Are Trademarks a Data Security Alternative to Sad, Weak, Outdated Copyrights?

If you’ve been on the web for a while, you’ve seen an advertisement that looks like the user interface of the website you’re viewing- or maybe an ad that has a false close button, and clicking it just navigates you to the advertised page. These are blatant ways to trick consumers into taking actions they don’t want to take. Sometimes, these inadvertent actions can create security vulnerabilities such as malware.

Despite all of the focus on applying copyright law to the internet, I wonder if there are hints of trademark and trade dress protections that could become relevant to data privacy issues. I will cautiously, even timidly, explore a few of those possibilities (which several others have explored over the last few years).

I. Trademarks: When it Comes to Data Privacy, Accept No Imitations.

Trademarks have a simple purpose: to let consumers know the origin of a good or service. Trademarks are often a word, phrase, or image (logo), but can also be a sound or smell (on rare occasion, it can get a bit more abstract ).

A major category of trademark infringement is counterfeiting. That $20 “ROLEX” watch from the guy in the alley? That’s a counterfeit (sorry), and one of the legal issues involved in the sale of that watch is the use of a trademark without the legal right to use it. There haven’t been a lot of counterfeit websites on the internet, especially since SSL and other authentication processes got better. However, there are plenty of imitation apps and games. One of the reasons such apps and games fail and are quickly removed from distribution is that they infringe trademarks.

However, some countries do not have the same standards regarding trademark (or copyright) enforcement. Consider an imitation League of Legends game, lampooned here. At the end of the video, the player says “Oh, and it’s also a virus,” as his security software reports malware after playing the game. This humorously underscores the point that many infringing* products pose a security and privacy threat. Using trademark law to limit the proliferation of readily accessible, easily confused programs is a valuable practice in maintaining computer security for consumers.

II. Trade Dress: No One Really “Owns” That Icon… But You Know Who Owns That Icon.

Trade dress is a sort of sub-category of trademarks. It’s rarely talked about or used, but it can be thought of as the totality of design and aesthetics that go into a product, place, or service that make consumers identify the source. Color palette, patterns, shapes, and other factors go into the evaluation of trade dress. Crucially (and perhaps fatally), elements of a trade dress must be considered “non-functional.”  For example, the major case in trade dress concerned a Tex-Mex restaurant that used the same colors and layout of another Tex-Mex restaurant.

Here’s the controversial idea I think deserves consideration: Could misleading, camouflaged web content be considered an infringement of trade dress? (Think of the kinds of ads that make you believe you’re not clicking on an ad, but rather some piece of actual content on the site- especially regarding navigation buttons that match the navigation icons of the site.)

The reason I look to trade dress for a solution is that icons and interfaces, even stylized ones, are not subject to trademark, copyright, or patent protections. Furthermore, websites are increasingly treated as the digital equivalent of stores and offices of businesses- so much so that designs and layouts can come to be the trade dress of that business. Thus, there is a gap in the legal protection of user interfaces, and a need to cover that gap.

(Treating websites as subject to trade dress might have the added benefit of discouraging UX and UI designers from fiddling with the location and arrangement of navigation tools every other month just to justify their paycheck. And that’s the kind of change this world really needs.)

Conclusion: Trademark Protection is Already Working, Trade Dress is Still Vague and Untested

Trademark law is already quietly making the digital ecosystem a little bit safer by eschewing threatening knock-off games and apps. I think there’s a case to be made for applying trade dress to websites and UIs, but it would be a novel application and courts may be hesitant to apply the law so creatively.

 

* “300 Heroes” Infringes both copyrights and trademarks, but it’s the funniest example.

 

“Fair Use!” Shouldn’t Be The Battle Cry of Pirates

***Disclaimers: Jim Sterling emphasizes that he does not advocate pirating Nintendo games; he  only argues that there is a moral justification for doing so. Furthermore, I don’t have all of the information on this matter, and I’ve tried to indicate when I’m inferring some facts. As always, this writing is NOT legal advice.***

Jim Sterling thinks it’s morally justified to pirate Nintendo’s games. I disagree.

As I understand it, Jim’s argument is that Nintendo abuses copyright law by failing to respect the legitimate activities of journalists like him. Jim feels that Nintendo’s failure to respect the legal rights of others permits others to ignore the legal rights of Nintendo.

