under the Obama rules, internet service providers (ISPs) are subject to “rate-of-return” regulations, which the federal government previously applied to AT&T’s long-distance telephone service back when it was a monopoly more than 50 years ago. Ostensibly, rate-of-return regulation gives government officials the power to review and approve or reject ISP rates. In reality it basically guarantees ISPs government-enforced market protection and profitability, in exchange for regulators ensuring that ISPs won’t be too profitable.

As explained in this 2014 post, rate-of-return regulation involves more than just telecom. It is an attempt to settle fights between “producers” and “shippers”—whether those are farms, mines, and factories on one side and railroads and shipping lines on the other, or Netflix and Hulu on one side and ISPs on the other. In all those cases, the producers and shippers need each other to satisfy consumers, but they fight each other to capture the larger share of consumers’ payments. If shippers charge more, then farmers, factories, and Netflix must charge less in order to maintain the same level of sales.

The political resolution of the producer–shipper fights was the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and its rate-of-return regulations, which were initially written with railroads in mind. Similar efforts were later extended to trucking, air transportation, energy, and telecom. It took about 100 years for policymakers to accept that those efforts hurt consumers much more than it helped them, forcing on consumers too many bad providers with high prices and poor quality.

Trump’s Wiretap Dance

I’ve already explained, in a post over at Just Security, some of the law and background surrounding what we know about Donald Trump’s incendiary claim that his predecessor wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, and I’d suggest reading that if you want to delve into some of the wonky details, but I thought it might be worth a separate point to pull out some of the critical points and remark on how the story has evolved since Saturday.

  • There’s no basis on the public record to support the allegation that phones at Trump Tower were wiretapped, or that the Trump campaign was targeted for electronic surveillance, let alone on the orders of Barack Obama. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has publicly denied it, and FBI Director James Comey has reportedly been pressing for a disavowal from the Justice Department. This appears to be something Trump concocted on the basis of (deep breath now) his own misreading of a misleading Breitbart News article based on a talk radio host’s summary of months-old reports in the British press. Those news stories—which conspicuously haven’t been reported out by the deeply-sourced intelligence journalists at U.S. outlets, and so should be taken with a grain of salt—concern some sort of order, purportedly sought by the FBI from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, targeting Russian banks in order to follow up intelligence leads concerning possible transfers of funds from Russia to Trump aides. If the reports are true, that’s vastly different from what Trump alleged, and not obviously improper on its face, though when intelligence surveillance intersects domestic politics, even indirectly, there’s always an elevated risk of abuse.
  • The White House has been dodging and weaving a bit in its public statements following Trump’s allegations on Twitter. Initially, aides told multiple reporters that they thought the president had been reacting to the Breitbart piece, which was circulated internally on Friday. But, as I explain in more detail in my Just Security post, the sources drawn on for the Breitbart piece don’t actually support Trump’s claims. More recently, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway insinuated that Trump may have some other classified basis for his accusations. She’s called on the FBI to release more information, while other White House officials have suggested it should fall to Congress to investigate. This is all, to put it mildly, grossly irresponsible. If the president has classified information about improper surveillance of his campaign, he is empowered to declassify it. If he’s not sure whether to believe what he reads on the Internet, the head of the executive branch is not limited to relying on Breitbart News to learn about the activities of his own intelligence community. But it should be wholly unacceptable for Trump to level serious accusations of criminal abuse of intelligence authorities by his predecessor,  then punt to Congress when pressed to produce evidence.  

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