Friday, August 14, 2015
Lien Priority Rules!
Property law luminaries R. Wilson Freyermuth and Dale A. Whitman have published a concise and powerful article in the July/August edition of the ABA’s Probate & Property magazine that is both clarifying and compelling with respect to the continuingly contentious issue of residential real estate lien priority.
The priority contest between first mortgage lenders and homeowner’s associations was a dormant (or even non-existent) issue until the Foreclosure Crisis of 2008. But the Foreclosure Crisis changed the context of residential real estate lien priority questions in two ways:
- First, home values plummeted and for the first time, a significant number of homes were “underwater” – meaning that the value of the home was less than the amount of loans secured by liens thereon. When an asset’s value covers the full face amount of all liens, lien priority doesn’t much matter in terms of whether or not a lienholder will be paid (even though, of course, it still significantly governs procedure and effect of foreclosure of liens). When an asset’s value fails to cover the amount of its liens, however, the question of priority becomes crucial. In this environment of scarcity, the first in line gets paid, and the later in line may not.
- Second, the sheer volume of mortgage loan defaults increased ten-fold, overwhelming the judicial system and the foreclosure departments of banks and servicers. The massive increase in number of defaulted loans (together with the widespread confusion that resulted from over-zealous loan securitization and avoidance of traditional mortgage assignment through the use of MERS – which is a topic for another day) led to previously unimagined delays in foreclosure and a huge increase in the number of homes facing foreclosure, particularly in certain states and communities where the mortgage defaults clustered. When lienholders delay foreclosure, priority very much matters because liens with higher priority can foreclose and wipe out junior liens.
These two significant context changes arising from the Financial Crisis have not fully abated, even seven years later. And so, today, priority rules very much matter to any holders of residential real estate liens.
Homeowner Associations are one type of lienholder that is unfairly harmed by this combination of underwater mortgages and high quantity of loan default/foreclosure delay. In approximately 30 states, a mortgage lien has complete priority over HOA liens, and foreclosure delay coupled with failure to pay association dues can lead to community financial disaster. Sometimes HOAs are vilified in the media and in popular parlance, but it remains true that even if you hate the concept of an HOA, it is supremely unfair to have financially responsible people living in a neighborhood end up paying their defaulting neighbors’ “fair share” of community common costs.
In approximately 20 other states, statutes (including the state’s version of the Uniform Condominium Act or the Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act) have granted a limited priority to association liens, typically in the amount of six months of association dues. When mortgage foreclosures were relatively rare and occurred relatively promptly, HOAs merely waited for a mortgage lender to foreclose and then took the 6-months worth of unpaid assessments off the top of the lender’s foreclosure recovery. When the Foreclosure Crisis hit, it was unclear how this priority would work in cases where a 1st mortgage lender had delayed foreclosure. Could an association independently foreclose its limited priority lien and obtain 6-months worth of back assessments? If so, what would be the effect of that foreclosure if the 1st mortgage lender failed to redeem its interest by paying off that super-priority portion of the association lien? (See Community Collateral Damages: A Question of Priorities discussing a description of the problem circa 2010).
In 2012, a Washington Court of Appeals held that the limited priority HOA lien acted like any other lien with a higher priority, meaning that the HOA could foreclose its lien with property notice to junior lienholders (including the holder of the first mortgage), and this foreclosure would operate to extinguish the first mortgage lien. Summerhill Village Homeowners Ass’n v. Roughly, 270 P.3d 639 (Wash Ct. App. 2012). Two years later, the DC Court of Appeals and the Nevada Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation. Chase Plaza Condo. Ass’n, Inc. v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 98 A.3d 166 (D.C. Ct. App. 2014); SFR Investments Pool 1, LLC v. U.S. Bank, N.A. 334 P.3d 408 (Nev. 2014). The Joint Editorial Board for Uniform Real Property Acts also endorsed this view, stressing that treating the limited priority portion of a HOA’s lien as a lien with “true” priority was essential to strike “an equitable balance between the need to enforce collection of unpaid assessments and the obvious necessity for protecting the priority of the security interests of lenders.”
Enter yet a THIRD context change resulting from the Financial Crisis: The conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On September 6, 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Authority (FHFA) placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which are Government Sponsored Enterprises or GSEs) into federal conservatorship. This unprecedented move likely saved residential mortgage lending as we know it, but has fundamentally changed the players involved in the residential mortgage market. Back in 2008 and 2009, it appeared that FHFA conservatorship was some form of bankruptcy and possibly even a federal wind-down of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but the GSEs have bounced back into the black and today are even turning a profit (now for the government). The FHFA shows no sign of turning the reins back over to shareholders or otherwise ending the now seven-year-old conservatorship of the GSEs.
