Monday, March 19, 2012

Summit Entertainment Claims To Own The Date November 20, 2009; Issues Takedown On Art Created On That Day

Summit Entertainment Claims To Own The Date November 20, 2009; Issues Takedown On Art Created On That Day

Summit Entertainment Claims To Own The Date November 20, 2009; Issues Takedown On Art Created On That Day

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 12:38 PM PDT

Summit Entertainment, the movie studio behind the Twilight films, is no stranger to ridiculous-to-insane overreaches of intellectual property law. In fact, the studio seems to make a habit out of it. The company has sued Zazzle because some of its users made fan art inspired by Twilight. It's shut down a Twilight fanzine. It's said that only it can make a documentary about the real town where the fictional Twilight story is based. It's sued to stop a fashion designer from factually stating that a character in one of the movies wore its jacket. It shut down a silly 8-bit YouTube game. It issued a takedown on a song that was written years before the Twilight movies. It went after Bath & Bodyworks for daring to to sell a body lotion called Twilight Woods, which had nothing to do with the movies. It aggressively sued a fan and pressed criminal charges for tweeting some behind the scenes photos of a Twilight movie. It also sued the guy who registered back in 1994.

This is a company that thinks that the world revolves around its trademarks, and it appears to have little concern for what the law actually says.

Its latest move is particularly asinine. The company came across the following lovely image created by artist Kelly Howlett and posted to Zazzle, and issued a takedown.
If you're thinking that image has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Twilight, or any other Summit property, you're entirely correct. But it turns out that Summit Entertainment has decided it owns the date 11-20-09 (that's Kelly's Facebook explanation of what happened, found via Bleeding Cool), which was the date the sketch was created, and what it was tagged with. It also happens to be the date that the Twilight movie New Moon was released.

Summit has no legitimate claim here. At all. And yet it took the artwork down anyway, because that's the kind of IP abusers they are.
Zazzle eventually came to its senses and restored the image, and Howlett is offering it on Society 6 as well. If Summit Entertainment had anyone with a soul working for them, they'd buy a few hundred prints to apologize.

Either way, the company has such a long and consistent history of abusing intellectual property law, isn't there a point at which we just say that the company no longer deserves any such power? If you regularly abuse monopoly privileges, shouldn't they be taken away?

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:-( Samsung, Research In Motion Sued For Making It Easy To Use Emoticons

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 11:39 AM PDT

All the way back in 2001, we wrote about how the brilliant satirists at Despair Inc. successfully trademarked :-( and announced that they planned to sue 7 million internet users for violating the trademark. The actual announcement was pretty funny -- even though not everyone got the joke. In 2006, we also had a story that mentioned a whole bunch of patents and patent applications related to emoticons.

It appears that one of those is now being used in a lawsuit against Samsung and RIM for having the gall to create a button that makes it easy to pick an emoticon without typing it in. The patent in question (US Patent 7,167,731) really is for having a button that lets you pick emoticons. How this is possibly patentable is beyond me. But, for some reason, examiner Lee Nguyen thought it was somehow non-obvious. The patent was originally assigned to Wildseed, a mobile accessories firm that AOL bought in 2005. The patent itself then went to Varia Mobil, who moved it to Varia Holdings to Varia and back to Varia Holdings. It's Varia Holdings bringing the lawsuit. Varia appears to just be a trolling operation (of course).

It's fairly stunning that anyone considered this a valid patent at any point. That it's now being used as the basis for a lawsuit should (once again) raise significant questions about the USPTO's approval process for patents.

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A Terrifying Look Into The NSA's Ability To Capture And Analyze Pretty Much Every Communication

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 10:33 AM PDT

You may recall that we've written a few times about the "turf war" between the Department of Homeland Security and the Defense Department's NSA over who gets to run the "cybersecurity" efforts for the country. The NSA has been particularly insistent that all cybersecurity efforts should go through it, and an amazing, detailed and positively frightening article from James Bamford at Wired Magazine, which is ostensibly about the NSA's massive new spy center in Bluffdale, Utah, but is really a rather detailed (and well-sourced) account of just how much spying the NSA is doing on pretty much all communications. The article breaks some news in not just confirming the details of the infamous warrantless wiretapping that started under President Bush and has continued unabated under President Obama, but also explains how the program is more advanced and more expansive than previously thought. Basically, the NSA now collects everything, whether or not the law allows it -- and it's building massively powerful computers to break any encryption that is used on that communication.

