In Which I Use Multiple Materials To Write About Separating Separability

Crafting and Separability

Crafting became the must-have feature in a video game after Minecraft’s astounding success. Since this game mechanic became the bandwagon that no studio could NOT jump on, games varied the complexity, the modularity, and the reversibility of the crafting. (They also varied the intuitiveness of the system, but that’s a different complaint.)

In some games, players can get either raw materials or modular pieces back by deconstructing items that they have crafted: Diablo 3 (random chances for raw materials when salvaging items), Fallout 4 (gives modular pieces rather than raw materials, Elder Scrolls Online, Fortnite (weapons, but not buildings), Destiny 2 (arguably, this deconstruction is functionally more like selling it), Borderlands: Pre-Sequel (the grinder will turn a trio of items into an item of equal or greater value, with random chances for quality).

In other games, players do not have the opportunity to recover resources after crafting an item (though frustrated players have created game mods to allow deconstruction): Minecraft, Darkmoon (the Sword of Talon cannot be unmade), Skyrim, Warframe, Don’t Starve, Stardew Valley, Dragon Age: Inquisition (in Single Player you can remove addons; you can deconstruct in multiplayer), Dead Rising, Terraria.

For video games, the decision to allow players to salvage or reuse item parts is about game balance. When crafting an item includes a random chance of an additional benefit, game designers are aware of the possibility for players to deconstruct and reconstruct until they get the additional benefit they want. When the crafted item does not bring new benefits, game designers still have to evaluate the way that players will obtain resources.

There is another concern about balance when courts examine the possibility to conceptually deconstruct an object into the raw materials of function and aesthetic. Courts must be careful to afford the correct category of intellectual property protection based on the nature of the subject matter seeking legal protection. Unfortunately, determining function vs aesthetic is controversial at best, and it can sometimes feel more like a game with an RNG element added to item deconstruction.

 

Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled on a dispute between two companies that make cheerleading outfits. The court did not rule about whether a copyright infringement actually happened in this case. Instead, the court sent the case back to a lower court to decide that—but the court sent the case back along with a new rule about copyright protections. The new rule is that if a part of something can be “perceived” as art that would qualify for copyright protection, then the whole thing can be protected by copyright:

“an artistic feature of the design of a useful article is eligible for copyright protection if the feature (1) can be perceived as a two- or three-dimensional work of art separate from the useful article and (2) would qualify as a protectable pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work either on its own or in some other medium if imagined separately from the useful article.”

“Useful articles” are generally not protectable by copyright (they should instead usually be subject to patents, which work very differently from copyright protection).

Before this ruling, many lower courts had created (often similar) tests to evaluate the aesthetic elements of a larger object or article. One effect of this ruling is that it forges, out of the raw materials of many separability tests, one single separability test for all US courts.

 

Is Star Athletica compatible with 17 USC 9?

In the 1980s, computer hardware manufacturers were concerned about getting the right kind of protection for computer chips for the new micro processors that were becoming popular. More specifically, they were concerned about protecting a very specific piece of the chip production process: the photomask (aka mask work). The mask work is the 3-D blueprint and stencil for the manufacture of a silicon microchip.

The concern was that patents would either not apply or not give adequate protection (as far as I was able to find in research, this fear was never put to the test in courts, and I remain unpersuaded that the mask works would not qualify for either a design or a utility patent). However, the functional nature of the photomask device (as a key part of a manufacturing process) precluded it from copyright and trademark protection. The computer industry successfully lobbied congress, and a new section was added to chapter 17 of the United States Code. Despite the fact that the title of chapter 17 is simply “Copyrights,” section 9 is distinctly unlike the copyright protections described in other sections: it protects a specific, functional category of objects (mask works), offers a different length of protection, and prescribes different statutory damages for infringement.

Generally speaking, the law tries to avoid redundancy and overlap. Does Star Athletica decision create some kind of redundancy or overlap with 17 USC 9? Star Athletica allows for functional articles to be subject to copyright if there is an aesthetic element found in the functional article. The court does not carefully explain whether an aesthetic element must be, in itself, not functional (nor is the term “functional” defined). There is no overlap if Mask Works lack an aesthetic element—despite the fact that they look like art in themselves, there is probably no element of the Mask Work which is not functional, which may preclude the possibility of an aesthetic element. Inasmuch the Star Athletica decision should be read as not creating redundancy or overlap with existing statutes, this decision must be interpreted as a ruling that there are no aesthetic elements that are separable from the mask work that would be subject to copyright protection.

