mass p2p lawsuit commenced in canada

I was surprised to see Michael Geist’s post that a new lawsuit is targeting thousands of individuals for unlawfully sharing copyrighted films through peer-to-peer networks. I had thought approach had lost its appeal some time ago. Go and read Mr. Geist’s analysis of how he thinks things will proceed. I have nothing to add on that front. I am curious, however, why it seems (as far as I can tell) that only one carrier, TekSavvy Solutions, seems to have been targeted. I would have thought that carriers having much larger shares of the ISP market would result in a much larger number of prospective defendants and therefore much more rewarding. Then again, I imagine such carriers might also have a larger legal budget. Still, it does seem rather curious to focus only on one, comparatively small, ISP.

Stikeman Elliott appears to be on for Teksavvy (from what I see on the motion record), while Brauti Thorning Zibarras is on for Voltage Pictures, the plaintiff (better known as the firm who launched the defamation claim against Youtube and others on behalf of “Officer Bubbles”).

Will be interesting to see how things play out (unless of course you’re one of the poor souls that are in Voltage’s crosshairs).

the raid on kim dotcom’s home

While we’re on the topic of being paranoid, I watched with amazement the footage of the raid by New Zealand special forces officers raiding the home of Kim Dotcom, the head of Megaupload – a company whose domain names (amongst other things) were seized by the US Department of Justice based on an assertion that Megaupload facilitated mass copyright infringement.

Overkill is the first word that comes to mind. Two helicopters, a number of police vans, perhaps a dozen heavily armed officers (some landing by chopper) and sniffer dogs, all breaking down his door at the crack of dawn, while Mr. Dotcom and his family lay sleeping.

Worth a watch. And some serious deliberation on how we’ve ended up here.


linux kernel found to infringe patent

Well, this is rather disconcerting. By way of Engadget, I came across this blog entry on FOSS Patents about how a small outfit in Texas, Bedrock Computer Technologies LLC (apparently a non-practicing entity, otherwise typically described as a “patent troll”), has won a $5 million claim for patent infringement against Google.

But the part that is perhaps a bit more worrisome than either the amount or the defendant is the fact that the infringing technology in question is a portion of the Linux kernel. From the entry:

Like I said further above, the question of Google possibly having to pay $5 million (unless the judge decides otherwise or an appeal succeeds) is not really the issue. In addition to money, Bedrock also asked for an injunction, and now that Google has been found to infringe a patent deemed valid by the jury, it remains to be seen whether an injunction will be granted either by this court or on a possible appeal.

The problem is that Bedrock is now in a pretty strong position to collect royalties from other Linux users, especially those utilizing Linux for large server operations.

It’s a bit difficult to tell, based on the claims asserted in the patent, whether or not Google would be able to excise the offending part of the kernel or find some other way to avoid infringing use. I’m sure they can, but if they can’t,  an injunction might have some implications for Google’s server farms and therefore its operations.

In addition, there’s also the possibility that this will impact Android:

Concerning Android, I wouldn’t rule out that maybe some of the hundreds of thousands of Android applications out there use the teachings of the infringed patent claims in one way or another. Even if that is not the case, Google might have to modify the Linux kernel it distributes with Android in order to remove the infringing code because otherwise there’s always the risk of contributory infringement should any app make use of that portion of the Linux kernel.

Needless to say, there could be quite a few companies impacted by this, though I imagine folks in the open source community are starting to look at workarounds, hopefully. It’s difficult to tell from the claim in the patent how fundamental it is or how difficulty or easy it would be to work around.

Perhaps its just me, but sometimes get rather irritated when reading software patent claims. Often, they seem to describe things that already well known or rather mundane. Take for example the claims in this case:

1. An information storage and retrieval system, the system comprising:

  • a linked list to store and provide access to records stored in a memory of the system, at least some of the records automatically expiring,
  • a record search means utilizing a search key to access the linked list,
  • the record search means including a means for identifying and removing at least some of the expired ones of the records from the linked list when the linked list is accessed, and
  • means, utilizing the record search means, for accessing the linked list and, at the same time, removing at least some of the expired ones of the records in the linked list.

2. The information storage and retrieval system according to claim 1 further including means for dynamically determining maximum number for the record search means to remove in the accessed linked list of records.

I’m not trained as a patent agent, so cannot speak with much authority on this, but these claims, to me, seem rather mundane.

copyright infringement and irony

Interesting article in Wired about a lawsuit against Scribd, the document hosting service. The nub:

The novel lawsuit, filed by a children’s author in Texas last Friday, maintains that Scribd unlawfully copies the text of books and other publications to compare new uploads against the copyrighted work and to block those files from its server.

Without getting too much into the details, Scribd’s defence is that they are using the source materials in question to ensure that its services are not used to infringe copyright in those source materials.

