Intellectual Property

Cornell cracks European GPS DRM

Galileo is the EU’s first global navigation system, and unlike the US GPS system is partially funded by private investors. Part of their business model is to sell their data, so they’ve added noise to the signal using a pseudo-random number sequence, with the intention of selling the “offsets” to licensed manufacturers of GPS receivers. Now researchers at Cornell have decoded that sequence, using statistical analysis of the signal. From the Cornell press release:

Afraid that cracking the code might have been copyright infringement, Psiaki’s group consulted with Cornell’s university counsel. “We were told that cracking the encryption of creative content, like music or a movie, is illegal, but the encryption used by a navigation signal is fair game,” said Psiaki. The upshot: The Europeans cannot copyright basic data about the physical world, even if the data are coming from a satellite that they built.

The moral of the story: just because people benefit from your work doesn’t mean they’ve agreed to pay you, and business plans don’t carry the force of law.

(Thanks to Lenny for the link!)

How do you attribute someone who doesn’t give his name?

A few weeks ago a coworker came to me with a conundrum: he was writing an academic paper and needed a picture of a certain kind of cloud to illustrate a point he was making. He used the Creative Commons search engine and found an image on Flickr.com that both fit his needs and was released under a license that only required that he give attribution to the photographer. Only one problem: the photographer’s Flickr page didn’t list his real name or contact info anywhere. Just a handle… “Cyberdude,” or something like that.

If he was just using this photo to illustrate a blog entry, my coworker would probably have just said “Photo curtsey of Cyberdude” and with a link to this guy’s Flickr page, but there was no way he was going to say that in a professional academic paper. He could have created a Flickr account and left a comment asking for permission and the photographer’s real name, but that’s the kind of effort to gain permission that Creative Commons licenses were specifically designed to avoid. No doubt the photographer didn’t list any contact info to avoid spammers or stalkers, but that need conflicts with the needs specified by his license. A Catch-22.

Could the music industry actually be getting a clue?

Honestly, I never expected something this sensible (albeit obvious) to come out of a Big Music executive’s mouth:

“If we can convert 5, 10, 15 per cent of the peer-to-peer users that have been obtaining our product from illegitimate sources to becoming legitimate buyers of our product, that has the potential of a huge impact on our industry and our economics,” Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, said.

Context: Warner Brothers has inked a deal with BitTorrent to help them sell online movie downloads. It sounds like they still want to charge monopolistic prices (’cause hey — they’re a government-protected monopoly) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they include DRM that forces paying customers to enjoy their viewing experience while locked in a small cupboard and peering through a keyhole, but it’s a start!

What rights?

Guest-blogging for Larry Lessig, Tim Wu asks why movie studios pay for the rights to newspaper stories:

In 1997, the New York Times reported on the story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, who rose from being a lifelong Judas Priest fan to becoming the actual lead singer of Judas Priest…

Great writing and a great story. Good enough to inspire the 2001 film Rock Star, starring Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston, for which, I am told, Warner Bros. paid the New York Times for the movie rights.

But wait — what movie rights? According to basic copyright law, and as interpreted by the Supreme Court, the facts of Ripper Owen’s life are free to be used by anyone. There is, according to the law, almost nothing to purchase. Reading the story out loud during the film would be a copyright violation, but under U.S. law, little else would borrow the expression as opposed to the facts.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a couple times in the past few months. The first time was when I saw a booth selling old historical photos at a local arts festival. The company, Photos of Old Amercia, had claimed to have a copyright on each of the photos, even though the woman in charge said she mostly found old pictures from libraries and collections and usually never had any clue who the original photographer was. Some of the photos have been retouched, and Photos of Old America would own the copyright on those changes. However, near as I can tell the company is itself violating the copyright on most of these photos, figuring (correctly) that they’ll probably get away with it.

