Articles by Tom W. Bell

Tom W. Bell teaches as a professor at Chapman University School of Law, in Orange County, California. He specializes in intellectual property and high-tech law, topics on which he has written a variety of articles. After earning his J.D. from the University of Chicago School of Law, Prof. Bell practiced law in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., served as Director of Telecommunications and Technology Studies at the Cato Institute, and joined the Chapman faculty in 1998. For fun, he surfs, plays guitar, and goofs around with his kids.

Want to hear the latest thinking on copyright reform?  Come to the 2013 Public Knowledge Policy Forum tomorrow, February 26, at 1 pm, at the US Capitol Visitor Center, where I will discuss and debate the issue with these fellow copyright wonks:

  • Erik Martin, General Manager, Reddit
  • Pamela Samuelson, professor of law at Berkeley Law, University of California; Faculty Director, Berkeley Center for Law & Technology
  • Michael McGeary, Co-Founder, Engine Advocacy

Gigi B. Sohn, President & CEO, Public Knowledge, will moderate.

To catch the full roster, which includes some great panels, come at 10.  Registration–and lunch!–is free.  Details here.

Can’t make it?  Here’s my presentation:  PK_(C)_Reform.

Would you pay good money for accurate predictions about important events, such as election results or military campaigns? Not if the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has its way. It recently took enforcement action against overseas prediction markets run by InTrade and TEN. The alleged offense? Allowing Americans to trade on claims about future events.

The blunt version: If you want to put your money where your mouth is, the CFTC wants to shut you up.

A prediction market allows its participants to buy and sell claims payable upon the occurrence of some future event, such as an election or Supreme Court opinion. Because they align incentives with accuracy and tap the wisdom of crowds, prediction markets offer useful information about future events. InTrade, for instance, accurately called the recent U.S. presidential vote in all but one state.

As far as the CFTC is concerned, people buying and selling claims about political futures deserve the same treatment as people buying and selling claims about pork futures: Heavy regulations, enforcement actions, and bans. Co-authors Josh Blackman, Miriam A. Cherry, and I described in this recent op-ed why the CFTC’s animosity to prediction markets threatens the First Amendment.

The CFTC has already managed to scare would-be entrepreneurs away from trying to run real-money prediction markets in the U.S. Now it threatens overseas markets. With luck, the Internet will render the CFTC’s censorship futile, saving the marketplace in ideas from the politics of ignorance.

Why take chances, though? I suggest two policies to protect prediction markets and the honest talk they host. First, the CFTC should implement the policies described in the jointly authored Comment on CFTC Concept Release on the Appropriate Regulatory Treatment of Event Contracts, July 6, 2008. (Aside to CFTC: Your web-based copy appears to have disappeared. Ask me for a copy.)

Second, real-money public prediction markets should make clear that they fall outside the CFTC’s jurisdiction by deploying notices, setting up independent contractor relations with traders, and dealing in negotiable conditional notes. For details, see these papers starting with this one.

[Aside to Jerry and Adam: per my promise.]

[Crossposted at Technology Liberation Front, and Agoraphilia.]

Copyrights and patents differ from tangible property in fundamental ways. Economically speaking, copyrights and patents are not rivalrous in consumption; whereas all the world can sing the same beautiful song, for instance, only one person can swallow a cool gulp of iced tea. Legally speaking, copyrights and patents exist only thanks to the express terms of the U.S. Constitution and various statutory enactments. In contrast, we enjoy tangible property thanks to common law, customary practices, and nature itself. Even birds recognize property rights in nests. They do not, however, copyright their songs.

Those represent but some of the reasons I have argued that we should call copyright an intellectual privilege, reserving property for things that deserve the label. Another, related reason: Calling copyright property risks eroding that valuable service mark.

Property as a service mark, like FedEx or Hooters? Yes. Thanks to long use, property has come to represent a distinct set of legal relations, including hard and fast rules relating to exclusion, use, alienation, and so forth. Copyright embodies those characteristics imperfectly, if at all. To call it intellectual property risks confusing consumers of legal services—citizens, attorneys, academics, judges, and lawmakers—about the nature of copyright. Worse yet, it confuses them about the nature of property. The property service mark suffers not merely dilution from copyright’s infringing use, but tarnishment, too.

As proof of how copyright threatens to erode property, consider Ben Depooter, Fair Trespass, 111 Col. L. Rev. 1090 (2011). From the abstract:

Trespass law is commonly presented as a relatively straightforward doctrine that protects landowners against intrusions by opportunistic trespassers. . . . This Essay . . . develops a new doctrinal framework for determining the limits of a property owner’s right to exclude. Adopting the doctrine of fair use from copyright law, the Essay introduces the concept of “fair trespass” to property law doctrine. When deciding trespass disputes, courts should evaluate the following factors: (1) the nature and character of the trespass; (2) the nature of the protected property; (3) the amount and substantiality of the trespass; and (4) the impact of the trespass on the owner’s property interest. . . . [T]his novel doctrine more carefully weighs the interests of society in access against the interests of property owners in exclusion.