Separating Hard Cases of Inseparability: Ribbon Racks

Measuring Star Athletica against 17 USC 9 is important because of the difficult cases in Intellectual Property where functionality and aesthetics are not clearly distinct. Function and aesthetic are often broad cues for which type of protection a thing may be subject to receive (or prohibit from receiving). A seminal example is “ribbon rack” bicycle racks: the ubiquitous bicycle racks that take the form of an undulating metal ribbon were the subject of a copyright lawsuit (as well as trademark). The SDNY court ruled that:

“While the RIBBON Rack may be worthy of admiration for its aesthetic qualities alone, it remains nonetheless the product of industrial design. Form and function are inextricably intertwined in the rack, its ultimate design being as much the result of utilitarian pressures as aesthetic choices. . . . Thus there remains no artistic element of the RIBBON Rack that can be identified as separate and ‘capable of existing independently, of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.’”

The dissent in the case felt that this thinking entirely destroyed any hope of conceptual separability. This disagreement draws out the challenging questions: whether, when, and how aesthetic elements can be distinguished or delineated or extracted from a functional article.

 

Star Athletica In the Context of the Intellectual Property Landscape

Design Patents cover the non-functional ornamental elements of an invention. The Star Athletica case might expand copyright closer to design patent territory. Most cases will be able to still separate the two, mostly on the basis of subject-matter and/or whether the subject was issued a copyright registration or a design patent. Nevertheless, I predict that either (1) there will be a case to settle an argument between the USPTO and the Library of Congress as to who ought to have jurisdiction over a specific subject-matter, or (2) a case will have to decide on something that could conceivably be claimed by either, and a court will need to effectively adjust either Star Athletica or a patent statute in order to make a coherent ruling.

The Star Athletica decision demonstrates that intellectual property is both unified and divided by questions over functionality and aesthetic: IP is unified by these questions because no other area of law is so focused on this philosophical point; IP is divided by the answer to this question because different categories of IP will apply based on the functional or aesthetic nature of the object or article under question. At the same time that more academics and attorneys are pushing for less use of the term “intellectual property,” cases like Star Athletica and Converse v ITC push patents, trademarks, and copyright analysis closer together, focusing on two common questions: What is functional and what is aesthetic? How do we separate them when both are present?

 

Inseparable Bundle of Distinct Intellectual Properties

There is an ongoing push to separate the pieces of Intellectual Property Law (copyright, trademark, patent, and trade secret). Some attorneys and academics want people to stop using the term “intellectual property” entirely, citing confusion for both the public and the courts.

One of the core arguments is that “intellectual property” can be broken into more fine, discrete elements (copyright, patent, trademark, and trade secret). However, each of these categories can be broken into subcategories, areas, and elements. One author recently wrote that a discussion on fair use has nothing to do with patent law. However, a discussion on fair use of academic papers also has nothing to do with ephemeral recordings, royalties for mechanical licenses, or protection for mask works (which are explicitly not subject to copyright but are still included in chapter 17 of the USC). The mere fact that a broad category can be understood as made up of smaller categories is not sufficient reason to entirely reject the notion of the broader category… But this issue should be fully addressed separately, in a different blog post.

Conclusion

In a game with crafting, the designers have established a method for deconstruction or they have decided not to include such a method. A player can either have the expectation of deconstructing an item, or the player knows that item crafting will permanently destroy the materials used (except in Elder Scrolls Online, when some items just don’t show up for deconstruction and no one knows why except that it’s a Bethesda game). In cases of intellectual property, the courts may or may not find that an object or article can be conceptually separated into functional and aesthetic elements. However, when the court does find that such separability is possible, Star Athletica will guide the court’s evaluation of the separated elements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Music Modernization Act, Artificial Intelligence, and Cryptocurrency

“Angel Pumping Gas” is not a song about copyright regulatory policy, artificial intelligence, or cryptocurrency. I’m going to use it to round up all three of those subjects in this blog post.

  1. Music Modernization Act: Not Enough Of a Good Thing

“Why won’t this moment last?”

A.

“Angel Pumping Gas” is a 1999 song by the band Lindsey Pool, the second track on the album Postal. The song was circulated around various music sharing sites and services—but it was erroneously attributed to the band The Postal Service. Even now, comments sections on YouTube express surprise concerning the song’s artist. Google’s first result for lyrics attributes the song to The Postal Service. This serves as a clear, simple example of how easily information spreads online, and how difficult it can be to correct information online. If early 2000’s music sharing used a single database held the information for every published song, such an error might have never happened. A new law requires the creation of such a database, but there’s a lot still up in the air.

The biggest open question from the Music Modernization Act is: Who is going to create and maintain the required database of songs and rights holders? The law mentions that a database will be made, presumably by the Mechanical Licensing Collective that the law also creates. This is only forces everyone to ask more questions: who will be on the board of the Mechanical Licensing Collective? What methods will this organization use to create this database?

