Joho the Blog » law

January 15, 2013

Tim Wu on prosecuting Aaron

… Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.

That was then. In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison. Worse still, her legal authority to take down Swartz was shaky. Just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a similar prosecution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative, refused to read the law in a way that would make a criminal of “everyone who uses a computer in violation of computer use restrictions—which may well include everyone who uses a computer.” Ortiz and her lawyers relied on that reading to target one of our best and brightest.

It’s one thing to stretch the law to stop a criminal syndicate or terrorist organization. It’s quite another when prosecuting a reckless young man. The prosecutors forgot that, as public officials, their job isn’t to try and win at all costs but to use the awesome power of criminal law to protect the public from actual harm. Ortiz has not commented on the case. But, had she been in charge when Jobs and Wozniak were breaking the laws, we might never have had Apple computers. It was at this moment that our legal system and our society utterly failed.

Tim Wu

Full article in the New Yorker.

 


My friend David Isenberg cautions us not to think of this as Aaron encountering one bad apple in the system. Rather, says David, “The legal system was working just like it always works…The case of US v Swartz was business as usual.”

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January 17, 2011

Stupid lawyer tricks

I’m greatly enjoying not only Cory Doctorow’s bang-on response to a truly dumb, threatening legal letter, but the BoingBiong reader’s comment thread about it. [SPOILER ALERT: Is Academic Advantage a scam or is not Academic Advantage a scam? You can decide for yourselves whether those three words — Academic Advantage scam — belong together.]

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August 24, 2010

The sudden good that courts can do

I choked up this morning at the quote at the very end of this editorial from the Boston Globe:

It may never be a day off for state workers, but it is an increasingly important holiday for Massachusetts residents who take their state’s history seriously: Aug. 21. On that day in 1781, a young woman from Sheffield was the first slave to use the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, with its stirring language of “all men are born free and equal,’’ to win freedom in court. Her case was a precursor to a 1783 decision by the state’s highest court that ended slavery in Massachusetts.

Last Saturday, more than 100 people gathered in Sheffield to honor that woman, Mumbet, who took the name Elizabeth Freeman after her emancipation. The event was at the Ashley House, the home of Mumbet’s owner, Colonel John Ashley. To help in her case, Mumbet had enlisted a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick. Once free, she worked as a midwife, nurse, healer, and employee of the Sedgwick family.

The Ashley House and Mumbet’s grave, in Stockbridge with the rest of the Sedgwicks, are stops on the Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage Trail. Other trail high points include the site of black historian W.E.B. DuBois’s childhood home in Great Barrington and the Pittsfield house of the Reverend Samuel Harrison, a chaplain in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War.

“Any time while I was a slave,’’ Mumbet once said, “if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I was told I would die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it, just to stand on God’s green earth a free woman.’’ The heritage trail and Aug. 21 holiday keep that spirit alive.

I think there are two reasons why Mumbet’s words make me well up, besides the fact that I feel a personal connection to that beautiful part of my freedom-loving state.

First, slavery is so unimaginably, grindingly, persistently evil yet it failed to crush her hope. How can that be?.

Second, it took so little to end that massive evil. It took a judge and a pen.

Of course, the judge could have that effect because he was part of a state constitutional system that put courts between laws and the people they govern. Our imperfect system is structured to allow the sudden assertion of human good.

Then and now when that happens – and we look mainly to the courts for it – rejoicing and tears run together.

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March 1, 2010

Carl Malamud on making the law accessible

The latest Radio Berkman podcast is up. In it, I interview Carl Malamud about his efforts to get American legal code made accessible and copyright free. Yes, our own damn law is covered by copyright, or so at least some claim. Carl is one of those tireless fighters for our own culture.

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January 26, 2010

[berkman] Julie Cohen on networked selves

Julie Cohen is giving a Berkman lunch on “configuring the networked self.” She’s working on a book that “explores the effects of expanding copyright, pervasive surveillance, and the increasingly opaque design of network architectures in the emerging networked information society.” She’s going to talk about a chapter that “argues that “access to knowledge” is a necessary but insufficient condition for human flourishing, and adds two additional conditions.” (Quotes are from the Berkman site.) [NOTE: Ethan Zuckerman’s far superior livebloggage is here.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

The book is motivated by two observations of the discourse around the Net, law, and policy in the U.S.