In regards to the question of "cybersecurity," one reason why the NSA wants official control over cybersecurity is that's the curtain it tries to hide behind to explain its massive spying operations:
A short time later, [NSA deputy director Chris] Inglis arrived in Bluffdale at the site of the future data center, a flat, unpaved runway on a little-used part of Camp Williams, a National Guard training site. There, in a white tent set up for the occasion, Inglis joined Harvey Davis, the agency’s associate director for installations and logistics, and Utah senator Orrin Hatch, along with a few generals and politicians in a surreal ceremony. Standing in an odd wooden sandbox and holding gold-painted shovels, they made awkward jabs at the sand and thus officially broke ground on what the local media had simply dubbed “the spy center.” Hoping for some details on what was about to be built, reporters turned to one of the invited guests, Lane Beattie of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Did he have any idea of the purpose behind the new facility in his backyard? “Absolutely not,” he said with a self-conscious half laugh. “Nor do I want them spying on me.”

For his part, Inglis simply engaged in a bit of double-talk, emphasizing the least threatening aspect of the center: “It’s a state-of-the-art facility designed to support the intelligence community in its mission to, in turn, enable and protect the nation’s cybersecurity.” While cybersecurity will certainly be among the areas focused on in Bluffdale, what is collected, how it’s collected, and what is done with the material are far more important issues. Battling hackers makes for a nice cover—it’s easy to explain, and who could be against it? Then the reporters turned to Hatch, who proudly described the center as “a great tribute to Utah,” then added, “I can’t tell you a lot about what they’re going to be doing, because it’s highly classified.”

And then there was this anomaly: Although this was supposedly the official ground-breaking for the nation’s largest and most expensive cybersecurity project, no one from the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for protecting civilian networks from cyberattack, spoke from the lectern. In fact, the official who’d originally introduced the data center, at a press conference in Salt Lake City in October 2009, had nothing to do with cybersecurity. It was Glenn A. Gaffney, deputy director of national intelligence for collection, a man who had spent almost his entire career at the CIA. As head of collection for the intelligence community, he managed the country’s human and electronic spies.
The entire article is worth reading, as it details the extent of the NSA's spying, as well as their near total lack of concern for what the law says it's allowed to do. A former NSA official who left the agency soon after all this started notes that the organization "violated the Constitution setting it up," and that "they didn't care. They were going to do it anyway and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way." This same officials notes multiple ways that the NSA could have set up programs that only focused on specific "targets" or those close to the targets, to stay within the framework of the law. He even suggested these to people at the NSA and elsewhere in the federal government and was completely brushed off. The temptation to collect everything is apparently just too powerful.

As the article notes, even if such an effort may be useful in getting information on those who wish to do us harm, the threat of it being massively abused is incredibly high:
But there is, of course, reason for anyone to be distressed about the practice. Once the door is open for the government to spy on US citizens, there are often great temptations to abuse that power for political purposes, as when Richard Nixon eavesdropped on his political enemies during Watergate and ordered the NSA to spy on antiwar protesters. Those and other abuses prompted Congress to enact prohibitions in the mid-1970s against domestic spying.
But it appears that things have gone very much in the other direction now, with the NSA having much more ability to spy on people today than in the past. And even the idea of strong encryption may only be a temporary way of keeping the NSA from knowing everything you've communicated. Bamford details the NSA's classified effort to build superfast supercomputers that can help in breaking even the strongest encryption being used today. It's not quite there yet, from the sound of things, but it also appears they're advancing faster than most people predicted.

The whole article is worth a read, but it's a frightening reminder of the amount of power the federal government has today and its ability to abuse it.

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Indian Court Orders 104 Sites Censored Based On The Say So Of The Indian Music Industry

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 09:32 AM PDT

Torrentfreak notes the interesting timing on this one. Just as MPAA boss Chris Dodd was in India talking up the importance of stricter copyright laws (like SOPA), an Indian court ordered a SOPA-like block of 104 sites that were declared as "dedicated to infringement" by the Indian Music Industry (IMI). What's interesting is that as you look down the list of blocked sites, they include many that appear to focus on movies, not music -- so it's not clear why IMI gets to decide what's infringing and what's not.

Reading some of the details, it's pretty clear that the sites in question were not given a chance to present their side in court. In fact, it appears that even the IMI bosses admit that they haven't yet proved that all of those sites are infringing:
Taking the sites to court is not humanly feasible: when we went after one site, we got the impression that the owner was in the US, based out of the Bahamas, and it was very difficult to get him to respond. Our person has to pose as an advertiser before the owner came on an email, and we eventually found that it was a young kid in Rajkot, and the entire process took six months. Going after 104 sites – can you imagine the effort, the time and the money spent in chasing this? The better route is to establish comprehensively that each ofthese 104 sites is pirating content, and we’re doing that – as a body and not a company – and it’s easier to interact with the ISP now.
In other words, shoot first, deal with the fallout of incorrect censorship later.