B.

Measured by content, “Angel Pumping Gas” is little more than an unnecessarily detailed recounting of purchasing gasoline. In fact, the middle two-thirds of the song is an entirely banal description of an entirely ordinary and unremarkable transaction. Only the beginning and ending of the song (and chorus) frame the experience in terms of the romance and desire that the singer feels. It’s either beautiful post-modern appreciation of the beauty in the mundane encounters of our lives, or it’s just a little bit silly.

The Music Modernization Act is either a beautiful resolution of a pressing problem in the music industry, or it’s just a little bit too narrow to be worth caring about. The Music Modernization Act was passed unanimously by the House. Sound Exchange and the RIAA have praised it. It seems like everyone loves it, so I was surprised to learn how narrowly tailored the new law is. It is almost entirely focused on problems specific to digital streaming of music. Though there were issues that required resolution in this area, there remain enormous gaps between current copyright law and the daily use of media and technology. It is unsurprising that the problem that got addressed was one that concerned the rich and powerful (record labels, digital platforms), but they did take the opportunity to include studio professionals in the legislation—a group that has historically be neglected. Music Modernization Act is not as far behind the times as I expected: it’s not a response to Napster, it’s a response to Spotify… but I would still like a more satisfying response to Napster than the DMCA.

 

  1. Artificial Intelligence All Around Us– And We Don’t Know What It’s Doing

“You ask ‘What Can I do?’ I say ‘unleaded fuel.’ You open up my tank and start the pump.”

“Angel Pumping Gas” is a wistful ballad that describes a brief meeting with a filling station attendant, with whom the singer is immediately infatuated. Filling station attendants are rare in 48 of the 50 states (NJ and OR have laws against filling one’s own gas tank… as does the town of Huntington, NY).  The entire premise for the song is slightly alien to the tens of millions of Americans who have always pumped their own gasoline.

For most young Americans in the 90s, gas station attendants were a historical curiosity—something referenced in films in the 50s and 60s. However, for residents of NJ and OR, having someone else fuel your car was a commonplace occurrence. Today’s emerging technologies have the same impact: a device or service is either a commonplace part of your life, or it’s a foreign concept. Twitter, Facebook, Alexa, Smartphone GPS navigation, Netflix, Twitch, YouTube, AmazonPrime- all of these things are, for most Americans, either so commonplace as to be unremarkable, or are simply not part of your life. As technology becomes more integrated in our lives, the difference between so-called “haves” and “have-nots” becomes more pronounced. The very premise of the song creates a divide in the audience: there those who have encountered a filling station attendant, and those who have not.

Our relationship with technology is already creating visible divides in our population. We aren’t always sure who is a bot, though some of us are willing to pay a lot for their art. Even as AI becomes an essential tool for the largest companies that manage important aspects of our lives, the law has no idea how it will handle the legal aspects of a tool that is on a complicated trajectory. Artificial intelligence is steadily becoming more and more commonplace- but the majority of us can’t see how or where AI is being used, much less which systems use what kind of data. Like a teen in the 90’s listening to a song about a filling station attendant, most people who hear about bots and AI have to turn to movies and pop culture references to draw up a mental picture, rather than rely on our own experiences.

 

  1. Cryptocurrency’s Perpetual Hype

“You walk over my way, I didn’t know what to say… I think that I love you, or maybe it’s just the fumes.”

The song details the singer’s desire and longing, wallowing in the idea of feeling a romantic desire for someone he doesn’t know. The song juxtaposes the intensity of the singer’s amorous emotions with the brevity and shallowness of the interaction. Our popular culture mirrors this adolescent infatuation in our reactions to new technologies: sudden, intense waves of excited fervor for a world-changing device or platform that either never arrives or seems to evaporate into the past shortly after it appears. (I have written before about the hype surrounding the Internet of Things… )

Cryptocurrency prices are down, but it doesn’t feel like the hype has suffered at all. The estate of one of the Wu-Tang Clan is starting a cryptocurrency, to be named after the deceased: Dirty Coin. The strangest part of this is that I haven’t seen blockchain applied in the kinds of contexts I expected it to find more success: online games, a new kind of customer loyalty program, or other gimmicky, comparatively low-stakes settings. Perhaps the hype is fueled by risk-taking and gambling, and such settings aren’t thrilling enough. This is unfortunate, because turning down the hype would allow the technology to actually move forward in much more appropriate, smaller steps, rather than trying to change the world all at once.

Is the gas station attendant in the song the destined One True Love of the singer? It’s not impossible. Are there are a lot of fumes around gas stations? In my experience, yes- always, in fact. Will cryptocurrencies bring about a Utopian future? It’s not impossible. Do crowds tend to favor exciting hype over careful, substantive analysis? In my experience, yes- always, in fact.