1. We make grandiose announcements about designing infrastructures that enable free speech and free markets, but at the end of the day, many of the results are antithetical to the interests of the individuals in that space by limiting what they can do with the materials they encounter.

2. There’s a disconnect between the copyright debate and the privacy debate. The free culture debate is about openness, but that can make it hard to reconcile privacy claims. We discuss these issues within a political framework with assumptions about autonomous choice made by disembodied individuals…a worldview that doesn’t have much to do with reality, she says. It would be better to focus on the information flows among embodied, real people who experience the network as mediated by devices and interfaces. The liberal theory framework doesn’t give us good tools. E.g., it treats individuals as separate from culture.

Julie says lots of people are asking these questions. They just happen not to be in legal studies. One purpose of her book is to unpack post modern literature to see how situated, embodied users of networks experience technology, and to see how that affects information law and policy. Her normative framework is informed by Martha Nussbaum‘s ideas about human flourishing: How can information law and policy help human flourishing by providing information to information and knowledge? Intellectual property laws should take this into account, she says. But, she says, this has been situated within the liberal tradition, which leads to indeterminate results. You lend it content by looking at the post modern literature that tells us important things about the relationship between self and culture, self and community, etc. By knowing how those relationships work, you can give content to human flourishing, which informs which laws and policies we need.

[I’m having trouble hearing her. She’s given two “political reference points,” but I couldn’t hear either. :(]

[I think one of them is everyday practice.] Everyday practice is not linear, often not animated by overarching strategies.

The third political reference point is play. Play is an important concept, but the discussion of intentional play needs to be expanded to include “the play of circumstances.” Life puts random stuff in your way. That type of play is often the actual source of creativity. We should be seeking to foster play in our information policy; it is a structural condition of human flourishing.

Access to knowledge isn’t enough to supply a base for human flourishing because it doesn’t get you everything you need, e.g., right to re-use works. We also need operational transparency: We need to know how these digital architectures work. We need to know how the collected data will be used. And we also need semantic discontinuity: Formal incompleteness in legal and technical infrastructures. E.g., wrt copyright to reuse works you shouldn’t have to invoke a legal defense such as fair use; there should be space left over for play. E.g., in privacy, rigid arbitrary rules against transacting and aggregating personal data so that there is space left over for people to play with identity. E.g., in architecture, question the norm that seamless interoperability makes life better, because it means that data about you moves around without your having the ability to stop it. E.g., interoperability among social networks changes the nature of social networks. We need some discontinuity for flourishing.

Q: People need the freedom to have multiple personas. We need more open territory.
A: Yes. The common pushback is that if you restrict the flow of info in any way, we’ll slide down the slippery slope of censorship. But that’s not true and it gets in the way of the conversation we need to have.

Q: [charlie nesson] How do you create this space of playfulness when it comes to copyright?
A: In part, look at the copyright law of 1909. It’s reviled by copyright holders, but there’s lots of good in it. It set up categories that determined if you could get the rights, and the rights were much more narrowly defined. We should define rights to reproduction and adaptation that gives certain significant rights to copyright holders, but that quite clearly and unambiguously reserves lots to users, with reference to the possible market effect that is used by courts to defend the owners’ rights.
Q: [charlie] But you run up against the pocketbooks of the copyright holders…
A: Yes, there’s a limit to what a scholar can do. Getting there is no mean feat, but it begins with a discourse about the value of play and that everyone benefits from it, not just crazy youtube posters, even the content creators.

JPalfrey asks CNesson what he thinks. Charlie says that having to assert fair use, to fend off lawsuits, is wrong. Fair uyse ought to be the presumption.