Details aside, Camara speculated that Scribd is likely to license its filtering technology that includes an undisclosed number of digital fingerprinted works. That such filters are good for copyright owners is beside the point, he said.

“In a couple of years of developing this, Scribd might turn around and license it,” he said. “The profits generated from that should be shared.”

Illustrates, somewhat ironically, the dangers fraught with attempting to police infringement, rather than taking a more passive approach. Not that that is without risk either.

A copy of the claim can be found on Scribd.

open source and copyright

I was intrigued by the title of this artlce in Wired News (which was by way of AP): “Court says copyrights apply even for free software”

Sounded intriguing. Particularly the intro, where it stated that “[i]n a crucial win for the free software movement, a federal appeals court has ruled that even software developers who give away the programming code for their works can sue for copyright infringement if someone misappropriates that material. Interesting, though surprising, since I was of the understanding that it was long settled that software, whether open source or otherwise, was subject to copyright.

I then started reading the article’s analysis of the decision:

Because the code was given away for free, thorny questions emerge when a violation has been discovered and someone is found to have shoved the code into their own for-profit products without giving anything back, in the form of attribution and disclosure of the alterations they made.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound quite right, as that implies that the fact that there wasn’t a price for the code (or rather the right to use the code) is what gave rise to dispute. In other words, it suggests that because you haven’t paid, the obligation to attribute and disclose alterations may not necessarily be enforceable.

So I decided to take a quick peek at the case. Not quite right. The developer, in this case, was trying to get an injunction (a court order that forces the other party to stop doing something, failing which they get thrown in jail). In order to get an injunction, the person seeking it must show that if the court doesn’t grant it, they will suffer “irreparable harm”. Usually, the burden will be on the person seeking it to demonstrate. However, there is US case law that basically says that in the case of copyright claims, irreparable harm is presumed (subject to certain conditions). In other words, it makes it quite a bit easier to get an injunction.

So, the applicability of copyright in this case was of primary importance as it would determine whether or not the developer would be able to get an injunction, not “because it’s easier to recover monetary damages in a copyright-infringement case” as the article states.

Anyway, it turns out what was at issue in the case really had nothing to do with whether or not the software was open source, or whether or not there was a price associated with it. Instead, it was focused on the very fine (as in detailed-oriented rather than nice) distinction between a condition in a contract and a covenant.

The way a license works is that it grants to the user, through a contract, certain rights to use, copy, etc. the software, but only those rights. So, if you don’t have a contract and use or the software, then you don’t have any rights to do so. That would be a violation of copyright law. Similarly, if you exceed the rights granted to you, that would also be a copyright infringement.

Finally, we come to conditions. Another word that is often used to describe these are provisos. These are things in a license that are tied to the grant of rights – in other words, if you don’t do them, then you don’t have the rights. Its like the “if… then” structure in programming. If you do A, B and C, then you can use the software. And of course, if you don’t, you can’t. Sometimes also worded like this: “You can use the software, provided you do A, B and C”. The effect then, is that if you don’t do A, B and C, then you don’t have a right to use the software. And if you don’t have the right and you use it anyway, then once again you will be infringing copyright.

The “heart” of the case, as the court described it, wasn’t whether or not the software license was paid for or not, but rather whether or not certain obligations to attribute the software to the developer and provide modifications were conditions or rather merely covenants. The distinction is important because a covenant is an obligation that is not tied to the license grant. In other words, if you don’t perform a covenant, you don’t lose your rights to use the software. Sure, you are in breach of the software license, and can be sued for damages, but the key difference is that you are not infringing copyright, since it is not tied to the grant of rights to use the software.

In this case, the defendant was saying that the obligations they breached were only covenants. Therefore, no copyright violation. Therefore, no presumed irreparable harm. Therefore, no injunction. The district court agreed with this.

However, the court of appeal corrected this. Perhaps not surprising, given that the license in question had language such as

The intent of this document is to state the conditions under which a Package may be copied.

The court of appeal further remarked that

The Artistic License also uses the traditional language of conditions by noting that the rights to copy, modify, and distribute are granted “provided that” the conditions are met.

In short, the decision has less to do with open source and more to do with contractual interpretation – in this case, the distinctions between conditions and covenants. The same dispute could have just as well arisen for typical commercial software.

So is this a “crucial win” for the open source community? No, probably not. However, it does serve to illustrate the importance of clear and well-drafted licenses. If you are a developer and want to make sure your software cannot used without the licensee doing certain things, your license must clearly identify those things as conditions.

Almost forgot – for those so inclined, a link to the case (PDF).