Conclusion

“We share our precious moment in a glance…  and as I drive away, her memory’s here to stay—her deep blue eyes have left me in a trance.”

The singer bemoans that he needs to leave, as the road calls him away. His lack of control is an unstated axiom of the logic that he must follow. The singer is a passive pawn of forces around him: fate, the road, filling station attendant (her authority to invoke payment and her beauty), the transaction, his emotions. He begins the song by attributing the encounter to fate and concludes with the resigned acceptance that the separation is, perhaps, better for all involved. This is not a song about a person taking decisive actions; this is a song about a consumer making his way through a brief and common transaction in the life of a middle-American.

Society seems to display about as much mindfulness and self-possession in approaching technology. We owe it to ourselves to take more effort and more thought regarding our laws and our technology than an adolescent’s unapproached crush.

The Scare of Abandonware

It’s nice to have law in a society to bring a sense of predictability. Clear and organized laws allow us to understand the consequences of our actions. Knowing the law lets us make choices based on the expected outcomes. However, there are a few areas of law where outcomes are not so obvious. Abandonware is an interesting case of 21st century law. Copyright law simply doesn’t outline what to do when a company publishes a game and then closes its doors. It’s scary for cautious lawyers to discuss because of that uncertainty. As always, this blog post is NOT legal advice– in fact, it’s mostly about why giving legal advice about abandonware is difficult.

How Games Get Abandoned

Abandonware isn’t entirely limited to software, but the differences in technology and industry norms and structure make it a far larger problem for software than any other media. It’s no surprise that book, radio, television, film, or music industries ever needed a statute on abandoned works.

When game studios close, they are often bought by other, larger studios- or at least their IP assets are. However, sometimes the IP of a studio doesn’t get purchased – it just gets abandoned. Copyrights in the US last at least 70 years. Although courts have ruled that not every work has a recognized owner at the time of creation, courts have not definitively addressed the issue of abandoned works. (It is possible to officially declare a work abandoned and part of the public domain, but this is not automatic for IP that is simply left behind by a defunct company.)

Who Would Have The Right To Sue?

There are a few fundamentals that have to be in place for a case to even get seriously looked at by a judge. There must be an allegation of a violation of a law, for one thing. Additionally, the plaintiff must have “standing.” This means the plaintiff was harmed by the breaking of the law. A case must also be “ripe” (the allegation cannot be speculated or predicted to occur sometime later), and the case cannot be “moot” (resolving the case must make an actual difference to the injured party).

In the case of abandonware, could these fundamentals be met? Sometimes revenue is still given to developers whose companies have closed shop, but it’s unclear how often this is the case.  In most cases, it seems that no one can claim to be damaged by the unauthorized distribution of the software, because no one can claim they lost money as a result. Further, any case would be moot because ceasing the distribution would not make any difference to a non-existent competitor.

Despite the unlikely odds of an abandonware suit even getting to trial, distributing abandonware still feels a little risky for two reasons. First, unlike trademarks, copyrights are not contingent on use in commerce, and unlike abandoned property there is no law describing how to treat abandoned works. Second, it’s an unexplored area of law, which means that there isn’t precedent either to argue in court or to consider when advising a client.

Who Gets the Loot of the IP License When a Company Dies in the Dungeons?

Despite the murkiness, some abandonware cases seem clearer than others. Some games from the 80s and 90s seem well and truly abandoned. However, if a copyright is assigned to a corporation and that corporation then goes defunct or is bought, it’s sometimes unclear who owns the copyright.  Other games may carry a sort of tangential active ownership that could complicate a case. For an example of both of these complications, let’s consider a game from 1991 that featured a licensed IP to a game developer and a publisher (who are now both defunct): Eye of the Beholder.

Dungeons and Dragons was owned by TSR, Inc until that company went out of business and sold most of its D&D intellectual property assets to Wizards of the Coast (a company owned by the toy company Hasbro, Inc). Eye of the Beholder was a game made by Westwood Associates (bought by Electronic Arts and defunct since 2003), though the title screen clearly identifies it as an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game. The game was published by Strategic Simulations, Inc (bought by Mindscape and defunct since at least 2011), who worked with TSR on dozens of licensed D&D games.

With Westwood and SSI now out of the picture, can Wizards of the Coast claim ownership in the use of their D&D mark in 30 year old games?  Wizards of the Coast would probably not prevail on a claim of direct ownership of these games. As far as I can tell, courts have not addressed a case in which a party bases a claim on IP that is inside another product. The closest cases involve the use of a person’s likeness in a game, but the plaintiffs don’t try to claim ownership over the entire product. It may be that the original license agreement puts the “D&D” IP out of the reach of claims by TSR, and therefore out of the reach of WotC.