Not surprisingly, the head of the IFPI (the international RIAA) cheered on this result:
“This decision is a victory for the rule of law online and a blow to those illegal businesses that want to build revenues by violating the rights of others,” said IFPI CEO Frances Moore in a statement.

But in a clear signal that for the music and movie industries even the toughest of anti-piracy measures are never enough, Moore says that current developments are a good start.

“The court ruled that blocking is a proportionate and effective way to tackle website piracy,” Moore noted, adding that the Indian government should now “build on this progress” by advancing further legislation to tackle digital piracy.
The situation here seems extreme and disproportionate. Not only have the serious problems with DNS and IP blocking been described concerning internet security, but it's pretty clear that efforts like this don't work. There are already reports of sites from the list reappearing under different domain names, and all the court order is doing is spreading the game of whac-a-mole. Amusingly, the same Indian music exec who made the claim above about how it's impossible to actually track down these sites, later (in the same interview) admits he doesn't want to shut down these sites, because they have a "passion for music" and he'd like to work out deals with them. Of course, getting a court order to block access to their existing sites is a funny way to say "hey, I'd like to work with you."

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Judge Chooses Pi Day To Reject Lawsuit Over Attempt To Copyright Pi As A Song

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 08:25 AM PDT

Last year, we wrote about a dispute between two guys who had both recorded songs based on the number pi. A guy named Lars Erickson had recorded The Pi Symphony back in 1992 and registered a copyright on the output. It was based on assigning notes to the numbers 0 to 9, then playing them according to the sequence of pi. On March 14th, 2011 -- also known as Pi Day, since the 3/14 date matches the 3.14 beginning of pi -- musician Michael Blake came up with a similar idea. According to NPR's report on the song:
He decided the song would be in C, then assigned each note a number: C=1, D=2 and so on up through 9. Using those assignments, he played the sequence of pi: 3.14159 through 31 decimal places. He assigned numbers to chords, too, but could only play the chords every other note and still make it sound vaguely musical.

Finally, he used pi as the basis for the tempo — it's 157 beats per minute, which is half of 314. He played this part on several instruments, as you can see in the video above, and layered them to make a song. The result isn't exactly catchy, but it's certainly melodic.
Apparently Erickson got upset about this -- though he admits he was mainly upset that his own comments on the YouTube video of Blake's song were deleted. So he filed a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement.

Blake successfully had the lawsuit transferred from Nebraska to Portland, Oregon, and has now succeeded in having the case dismissed, with the ruling itself issued on March 14 -- Pi Day once again. The ruling is embedded below, and it's a worthwhile read, highlighting the limitations of copyright. It actually goes into a fairly detailed description of the separation between ideas and expression, as well as questions about "substantial similarity." The conclusion:
The primary similarity between Pi Symphony and "What Pi Sounds Like" is the musical pattern formed by transposing the digits of pi to a set of musical notes. That pattern is not protected by Mr. Erickson’s copyright for Pi Symphony. Pi is a non-copyrightable fact, and the transcription of pi to music is a non-copyrightable idea. The resulting pattern of notes is an expression that merges with the non-copyrightable idea of putting pi to music: assigning digits to musical notes and playing those notes in the sequence of pi is an idea that can only be expressed in a finite number of ways. This does not mean that Mr. Erickson’s copyright is invalid, only that Mr. Erickson may not use his copyright to stop others from employing this particular pattern of musical notes.

What may be protected by copyright is the combination of that pattern with other musical elements: the choice of scale, rhythm, harmony, and embellishments or variation, for example.... Pi Symphony and "What Pi Sounds Like" employ different rhythms, different phrasing, different harmonies, and different tempos. The court does not agree with Mr. Erickson that the melodies of Pi Symphony and "What Pi Sounds Like" are sufficiently similar in their cadence or tempo to raise a question of substantial similarity. If there are additional similarities that relate to protectable elements of Mr. Erickson’s musical work, those similarities are minor and scattered throughout the work. For one work to be substantially similar to another, more than incidental and occasional similarities are required....