What does the FHFA conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have to do with the association-mortgage lender lien priority question? Well, in cases where Fannie and Freddie are the secondary mortgage lender for a first mortgage lien, the FHFA now claims it has the power to stop or invalidate foreclosures of liens that are above GSE first mortgages in priority according to state law. That means, for example, that even though Nevada has held that the limited priority portion of a HOA’s lien is a true super-priority lien that extinguishes a first mortgage lien if that lienholder fails to redeem its interest in foreclosure (meaning: if the first mortgage holder doesn’t pay off the nine months of unpaid association dues before the HOA forecloses), that Fannie and Freddie can simply opt out of Nevada’s laws regarding lien priority and enforcement.
FHFA’s argument that a lien with higher priority than a Fannie/Freddie interest cannot be foreclosed without its consent arises from the language of 12 U.S.C. §4617(j)(3):
No property of the Agency shall be subject to levy, attachment, garnishment, foreclosure, or sale without the consent of the Agency, nor shall any involuntary lien attach to the property of the Agency.
Similar language in the FDIC statute has been held to preclude foreclosure of super-priority state tax liens on property of banks put into FDIC receivership. FHFA reasons, therefore, that liens prior to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgages can only be validly foreclosed with FHFA consent.
Freyermuth and Wilson do a masterful job dissecting and destroying this argument. I would encourage everyone to read their thorough and compelling analysis. The “Readers Digest” version of their argument is as follows:
- FDIC receivership is a qualitatively different context than FHFA conservatorship of the GSEs because FDIC receivership is short-term. FDIC receivership is a form of bank bankruptcy, and thus the consent provision operates as a merely temporary stay. The FHFA conservatorship, on the other hand, has gone on the better part of a decade now, and it shows no sign of stopping. In Matagorda County v. Russell Law, the case that interpreted the FDIC statute as establishing FDIC consent as a prerequisite to effective foreclosure of a priority lien, the court carefully explained that a temporary delay in the ability to foreclose did not impact 5th Amendment rights of the lienholder, but the court did note that “unmitigated delay, coupled with diminishment of distinct investment-backed expectations may, at some point” amount to an uncompensated taking. 19 F.3d 215, 224-25 (5th Cir. 1994)(emphasis in original).
- Stays such as the automatic stay in bankruptcy are also qualitatively different than the stay in the FHFA context because FHFA decisions with respect to GSE conservatorship are non-reviewable. The FHFA has long claimed that its actions as a conservator of the GSEs are not subject to judicial review, and the Second Circuit confirmed this in Town of Babylon v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, 699 F.3d. 221 (2d Cir. 2012). Other circuits have followed suit. Thus, whereas a lienholder hamstrung by bankruptcy’s automatic stay can seek relief under the Code (for example, under §363 or through appellate review), there is no avenue to contest the FHFA’s failure to consent to a foreclosure of an HOA lien on property burdened by a Fannie or Freddie mortgage. FHFA consent, therefore, can be given or withheld in FHFA’s sole and absolute discretion.
- During the past several years, FHFA has evidenced its intent and consent to be bound to state lien priority law in multiple ways and contexts. For example, Fannie and Freddie servicing guidelines specifically instruct its servicers to pay off priority liens and a promise to reimburse the servicers for doing so. As Freyermuth and Wilson aptly point out, there would be no need for or purpose to this instruction if the priority liens could not be foreclosed without FHFA consent. FHFA has also consistently operated as if it were bound by state law lien priority and enforcement rules in making arguments in various lawsuits wherein priority contests were decided.
- Finally, Freyermuth and Wilson point out that it is not at all clear that even the FDIC consent provision applies to private parties. The 5th Circuit, for one, has specifically ruled that the provision requiring consent to foreclosure of prior liens is specific and limited to tax liens held by local governments and does not extend to private entities. FDIC v. McFarland, 243 F.3d 876 (5th Cir. 2001). Because HOAs are private entities, their liens would thus be unaffected by the cited statutory provision requiring prior FHFA consent to foreclose, even if that provision were interpreted the same way.
Freyermuth and Wilson conclude:
The notion that FHFA and the GSEs can thumb their noses at time-honored state law priority rules is deeply offensive. The GSEs themselves have, in the past, consistently acted as though they were fully bound by those rules. From the inception of the uniform Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac 1-4 family mortgage and note instruments, for example, the GSEs have always been careful to obtain reviews by local counsel to ensure that the documents conformed to the varying laws of the individual states. They have asserted no federally preemptive right to disregard state law. Their claim to the power to ignore state priority law under HERA is unexpected. It is not justified by any emergency because—whatever the exigencies of the mortgage crisis—the procedure that allows an otherwise-first mortgage lender to protect its lien from destruction by the foreclosure of a prior owners’ association lien is perfectly clear and simple to employ. Any such destruction is a consequence of nothing more than Fannie’s or Freddie’s servicer being asleep at the switch. There is no reason the homeowners’ association should be punished for the servicer’s carelessness; rather, Fannie or Freddie should seek reimbursement from the servicer for such losses. The authors hope and believe the courts will understand this and will continue to hold the GSEs to the normal standards of state priority law.