The second time was when I learned about Zorro Productions, Inc., which decades ago bought all the rights to Zorro™, the legendary masked hero first introduced by Johnston McCulley in The Curse of Capistrano in 1919. Apparently if you want to make a play, movie, book or even appearance at a local mall about Zorro™ you have to license the rights from Zorro Productions first. But what rights? The copyright on The Curse of Capistrano expired ages ago and is in the public domain, as is the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks classic movie The Mark of Zorro. That leaves trademark law, which (in theory anyway) only applies so far as consumers might be confused as to the source or producer of a product or service. Raise your hands out there if you knew Zorro Productions, Inc. owned the licensing rights to Zorro™ before now, or would assume when you went to a Zorro™ movie that it would be protected by that company’s good name.

Unfortunately, in practice it doesn’t seem to matter what the law actually says. By licensing these non-existent rights, powerful companies like Sony Pictures gain a powerful threat over potential competitors, namely the ability to scare away financiers and potential partners with a simple cease-and-desist letter. When it comes to intellectual property, might makes rights is all too often the true law of the land.

Where’s Zorro when you need him?

Statement of fair use in documentary films

My brother is working on a documentary called Reality Made Over, about Fox’s plastic-surgery reality TV show “The Swan”. Of course, since his subject matter television there’re lots of questions about what he needs permission to use and what counts as fair use under copyright law. Talking to him about it reminded me of the recent Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use that was put out by several associations of video and filmmakers, in consultation with the Center for Social Media at American University.

From their introduction:

This Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use makes clear what documentary filmmakers currently regard as reasonable application of the copyright “fair use” doctrine. Fair use expresses the core value of free expression within copyright law. The statement clarifies this crucial legal doctrine, to help filmmakers use it with confidence. Fair use is shaped, in part, by the practice of the professional communities that employ it. The statement is informed both by experience and ethical principles. It also draws on analogy: documentary filmmakers should have the same kind of access to copyrighted materials that is enjoyed by cultural and historical critics who work in print media and by news broadcasters.

Battery cost of DRM

MP3.com has the skinny on battery life for portable music players, with this little gem on how much decoding the DRM on purchased music costs you:

Take, for instance, the critically acclaimed Creative Zen Vision:M, with a rated battery life of up to 14 hours for audio and 4 hours for video. CNET tested it at nearly 16 hours, with MP3s–impressive indeed. Upon playing back only WMA subscription tracks, the Vision:M scored at just more than 12 hours. That’s a loss of almost 4 hours, and you haven’t even turned the backlight on yet.

We found similar discrepancies with other PlaysForSure players. The Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder maxed out at 11 hours, but with DRM tracks, it played for less than 9 hours. The iRiver U10, with an astounding life of about 32 hours, came in at about 27 hours playing subscription tracks. Even the iPod, playing back only FairPlay AAC tracks, underperformed MP3s by about 8 percent.

In other words, you pay between 8 and 25% of your battery life for the privilege of not being able to listen to your music where ever you want… now that’s customer service!

(Thanks to Nerfduck for the link!)

Update 3/23/06: Some folks are pointing out that comparing WMA or AAC format with DRM to MP3 isn’t a fair test since it conflates the effect of DRM with the effect of the format itself (a fair test would be to compare WMA with DRM to the same files without DRM). And Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker comments that regardless of whether the test compares apples to oranges, wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose which fruit we wanted to eat?

Educational comic on copyright and fair use

Check out Bound By Law: Tales from the public domain, a comic about fair use and copyright in documentary filmmaking written by a cartoonist, a columnist and a filmmaker, all of whom also happen to be law professors specializing in intellectual property. Available for free download or paper-book purchase, and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

(Link via Dr. Wex at Copyfight.)

USACM policy statement on Digital Rights Management

Ed Felton has just posted a new policy statement on DRM from the U.S. public policy committee of the ACM, the main professional society for computer science. (The ACM has also posted the policy in PDF form.) Looks like a good set of recommendations — the highlights are that no specific DRM should be legally mandated and that DRM should be used to enforce existing copyrights, to assert new legal rights or to interfere with consumer behavior that’s unrelated to the copyrighted items being managed. Though not named specifically, those two points sound like a pretty clear condemnation of the Broadcast Flag and the anti-circumvention clauses of the DMCA.