Thus, after the similarities based on unprotected elements of Pi Symphony are set aside, very few--if any--similarities remain. Mr. Erickson’s copyright is therefore “thin” and protects his work only from virtually identical copying...
The court also dismisses Erickson's claim of "unfair competition," noting that what appeared to be straight up jealousy is no reason for a legal claim:
Copyright protects against the copying of original elements of an author’s work. It does not protect the copyright holder's goodwill, market status, or artistic success. It does not even protect the author's hard work in being the first to create a compilation of information otherwise available in the public domain. See Feist, 499 U.S. at 359-360 (rejecting the “sweat of the brow” theory of copyright protection). These limitations derive from the constitutional basis of copyright, which is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” U.S. Const. art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 8. Copyright is thus intended to protect the original work of authors without granting monopolies over facts or ideas that would hinder further progress.... Given statutory law, the Constitution, and Supreme Court precedent, Mr. Erickson cannot use his copyright to stop Mr. Blake from employing the same idea—the transcription of the digits of pi to musical notes.
Nice to see the court lay out the reasoning so clearly. It's unclear if the court recognized the symbolic nature of issuing the ruling on Pi Day, but either way, it was a nice move.

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Senators Tell The Obama Administration To Reveal Its Secret Interpretation Of The Patriot Act

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 07:06 AM PDT

Over the last year or so, we've been covering Senator Ron Wyden's efforts to get Obama administration officials to come public with their secret interpretation of the Patriot Act. Wyden, of course, cannot say how they're interpreting the Patriot Act, though there have been clues, suggesting an extremely broad interpretation, that effectively allows them to spy on Americans, in direct contrast to the way most people (including many in Congress) believe the law allows. In the past, intelligence officials have basically said that they will not reveal how they interpret the Patriot Act because they don't want to, and doing so might reveal some of the details of how they spy on people.

Of course, keeping certain details secret concerning specific operations to monitor threats is reasonable. But a secret interpretation of the law that appears to go against what the law says directly? That's not acceptable. If the government can just make up how it interprets laws, and then keep those interpretations secret, we no longer have representative democracy at all. We have a sham government.

Given all of this, the NY Times and the ACLU sued the government for failing to reveal its interpretation of the law under a Freedom of Information Act. The administration is now seeking to get the two lawsuits dismissed... leading Senators Wyden and Udall to send a rather direct and forceful letter to Attorney General Holder questioning this move. I'll include a bunch of snippets below, but one key bit in this letter, which I believe is new, is the acknowledgement that further information that Wyden and Udall have come across suggest that the secret surveillance operation that makes use of this secret interpretation of the law is not even effective:
We would also note that in recent months we have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the "intelligence collection operation" discussed in the Justice Department's recent court filing regarding the pending lawsuits. This has come as a surprise to us, as we were initially inclined to take the executive branch's assertions about the importance of this "operation" at face value. We will provide more detail about this skepticism in classified correspondence.
That's a pretty pointed claim, and certainly makes clear another reason why the administration is fighting so hard against revealing the secret interpretation. They know that once people find out just how widely they're tracking people under this bogus interpretation of the law, that not only will people be upset about it, but that the administration won't even be able to prove that such efforts did anything to prevent terrorism in the country.

On to some other key parts of the letter:
It is a matter of public record that section 215, which is a public statute, has been the subject of secret legal interpretations. The existences of these interpretations, which are contained in classified opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or "FISA Court") has been acknowledged on multiple occasions by the Justice Department and other executive branch officials.

We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows. This is a problem, because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn't know what its government thinks the law says.
That seems like quite an understatement. It really makes you wonder what country we live in today. I'm fine with the government keeping certain things secret -- but one thing that it should never keep secret is the law itself. That's not a democracy any more at all, a point made in the letter as well:
In a democratic society -- in which the government derives its power from the consent of the people -- citizens rightly expect that their government will not arbitrarily keep information from them. Americans expect their government to operate within the boundaries of publicly-understood law, and as voters they have a need and a right to now how the law is being interpreted, so that they can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf. To put it another way, Americans know that their government will sometimes conduct secret operations, but they don't think that government officials should be writing secret laws.
Later, the letter notes that the administration certainly has been willing to reveal this secret interpretation to some members of Congress (such as the two of them), but it appears that even many members of Congress have no idea how the administration is interpreting the law:
While the executive branch has worked hard to keep the government's official interpretation of the Patriot Act secret from the American public it has, to its credit, provided this information in documents submitted to Congress. However, these documents are so highly classified that most members of Congress do not have any staff who are cleared to read them. As a result, we can say with confidence that most of our colleagues in the House and senate are unfamiliar with these documents, and that many of them would be surprised and angry to learn how the Patriot Act has been interpreted in secret.
Wyden and Udall are equally troubled by the insistence by the administration that it needs to keep its interpretation of these laws secret to prevent adversaries from understanding what's being done. They point out that this is "chilling logic" as it could mean that the government could basically create all sorts of secret intelligence laws:
The crux of the Justice Department's argument for keeping the official interpretation of the law secret is that this secrecy prevents US adversaries from understanding exactly what intelligence agencies are allowed to do. We can see how it might be tempting to latch on to this chilling logic, but we would note that it would then follow that all of America's surveillance laws should be secret, because that would make it even harder to guess how the United States government collects information. For example, when Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance ct in 1978 it would have been useful to keep that law secret from the KGB, so that Soviet agents would not know how the FBI was allowed to track them. But American laws should not be made public only when government officials find it convenient. They should be public all the time, and every American should be able to find out what their government thinks those laws mean.
There's a lot more in the full letter, but it's difficult not to be furious about the sense of entitlement the administration has over this. Keeping details of investigations secret is perfectly reasonable. But keeping a secret interpretation of the law secret -- and one that lets them do much greater surveillance than what the law appears to state in plain language, is a significant problem for those who believe in a working democracy and representative government.

