Wikiality – Part III

Bit of an elaboration on a previous post on the use of Wikipedia in judgements. I cited part of a New York Times article, which had in turn quoted from a letter to the editor from Professor Kenneth Ryesky. The portion cited by the NYT article suggested that Ryesky was quite opposed to the idea, which wasn’t really the case. He was kind enough to exchange some thoughts via e-mail:

In his New York Times article of 29 January 2007, Noam Cohen quoted a sentence (the last sentence) from my Letter to the Editor published in the New York Law Journal on 18 January 2007. You obviously read Mr. Cohen’s article, but it is not clear whether you read the original Letter to the Editor from which the sentence was quoted.

Which exemplifies the point that Wikipedia, for all of its usefulness, is not a primary source of information, and therefore should be used with great care in the judicial process, just as Mr. Cohen’s article was not a primary source of information.

Contrary to the impression you may have gotten from Mr. Cohen’s New York Times article of 29 January, I am not per se against the use of Wikipedia. For the record, I myself have occasion to make use of it in my research (though I almost always go and find the primary sources to which Wikipedia directs me), and find it to be a valuable tool. But in research, as in any other activity, one must use the appropriate tool for the job; using a sledge hammer to tighten a little screw on the motherboard of my computer just won’t work.

Wikipedia and its equivalents present challenges to the legal system. I am quite confident that, after some trial and error, the legal system will acclimate itself to Wikipedia, just as it has to other text and information media innovations over the past quarter-century.

Needless to say, quite a different tone than the excerpt in the NYT article. Thanks for the clarification, Professor Ryesky.

Big Bad Law Firms

Ran across this at

More and more I hear that many people in business – and in IT in particular – find the behaviour of large law firms and other professional service providers to be alienating and unresponsive to their business problems. And they’re right – large firms are increasingly gearing themselves to focus only on high dollar value work and their culture and the billing philosophies do not lend themselves to a “roll up your sleeves and help me grow my business” attitude. It seems to be getting more and more difficult for businesses to find advisors who understand the client’s problems, and who genuinely want to help.

Ouch. Mr. Hyndman is certainly entitled to his views but being in a somewhat largish firm I would, with respect, not agree. At least not when it comes to the firm I work at. I also don’t think its very fair, to paint all large firms the same brush and imply that lawyers at such firms are only interested in money (and not much else), don’t care about their clients’ business, don’t understand their problems, and don’t want to help.

I think its rather unfortunate that these types of things are said between lawyers and law firms these days. And perhaps I’ll just leave it at that.

Wikiality – Part II

There was some traffic on the ULC E-Comm Listserv (on which I surreptitiously lurk – and if you don’t know what it is and are interested in e-commerce law, highly recommended) about courts citing Wikipedia with a couple of links to some other stuff, including an article on Slaw as well as an article in the New York Times about the concerns raised by some regarding court decisions citing Wikipedia. Some excerpts and notes to expand on my previous post:

From the con side:

In a recent letter to The New York Law Journal, Kenneth H. Ryesky, a tax lawyer who teaches at Queens College and Yeshiva University, took exception to the practice, writing that “citation of an inherently unstable source such as Wikipedia can undermine the foundation not only of the judicial opinion in which Wikipedia is cited, but of the future briefs and judicial opinions which in turn use that judicial opinion as authority.”

This raises a good point that I didn’t mention in my previous post. I certainly think Wikipedia is fine to note certain things, but I really, definitely, positively, do not think that it should be cited as judicial authority. In my previous article I thought this was so self-evident I didn’t bother mentioning, but the quote above illustrates that it might not be all that clear. Court decisions, as most of you know, are written by judges who take into account the facts and apply the law to the facts of the case, along with other facts and information that may have a bearing on the case. The source of the law includes statutes and of course previously decided cases, which enunciate rules or principles that the court either applies, distinguishes based on the facts as being inapplicable, or, in some cases, overturns (for any number of reasons). Court decisions are not, of course, published on Wikipedia and are not subject to the collective editing process of Wikipedia, nor should they be. Rather, references to Wikipedia in court cases are to provide additional or ancillary context or facts to a case. They do not and should not derogate from principles of law that are set forth in court decisions. But, contrary to what Mr. Ryesky, Esq., indicates above, I don’t think referring to Wikipedia for context or facts will suddenly undermine the foundations of law, since the legal reasoning itself still will and must be based on sources of law, not facts and not context.