Update: I was surprised to see that Lawrence Lessig commented on this same case as being “huge and important news”. Which to me is somewhat surprising, given my comments above. In brief, he noted:

In non-technical terms, the Court has held that free licenses such as the CC licenses set conditions (rather than covenants) on the use of copyrighted work. When you violate the condition, the license disappears, meaning you’re simply a copyright infringer. This is the theory of the GPL and all CC licenses. Put precisely, whether or not they are also contracts, they are copyright licenses which expire if you fail to abide by the terms of the license.

However, the issue – at least the one that seemed to be argued on appeal – was not whether or not free or open software licenses per se could attract copyright violation if they were not adhered to, but rather the more pedestrian question of whether the obligations in the license in question actually constituted conditions as opposed to covenants. Hmmm.

Further update: I had pulled this post for a while because time and time again I kept reading how this was a big win for open source and was rethinking the above. While I certainly think the appeal decision was the right one, I don’t think this should be thought of as a big win for open source, since the findings would seem to apply to any license – i.e. its somewhat like celebrating a victory for bicycle riders because a judge has found that all wheeled vehicles are legal in a case that happens to be about a bicycle being illegal. Anyway, I do plan another post on this one, but more on the reactions and analyses that I’ve been reading rather than the decision itself.

antigua – sun, fun and… pirates?

Probably only catching up on things as its been quite busy and alas this blog is unfortunately low on the list of priorities… Anyway, I was stunned to read in Variety that

The government of Antigua is likely to abrogate intellectual property treaties with the U.S. by the end of March and authorize wholesale copying of American movies, music and other “soft targets” if the Bush administration fails to respond to proposals for settling a trade dispute between the two counties, according to the lawyer representing the Caribbean island nation.

The history is quite interesting. Apparently Antigua has prevailed several times at the WTO in respect of US trade practices related to offshore gambling sites which are hosted in Antigua but the US has taken no action. After roughly five years of proceedings, apparently Antigua is now looking to this course of action as a retaliatory measure. The WTO has to some extent, blessed this course of action. From the article:

The most recent victory was in December, when the WTO ruled that Antigua could exact damages by ignoring IP agreements with the U.S. should a negotiated settlement fail.

Somewhat surprising but the ruling can be found at the WTO site (note – link is to a 74 page PDF) and awards Antigua:

6.1 For the reasons set out above, the Arbitrator determines that the annual level of nullification or impairment of benefits accuing to Antigua in this case is US$21 million and that Antigua has followed the principles and procedures of Article 22.3 of the DSU in determining that it is not practicable or effective to suspend concessions or other obligations under the GATS and that the circumstances were serious enough. Accordingly, the Arbitrator determines that Antigua may request authorization from the DSB, to suspend the obligations under the TRIPS Agreement mentioned in paragraph 5.6 above, at a level not exceeding US$21 million annually.

I’m surprised this hasn’t gained more prominence, since the implications could, needless to say, be huge, particularly given other trade disputes that the US has with the EU and others (and in which it has taken a similar course of action). I did not an article that mentioned that Slysoft, the company which broke Blu-Ray’s DRM system, is based in Antigua.

Then again I have been living (or rather working) under a rock lately so may just be late to tune in to this news.

patent tides turning?

Alas – been too long, old blog. And I see I have a backlog of 174 partially written entries. Anyway, just a brief mention of a very interesting decision reported by The Denver Post about a rather unusual turn of events in a patent infringement case:

A federal judge recently got so infuriated by the conduct of two highly regarded trial attorneys that he overturned a jury’s $51 million verdict, then ordered the lawyers to pay the fees and costs of the opposing lawyers, a sum that could total several million dollars.

U.S. District Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch sanctioned attorneys Terrance McMahon and Vera Elson of the firm McDermott, Will and Emery, of Chicago and San Francisco, for “cavalier and abusive” misconduct and for having a “what can I get away with?” attitude during a 13-day patent infringement trial in Denver.

Not surprisingly the decision is the subject of much comment on the interwebs, many wondering if this marks the turning point in patent litigation by so-called patent trolls in the US. Still working on finding the judgement itself.

Update – someone posted the decision on slashdot.  Would read it but alas drafting to do…

pushing daisies, amelie and ip claims

I don’t watch much TV at all but by coincidence caught part of this new show, called Pushing Daisies. Overall, I liked what I saw – interesting premise, well told plot, good acting, and keen attention to pacing, cinematography (if one can use that term for a TV show), music, colour, etc.