Although I do not agree with every aspect of Prof. Depooter’s doctrinal analysis, he correctly observes that trespass law includes some fuzzy bits. Nor do I complain about his overall form of argument. It is not a tack I would take, but it was near-inevitable that some legal scholar would eventually argue back from copyright to claim that real property, too, should fall prey to a multi-factor, fact-intensive “fair use” defense. I merely take this opportunity to remind fellow friends of liberty that they can expect more of the same—and more erosion of the property service mark—if they fail to recognize copyrights and patents as no more than intellectual privileges.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, Technology Liberation Front, and Intellectual Privilege.]

Toy Story 3 offers many pleasures and not a little wisdom. I absorbed them with a shocking output of tears, both the laughing kind and otherwise. At one point, too, I raised my fist in solidarity, moved by the political philosophy voiced by Barbie (brilliantly played by Barbie). I liked Barbie’s quote so much that I put it on a t-shirt:

Pop Political Philosophy shirt

Nice, huh? Click on the picture to customize the shirt for your build and style.

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The grandly-named Public Domain Archive, evidently a production of Osaka-based Digirock, Inc., offers a few MP3s of classical music and historical speeches. Thanks to a suggestion from Tyler Cowen, I’m enjoying a 1942 recording of Beethoven’s 9th even as I type. Am I breaking the law in so doing? The copyright notice posted on the Public Domain Archive, while quite charming, hardly reassures:

To the People
In japan, All files open to the public on this site are certainly lawful.
But, if you do not live in Japan, You might do not have to use files.
You should check the law of your country.

As proves too often true for works, like this 1942 recording, that fall under the aegis of the 1909 Copyright Act, it is not easy to figure out if the underylying work enjoys any claim to protection under U.S. law. Perhaps, after all, it was not published with the proper formalities, here, and thus fell into the public domain.

In this case, though, it looks like we can dodge those complications. U.S. copyright law affords exclusive rights only to copying, creation of derivative works, public distribution, public performance, and public display. See 17 USC § 106. So long as I listen to a MP3 solely via streaming, without saving a copy, it is hard to see how I’ve violated any of those rights. Perhaps Digirock, Inc. has violated U.S. law by offering me the MP3, but that is no concern of mine (and probably not much of a concern to Digirock, Inc.).

That legal scenario suggests an interesting conclusion: an offshore copyright-free zone—one set up by intellectual pirates or in a stubbornly independent country—might give U.S. residents ample, free, and legal access to all sorts of copyrighted works—even ones protected under U.S. law.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia and The Technology Liberation Front.]

Professor Crim Pro I ain’t, but it seems to me that anybody who has used a computer can pretty easily grasp the holding of Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. __, No. 08-1470 (June 1, 2010) [PDF]. In that opinion, handed down just yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court toggled the default on the Miranda warning. A five-justice majority held that silence will not suffice for citizens who want to invoke Miranda’s protections against self-incrimination; we now must ask for our Constitutional rights. Think of it like a computer program that annoyingly assumes you want unsolicited advice from a chirpy paper clip–except this paper clip throws you in cuffs and tazes you if you talk back.

The Berghuis decision inspires me to offer a new piece of legal armor—this time in the form of a t-shirt:

Miranda Rights Notice shirt

Click on the picture to buy a shirt, or borrow the text (I’ve uncopyrighted it) to make your own version from scratch. Combine that notice of your Miranda rights with the bumper sticker and magnetic sign I offered earlier, in defense of your rights to record and report what public officials do to you, and you might just dodge some serious legal hurt. Or—who knows?—you might inspire some interesting and important litigation.
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While police and prosecutors have encouraged the growth of a surveillance state, they don’t seem so enthusiastic about the growth of a surveillance citizenry. Maryland and other states have recently seen privacy laws invoked to squelch the unauthorized recording of public officers performing public duties in public areas. Until courts put an end to those bogus claims, we should make sure that police officers know that we may monitor traffic stops to protect our rights; I below offer a bumper sticker and magnetic door sign that ought to help on that front.

Radley Balko recently reported on the latest attempt to use privacy laws to punish citizens for recording police misconduct. In this case, Anthony Graber was arrested for posting on YouTube a video he’d captured on an un-uniformed Maryland state trooper, driving an unmarked car, pulling over and rushing at Graber with a drawn handgun. Soon after Graber posted the video, he was charged for violating the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10-401 et seq. (2010), which basically outlaws secretly recording a private conversation.

Maryland’s police must be feeling a bit testy, these days, about getting recorded on-the-job by uppity citizens. Earlier this spring, an inconvenient video of the beating of Jack McKenna put the lie to the claims of Maryland police that McKenna had provoked the incident by attacking the officers and their horses. State and federal officials have since launched “excessive force” inquiries.