I couldn’t agree more.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Extending Unequal Second Amendment Rights
Stories like this one - a 62 year old African-American man is tackled to the ground in a Tampa Wal-Mart after a white man saw him bringing a (legal) firearm into the store - have me wondering how to think about the idea of extending Second Amendment rights in a world where we can pretty well predict, ex ante, that they will not be equally available to all citizens. We can reasonably expect this sort of citizen self-help given that a big part of the case for arming all citizens is that they'll use their guns to intervene before bad things happen. But given past experience, we can also expect that race will also play a part in whether police officers decide to stop citizens based only on their visible possesion of a firearm.
We already know that there is a vast privacy gap between African-Americans and whites in the sense that Blacks are far more likely to be subject to a stop-and-frisk than whites. (And it's hard to make the case that this gap is based on higher frequency of suspicious conduct when, for instance, we see that both New York and Philly police were finding contraband in well fewer than 10% of their street stops.) Then there's Driving While Black. I think it's fair to say that African-Americans and whites don't get equal benefit from the Fourth Amendment.
And that's a sticky problem. Under current law, there isn't much you can do except to change police conduct from within. Courts don't have a lot of sway. Evidence suppression doesn't work for people who aren't arrested and nobody can count on getting compensation for a fruitless search. That's why people like Michelle Alexander are looking to public debate and activism as a possible solution.
With the expansion of the Second Amendment, we have a chance to think more about the problem early on. Although many states have long provided easy access to carry permits, the new, more muscular Second Amendment will likely lead to an expansion of gun carry rights. But it seems likely that these new rights will not be extended equally. First, though the permits themselves will be granted using formally neutral rules, provisions such as prohibiting permits for convicted felons will embed historical racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, and conviction. Theres more, however. In my mind, the right to carry a gun includes more than the right not be convicted for doing so; it also ought to include the right to carry a gun and not get stopped and searched for doing so. In that respect, I fear we won't deliver equal rights.And those disparities only reflect the burdens imposed by the state. It doesn't even touch about the fact that private citizens may be unwilling to tolerate the equal extension of gun possession rights. As long as people consider African-American + gun as a crime in progress, which was the Wal-Mart case - a gun carry permit will never confer upon African-Americans the same freedom to carry.
So what to do? One possibility is to say: it's inappropriate to extend rights to one population if every population can't receive an equal benefit. The contrary view is to see the Second Amendment just like the Fourth Amendment: a right which society will have to struggle to enforce equally but which, given its constitutional basis, ought to be extended as far as possible immediately. (And of course most Second Amendment advocates will argue that there is no extension going on here - only a much-delayed enforcement of an existing right.) But is there a third way? Could we view it as a property right which is impaired when a person is subject to a search? Might there be a novel Fifth Amendment claim here? Could we impose a tax on guns that is used to fund a statutory compensation scheme? Is there a way, other than the exclusionary rule, to disincentive police over-reach? (Something like Richard Myers' Fourth Amendment Small Claims Court?)
This is all half-baked, but it's a problem that troubles me. I'd love thoughts.
Tuesday, December 09, 2014
The New Cognitive Property & Human Capital Law
Intellectual property is all about the bargain, no absolutes. But below the radar, a patchwork of law and contract is operating to expand the types of knowledge and information that become propertized. My new article, The New Cognitive Property: Human Capital Law and the Reach of Intellectual Property, forthcoming Texas Law Review 2015 is now up on ssrn. Here is the abstract and as always, I would love to get your thoughts and comments:
Contemporary law has become grounded in the conviction that not only the outputs of innovation – artistic expressions, scientific methods, and technological advances – but also the inputs of innovation – skills, experience, know-how, professional relationships, creativity and entrepreneurial energies – are subject to control and propertization. In other words, we now face a reality of not only the expansion of intellectual property but also cognitive property. The new cognitive property has emerged under the radar, commodifying intellectual intangibles which have traditionally been kept outside of the scope of intellectual property law. Regulatory and contractual controls on human capital – post-employment restrictions including non-competition contracts, non-solicitation, non-poaching, and anti-dealing agreements; collusive do-not-hire talent cartels; pre-invention assignment agreements of patents, copyright, as well as non-patentable and non-copyrightable ideas; and non-disclosure agreements, expansion of trade secret laws, and economic espionage prosecution against former insiders – are among the fastest growing frontiers of market battles. This article introduces the growing field of human capital law, at the intersections of IP, contract and employment law, and antitrust law, and cautions against the devastating effects of the growing enclosure of cognitive capacities in contemporary markets.
Posted by Orly Lobel on December 9, 2014 at 10:45 AM in Article Spotlight, Employment and Labor Law, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Orly Lobel, Property, Workplace Law | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Think about proposing programming for the annual meeting, or participating in a junior scholars workshop. And if you are ever interested in serving on a committee, let Russ Weaver (the executive director) know. The appointments usually happen in the summer, but he keeps track of volunteers all year long.