Hence the following end to the NTY article:

Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School, saw this as crucial: “The most critical fact is public acceptance, including the litigants,” he said. “A judge should not use Wikipedia when the public is not prepared to accept it as authority.”

For now, Professor Gillers said, Wikipedia is best used for “soft facts” that are not central to the reasoning of a decision. All of which leads to the question, if a fact isn’t central to a judge’s ruling, why include it?

“Because you want your opinion to be readable,” said Professor Gillers. “You want to apply context. Judges will try to set the stage. There are background facts. You don’t have to include them. They are not determinitive. But they help the reader appreciate the context.”

He added, “The higher the court the more you want to do it. Why do judges cite Shakespeare or Kafka?”


The Virtues and Evils of Open Source

Yes, I know, I’ve been behind lately. A ton of very interesting things to catch up on. But I’d like to put in one quick note about open source code. I recently came across an article, written last year by a lawyer, generally advising development companies not to use open source. I don’t quite recall where it was (if I did I’d link to it) but I do remember it being quite clear in stating that using open source is A Bad Thing and to avoid it altogether – not just to be careful, but rather to treat it as one would radioactive waste.

With respect, I don’t quite agree. I certainly advise my clients to take a great deal of caution in using open source code, particularly the GPL variety, and very particularly if they have a desire to keep some or all of their own secret, proprietary code secret and proprietary. That being said, I do have many, many clients who have used open source code to great advantage in various ways. Some have simply used existing open source code to avoid reinventing the wheel (and saving on costs), while taking care to keep viral elements out of their proprietary code. Others have been more aggressive with the open source model and have intentionally decided to use open source as the basis for their business model and making their very own code, or parts of it, either open source or subject to a dual-licensing model. As the Red Hats, JBosses, Sleepycats, MySQLs etc. etc. of the world have demonstrated, you can go open source and still have a pretty viable business. And, of course, there are the “old world” companies like IBM who have decided to go open source (in some limited ways – e.g. IBM’s DB2 Express-C thing).

Of course, this is not to suggest that anyone through caution to the wind and just start pulling down stuff from Sourceforge and whacking it into your product. Use of open source definitely requires some planning ahead and consideration of what the business model and value proposition of your business will be. Optimally, enlist the help of a lawyer who’s familiar with open source licenses to discuss what you plan to do and the packages you plan to use. Or, if that’s not feasible, try at least to read the applicable licenses yourself and ensure you comply with them, because if you don’t think that anyone will notice, or that no one will actually sue you, you may want to pay a visit to the GPL Violations Site and reconsider, in addition to the questions that will be asked of you when the due diligence starts on your next round of financing or, even worse, your (aborted) exit event. Can badly managed open source usage (and I emphasize badly managed, not simply open source usage) kill a deal? Definitely.

In short – I don’t think open source is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a pretty good thing, not just in the social good sense and all that, but also as a business. But it need to be used taking into account its terms of use and ensuring that its consistent with the strategy you plan to take.

If perhaps there’s one thing I’d recommend it would be for shops to make absolutely sure they have a disciplined approach in tracking where code comes from and the terms under which its being used and why its being used. That applies not only to open source stuff, but also, for example, your programmers taking neat snippets of code from Dr. Dobbs or something else, or coming across a nice little script somewhere on the Web and saying “Gee, that’s neat, let’s use it in our product”.

Anyway, if I remember where the article was I’ll update this to include a link.

Top Ten Twenty Lies

Yes, this is a bit old, but quite good. I was wandering around and found these two articles on Guy Kawasaki’s website, about The Top Ten Lies of Venture Capitalists and The Top Ten Lies of Entrepreneurs. Great, great reading. One small snippet from each. On the VC side:

“This is a vanilla term sheet.” There is no such thing as a vanilla term sheet. Do you think corporate finance attorneys are paid $400/hour to push out vanilla term sheets? If entrepreneurs insist on using a flavor of ice cream to describe term sheets, the only flavor that works is Rocky Road. This is why they need their own $400/hour attorney too–as opposed to Uncle Joe the divorce lawyer.

and one on the Entrepreneur side:

“Oracle is too big/dumb/slow to be a threat.” Larry Ellison has his own jet. He can keep the San Jose Airport open for his late night landings. His boat is so big that it can barely get under the Golden Gate Bridge. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are flying on Southwest out of Oakland and stealing the free peanuts. There’s a reason why Larry is where he is, and entrepreneurs are where they are, and it’s not that he’s big, dumb, and slow. Competing with Oracle, Microsoft, and other large companies is a very difficult task. Entrepreneurs who utter this lie look at best naive. You think it’s bravado, but venture capitalists think it’s stupidity.

