DMCA

What do Avril Lavigne cover songs, Dish Network’s AutoHop feature, celebrity sex tapes, apartment hunting websites, and ad-serving browser skinning programs have in common?

Each of them is a window into how copyright, an 18th century concept, drafted into a 20th century law, impacts the products we use and the way we experience life in a 21st century world.

The Simplest, Most Complicated Law You Know

Non-lawyers usually think of copyright as a pretty simple and intuitive area of the law, and in many ways, it’s one of the easiest areas to break down into easy, digestible (if somewhat oversimplified) terms.  What’s a copyright?  The exclusive right to control and exploit creative works.  How do you infringe a copyright?  Copy or perform a work without permission/payment, or steal it to create your own new, too-similar work.  Putting aside people’s chronic tendency to confuse copyrights and trademarks — helpful hint:  copyrights are for creative works, trademarks are for brand name, logos, and slogans — copyright is an area of law that, at least initially, the general public can intuitively “get.”

Of course, when the breakneck speed of technological development meets the languorous pace of national lawmaking, things can get a bit more complicated. For example, when the copyright infringement case against file-sharing service Grokster finally came before the Supreme Court in 2005, the Court’s nine justices required three separate opinions and the invention of an entire new theory of copyright liability to explain why Grokster was illegal, but other, less offensive services might not be illegal.  (Headline:  “Supreme Court Rules ‘Unanimously’ Against Grokster 3-3-3.”)

To be fair, though, things started getting wacky long before the Internet was invented.  For instance, most people know that any musician can cover any other musician’s song, without permission (for a small, statutorily-defined fee).  Why?  Because in 1909, Congress created a special “compulsory license” scheme to allow player piano roll makers to sell song rolls without having to separately seek permission from the original songwriters.  Somewhere along the way, some clever lawyer figured out the law was drafted broadly enough to allow for unauthorized cover songs, and now we all have to deal with Avril Lavigne defiling John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the name of Darfur relief.  (Miley Cyrus’s evisceration of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Celine Dion’s desecration of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” were, to my knowledge, only ever performed live, and so we have adifferent quirk of copyright law — the proliferation of blanket “public performance” licenses  managed by performing rights organizations ASCAP and BMI — to blame for those abominations.)


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I’ve always been a fan of spotlighting important legal issues that seem to fall between the cracks. So if net neutrality is “the most important public policy you’ve probably never heard of,” and if last year’s documentary filmmaking allowance was the most important DMCA exception nobody seemed to notice, then the Ninth Circuit’s February 17, 2011 decision in MDY Industries v. Blizzard Entertainment is the most important denial of a motion for rehearing that no one is talking about — especially if, like me, you love video games, justice, and legalese-laden 48-page opinions that read kind of like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The Lawsuit

Admittedly, the premise of this case is pretty ridiculous. But beneath that ridiculous premise, and the pages upon pages of legal minutia, is a pretty important and interesting legal issue that has real influence on your everyday life.

MDY Industries centers on a “bot” (short for robot) program called “Glider.” Using the Glider software allows World of Warcraft gamers to put a WoW character on autopilot, thereby avoiding the laborious chore of “leveling” the character and acquiring weapons and gold. In other words, Glider allows WoW gamers to skip the nascent stages of character development and proceed straight to the joy of being powerful and wealthy — something many WoW gamers will never actually experience in real life. Conceptually, using Glider is similar to “gold farming” — i.e., paying someone in a developing country to acquire virtual money for you. (It would be fascinating to know what effect Glider has had on the hundreds of thousands of gold farmers in the developing world.)

The legal fight began more than four years ago, when MDY preemptively sued Blizzard for a declaration of its rights after Blizzard’s counsel visited MDY founder Michael Donnelly at home in October 2006, “threatening suit unless MDY immediately ceased selling Glider and remitted all profits to Blizzard.” Naturally, Blizzard had been very unhappy about Glider and (among other things) the effect Glider was having on WoW’s virtual economy.

From Donnelly’s perspective, his company made $3.5 million by selling a legitimate aftermarket product that made WoW more enjoyable for many gamers. From Blizzard’s perspective, it not only had to spend money dealing with “bot” complaints from its users, but it also lost substantial revenues from gamers who otherwise would have spent many more billable-months in their quests to obtain virtual fame and fortune (e.g., instead of subscribing to WoW for one year, a player might only subscribe to WoW for 6 months, since the player could achieve more in less time).
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You may not know it to look at me, but I have a very macabre sense of humor. I adore the books of Edward Gorey and, in particular, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, a spot-on and (for those who are into tragic juvenile demise) hilarious parody of children’s ABC books in which each of the rhyming couplets recounts various unusual ways in which children have met ghastly fates: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh…” (Not that I’m ever bored at work, but I’ve had a photocopy of “N” posted on my computer for years: “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville who died of ennui.”)