Posted by Marcia L. McCormick on October 14, 2014 at 11:00 AM in Civil Procedure, Corporate, Criminal Law, Employment and Labor Law, First Amendment, Gender, Immigration, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, International Law, Judicial Process, Law and Politics, Legal Theory, Life of Law Schools, Property, Religion, Tax, Teaching Law, Torts, Travel, Workplace Law | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, September 05, 2014
Intellectual Property Infringement as Vandalism (Part 1)
In addition to empirical work in intellectual property, another area that has been keeping me occupied is the intersection between IP and criminal law. A few years ago, I wrote an article entitled The Puzzle of Criminal Sanctions for Intellectual Property Infringement, 24 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 469 (2011), in which I explored why we have criminal sanctions for copyright and trademark infringement but not for patent violations. Earlier this year, I published a paper called The High Cost of Low Sanctions, 66 Florida Law Review 157 (2014), that examined how low sanctions can lead undesirable laws to be passed and can eventually morph into high sanctions, an analysis whose focus was partly on copyright law. I then moved on to study, in an article called Intellectual Property and the Presumption of Innocence that is forthcoming in the William & Mary Law Review next year, the constitutional dimension of intellectual property criminal cases. I argued that prosecutors should have to prove that every element of such crimes, including the jurisdictional element, has been met beyond a reasonable doubt before convictions can occur. Most recently, I turned my attention to the relationship between the criminal (and civil) sanctions in intellectual property and those that we observe in property. This project, co-authored with Robert E. Wagner, is entitled Intellectual Property Infringement as Vandalism, and I would like to take the opportunity to describe it further here.
One of the recurring questions in scholarship is whether intellectual property qualifies as property and, as a correlative matter, whether IP infringement is theft. Content owners significantly push this analogy, including in heavy-handed ads that seek to remind people not to “steal” songs or movies. Meanwhile, critics have chipped away at the theft label. They have argued that when an object is stolen, the owner is entirely deprived of it, whereas IP owners maintain integral copies of their works when infringement takes place. Unlike in the case of theft, the intellectual property owner can also continue to sell copies of said work to willing buyers, if the market will bear it. Furthermore, to the extent the owner suffers a loss at the hands of the IP infringer, that loss is difficult to calculate. Not every infringer would have bought the work had he lacked the opportunity to infringe. At the same time, nobody can say with certainty about herself—even assuming perfect honesty—which works she would have bought in a zero-infringement world because the impulse to rationalize one’s actions in this setting is strong.
The sphere that discusses intellectual property infringement is thus mostly split between two camps. One of them believes that infringement is theft and concludes that if it is theft, the criminal sanctions and harsh civil sanctions that we have on the books are warranted. The other side denies that infringement is theft, sometimes downplays the gravity of infringement behavior, and regularly believes that the level of sanctions that American law provides is unjustified. We argue in our paper that the dichotomy that these two camps endorse is faulty, and that the question of whether intellectual property infringement parallels violations of property law requires much more nuanced analysis before it can influence the calibration of sanctions for intellectual property infringement. We seek to show that there is little meaningful difference between intellectual property infringement and property violations, but that the question of whether infringement is theft has led to the creation of an unnecessarily confusing and polarized discussion framework. While many scholars are correct to state that intellectual property infringement is not and cannot be literally the same as theft for the reasons briefly delineated above, such infringement bears significant similarities to and few distinctions from lesser property-related offenses such as vandalism or in some cases trespass.
If one accepts the idea that IP infringement does at times parallel property violations, albeit not necessarily theft per se, the startling realization emerges that IP laws actually may punish wrongdoers more harshly than property law punishes defendants for equivalent offenses. After creating an analytical model to determine the content of “equivalence” in this context, we demonstrate that adopting a truly property-oriented IP legal regime may actually mandate a view of lowered criminal and civil sanctions. I will explore the ideas from this paper in more detail in future posts.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
Is Yours One of the 45 Law Schools to Which it is Worth Going: A Look at the Broken Market for Legal Education
As those of you who have read my earlier posts (and I hope you have) know everything I’m writing on legal education takes as a premise that the entire system of financing higher education is broken and that we, as a society, are borrowing against our future by making college, let alone graduate and professional schools, financially prohibitive to those who otherwise have the interest and ability to pursue it. But as bad as the debt to employment ratio is for many law students right now it is made worse by a misperception of a uniform level of financial stress, a uniform kind of desirable job, and a uniform market for legal services. These misperceptions are making the market for legal education inefficient yet this inefficiency is supported by a social norm that higher must be better (yes, Wikipedia--Prof. Ellickson don't rescind my property grade)--and as a result causing hardship for prospective law students and law schools alike.
On Monday, fearless leader of the Law Professor blogs network, Professor Paul Caron, in our flagship, Taxprof Blog highlighted this working paper by Kelsey Webber who “does the math” and concludes that there are only 45 law schools worth attending at sticker price. That may sound better than the critics who conclude that there are no law schools work attending, but it is based on the same flawed assumptions.