The basic analysis of this claim comprises two questions: 1) Is Nintendo actually abusing copyright law? and 2) Does that abuse justify piracy? I think simple proportionality suggests that if a company fights with one person over a few pennies, responding by depriving the company of millions of dollars from millions of customers is probably not justified. So, I’ll just focus on the first question.

1)  Is Nintendo Abusing Copyright Law?

Probably not. As far as I can tell, Jim is angry that Nintendo issues ContentID strikes against Jim’s videos that incorporate some of Nintendo’s content (e.g., a few seconds of a trailer for a Nintendo game). Jim contends that his use of Nintendo’s content is protected under Fair Use.

A) ContentID: Still Not The Same As Appearing In Federal District Court

Nintendo is operating within YouTube’s copyright-themed pretend-cyber-law-court system. (I don’t know if they’ve issued DMCA takedowns, which would be an actual, real, legal action.) ContentID has a status similar to a retail store’s policies, in that it’s up to the private enterprise to design and operate the system pretty much however they like. Except in this case the law (DMCA) frames how a private company will design their system: If a party issues a warning about a copyright issue and the host service doesn’t remove it, and then the party goes to court with original poster over it, the party can collect from both the original poster AND the host. Thus, the host is really incentivized to make the choice for which the law will never penalize them, and just take down everything, every time anyone is unhappy. Maybe there are some complaints to levy against the DMCA for that (and against copyright law for incentivizing rights holders to protect their rights or risk losing them). But being slighted by a retail store’s return policy doesn’t justify torching the manager’s car.

B) Fair Use: Still Not A Magical Invocation

Jim’s claim to the Fair Use exception is not as clear as he hopes it is. Before the internet, fair use was a tiny, unheard of piece of an area of law that most citizens and attorneys didn’t think about very often. In the last 20 years, it has become the backbone of the amateur, self-starter internet entertainment and journalism industry. Despite getting burdened with all of that extra responsibility, the legal doctrine has not been expounded or clarified by courts or legislatures. The biggest case for fair use was Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. in 1994, which focused on the use of music for parody and explicitly stated that the law does not recognize a market for derivative works (which, I would argue, is very close to what most UGC on the internet is). (It would be great if someone could take a corporation like Nintendo to court to get a ruling on Fair Use in the context of YouTube journalism and criticism—though I’m sure that corporations will settle at outrageous expense in order to avoid losing the grey area that allows them to make these kinds of aggressive claims.)

Jim’s use of Nintendo’s content seems intuitively fair to most of us, but the analysis required by the law isn’t the intuition of the average citizen. The statute requires consideration of four separate factors:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The biggest problem for Jim in this analysis is that his videos are monetized, which means that his use of Nintendo’s content is not a non-profit endeavour. He also might use as much as 1/3 of a 3 minute trailer, and seeing the trailer in Jim’s video might make some people less likely to go watch the full trailer (though it could also have the opposite effect). The point is that there are some arguments to be made against the idea that Jim’s use of Nintendo’s content is beyond reproach. I think the balance of analysis goes in Jim’s favor for fair use, but I don’t think every single court in the US would rule that way- though more court rulings are moving in this direction. (I did not apply Lenz to this analysis because: 1) It applies to DMCA takedowns, not ContentID strikes, 2) There is a good-faith argument in consideration of fair use, as outlined above, and 3) It’s a Circuit ruling, rather than a Supreme Court ruling.)

Ultimately, Jim’s entire argument really hangs on this one point- that fair use gives him a right to do this, just like the first amendment would give him a right to run a newspaper or stand on a soap box in Central Park. As a matter of academic legal analysis, 17 USC 107 is not as robustly defined or developed as the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. Fair use is not just a legal way of saying “I used citations.”

I don’t want to pick on Jim too much, though. This case is just an example of the kind of faith that consumers and “Prosumers” and “content developers” and “social media dracoliches” put in the legal concept of fair use. It’s an incredibly misunderstood point of law, and it’s a point of law that is bearing more of a social and economic burden than it was ever originally designed to bear. Every year, ordinary intuitions about the meaning of “fair use” are driven further from the statutory language by cultural norms and everyday practices. In the end, no one seems to have a good grasp on this concept: Consumers and content creators think it is carte-blanche permission to use someone else’s work, and entertainment companies seem to think it’s a lie invented by hippies who just want free stuff.