Ideally, the licensing contract between TSR, Inc and Westwood Associates has a paragraph for just this kind of question (this is why it pays to draft contracts with the worst possibilities in mind- like your company going out of business). If a court faced the claim that WotC has a claim on the distribution and sales of games featuring D&D settings and characters, I suspect* it would rather dismiss the claim on the basis of laches rather than address the tangled mess of IP licensing claims.

Conclusion: We Can Know The Risks, If Not the Outcomes

Abandonware seems to be technically illegal, but it also seems to be nearly unenforceable. That’s an uncomfortable place to be. It’s a strange state, and there are hardly any appropriate analogies that would help explain it. The best analogy might be a comparison to an old game that, despite being technically functional, won’t run on a current operating system. Abandonware’s legal challenge might be best described by its technical challenge.

 

*There is always a small risk of a surprise in court: A court could create the principle that when a party does not exist to protect a licensed IP, the licensor may step in and act as owner of that IP for some limited purpose. Some would call that “legislating from the bench.” The judge would call it “meeting the demands of justice in the face of technological development.”

Regulating The Internet? Not the Tubes Themselves…

If Net Neutrality is an argument about economics (and federal administrative law), Content Regulation is an argument about ethics and culture.

Net Neutrality is becoming an old hobby horse for a lot of people. It gets a lot more attention than most telecommunications policy issues. Even though questions about copper wire lines vs fiber optic cables actually affects more people, the internet is generally united by the fact of its own existence.  This is about regulation at the highest level, determining the equality and/or equity of access to content. No one online is indifferent to the internet—the only debate about net neutrality is which policies are best for the consumer and the telecommunications marketplace (or, in the United States, “telecommunications marketplace”).

But there is another layer of regulation that is quickly gaining attention. If Net Neutrality is about the form of the internet (its structure and broad organization), there is a growing need to consider questions about the regulation of the content of the internet. Over the years, the internet has been a vector for some amazingly good and amazingly bad actions by humans. The differences in the kind of regulatory concept at play are hard to understate. Rather than comparing it to different video games, I would compare it to the difference between a video game and a tabletop game.

1) I’ve always been fascinated by the dawn of the computer age. My childhood was the tail-end of a world in which homes did not have internet access. By the start of law school, everyone looked up famous cases and Latin phrases on Wikipedia during class (except for the people who did the reading the night before- they looked it up before class). I’ve often compared the early days of the internet to a kind of Wild West setting: a lawless frontier where fundamental questions about the mold of civilization were not yet settled. I thought most of those questions would be settled by 2015. We are not close to a consensus on rules. Indeed, we are still testing what types of rules are feasible or desirable.

Video games are literally made of rules: the computer code that constitutes the game itself. Tabletop games are made of… usually cardboard, or some kind of paper. (Occasionally, they have some plastic – or even metal if you got the collector’s edition.) This may sound like a silly or vacuous distinction, but it has important ramifications for the kinds of problems that can happen in a game, and the kinds of solutions that will (or won’t) be effective.

2) Lawlessness can lead to problems. This was probably not known until 2 decades of unfettered internet, but now we know. Free to do anything, people have tried very hard to do everything. Every app, platform, hosting site, game, or program online that gets big enough eventually starts to experience just about every problem type that humans can present. From intellectual property disputes to death threats, from fraud to manslaughter, the internet has been a way for people to discover criminal behaviors that past generations could never have the opportunity to access. The unethical choices of both multi-national companies and village simpletons are available for repeated viewing.

In a video game, the code can sometimes glitch and create problems for players. The code can also execute perfectly, but there may be complaints about the design of the game itself (a level being too difficult or some power or tactic being of an unsuitable level of power). With some difficulty, players can cheat by actually breaking the code, but more games can detect this (and especially so in professional e-sports settings). In a tabletop game, anyone can cheat, the rules may be wrongly applied (or not applied at all), and all manner of chaos can ensue. DDoSing an opponent during a game might be a little bit akin to literally flipping a table during a game of Monopoly or checkers,

3)  YouTube’s takedown system is already an example of an effort to regulate content, and it already shows some of the challenges with instituting a content regulation system: people will find ways to game that system. Any system of regulation will have two negative outcomes: it will penalize the innocent, and it will be dodged by the guilty. The most you can hope for is that it will protect most of the innocent and it will penalize most of the guilty. The US justice system, even when working as intended, will sometimes produce undesirable results: a guilty person will go free, and an innocent person will go to prison. The hope is that this happens very infrequently.

The most common reaction to bad behavior online has been for authoritative parties to do nothing. The most common reaction by authoritative parties to actually do something has been to ban the bad actor. The most common reaction to this ban is to come back with a different username or account.