Like all “works in progress” there’s lot to pick at—starting with the premise that any law student anywhere is paying “sticker price,” but over the next five days, or so, I’m not going to pick at the paper but rather am going to challenge the generalizations it reflects. I’m going to focus on law’s status as a highly regionalized profession and on the differences that have always existed between schools that historically sent a big chunk of their students to large firms and schools that never did.
And I’m going to address a lurking elephant in the living room that is contributing to the misery—students pursuing legal educations often do so not out of a sense of vocation but rather as a hazy path to a good income. Nothing wrong with that—but it interferes with an efficient, market in which law students would flock to regions not suffering from economic downturn and to law schools offering attractive combinations of low tuition/strong financial aid.
I’m not here to blame students for decisions they make at age 20 with limited available information. I’m just pointing out that this idea of a universal hierarchy of law schools perpetuated by US News rankings has fueled the suffering and distress in the regions where there is little hope of getting a job that would make law school a sound investment. I'm not blaming the messenger, I'm suggesting that they don't work in law the way they work for Clinical Psychology Programs, Engineering Schools or even Medical Schools where higher ranked programs (regardless of location) are closely linked to better job prospects.
I’m also going to address some measurement issues that assume a “big law” view of the world. So, for example, while lack of a big law job 9 months out of law schools is catastrophic because traditionally those were sewn up by the end of the second year summer or certainly by graduation, it means far less outside big law where students are seldom even considered until they have passed the bar-something that won’t happen until five or six months after graduation. And in general, what it means in relation to whether law school was “worth it” depends entirely on the size and shape of the financial hole law school creates. And that varies a lot.
At the other end, I’m going to dispute how safe a bet these 45 schools actually are for every student interested in becoming a lawyer. These are all great schools. The students attending them worked hard to get there, and have every right to enjoy the status they confer, but, again, law is highly regionalized and I plan to vigorously dispute the pernicious paradigm that all higher ranked law schools are better for all law students than all lower ranked law schools.
To be continued.
Thursday, May 01, 2014
The Canadian ALPS
O Canada. O wordplay. For the title of this post refers not to the glorious snow-capped Canadian rockies (which are sometimes, though apparently not terribly often, referred to as the "Canadian Alps"), but rather the soon forthcoming Annual Meeting of the Association for Law, Property, and Society (hence, ALPS, get it?), which will be held this Friday and Saturday, May 2-3, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
ALPS had its origins as a small property scholarship workshop that I was fortunate to be invited to when it was first held down at Chapman Law School in early 2008. Since then, different iterations of the conference have been held more or less yearly and the event has ballooned into this year's major event, which will feature a couple hundred attendees, with around 150 presentations over the course of two action-packed (or at least property-scholarship-packed days). Keynotes to be given by Joe Singer and Andre van der Walt. Property-related field trips. Mixers. Canada. You get the picture.
Two points, one small and one more general, about ALPS.
First, for those who can't attend, I'll be live-tweeting the event here. I can't promise any Tushnet-level detailed play by play of the proceedings, but I'll assay to comment on the proceedings when and where relevant.
Second, I have a particular interest in this edition of ALPS because I was part of the program committee. Along with Shelley Saxer of Pepperdine and Sally Richardson of LSU, we sorted the submissions, organized them substantively, and put them into an order that had to balance thematic coherence with everyone's scheduling preferences.
This was a lot of work (especially because the conference was big this year--easily the most attendees ALPS has ever had), but it was interesting and fun too, and I'm glad I was part of the team effort. I hadn't served on a program committee before, and it turned out to be a great way to get a sense of what people in the field from all over the world are working on, and to get a satellite-level notion of the lines along which contemporary property scholarship breaks down.
Junior scholars in particular could benefit from serving on the program committee of a major conference in their field. I wish I'd had the chance to do this in the first couple of years I was teaching. Not only is it a good way to get an instant crash-course in what kind of scholarship is happening in your area, but it's also an ideal means for meeting and making connections with people with similar or related scholarly interests (not to mention being the kind of service to the academy that looks good on a tenure application).
Off to Vancouver! I may see some of you property profs there. Otherwise, I'll blog at you all when I get back, unless I get eaten by a polar bear or decide to join a hockey team or some other Canadian cliche.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014
"Shadows" and "Innocence," copyright and performance
Earlier, I wrote about the Ninth Circuit’s recent Garcia decision, which is turning out to be the copyright Ishtar* of 2014. One take on what is so rank about the opinion is that it flouts a basic copyright principle that performances (separately from the works they are based on) are not copyrightable.
But earlier this month, just after Garcia was decided, the District of Nevada issued a far less remarked-on opinion entering summary judgment in favor of Teller (the silent, shorter member of the famed Penn & Teller duo), who argued that a YouTube video by Dutch magician Gerard Dogge infringed Teller’s copyright in his illusion “Shadows.”
At first glance, it’s hard to tell these cases apart. If Garcia was wrongly decided because (in large part) it erroneously held that performances are copyrightable, then shouldn’t Teller have lost as well? The answer is no, but it requires a closer look at the circumstances of these deceptively different cases. And the value of taking that closer look is to parse out more carefully what does, and does not, work about the “performance is not copyrightable” aphorism. More below the fold.