Great stuff.

Pretexting, Ethics and Clients

Still catching up a bit – very quick post on the HP “pretexting” thing. As you may recall, HP asserted that its practice of pretexting – i.e. pretending to be someone else to get confidential telephone records – was legal. They were investigated leaks to the press by one of their board members and had resorted to this practice to try and find the leak. I had commented elsewhere long ago when this story first broke that even if it were illegal, very few (if anyone) could consider such actions the least bit ethical.

As most of you know apparently there was some disagreement as to legality and a few folks at HP were charged. Then I read this recent story about how HP was ending its special ties to Larry Sonsini, of the California powerhouse firm of Wilson Sonsini:

Sonsini – famous for decades in these parts – gained national fame in September during HP’s spy scandal hearings in front of Congress. Emails between the lawyer, HP executives and former director Tom Perkins raised serious questions about how sound Sonsini’s advice was around the practice of pretexting. He seemed to indicate that phone record fraud sounded like fair game, after being nudged in that direction by HP’s internal lawyers.

My emphasis. Its unfortunate to hear of something like this. I don’t doubt that he took the time and effort to research the law to come to a reasonable opinion on the matter before advising his client – obviously it was a very grey area of the law. In those circumstances its unfortunate that he didn’t perhaps suggest, notwithstanding the black letter of the law, that it would be unwise do take the course of action they were contemplating. That as good corporate citizens with a significant public profile, that such a practice is not something they should even consider. But then again, maybe he did and they didn’t listen (and of course he would surely have the good sense never to say that in public and embarrass a major client) or maybe he thought that such comments were not for legal counsel to make. Who knows.

The situation is not unfamiliar to many lawyers – particularly when it comes to giving opinions – lawyers are sometimes subjected to pressure to deliver the opinion that a client wants to hear rather than the one they should probably be delivering. By this I’m certainly not suggesting lawyers are delivering bad or incorrect opinions. What I am saying is that there are often grey areas of the law (which tend to be the areas on which legal expertise are sought) and in respect of which opinions can go one of two or more ways. And sometimes, the client will want to hear a certain outcome – for example, in the case of HP, I’m sure they would have liked the comfort to hear from their external counsel that their actions were legal – it would serve as some evidence that they took some degree of diligence and could serve to mitigate consequences if it turned out governmental authorities differed. If he, on the other hand, refused, or proffered a legal opinion that it was fine but qualified with a recommendation not to take such actions, HP likely would have not been very happy with him. And everyone knows what happens when clients aren’t happy.

Its an unfortunate situation to be in. Particuarly in this case, where, at the end of the day, HP still, obviously, isn’t happy with him.

Kinderstart v. Google

Speaking of litigation, here’s another one, albeit rather old news. The short version: Kinderstart, a web startup focused on children, decides to sue Google because its PageRank drops when Google decides to fine tune its PageRank algorithms. PageRank, btw, is what determines where your site shows up in search results when someone searches on key terms in Google. So when your PageRank drops, less people see the link to your site, less people find your site, and therefore your traffic and revenue go down.

Because of this, they sued Google for damages and also sought an injunction to require Google to reveal their proprietary PageRank algorithms (which of course Google closely guards as a trade secret.

As with the Culligan case, yes, well written decision, etc. etc., and I understand the logic and all that, but there’s a little part of me that wishes that the court could have written a judgement like this:

Kinderstart, this is Google. Google is a separate business from yours. They don’t owe you a living. So, in response to your claim, the answer is no. Now go away.

Tip o’ the hat to the Stella Awards for mentioning this in their listserv. Highly recommended for their take on US litigation.

Not Dead

Wow. The online world is tough. A few days of absence and readers drop to nil. Alas, tough to be a good lawyer, a non-absentee parent and a regular blogger at the same time. So when push comes to shove, the law comes first (since the boy doesn’t eat if it doesn’t). Things have been busy and I have a long backlog of somewhat interesting stuff to share with you – shortly.