But something struck me within the first 10 minutes of watching it – something oddly familiar. Not the stories, but rather, the whole look and feel of how it was presented – like: the sometimes oddly surrealistic but realistic presentation of scenes (exaggerated or bright colours, quirky but cute interiors (and exteriors); unusual and repeated focus on otherwise insignificant details (ages down to the hour of each character – oh and also by an omnipresent unknown third party voice over storyteller); oddly familiar patterns of speech – sometimes quick and rapid bursts of somewhat deadpan humour; curious static shots of people or things with some sort of special effect, like zooming away or seeing through something; oddly familiar patterns of music; eccentric but lovable characters like Chuck’s two aunts; eccentric backstories of characters (Chuck’s aunts again – who had wonderful careers as synchonized swimmers until devastingly felled by contaminated kitter litter); oh, and of course, oddly tragic (albeit someone humourous) events that people undergo (see the aunts) as well as oddly humourous but sometimes well-deserved deaths (like that of a rather fat thieving undertaker).

And then I suddenly realized that what I was watching was a show that, for lack of a better word, had (intentionally or unintentionally) “borrowed” the entire look and feel of “Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain”. Not the story, mind you, not that at all. But rather a multitude of little bits and pieces that all go into how a story is told.

I marvelled, for a moment, at what a great job the creators of the show had done in transposing the look and feel of that movie into the series, and wondered how much effort (if any) went into deliberately attempting to create or invoke the look, feel and mood of Amélie (which, by the way, they do quite well). Then, needless to say (given my profession), I ruminated about which intellectual property laws, if any, could the owners of Amélie used to protect the “look and feel” of their film. Certainly most people (even non-lawyers) are familiar with the Apple v. Microsoft look and feel case back in the 90s (which tried to base a claim in copyright and didn’t get very far if I recall correctly). It would be interesting to see how that would play out in the context of something like a movie or similar work. Not that I’d like to see that happen to Pushing Daisies – its already tough enough to find decent shows…

web 2.0 & the law

Another story from  The Register communicating a warning from the EFF about the inherent legal risks of Web 2.0 stuff. The nub:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has given Web 2.0 media sharing start-ups some non-technical advice: run your ideas past a lawyer first to stay on the right side of copyright law.

Can’t argue with that. Continuing on:

“One of the big mistakes I see in this space is failure to engage legal counsel soon enough. Often these involve business issues – like how do you want users and employees to interact on the site,” staff attorney Fred von Lohman said.

The choice of whether to offer buzzy features like mash-ups or to profit from other people’s content on the server may also have a bearing on a company’s legal exposure. “Techies will tell you it [server-side computing] is about efficiencies, the reality is lawyers will tell you to think hard about it,” von Lohman said.

While you might think executives running sites that suck in other people’s content have most at risk, von Lohman pointed out that investors are also in the firing line. He cited EMI and Universal’s decision to drag Bertelsmann through the US courts over its $100m investment in the old Napster, which they claimed helped the P2P site infringe on their works.

So there you have it. Straight from the EFF.

a rose by any other name…

or, a study on the idea/expression dichotomy in copyright law as illustrated through flatulent dolls. The interesting decision in JCW Investments v. Novelty, Inc. centers around how copyright can inhere in toy farting dolls:

Somewhat to our surprise, it turns out that there is a niche market for farting dolls, and it is quite lucrative. Tekky Toys, an Illinois corporation, designs and sells a whole line of them. Fred was just the beginning. Fred’s creators, Jamie Wirt and Geoff Bevington, began working on Fred in 1997, and had a finished doll in 1999. They applied for a copyright registration on Fred as a “plush toy with sound,” and received a certificate of copyright on February 5, 2001; later, they assigned the certificate to Tekky. In the meantime, Tekky sent out its first Fred dolls to distributors in 1999. By the time this case arose, in addition to Fred, Tekky’s line of farting plush toys had expanded to Pull My Finger® Frankie (Fred’s blonde, motorcycle-riding cousin), Santa, Freddy Jr., Count Fartula (purple, like the Count on Sesame Street), and Fat Bastard (character licensed from New Line Cinema’s“Austin Powers” movies), among others. By March 2004, Tekky had sold more than 400,000 farting dolls.

400,000! Anyway, on to the actual law part of it. Basically, another company, Novelty, came along and developed a similar doll and the court found them offside:

It is not the idea of a farting, crude man that is protected, but this particular embodiment of that concept. Novelty could have created another plush doll of a middle-aged farting man that would seem nothing like Fred. He could, for example, have a blond mullet and wear flannel, have a nose that is drawn on rather than protruding substantially from the rest of the head, be standing rather than ensconced in an arm-chair, and be wearing shorts rather than blue pants.

Well. Good to know that one can’t own the idea of a farting, crude man – only the particular expression of a farting, crude man.

There was of course also the trademark aspect to it:

The jury found Novelty liable for trademark infringement because Novelty used the words “Pull My Finger” to sell its farting Santa dolls, and this use infringed Novelty’s mark for those words as related to plush dolls.

There you have it. “Pull My Finger” is a trademark.