I’m also a huge fan of Shockheaded Peter, a nightmarish and (again, for those who love young children meeting ironic fates…should my own daughter be concerned by this?) hilarious spectacle/stage production based on a 19th Century German book of children’s cautionary tales by Heinrich Hoffman, in which rude and naughty children all meet gruesome, yet well-deserved ends. Take, for example, “Fidgety Phil,” the tale of a boy who refuses to sit still at the dinner table and is impaled by cutlery when he pulls off the tablecloth at dinnertime. Or “Snip Snip,” in which an incessantly thumb-sucking boy bleeds to death after an evil tailor cuts off his thumbs (his mother reacts simply by saying toldya so!). The last line of virtually every song concludes with the matter-of fact sentiment: “And he was DEAD.” “And she DIED.” The end. You can imagine what happens in “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches”…

Well, remember the Troubling Tale of the Two-Steppin’ Toddler? No, it isn’t in the Second Act of Shockheaded Peter, but it certainly qualifies as a Litigation Cautionary Tale in my book.

This Dreadful Story — or, as it is more commonly known in legal circles, the Lenz v .Universal case — began with a dancing baby. We’ve covered this ground before, but let’s review the highlights:
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“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

These words will be heard many times today as we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They are, of course, from King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. But as you celebrate his life and listen to his words, ask yourself this question: have you ever heard the whole speech? Not just the key excerpts that will be repeatedly broadcast today on the news, but the entire, seventeen-minute address as it was given to a crowd of 200,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial?

Ever wonder why it’s not shown on TV more often?

The answer, my friends, is copyright. Because while Dr. King may have dreamed of a world without racism, even he wouldn’t dare to dream of a world without lawsuits.

Yes, in addition to being a noted clergyman and civil rights leader, Dr. King was a copyright litigant.
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There’s been a new development in the Troubling Tale of the Two-Steppin’ Toddler — or, as it is more commonly known in legal circles, the Lenz v .Universal case. Our regular readers are familiar with the facts: back in 2007, loving mom Stephanie Lenz posted a 29-second YouTube clip of her adorable tot dancing, with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blaring in the background (I actually think he’s just running around the kitchen pushing a Fisher Price walker, but I’m no Carrie Ann Inaba). A few months later, Universal Music had the video removed, claiming copyright infringement. Lenz fought back (Hell hath no fury like a mother scorned), claiming fair use of the copyright, and filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California for misrepresentation of a DMCA claim. Since then, Mega-Mom has scored several victories, surviving a motion to dismiss in 2008 and knocking out certain of Universal’s affirmative defenses earlier this year.
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I thought I was breaking the law. Okay, it was breaking the law in the dorkiest way possible, but still, breaking the law is always kind of cool (wait, I’m a lawyer — am I allowed to say that?). After hours of research, I put my brand new first generation iPhone into the hands of some rogue programming genius with a vitamin D deficiency. The plan was to jailbreak and unlock my iPhone. In simple terms, jailbreaking allows you to modify the iPhone operating system in ways that Apple doesn’t allow. At the time, the App Store was just a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye; jailbreaking would enable me to download games and other apps iPhone owners now take for granted. But I was more interested in unlocking the iPhone, which would allow me to run the phone on T-Mobile instead of AT&T (and avoid AT&T’s ungodly rates). Somehow I wasn’t deterred by the dozens of horror stories online about failed jailbreaking attempts, stories about “bricked” iPhones that never worked again. I certainly wasn’t going to drop another $400 on a new iPhone, so I knew I only had one shot at breaking out of jail. I downloaded the program and, like magic, I was playing Super Mario Bros. 3 in a matter of minutes — never a doubt.
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The entertainment industry can be a legal minefield. And while the legal issues that face documentary filmmakers may not be unique, documentarians — who typically work on shoestring budgets, rely heavily on preexisting copyrighted materials, and often say things that moneyed and powerful interests don’t want to hear — are uniquely vulnerable. With that in mind, here’s a “top 5” list of legal issues that you, our favorite documentary filmmaker (yes, you, silly), should know about when planning, making, and selling your film.
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I love old family movies. You know, those frenetic-yet-nostalgic, motion-sickness-inducing Super 8 films from your childhood? (Believe you me, the cinéma vérité, shaky-cam directors who are currently in vogue have nothing on my dad…) Now that my family’s home movie library has been converted to DVD, there are endless opportunities to force my husband to watch me and my mom ride a camel at “Jungle Habitat” (can I get a shout-out from those of you who grew up in the NY/New Jersey area in the mid-1970’s?) or the fourth of July picnic where the sparkler burned my hand, or — one of my personal favorites — my five year-old self singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and dancing the Charleston in the first grade holiday play (trust me, its cuter than it sounds).

And so it was with great anticipation that I prepared our video camera for my seven year-old’s musical theater debut in her summer camp’s production of Grease: The G-Rated Version (no swearing, no teen pregnancy, no smoking, no men rubbing cellophane on their crotches…)

But then we got the letter.
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Documentary filmmaking is an intellectual property minefield. The entire undertaking is imperiled by the potential for copyright and trademark infringement. Then there are numerous state law pitfalls such as violating someone’s right of publicity or invading someone’s privacy.

And until recently, documentarians could also run afoul of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for circumventing the digital locks on DVDs that prevent copying in order to access and incorporate high-quality film clips into their documentaries.

Last week, the Copyright Office made headlines by expressly legalizing the jailbreaking of iPhones. But over the excitement generated by 1337 hax0rs and tech geeks everywhere, you may not have heard the quiet sigh of relief emanating from documentary filmmakers everywhere, as the Copyright Office also finally granted a DMCA exception for documentary filmmaking. (Other sounds that may have resulted from the Copyright Office’s ruling: tittering giggles over the fact that one of the new regulations applies to something called a dongle.)
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