It’s worthwhile to give a quick sense of the infringement in Teller. Teller’s “Shadows” is a very elegant and affecting illusion that begins with a rose on a stand with a light in front of it causing a shadow of the rose to be projected onto a screen behind it. Teller then appears, and cuts away the petals of the rose’s shadow, and when he does so, each corresponding petal on the actual rose falls as well. In Dogge’s video, he performs a virtually identical illusion with nearly identical set dressing and materials (indeed, the name of his illusion is “The Rose and Her Shadow”), though there are some slight variations (Teller uses a rose in a vase, while Dogge’s is in a bottle; Teller’s and Dogge’s performances end with different performative flourishes).
That said, the way to reconcile Garcia’s wrongness with Teller’s (relative) okayness lies in the nature of the latter’s asserted copyright interest. Teller registered his work, “Shadows,” as a dramatic work (actually, "dramatic pantomime" in the registration certificate) with the Copyright Office in 1983 (though he had been performing the illusion since 1976). The registration comprises a detailed description of “Shadows” to the minutest detail. By contrast, Garcia’s purported copyright in “Innocence of Muslims” derived solely from whatever originality her performance added to the underlying words written by the screenwriter.
Moreover, Teller’s registration of “Shadows” also clarifies and simplifies his authorship status with respect to the work. He is solely listed as the dramatic work’s author, because he is—the entirety of “Shadows” is the product of his creative mind alone. Again by contrast, Garcia’s authorship status with respect to “Innocence” is a wreck. She is at best one of many joint authors of the work, though her relative contribution to the final product is vanishingly slim.
Still, these two cases raise a puzzle: Is performance copyrightable or isn’t it? I don’t think we need to get too Clintonian about this (i.e., no need to default to “it depends on what ‘performance’ means” hair-splitting). Teller didn’t hold that performances are generally copyrightable. It held that Dogge’s YouTube video amounted to an unauthorized public performance of Teller’s copyrighted dramatic work.
If you want to get really technical about it, Teller’s claim was not that Dogge’s video was substantially similar to Teller’s performance of “Shadows” (indeed, there are many different performances of “Shadows,” though they are all nearly identical), but rather that it was similar to the dramatic work “Shadows” that was embodied in the copy Teller filed with the Copyright Office back in ’83. A performance is something that you can do with a work, just as you can reproduce or adapt or distribute copies of it, it’s not the work itself, and only works are copyrightable.
Throughout this post, I’ve been saying that Teller seems basically right. The reason I’m equivocal lies in one part of the opinion that went largely unremarked. The court remarked that the defendant’s work was substantially similar to Teller’s in part because “both performances are based on the incredibly unique concept of a performer cutting parts of a rose’s shadow, thereby cutting the corresponding parts of a real rose.”
Putting aside the court’s problematic usage of “performance” and “performer”, what raises a red flag about this passage is the court’s suggestion that Teller’s copyright extends past his specific expression of the particular dramatic work articulated in the deposit copy he included with his copyright registration, and applies generally to the “concept” embodied in his dramatic work.
This phrasing seems to flout copyright’s good old idea/expression dichotomy, though as with all idea/expression issues, the distinction is a hard one to draw. I’m OK with the outcome in Teller because Dogge’s video mimicked Teller’s work down in detail with only a few exceptions. But one could imagine variation on “Shadows” that are not as slavish in their copying. Consider a variant where a garrulous magician cut the petals from the projected shadow of a sunflower, causing the real thing to fall. Or more abstractly, imagine a version where a talkative illusionist came out and cut the limbs off of the projected shadow of the human effigy of some great historical villain (Hitler, Stalin, Donald Sterling), causing the limbs on the actual figure to fall off. I think the latter two would be far enough from Teller’s work to be allowable, even though they are based on the “incredibly unique concept” that animates “Shadows.”
Finally, if Teller is (mostly) rightly decided, does that mean that magic tricks are copyrightable, contra the major premise of Jacob Loshin’s really cool article on informal means of protecting illusions in the magician community? No way. What Teller owned was the copyright in a dramatic work that happened to contain a magic trick. The underlying idea that animates the specific expression of the performance remains, in my opinion if not the D-Nev’s, fair game.
*This 1987 movie, featuring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman lost in the Sahara Desert, was generally considered unspeakably awful and became a legendary Hollywood bomb. This tends to be my go-to reference for Hollywood disasters because, unlike Waterworld or Cutthroat Island or Heaven’s Gate, I actually saw Ishtar in the theater when I was a kid. God knows why. Maybe it was some form of punishment.
Wednesday, April 09, 2014
A Typology of Authorship in Highly Collaborative Works
To paraphrase Anna Karenina for the kajillionth time, all copyright scholars think Garcia was wrongly decided,* but every copyright scholar thinks so in their own way. When the Ninth Circuit held a couple months back that an actress has a “copyright interest” in the film in which she briefly performed, the (understandably) apoplectic reaction was as entertaining as the decision was mysterious. I’m on board with the general reception that the Garcia opinion was the copyright equivalent of sitting on a whoopee cushion, so instead of beating that long-deceased equine, I will instead explore a related issue raised by the case.