2) “Legally Justified” Doesn’t Mean You’re Either Good or Smart

I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that Nintendo is acting within their legal rights. I think there’s a much stronger case to be made that Nintendo is acting against their economic interests. Copyright law is woefully outdated, and companies that cling to it too tightly will fall behind the times. One of the most useful aspects of copyright law is the right of the owner to not pursue actions against infringers. A smart company recognizes when infringements under the law can work in the interests of the company. Devolver Digital is a smart company.  Entertainment companies that are the most successful in steadfastly safeguarding their intellectual property will be among the least successful at recruiting, engaging, and retaining an audience.

Entertainers without audiences are dead.

I think there’s a better way for Jim (and his industry) to strike back at Nintendo: just leave them behind. Nintendo wants to live in the 20th century. Nintendo doesn’t want to participate in a world of Let’s Plays and livestreams and podcasts and social media and fan participation. There’s no shortage of other game companies and other games to play and discuss. It doesn’t help that Nintendo recycles only 2 or 3 major franchises and rarely comes up with any new ideas- and fails to execute them when they do. Nintendo needs all of these copyright infringements to survive, but they don’t know it. I don’t think they will learn that lesson until they get exactly what they want.

Explaining Myself Through Mini Metro: Making Lots of Connections

I’ve always been a fan of the minimalist art style. As an art style and a category of interior design, it gets a lot of adjectives like “clean,” “crisp,” “pure,” “uncluttered,” and “bright.” I’d have to agree that Mini Metro is a game with a minimalist art style. But the aesthetic isn’t the only thing that appeals to me. The game mechanic is about connecting: making a metro system that is as efficient as possible as a city places ever-increasing demands on the network.

I love the concept of connection. I love to connect ideas and words, and I have spent most of my life studying and forming such connections. Careful, structured explanations of connection and disconnection are at the heart of the practices of both philosophy and law. Like most humans, I also cherish my close connections with others. At every level, and in every sense, connection thrills and amazes me.
Mini Metro is a game that is a design model for making connections— So it’s fitting that I use it as a model to connect the areas of law in which I am interested.

The railway network itself is the telecommunications infrastructure. The people that travel on the network are the entertainment content of the digital age: text, pictures, audio, movies, games—almost all of it subject to copyright law. The signage around train stations tells people about the places: it helps people make choices based on comparative information. I admit this is the biggest stretch in the analogy, but I’m comparing that to trademarks because of the informative function that aims to dispel confusion. And of course, there are safety concerns around all public transportation. Cybersecurity, by and large, is the safety structure for the internet: it is the area of law that tries to get everyone to navigate the system without tragic injury. And just as trains are regulated, this digital structure enjoys some oversight by the FCC (in the form of general regulatory rules) and FTC (in the form of consumer protection enforcement).

One of my favourite moments in Mini Metro is when a station appears on a line I have already built. I don’t really know if this is just the RNG-gods smiling down upon me, or if there is a definite structure and these moments are signs that I have designed optimally. In the effort to connect law and technology, sometimes a new device or idea appears that can force a re-drawing of the legal lines. Part of me wants to think that a law can be created with the future in sight, but the speed and direction of technological developments are so amazing that I don’t know if policy design can do better than hope for luck.

Mini Metro can be used to explain how my areas of interest relate to one another. It can also explain why I love these things, too. In the abstract, the game is about making it possible for people to go places. It is about how large-scale design decisions affect humble individuals. Technology and law are connected to each other—and both are connected to individual lives and to society, generally. The magic of connection is that it makes each individual node matter to the other nodes with which it connects. A single idea, or law, or device, or person—nothing is all that interesting, meaningful, or exciting until it is connected to other things in the world. Then both the connector and the connected affect and transform one another as they interact. In this way, the relationship between law and technology is like a relationship between people. Whether they are friends or enemies, they will shape each other because they are connected.

 

I never said I was super good at the game. But it's still fun.

Just trying to help the Parisians get through the day.

Capitalism FAQ: Should You Respect or Abuse Your Customers?

No one likes to see a winner kicking the loser on the ground (unless we really, really hate the loser). We accept within our society that there are differences between people: that some will be more powerful or wealthy than others, and that’s just part of life. One of the limits on our acceptance of some inequality is the visceral rejection we have of abuse, of excessive exercises of power that do more to satisfy a desire to exercise power than actually further some external cause.

So, that’s one reason to be unhappy with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry right now.

These two ladies, through their lawyers and legal entities, are making great efforts to enforce intellectual property law against their fans— the very people who support and adore and ultimately finance their lives. There is good reason for us to judge harshly the multi-millionaires who attack the average citizen, but this is not a blog on Marxism or justice or truth. I’m here to write about law and video games.