Did that video violate the privacy of the three officers, clad in riot gear and swinging batons, who surrounded and beat the unarmed McKenna? No. Neither did the video that Graber shot of the Maryland trooper strutting towards him with a drawn handgun. Courts have already explained that wrongs under the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act require a showing that someone’s reasonable expectation of privacy has suffered violation (see Fearnow v. C & P Tel. Co., 104 Md. App. 1, 655 A.2d 1 (1995), rev’d on other grounds, 342 Md. 363, 676 A.2d 65 (1996)), and no officer can have a reasonable expectation of privacy while on a public street, performing public duties. Continue reading →

From our bulletin board at home:

April Fool's Cartoon About Freedom to Innovate

This cartoon takes its inspiration from a conversation—a real gut-buster!—that I had with my kids. April would have foolishness enough, given that dread date smack in its middle, without April Fool’s Day. You can thus take this joke seriously.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, TechLiberation Front.]

Free Willie?

by on August 10, 2009 · 31 comments

Thanks to comments on my earlier post, Copyright Duration and the Mickey Mouse Curve, I’ve been encouraged to reflect on what would happen if, in fact, Steamboat Willie had fallen into the public domain. Could we then reuse Mickey Mouse, the star of that show, without facing any liability to the Walt Disney Company? I drafted this answer for my book, Intellectual Privilege (here edited for blogging):

Scholars have made surprisingly strong arguments that Steamboat Willie, a cartoon that the Walt Disney Company cites as establishing its copyright rights in Mickey Mouse, has fallen into the public domain. As a thought experiment, let us assume the truth of that claim. What would happen if Walt Disney Company—if, indeed, nobody—held a copyright in Steamboat Willie? Certainly, each of use would by default enjoy complete freedom to copy, distribute, display, or perform the cartoon, because the expiration of the work’s copyright would also end the exclusive rights of the Walt Disney Company and its assigns the exercise those statutory privileges. So, too, would we escape copyright’s limitations on making derivative versions of Steamboat Willie—versions that might show Mickey standing at a lectern rather than at a pilot’s wheel, for instance, or have him expounding on copyright law.

The Walt Disney Company would retain its copyrights in later, plumper versions of the Mickey Mouse, of course. Contemporary artists wanting to reinterpret the character free from the company’s veto would thus have to draw inspiration primarily from the earlier, skinnier, version. Given that the characters would share a common ancestor, however, even mice derived solely from Steamboat Willie would often strongly resemble the modern-day Mickey Mouse.

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Herewith another recent addition to my draft book, Intellectual Privilege: A Libertarian View of Copyright, (inspired, in part, by Berin Szoka’s recent claim, “I just don’t know what the right balance [for copyright] is! I’m glad there are others patient enough to try to figure it out. This is why we have economists and… yes, even lawyers!”):

As an illustration of the public choice pressures that drive copyright policy, consider the fate of the copyright in Steamboat Willie, a 1928 cartoon that the Walt Disney Company cites as establishing its copyright claim in Mickey Mouse. Scholars have made a surprisingly strong case that, because the requisite formalities of the 1909 Copyright Act were not satisfied, Steamboat Willie has fallen into the public domain. The Walt Disney Company has responded to such claims by threatening to bring suit for “slander of title,” demonstrating how seriously it takes its copyright in Steamboat Willie. Let us take that copyright seriously, too, then, so that we might better understand the public choice effects of the Walt Disney Company’s interests.

Copyright Duration and the Mickey Mouse Curve

The above figure illustrates how the duration of the copyright that the company claims in Steamboat Willie—marked by the solid grey line—has twice approached expiration—a limit marked by the dashed grey line. In both instances, federal lawmakers amended the Copyright Act to extend copyright’s duration, both for copyrighted works generally and works, such as Steamboat Willie, that predated the amendments. The line marking the copyright term in Steamboat Willie jogs upward both on the effective date of the 1976 Act (January 1, 1978) and again on the effective date of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (October 27, 1998). (Steamboat Willie did not receive the maximum possible copyright duration under either extension due to complications arising from the work’s status as a work in its second term under the 1909 Copyright Act.) No one can, of course, say with certainty whether or to what degree lobbying by the Walt Disney Company drove those copyright term extensions, which fortuitously or not saved the (supposed) copyright in Steamboat Willie from falling into the public domain. It does not take a great deal of skepticism, however, to predict that federal lawmakers will extend copyrights again before 2023, at which time Steamboat Willie will once more risk sailing beyond the limits of copyright’s duration.

Given the rough-and-tumble of real world lawmaking, does the rhetoric of “delicate balancing” merit any place in copyright jurisprudence? The Copyright Act does reflect compromises struck between the various parties that lobby congress and the administration for changes to federal law. A truce among special interests does not and cannot delicately balance all the interests affected by copyright law, however. Not even poetry can license the metaphor, which aggravates copyright’s public choice affliction by endowing the legislative process with more legitimacy than it deserves. To claim that copyright policy strikes a “delicate balance” commits not only legal fiction; it aids and abets a statutory tragedy.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia, TechLiberation Front.]