In video games, cheaters are often banned (if they are making the game worse for other players). But in table top games, people who ruin the game are just not invited back. No one will play with them anymore. People might hang out with someone less if they behaved in a wildly unacceptable way during a casual weekend game of Risk or Werewolf. In a video game, bad behavior has very limited consequences. In a tabletop game, bad behavior can have lots of meaningful implications.

 

4) What would it look like to regular content? Getting it wrong is easy — which is the primary reason that’s what’s going to continue to happen. Whether trying to penalize criminals or regulate behavior online, creating a fair and ethical system that consistently produces more good results than bad ones is difficult. One problem is that incentives are at odds: most platforms want to turn a profit, and if bad behavior yields a net gain, the platform needs a solution that will actually make more money than the current bad behavior (plus the cost of implementing the remedy). Another problem is that platforms tend to think of regulating their content the way that most Americans think about regulations: an appointed governing authority (or combination of authorities).

 

Conclusion

You can’t make people be good, but you can keep deleting all of their manifestations of their behavior on the internet: You can suspend or ban accounts, and eventually IP addresses. You can automatically censor strings of characters, and continually update the list of banned strings. These will continue to be the solutions offered, and they will continue to mostly fail while they almost half-succeed.

Over a decade ago, Lawerence Lessig asserted that laws are of four types: market, cultural, legal, and architectural. It turns out that enforcing the legal type of law in a digital space is very difficult. But cultural norms practically enforce themselves. And architectural laws are always already enforced. Market rules can be fickle, but persuasive. A lot of efforts to regulate content will fail because they will hinge on the concepts of legal enforcement.

The lack of rules and regulations is what made the internet a place where amazing things could happen. Without rules to stop imagination and creativity, people created art, solved problems, built positive communities, and enriched themselves and each other. In that same landscape: without rules to stop hate and anger, people created harassment and bullying, invaded privacy, ruined lives, occasionally killed people, and destroyed a lot of good in the world. Lawless frontiers are the best opportunity for the most beautiful, important, and inspiring expressions of humanity. They are also the best opportunities for the most despicable, dangerous, and damaging expressions of humanity. What the internet becomes will be decided—has always been decided—by what people bring to it.

When Covering Your Back, Remember That Legal Analysis Shapes Risk Analysis

In 2005, Jonathan Coulton recorded an original arrangement of “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mixalot. In 2013, the popular TV show Glee featured an arrangement of “Baby Got Back” that is, to my untrained ears, indistinguishable from that of Mr. Coulton. I have no evidence to offer that plagiarism or copying occurred. I simply cannot imagine any good-faith argument that the arrangement of the two productions is dissimilar in any way.

Copying Can Be Legal

Even if Glee did steal the arrangement (and I’m not saying they did, and I have no knowledge that Fox ever said they did), the show’s producers and network (Fox Broadcasing) didn’t break any laws. The general consensus by attorneys interviewed by news sources is that blatantly taking the arrangement of a musician’s cover of a third party’s song (especially if the cover is covered by Creative Commons) is mostly ok.

So, let us assume that Fox stole Coulton’s arrangement (for the sake of the academic dissection of a hypothetical case). Let us further assume that Fox is completely innocent of all crimes and liabilities. Now, granting Fox’s total innocence, I conclude: Fox made the wrong decision and failed to truly, meaningfully protect their Intellectual Property portfolio. Wielding copyright offensively offended people and undermined Fox’s goodwill (which is the value of a trademark). Losses in trademark  are rarely worth gains in copyright.

Two Legal Analyses To Get to The Bottom Line

There are two approaches to the question of whether Fox ought to use Mr. Coulton’s arrangement.

Analysis 1

An attorney examines the facts surrounding Mr. Coulton’s arrangement. The attorney researches the law that applies to music covers and the extent of copyright over arrangements. The attorney applies the relevant law to the facts and offers a professional opinion as to the likely legal consequences that would result from copying Mr. Coulton’s arrangement. Fox executives and producers consider the opinion and weigh the risks and rewards, and make a decision.

Analysis 2

An attorney performs the same procedure for analysis as above, but with one addition: The attorney also evaluates the effect on the full IP portfolio of Fox, including their trademark value (which is a concept that is almost interchangeable with “goodwill” in law and business).

Why would such similar analyses lead to a different conclusion? Because the executives and producers are chiefly concerned with the objective mathematics of “the bottom line.” The first legal analysis looks only at one narrow question (“Can we avoid losing litigation if we do this?”), while the second analysis addresses as more broad question (“What effect will this choice have on our IP portfolio?”). By including the harm to the trademark (as “loss of goodwill”) in the analysis, the executives now have different numbers to work with when calculating their bottom line.