Copyright’s notion of authorship works great when we’re dealing with the classic, solo Romantic author: Some genius artist sits alone in a room painting a masterpiece all of her own invention, and—boom—thanks to section 201(a), the copyright in that work vests in her, making her the author of the work for the duration of the copyright, and the owner of the work until she transfers her copyright.
But a much harder question arises when we complicate the story of authorship to include multiple collaborators on a project. The solo writer or painter is clearly the author of their work, but when we imagine a fashion photograph involving a photographer, model, makeup people, and numerous technicians, the notion of authorship becomes far murkier. This is, then, one of the major issues raised by Garcia: how do we allocate authorship when many people make expressive contributions to a final creative product?
So this post seeks neither to praise Garcia (obv.) or to bury it (that’s been done amply and adequately already). Instead, below the fold, I want to develop a typology of the different kinds of creative contributions people make to works, and how these different kinds of contributions might give rise to what we call copyright authorship. Importantly, this is not a normative claim that all of the contributors in these classes are or should be entitled to joint or freestanding copyrights, but merely to organize and make sense of the different kinds of contributions to works that could plausibly be understood to be the result of creative authorship.
First is what I will call visionaries. This is a grandiose term because I can’t at present think of a less pretentious one, but I mean it simply to refer to the person who is in charge of the overall vision of a highly collaborative work of authorship—the director of a film, the producer of a sound recording, and perhaps the photographer of a sophisticated, artistic photograph (hence there will be no rehashing of the Ellen’s-selfie debacle here).
The visionary comes closest to the person who fits the Romantic notion of authorship of a work. The director of a film, for example, typically has the initial vision of and the most creative control over the content of the entire film. Hence courts have tended to conclude that (presuming we are to regard works as unitary rather than comprised of many different subworks by many different artists, which Garcia surprisingly called into question) the person exercising this visionary function is the presumptive author of a highly collaborative work. E.g., Burrow-Giles v. Sarony (U.S. 1884) (holding that Napoleon Sarony was the author of a famous photograph of Oscar Wilde because Sarony determined the setting, lighting, subject placement, and other features of the work).
Second, consider performers—actors in films, models in photographs, singers and session musicians in sound recordings). It was the Garcia court’s willingness to consider performers as authors of works that was so jarring to settled understandings of copyright (and also to the Copyright Office, which had rejected Garcia’s application for a copyright in the same performance that the Ninth Circuit held was protected).
I share the intuition that something seems very wrong about extending Garcia a copyright in her performance. But what complicates this is that I don’t have that same intuition in the context of sound recordings.** It does not seem obviously wrong to me that singers and musicians should not be the owner of the sound recordings they create at a studio. Their performances vivify the otherwise highly abstracted musical works on which they are based, and comprise the substance of the recorded sounds themselves. The seeming plausibility that musical performers might have a copyright in their sound recordings makes it a little harder to reject out of hand the notion that dramatic performers can never have a copyright interest in the audiovisual works to which they contribute.
The third category is the technician. This is the person who actually causes sounds or images to be fixed in the tangible medium of expression that is required for federal copyrightability—the cinematographer in film, the sound engineer in a recording studio, or the person taking a photograph (modernly, this is usually the visionary as well, but this was not always the case—Napoleon Sarony, for example, never touched a camera in his life).
A colleague once pointed out to me a formalist argument for why such technicians should have authorial status. The work in photographic works, audiovisual works, and sound recordings is pretty much indistinguishable from the fixation. So for a sound recording, the work is the actual sounds fixed in the studio’s digital audio tape. By this logic, then, the person who is actually creating the work is the person who is actually fixing the sounds (or in the case of other works, fixing the images).
This argument works well when the technician also makes crucial creative decisions about the work. The best example is the photographer. Eddie Adams or Manny Garcia (no relation to the “Innocence of Muslims” actress—as far as I know, anyway) are both the visionaries who imagine their photos (to the extent possible with photojournalism, which typically requires spontaneous creation) as well as the technicians who execute the fixation of their creative vision. Sound recordings are a harder case. Some sound engineers make creative contributions, while others act at the direction and discretion of producers. And the case where this makes the least sense is the cinematographer, who exercises great technical skill to operate the camera but who typically acts in the service of realizing the director’s creative vision (again, there are exceptions—Spielberg, for example, takes a relatively greater technical role in his films than most Hollywood directors).
The fourth and final category is the writer. This category will be populated only where the highly collaborative work is derivative of some other work—a screenplay, a musical work—so would exclude works like a painstakingly posed photograph. And it is beyond obvious that in order to create the film or sound recording at all, the creator of the derivative must get a license, either through bargaining (in the case of a film) or through section 115’s compulsory license provisions (in the case of a sound recording). But the fact of acquiring a license does not diminish the central role that the writer’s contribution plays in the creative impact of films or sound recordings. It just means that here, unlike with other categories, the copyright ownership issues are reasonably well demarcated and understood.