Microsoft Patents RSS. Or Tries To. Maybe.

Interesting post on someone else’s blog about Microsoft apparently trying to patent RSS:

The applications, filed last June but just made public yesterday, cover subscribing and discovering what Microsoft calls “Web feeds.” That comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who’s been working on RSS, which has its origins in a format developed seven years ago at Netscape Communications.

Microsoft executive Don Dodge, while not involved in the patent applications, says he suspects the filings were made to defend the company against “patent trolls”. (The filings were made shortly before Microsoft announced plans to build RSS technology into its upcoming Vista operating system.) Still, if granted, the patents would give Microsoft a legal cudgel to wield against other companies using RSS.

Well. They do have a point. Generally speaking, I don’t think patent trolls (those that basically file overly broad patents and then sit on them in a dark cave until someone who actually does something useful, and therefore has deep pockets, unwittingly infringes, at which point the troll comes out and clubs them over the head with a lawsuit or settlement) are a good thing. That being said, its ironic that Microsoft feels the need to abuse the system in the same way as patent trolls in order to proactively defend itself. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

Unfortunately, I’m not necesarily sure that prior art would necessarily invalidate these patents – after all, most of NTP’s patents were more or less considered invalid, but that didn’t stop them from collecting several hundred million from RIM. And its not like there haven’t been other, um, rather broad patents asserted in the past. You know, like back in 2002, when British Telecom asserted ownership of hyperlinks (which they lost) though of course BT doesn’t quite fit the description of a patent troll.

Then again, it begs the question as to who or what should or shouldn’t be considered a patent troll – for example, its well known that IBM has a huge, gigantic, enormous arsenal of patents at its disposal. IBM also actively licenses these patents (and of course threatens litigation where it believes its rights are being violated), but it isn’t necessarily the case that IBM would otherwise have exploited these patents in what I’ll call “active” business – i.e. making and selling something based on the patent as opposed to primarily seeking royalties and licenses from those do – even though IBM does do so in some cases. So does that make IBM a patent troll? What about Philo T. Farnsworth who, arguably, never started producing televisions but instead sought legal claims against others?

My perhaps overly simplistic take on this is that patent trolls are not inherently the problem, but rather the ability, primarily in the US, to register patents that should have never issued in the first place. If someone comes up with a smart, cool, inventive, and truly novel way of doing something, then they should certainly be free to either produce something with it, or sue the living daylights out of someone else who comes along and infringes the IP even if they don’t (or can’t) make productive use of it themselves. Not actively exploiting a patent is not necessarily tantamount to being a bad guy, IMHO.

It will be interesting to see what happens on this front, if anything. If nothing does, then I may well turn to drafting patents, the first being “Method of Utilizing a Rhythmic Cadence in the Expansion and Contraction of Multiple Muscular Groupings to Faciliate Indefinite Continuation of Metabolism of Cell Structures.” I like the sound of that. Yes indeed.

Were You Once a Brobeck Client?

Very interesting post on TechCrunch on how the digital records of law firm Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, for some 10,000 clients, will be preserved and made available to a limited group of scholars and researchers, through what will be called the Brobeck Closed Archive.
Wow. At first blush I had the same reaction as Michael Arrington (the TechCrunch guy) and the guy who wrote the original article that he cited. But if you read through the FAQ at the sight, as well as the comments that the professor who is running the thing posted on TechCrunch, its pretty clear that they’re not going to be displaying lawyer-client documents on a website for all to see – there will be some measure of protection put into place.

That being said, though I certainly understand the historical significance of these records, and the objectives of the archive (which seem entirely noble) I get a bad feeling about this generally – you know, kind of like that little tickle at the back of your throat that almost, but not quite, wants to make you cough. Heck, if I were a client of a law firm, would I want anyone looking at my counsel’s records on me? Even if it were a researcher? Even under NDA? And even with restrictions? Well, no, I don’t think so. Not at all. Its not any researcher’s business – not at all. So sure, maybe as an opt in program, if the client consents, but otherwise, even, I think, where a corporate client no longer exists to approve disclosure, the records should also do the same.

So, if you were once a Brobeck client, and haven’t seen the notice, you might want to get in touch with the archive.