Business Law 301: Just Because It’s Good Under the Law Doesn’t Mean It’s Good Under the Bottom Line

The moral of this story is the same lesson that I offered to Nintendo earlier this year: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good business. You can legally get away with a lot of things – particularly if you have a lot of attorneys helping you. It is easy for business executives to get caught up in the details of what they can “get away with.” We repeatedly see examples of companies loosing their long-term, broad vision of building a brand. Companies are generally better off when they do not sacrifice short-term copyright wins for long-term trademark growth.

The Tiny Legal Differences That Make A Big Difference

“Building a brand” has a lot to do with intellectual property, but few people distinguish between trademarks and copyrights. However, the differences matter. Executives often think in very concrete terms, and the concept of a trademark is much more abstract than the idea of copyright.

If copyright law seems a little up-in-the-clouds abstract, trademark law is in low Earth orbit. When there’s a copyright dispute, the questions of ownership and rights might be murky, but the thing at issue is very clear: a photograph, a book, a script, a painting, a song, etc. Trademark law is much more robust than copyright law, but the subject matter has always been very, very abstract and vague: how consumers think and feel about a good or service—or the ability of a consumer to identify the source of a good or service. The most tangible that subject matter ever gets is anecdotes and consumer surveys—which always come with a margin of error, by its nature as a set of statistics. The “thing” that trademark law ties to can be very concrete in a counterfeiting case, but outside of that, it’s just “goodwill”—the special feeling that consumers have in their hearts for a good or service.

So, when an executive is faced with “protecting the intellectual property of the brand,” it’s easier for them to think about something concrete and tangible. It’s easier to think that “protecting IP” means “stop someone else from benefiting from an image or sound.” And that is one important part of IP protection. But IP protection is means, not an end. The goal of IP protection is to build your brand and your business. Failing to understand this principle leads executives to make asinine decisions that make them look hypocritical and foolish while undermining their own businesses. Failing to know the difference between the categories of Intellectual Property can mislead smart businesspeople into acting on a misleading risk analysis.

It Would Be Unfair To Make Executives the Butt of The Joke

It is only fitting that I challenge myself on my analysis. Who am I to make such cavalier judgments? The executives at Fox (and other large corporations) have (combined) many decades more experience than I have. How could it be possible that I am right where they are wrong? Is it probable that I understand their product and their brand better than they do? I’m sure a lot of them have law degrees (and I have no doubt they talk to attorneys almost daily) – so why do they not share the same legal analysis or conclusions that I do?

I think that their positions force a particular focus. Business executives stand to lose a tremendous amount from failing to protect their IP. I lose nothing if my analysis of Fox’s or Nintendo’s business decision is wrong. I don’t have the same pressure to start from (or remain in) a deeply defensive trench. My risk-free position liberates me to be dangerously wrong—and therefore allows me to stumble into better ideas than the risk-laden executive can.

This is why I think it is the newer and smaller entertainment companies that will continue to blaze trails in new perspectives in managing their IP portfolios: They have more to gain and less to lose in taking counter-intuitive risks and re-imagining what it means to “protect IP.” It’s scarier for the larger companies to take anything less than a Draconian approach toward their intellectual property. Nintendo can’t imagine letting YouTube see someone play their games for even a few seconds. DevolverDigital can’t imagine NOT letting YouTube see every minute of every game.

Infringed Ink and Printing Copies of Cases: How Lexmark Collected Intellectual Property Lawsuits like Joker in Persona 5.

It’s fitting that printer ink turned out to be the subject for the series of lawsuits that took on all three of the major areas of intellectual property. Printers are the bridge between the physical and digital worlds, in a way. They are the symbol, and the means, of the transition between digital and paper documents.

Lexmark’s intellectual property litigation legacy is about the different ways that a variety of laws have different connections and offer different perspectives.  Persona 5 is about seeing the world through a variety of perspectives, and understanding different connections and perspectives that people have. Persona 5 is about complex stories that interconnect and overlap, with multiple layers and facets. That complexity and inter-connection has a similar feel to the complex and layered Lexmark litigation saga.

I. The Many Masks of Intellectual Property

In Persona 5, different “personas” (represented by masks) allow characters to perform different types of attacks. Different attack types will be particularly strong or weak against different enemies. This means that a big part of the game’s tactics is about determining which persona to use in different situations.

Copyright

Probably the one most people mean when they think of intellectual property, especially related to art or entertainment. Traditionally, this area of IP law was focused on books, music, film, and other art. However, due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the law also touches slightly on questions of tampering with proprietary devices to modify them (or to modify their functionality).