Q: [csandvig] Fascinating. The literature that lawyers denigrate as pomo makes me think of a book by an anthropologist and sociologist called “The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach.” It’s about embodied, local, enculturated understanding of the Net. Their book was about Trinidad, arguing that if you’re in Trinidad, the Net is one thing, and if you’re not, it’s another thing. And, they say, we need many of these cultural understandings. But it hasn’t happened. Can you say more about the lit you referred to?
A: Within mainstream US legal and policy scholarship, there’s no recognition of this. They’re focused on overcoming the digital divide. That’s fine, but it would be better not to have a broadband policy that thinks it’s the same in all cultures. [Note: I’m paraphrasing, as I am throughout this post. Just a reminder.]

A: [I missed salil’s question; sorry] We could build a system of randomized incompatibilities, but there’s value in having them emerge otherwise than by design, and there’s value to not fixing some of the ones that exist in the world. The challenge is how to design gaps.
Q: The gaps you have in mind are not ones that can be designed the way a computer scientist might…
A: Yes. Open source forks, but that’s at war with the idea that everything should be able to speak to everything else. It’d

Q: [me] I used to be a technodeterminist; I recognize the profound importance of cultural understandings/experience. So, the Internet is different in Trinidad than in Beijing or Cambridge. Nevertheless, I find myself thinking that some experiences of the Net are important and cross cultural, e.g., that Ideas are linked, there’s lots to see, people disagree, people like me can publish, etc.
A: You can say general things about the Net if you go to a high enough level of abstraction. You’re only a technodeterminist if you think there’s only way to get there, only one set of rules that get you there. Is that what you mean?
Q: Not quite. I’m asking if there’s a residue of important characteristics of the experience of the Net that cuts across all cultures. “Ideas are linked” or “I can contribute” may be abstractions, but they’re also important and can be culturally transformative, so the lessons we learn from the Net aren’t unactionably general.
A: Liberalism creeps back in. It’s acrappy descriptional tool, but a good aspirational one. The free spread of a corpus of existing knowledge…imagine a universal digital library with open access. That would be a universal good. I’m not saying I have a neutral prescription upon which any vision of human flourishing would work. I’m looking for critical subjectivity.

A: Network space changes based on what networks can do. 200 yrs ago, you wouldn’t have said PAris is closer to NY than Williamsburg VA, but today you might because lots of people go NY – Paris.

Q: [doc] You use geographic metaphors. Much of the understanding of the Net is based on plumbing metaphors.
A: The privacy issues make it clear it’s a geography, not a plumbing system. [Except for leaks :) ]

[Missed a couple of questions]

A: Any good educator will have opinions about how certain things are best reserved for closed environments, e.g., in-class discussions, what sorts of drafts to share with which other people, etc. There’s a value to questioning the assumption that everything ought to be open and shared.

Q: [wseltzer] Why is it so clear that it the Net isn’t plumbing? We make bulges in the pipe as spaces where we can be more private…
A: I suppose it depends on your POV. If you run a data aggregation biz, it will look like that. But if you ask someone who owns such a biz how s/he feels about privacy in her/his own life, that person will have opinions at odds with his/her professional existence.

Q: [jpalfrey] You’re saying that much of what we take as apple pie is in conflict, but that if we had the right toolset, we could make progress…
A: There isn’t a single unifying framework that can make it all make sense. You need the discontinuities to manage that. Dispute arise, but we have a way to muddle along. One of my favorite books: How We Became Post-Human. She writes about the Macy conferences out of which came out of cybernetics, including the idea that info is info no matter how it’s embodied. I think that’s wrong. We’re analog in important ways.

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September 4, 2009

The price of free law

The latest Radio Berkman episode has me interviewing Steve Schultze about his RECAP project that posts public domain legal records that otherwise you’d have to pay to access. And the federal courts are not all that happy about it.

