I recently attended a presentation by retired judge Jacqueline Connor on the effect of social media in the legal system. After listening to her talk about a number of highly amusing cases, I went online to see just how many such cases are now out there. I was shocked to find that in the month of February 2014 alone, there were over 100 legal opinions issued in the U.S. just involving Facebook. While some of these cases were more disturbing than amusing, there were a few gems that cried out to be written about.
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Free-to-play games are all the rage these days.  Many people while away their days playing Angry Birds, or Words with Friends before going home to watch Monday Night Football.  Nerds — and, increasingly, “normal people” — do the exact same thing, except instead of watching football, we play games like Super Monday Night Combat.  This teemosummer, the remarkable viability of the free-to-play business model gained extra attention when Forbes reported that the most-played PC game in the world is now a free-to-play game called League of Legends.  For those of you struggling to understand the profitability part, just take a look at League of Legends character Teemo (pictured left).  I mean, seriously, who can resist purchasing all the adorable “skins” for him?!  (Clearly, not me.)

Nevertheless, the business world of free-to-play gaming is not without its dark, seedy underbelly, where even the cute and cuddly characters are forced to work in digital sweatshops and sell virtual drugs on simulated street corners just to make ends meet.  Well, ok, maybe it’s not thatextreme.  But as a recent (and bitter) dispute between game makers Zynga and Kixeye demonstrates, the gaming business can be just as ugly (and fascinating) as some of the game battles themselves.


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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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Time to panic?  The Internet is about to change dramatically.

Ever since Al Gore invented the Internet (or so I’ve heard), users have relied on a limited number of top-level domains, or “TLDs.”  A top-level domain is the end portion of a web address — e.g., .com, .net, .org, .biz, .gov, or, everybody’s newest, favorite, and most scandalous TLD, .xxx.  Last year, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”) — a non-profit corporation/venue for nerds to rule the world that manages most TLDs, IP addresses, and basically anything that involves the interwebs — approved the creation of new TLDs called generic top-level domains, or “gTLDs”.  In announcing that move, ICANN cited the need to increase competition and choice in the world wide web (because we know that there certainly isn’t enough competition and choice in the entire Internet).  Any legal entity may apply to create and manage a gTLD.  And that’s why, as people are finally starting to realize, things might start getting a little crazy(er) on the Internet.


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It appears I’ve found a blogging niche:  the seedy, salacious, saucy legal topics everyone is too scared (or maybe smart) to write about.  (And this topic doubles as a nice relief from the usual “holiday shopper gets mauled in battle over the last available Let’s Rock Elmo“ headlines.)  Colleges, universities and businesses spent this holiday season shopping for a special kind of XXXmas gift — the gift of a good name.

On December 6, 2011, the new domain extension .xxx was gobbled up by the most unusual suspects, with more than 55,000 new names registered within the first 24 hours.  The .xxx top level domain (TLD) was designed — prepare to be shocked here — exclusively for adult entertainment content.  But ICM Registry, which is operating the new TLD, also opened up registrations to other organizations looking to protect their trademarks from scandalous misuse — or from those nefarious “cybersquatters” who might be looking for a buck NOT to put the domains to no good (like the brilliant entrepreneur who, in the wonder years of the Internet, operated WhiteHouse.com as a porn site (the real website is WhiteHouse.gov).

In other words, the Internet’s new red light district is open for business to those who were naughty OR nice this Christmas.  But are the nice kids who come to the new .xxx marketplace late going to be at the mercy of the fast movers on the naughty list?


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Our Law Law Land readers have been well-educated on the law of defamation as it relates to Twitter, and on the opinion of one of our bloggers that “Twitter sucks.” (I used to agree, and even though I’m coming around to Twitter slowly, I must say I still prefer Facebook as my time-vacuum, overshare medium of choice.) So when you all read about Kansas high schooler Emma Sullivan tweeting about Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,” you knew she wouldn’t be liable for defamation because she was expressing an opinion, not making a statement of fact.

Maybe Governor Brownback’s staff should read our site a little more often too. The fact that Sullivan’s tweet didn’t meet the test for defamation didn’t stop them from notifying Emma Sullivan’s school principal about her tweet (sent to her legion of 60 followers!). In turn, the principal notified Sullivan that she needed to write an apology to the governor by Monday, November 28. On Monday, the Shawnee Mission School District issued a statement that Emma Sullivan did not need to write an apology to the governor but saying this issue presented “many teachable moments” about the use of social media. Sullivan, for her part, came forward — with, what else, a tweet — to state for the record that she would not apologize to the governor (“I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong”). Then an apology on Facebook ended up coming from the governor himself, who evidently decided not to run for reelection on his staff’s “silence the teenagers” platform when he declared, “My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”

Meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, people’s reactions have ranged from celebration of Emma Sullivan’s exercise of her free speech rights, to criticism of the Big Brother-esque nature of Brownback’s staff’s vigilance of his name in social media, to the sentiment that Sullivan was being rude, to agreement that Brownback “does suck.” (Oh, to go back to those innocent days where you believed your online postings were “private!”) So, given that she is a student, what limits are there on Sullivan’s speech?
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Yelp.com describes itself as “the fun and easy way to find and talk about great (and not so great) local businesses.” It proclaims that “[a]s of August 2011, more than 63 million people visited Yelp within the past 30 days.” Its tagline: “Real people. Real reviews.®”

I view Yelp.com as one of the many unnecessary, “Web 2.0” websites I will never use that litters the information superhighway like marine snow in the deep ocean. My wife views it as a source of idle entertainment, where she can enjoy reviews that palaver about Jersey Shore-like drama, before even getting to whether a particular restaurant had good food or not. But some businesses have complained, and even filed lawsuits against Yelp,

alleging that Yelp salespeople represent to businesses that Yelp has the power to manipulate Yelp.com business listing pages, and that Yelp will wield that power in favor of the business if it becomes a “Yelp Sponsor” and against the business if it declines to do so.

In other words, some businesses claim that Yelp is the like the internet mafia, asking business owners for protection money to make those bad reviews sleep with the fishes. Is it true?
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It’s not even news anymore to report that yesterday, the world lost a visionary and a true inspiration — Steve Jobs. Personally, I was devastated by the news. Although I didn’t know Steve Jobs personally, I nevertheless feel a sense of personal loss now that he has passed. Why am I so saddened by the death of someone I never knew?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been an Apple guy ever since I played my first computer game on my neighbor’s Apple IIe. I bought my first Macintosh computer in 1987 (a Mac Plus with a single floppy drive and no hard drive). Even through the dark years after the company stupidly fired its heart, soul and creative genius, I was still an Apple guy and tried to convince everyone else that Macs were the best computers around. Back then, people thought I was crazy (not one of the good “Crazy Ones” Apple highlighted in this classic ad to revive the company in the late 90s, just a real crazy one). Thanks to Steve Jobs, nobody calls me crazy anymore — well, at least not because of my love of Apple products.

But I’m clearly not alone in feeling that sense of personal loss. The Internet is already rife with comparisons of Steve Jobs’ loss to the deaths of rock stars like John Lennon and Elvis. Why? Maybe it’s because Steve Jobs is largely responsible for changing so much about how we live our lives.
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The problem you have as a lawyer is that you start to see the “law” in everything you do, including those things you do for fun.

I backpack. And I am just a tad overweight, which I means I have a few extra pounds to lug around the woods for 10 miles at a time. While a more sensible man might look to simply lose those extra pounds, however, I have opted instead to eat more cookies and look to lower the weight of my pack.

The easiest way to lower pack weight is to lower the weight of one or all of the “big three” — the pack itself, the sleeping bag or the tent. So, before every trip, I spend hours and hours researching the latest in ultra lightweight gear, focusing most intensely on these three categories of backpacking equipment. This would seemingly have nothing at all to do with the law.

But then, enter the tents.
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I don’t like Twitter. There, I said it. I know, I know, it’s so revolutionary, it’s bridging social gaps, it’s God’s gift to the information age, blah blah blah. That’s all well and good, but as far as I’m concerned it’s just an outlet for self-righteous blather. As if the whole world needs to sit up and hear about what YOU think about foreign policy or what YOUR opinion is about the new Britney Spears album. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it, but don’t be surprised if I don’t, because I probably don’t care.

Not only are most tweets nothing but pompous drivel, they are boring. Boring and utterly pointless. Take this random tweet I just found, after about one second of looking, for your reading pleasure: “Going to have a normal day today. A little cleaning, kids are playing outside, and maybe the park. Nothing too ambitious. I think we all need it.” Awesome.

Now, you probably think I’m a bitter cynic. You probably don’t like me. That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it (but please, in the name of all that is holy, don’t tweet about it). And at this point, maybe your natural inclination is to say, “OK, James, but what makes you so special that I, dear reader, should care about you? After all, isn’t this whole article just a big long diatribe about your personal opinion?” Well, maybe a little. But it’s my article, so deal with it. Besides, it’s supposed to be ironic, so it’s funny, like a joke. More importantly, there’s a very real legal issue brewing beneath the surface here.

Lately, there has been a rash of defamation lawsuits based on allegedly defamatory tweets. This is not surprising given Twitter’s meteoric rise in popularity. For a recent example, look no further than the lawsuit just brought by Notifi Records CEO, Ira DeWitt, against former New Edition singer Johnny Gill for alleged defamation on Twitter. The singer is alleged to have attacked the reputation of DeWitt and her company by tweeting that she was “deranged” and “f**king nuts,” that Notifi was a fake company, and that she had a “hard on” for the producer of an unreleased Gill single.

There is no doubt that Mr. Gill’s alleged tweets aren’t very nice. But are they actionable as defamation? Probably not.
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