Trademark

I see this used interchangeably with “copyright” a lot, but think of it like this: Copyright protects the painting, trademark is the law about the artist’s signature in the corner of the painting. It’s the law that comes most into play when people are talking about counterfeit goods or brand recognition.

Patent

This is what most people mean when they think of intellectual property in most business and financial dealings, and especially in the context of science or engineering. Patents are about owning the right to make and sell a certain kind of thing, from cell phones to medicine.

Trade Secret

Like the healing abilities in Persona 5, trade secrets aren’t used often or even mentioned often, but they can fit some situations just perfectly. The other three kinds of IP law require you to make something public- filing a patent with the Patent Office, or registering a copyright (though you actually only need create a work to have a copyright in it, as of the 1976 re-write of the law), or using a trademark in commerce.  Trade secrets go the opposite way: if you take certain steps to NOT let the public know about something that makes your business work, you can claim a right to protect it.

II. Lexmark Litigation (Backstory)

Lexmark makes printers, but has a lucrative racket with recycling their ink cartridges. Well, had, maybe. Because Americans don’t like feeling taken advantage of, and because American Millennials don’t like a lack of choices, other companies sought to offer competing solutions to Lexmark’s ink cartridge restrictions.

In Persona 5, players collect new personas as they progress through the game. Lexmark litigation managed to collect different areas of intellectual property law as they fought over the issue of other companies coming up with ways to interfere with their ink cartridge schemes. What I find really amazing about this 13 year sprawl of litigation is that none of the involvement of IP law is predicable or very expected. Each application of law is noticeably distant from the original ideas and central, foundational, purposes of these laws.

How did Copyright law get involved?

Mostly through the parts of the DMCA that restrict tampering with controls placed on a device to inhibit 3rd party interactions (e.g., Section 1201). But in 2004, the Sixth Circuit (that most difficult of all circuits to pronounce) issued a ruling that called into question whether “lock-out codes” were actually subject to copyright protection, as they are not a form of creative expression. We might have gotten a more authoritative ruling on this topic, but Lexmark missed the deadline to request an en banc hearing at the Circuit level.

How did Trademark law get involved?

Through an argument about whether someone could sue Lexmark under the Lanham Act (the actual federal statute that contains most of trademark law). To actually take someone to court, you have to meet a few basic standards: you have to have an actual claim recognized by a law, for example. One standard for having a trial is that the person suing has to have “standing”: they have to have the legal right to bring a claim. Many laws will include a more specific definition of what “standing” will mean for that law.

In 2012, Static Control Inc. tried to sue Lexmark under some federal business-type laws (the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act), but those laws didn’t actually grant standing to Static Control, which meant they weren’t allowed to actually bring Lexmark to court. Then they tried to sue under the Lanham Act, because the rules for standing are different under that law. The Sixth Circuit granted Static Controls the right to a trial under the Lanham Act. Lexmark took the issue to the Supreme Court, who agreed with the Sixth Circuit’s choice to have a trial.

How did Patent law get involved?

The obvious way for patent law to be in a case brought by a printer company is for the case to be about two printer manufacturers arguing over whether one copied the others’ technology. That is not at all how patent law got used by Lexmark. Instead, the patent law question was about patent exhaustion.

This tiny area of patent law is like the “first sale” doctrine in copyrights. The idea for both is the same: once the end-customer buys the product, the manufacturer’s patent is “exhausted.” Under this law, a customer can do whatever they want with the thing they bought (except make new ones and sell those- that part of the patent still applies). This year, Lexmark brought a case to the Supreme Court on this point of law, hoping to stop a different company that was interfering with the ink cartridges. The third time was not the proverbial charm for Lexmark; the Supreme Court held that consumers do have some rights with regard to the re-use of their own purchased property.

III. Conclusion

My favourite thing about the Lexmark litigation is that it isn’t just about the substance of intellectual property law; it’s about how intellectual property law is administered. The trademark issue wasn’t really a trademark issue– it was an issue about who can sue under trademark law. The copyright issue wasn’t really about the copyrights of art or books or movies — it was about whether someone can unlock your digital locks. The patent issue was barely about patents– it was really about whether a patent still applies after a customer buys the product.

I’m excited by this because it’s a sign that intellectual property law is becoming more and more relevant to American life. More details of the administration and applicability and extent of laws have to be established as laws are interacted with more often. Decades ago, intellectual property was a small area of law that only affected a few sectors of a few industries in any meaningful way. Now it affects how we use our cell phones, ingest our entertainment, and even harvest our crops. As this area of law grows in response to innovation and technology, it has the potential to encourage further innovation and advancements, as well as to steer the growth of those new ideas. We are living at a time where we are moving toward either technological salvation or technological armageddon.

 

 

 

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.