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August 18, 2009

RecapTheLaw.org

RecapTheLaw.org has a Firefox extension that both gives access to public docket records and makes them actually publicly accessible. The courts charge for access to these dockets, including every time you search and for every page of search results. The system is called PACER. RECAP gives you access to PACER (and is PACER spelled backwards). When you use RECAP to view a docket through PACER, RECAP uploads it into the Internet Archive, since the docket info is in the public domain even though the courts charge you for accessing it. The next time someone goes through RECAP to find that docket, she’ll get it for free from the Internet Archive. RECAP also adds helpful headers and other metadata.

RecapTheLaw comes out of the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. Well done!

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July 31, 2009

July 28, 2009

Annals of openness in peril

1. The court has rejected Charlie Nesson’s basic defense of Joel Tenenbaum’s sharing of music files. The case is going to jury which may levy the same sort of insanely excessive fines as in the Jammie Thomas-Rassert trial. I hope Charlie’s team can convince the jury that the fines and the entire process are so onerous and disproportionate that the RIAA has been abusing the court system. Of course, IANAL, and IANAOTJ (I am not on the jury).


2. Barnes and Noble has launched its e-book software. It runs on iPhones as well as on PC’s and Mac’s. I’m having trouble finding which formats it supports, but judging from its Open dialogue, not PDF, .doc, .html, .mobi, or text. It does support .PBD books.

After a very very quick session playing with it, it seems quite competitive with the Kindle, and because I’m running it on my Mac and not on the little piece of crippled hardware I bought from Amazon — the Kindle is just barely adequate as a reader, and is still overpriced by more than 100% in terms of its value, imo — having the use of a keyboard and a mouse is a big step up. And, unlike the Kindle, you can use whatever fonts you have on your machine. Still, it’s only incrementally better than the Kindle’s software (again, on a quick look), not a great leap forward for readers.

One of B&N’s big advantages is that it’s hooked into Google Books, enabling you to download public domain books that Google has scanned in. You do this by searching for a book on the B&N site and noticing the “free from Google Books” label. Be sure to sort by price; otherwise B&N lists the for-pay versions first. If B&N wants to be aggressive in this space (= succeed), it should create an easy-to-find section that lets you browse Google’s free books. Get us using the ereader and then sell us the copyrighted books. (If B&N has such a section, I couldn’t find it quickly enough.)

BTW, I presume (and thus may be wrong) that Google did a special deal with B&N to enable this. If so, I find it worrisome. If Google is going to be granted a special right to scan in books without fear of copyright reprisals, it will be the de facto national e-library, discouraging others from undertaking similarly scaled scanning projects, and thus should be making its public domain books equally and maximally freely available. IMO.

2a. [Later that evening:] B&N stores are now providing free Wifi. Yay!


3. Apple is not permitting the Google telephone service into the Apple App store, thus simultaneously and inadvertently making the case for Zittrainian generativity.


4. [Later that day]: On the happy front, Google has open-sourced an implementation of Wave.

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April 10, 2009

Pam Samuelson on excessive copyright infringement awards

The abstract of a new paper by the pioneering Pam Samuelson and Tara Wheatland:

U.S. copyright law gives successful plaintiffs who promptly registered their works the ability to elect to receive an award of statutory damages, which can be granted in any amount between $750 and $150,000 per infringed work. This provision gives scant guidance about where in that range awards should be made, other than to say that the award should be in amount the court “considers just,” and that the upper end of the spectrum, from $30,000 to $150,000 per infringed work, is reserved for awards against “willful” infringers. Courts have largely failed to develop a jurisprudence to guide decision-making about compensatory statutory damage awards in ordinary infringement cases or about strong deterrent or punitive damage awards in willful infringement cases. As a result, awards of statutory damages are frequently arbitrary, inconsistent, unprincipled, and sometimes grossly excessive.

This Article argues that such awards are not only inconsistent with Congressional intent in establishing the statutory damage regime, but also with principles of due process articulated in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on punitive damage awards. Drawing upon some cases in which statutory damage awards have been consistent with Congressional intent and with the due process jurisprudence, this Article articulates principles upon which a sound jurisprudence for copyright statutory damage awards could be built. Nevertheless, legislative reform of the U.S. statutory damage rules may be desirable.

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