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Procedural Error By Law Enforcement Means Restraining Order On Kim Dotcom 'Null And Void'

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 05:34 AM PDT

We've already seen that the claims made by law enforcement in the indictment against Megaupload has raised significant legal questions, as they seemed to assume all sorts of things not necessarily factually-based. Part of that overreach resulted in a New Zealand judge granting Kim Dotcom bail despite US authorities insisting that the court keep him locked up. Now things are getting even worse, as a court has declared the restraining order issued in the case as "null and void" and having "no legal effect" after law enforcement admitted to making a significant series of procedural errors. The end result may mean that everything seized from Dotcom -- including his money, cars and other goods... may need to be returned.

The police apparently realized this and tried to apply for the proper restraining order after the fact, explaining to the judge that they had made five specific errors in the initial application. The judge is now figuring out what to do and whether or not this means that the government needs to return Dotcom's property. Of course, there's a good chance that the judge will allow the government to continue to hold the property and admit merely that "mistakes were made" and that they've now been corrected. However, given how many mistakes we've already seen in this case -- and the apparent carelessness with which so much of it happened -- it leads you to wonder how many other "errors" or shortcuts law enforcement in both New Zealand and the US took in bringing this case forward.

It's no secret that Dotcom's larger-than-life persona has been an easy target in the attacks on Megaupload, but it's beginning to appear that law enforcement assumed that just because the guy is an obnoxious show-off with a criminal past that it didn't need to actually follow all the rules in bringing a case against him this time. That's not how the judicial system is supposed to work.

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FAA Admits That It's Going To Rethink Whether You Can Use Kindles & Tablets On Takeoff & Landing

Posted: 19 Mar 2012 03:33 AM PDT

It's been pretty clear for quite some time that there's no real safety reason why electronics are barred during takeoff and landing on airplanes. Furthermore, there's no legitimate technological reason for not allowing mobile phones on planes either -- that one's more just about keeping other passengers from going into a rage at having to hear others' half-conversations. However, it seems that more and more people are getting annoyed that they can't use their snazzy new ebooks or tablet computers (not just iPads, mind you) on airplane take-off and landings. Nick Bilton, over at the NY Times, asked the FAA what was up with that, and they admitted that they're taking "a fresh look" at those devices and whether or not they should be allowed to be used at those times. Of course, as he notes, this might just lead to a bunch of bureaucratic red tape -- including every possible device having to go through significant testing:
Abby Lunardini, vice president of corporate communications at Virgin America, explained that the current guidelines require that an airline must test each version of a single device before it can be approved by the F.A.A. For example, if the airline wanted to get approval for the iPad, it would have to test the first iPad, iPad 2 and the new iPad, each on a separate flight, with no passengers on the plane.

It would have to do the same for every version of the Kindle. It would have to do it for every different model of plane in its fleet. And American, JetBlue, United, Air Wisconsin, etc., would have to do the same thing. (No wonder the F.A.A. is keeping smartphones off the table since there are easily several hundred different models on the market.)

Ms. Lunardini added that Virgin America would like to perform these tests, but the current guidelines make it “prohibitively expensive, especially for an airline with a relatively small fleet that is always in the air on commercial flights like ours.”
But, hopefully, a better, more efficient process can be found, and people will actually be able to use these devices on airplanes that aren't just over 10,000 feet...

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