So, let’s compare two approaches to intellectual property law in the 21st century. Let’s compare the business models and legal approaches of TS/KP with RiotGames, Inc. The framework to keep in mind is that most intellectual property laws don’t have to be enforced. There is no rule that you have to go after people for copyright or trademark infringements (generally). Yes, there are some sacrifices you make by not enforcing some of your rights, but it’s still a choice.

Though neither of them would like it (I guess they’re in some kind of feud, because being rich, acclaimed, and famous isn’t enough to overcome basic human failures), I’m comfortable using TS and KP interchangeably for this analysis. They offer the same goods and services for pretty much the same prices. So, their business model is $1 songs on iTunes, monetizing YouTube music videos, $100 concert tickets, royalties for radio and online audio services, sponsorships, appearances, and merchandise. They (with their enormous business operations) make musical products and sell them in the same way that musicians have since radio (with basic adaptations of the same model for television and internet).

RiotGames, Inc. develops, publishes, and maintains one of the most played video games in the world. Riot does not charge anyone to play the game. They do not charge for downloading, registering, playing, or for any other use of the game permitted by the EULA and TOS agreements. They will accept money for optional, purely aesthetic enhancements to the game, but this is the extent of their revenue (not counting their e-sports operation, which is distinct from the game and heavily guarded by NDAs that make analysis and explication difficult, if not impossible).

It seems obvious— even intuitive– that the business approach which demands more money would be the one to allow fans leniency with intellectual property. After all, KP/TS take in millions each year, so they certainly don’t need the extra potential money from meager merchandise sales to cover their expenses. Of course, for reasons we don’t need to explore, TS/KP are hell-bent on making sure their fans get no enjoyment from their manufactured musical entertainment apparatus without permission and a fee.

Equally intuitive is the idea that a company that gives away its only product must certainly be cautious and guarded with its intellectual property. That company needs alternative revenue sources, and almost everything it does is only recognized in a world of strong copyright and trademark protection. And yet, RiotGames has actively encouraged fans to interact with their work in every medium of creative expression. They even created a venue for fans to share and display their art, music, videos, poetry, and sculptures.

Here we have two different models, laid out for comparison. There are several questions worth asking: Which model is ethical? Which model shows respect for the fans, for the art, and for the artist? Which model engenders a sense of community and mutual appreciation? Which model will thrive in the 21st century?

For those who feel that, at the end of the day, the bottom line on the balance sheet is what matters, and should be what guides and justifies business and legal choices, here are those important numbers:

KP: 110 million

TS: 180 million

RiotGames, Inc: 624 million (2013), maybe over 999 million in 2014.

GG.

Introduction to the Limits of Soft IP.

Torchlight 2 looks and feels a lot like Diablo 3. League of Legends is a modification of DOTA, and League of Legends has been ripped off for mobile platforms. The beat of Katy Perry’s “California Girl’s” matches alarming well with the beat from Kesha’s “Tik Tok.”  Despite the kinds of similarities that might make a teacher suspect plagiarism, these kinds of things (ideas, beats, the “feel” of a game) cannot be trademarked or copyrighted.

One might ask: If these can’t be owned as property, what purpose do Intellectual Property laws have? The goal of IP is to balance the interests of the producer/creator/artist with the interests of the consumer and other artists. It is partly about notions of a fair market, partly about notions of art and freedom to create and express. (These notions are not always at odds with one another.) Therefore (I argue), understanding IP requires both economics and aesthetics. Some lawyers have a background in economics, but few have a background in art.

Patent examiners and prosecutors (though not patent litigators) are required to be scientifically competent (usually by having a bachelor’s degree in a hard science or engineering) before they can even take the Patent Bar Exam. Copyright and trademark lawyers are not required to have any similar background or training. Perhaps this is because the nature of copyright does not require me to have a thorough understanding of English Literature or even proper rules of grammar before helping someone register or defend a copyright for a book.

Maybe it’s because copyrights last 70 years after the death of the author while patents typically last 20 years (14 in some cases), but US law does not allow the copyrighting of ideas, only the tangible expressions of ideas. I sometimes wonder how much more diverse the arts might be if we allowed copyrights of plots, character archetypes, narrative devices, musical rhythms and beats, cinematographic techniques, directorial visions, and so on. Some might fear that an approach to copyright modeled after the philosophy underpinning patents would dry up the artistic wellspring. On the other hand, maybe Hollywood would produce something DIFFERENT every summer…