These categories—not meant to be exhaustive, but just illustrative—comprise four different ways that one might contribute to a highly collaborative work in a creative way that approaches copyright’s notion of authorship. One could contribute an overall guiding vision, or provide an original and electric performance, or supply the work’s underlying narrative structure, or contribute technical expertise in a thoughtful way that contributed to the aesthetic success of the final creative product.
The problem with acknowledging this multiplicity of forms of creative contribution for the purposes of law, though, is that copyright is ill-suited to manage the descriptive reality of authorship in highly collaborative works.*** This may suggest that Garcia is flawed pragmatically more than doctrinally. There may be some plausibility to the idea that a performance could be copyrighted, but the practical implications of going down that rabbit hole are just too messy to contemplate. So while the Romantic notion of locating authorship of all works in a single individual—visionary, technician, or whoever—may not square with the need to have a manageable notion of authorship (and, related, ownership). Hence this may be one rare instance in which Romanticism and pragmatism are on the same page.
*In all fairness, there were apparently a handful of Garcia supporters (other than members of industry groups benefited by the decision’s outcome).
**Based solely on casual empiricism, I think others share this intuition. I always ask my class (before we get into what law actually says about these things) who they think the author of a movie should be, and most people answer "director." But when I ask them who the author of a sound recording should be, the most common instinctive response is "the vocalist." No love for the producer, I guess.
***This may be a problem endemic to all property, actually. Real property law does ok with the idea of limited co-ownership, but once the owners of a given plot become too numerous, management problems and devaluation kick in. This is a particular problem for familial or tribal holdings over time.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
A salience-bias defense of marginal law reforms
Hey y’all. It’s always good to be back guesting at Prawfs. I’m looking forward to sharing thoughts about property—physical, intellectual, and otherwise—over the course of the next month. I’ll kick it off with a news item that caught my eye today: The UK just announced a forthcoming reform to its copyright law. Among other things, British citizens and subjects are now free to—wait for it—make personal copies of legally acquired copies of digital media (e.g., eBooks, CDs) for format-shifting or backup purposes.
This aspect of the British copyright reform strikes me as a perfectly good and sensible idea (as did its other features, like broadening the UK notion of fair use), but response to it sounded more in the register of “meh” or “so what?” than “hallelujah.” After all, this part of the revision legalized conduct that most people assumed was already legal (and may indeed be legal in other countries with broader notions of users’ rights), was certainly widely underenforced (because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend resources breaking into people’s homes to see if they’ve made a nefarious illicit backup CD copy of, say, Fartbarf’s “Dirty Power”*), and was, in any event, largely a moot point thanks to the increasing marginality of the relevant technologies (because, as my students helpfully point out to me when I refer to this medium for experiencing music, who uses CDs anymore, Grandpa?).
And yet I think there is something interesting about the UK’s move, not so much for the substantive impact on copyright law or user practices, but about a strategy for how and why we may want to reform laws generally. I explore this notion below the fold.
The major justification for these reforms (which grew out of the very thoughtful Hargreaves Report, which, for what it’s worth, could be a model for US copyright reform, in the vanishingly unlikely event that any congressfolks are reading this) is simply that it makes sense to update law to reflect actual practices. By one estimate, 85% of people in the UK assumed that making personal use copies was already legal, and the practice is already widespread. On this explanation, the personal-use element of the UK's copyright reform is well-taken but inconsequential, like fixing a spelling error that didn’t really confuse anyone about the meaning of a sentence.
But there’s another, broader, reason why this reform might be good even—perhaps especially—for the kind of copyright industries who were likely to resist it. This kind of conspicuous gap between social norms and practices on one hand and regulation on the other can be an embarrassment to the law that exacts outsized costs in terms of credibility. The reason that law/norm disjunctures can be especially problematic is that non-specialists may generalize about the entire law based on one conspicuous silly or outdated provision. This is a species of salience bias or the availability heuristic. Observing one particularly notable example about a place or, say, a body of law can falsely lead us to believe we have a true sense of its overall character.
The UK group Consumer Focus made just such a leap in this setting, pointing out that the illegality of innocuous conduct like making personal backup copies had caused the credibility of all “UK copyright law to fall through the floor.” This move—deriving the character of an entire body of law from its worst provisions—is not limited to copyright. A roughly analogous phenomenon is the tendency of laypeople to assume that when one (purportedly) guilty man goes free, that the criminal law system is generally very lenient—despite the overwhelming rates of conviction for accused criminals.
This is sort of like synechdoche in law—using a part, and especially a flawed or discordant part—to represent the whole. And what it means for law reform, and in particular the reform of statues like the Copyright Act, is that law/norm disjunctures may be more problematic than is usually appreciated. We generally tend to think that these kind of disparities between law on the books and actual practices are bad because of the people they unwittingly regulate. Out of date laws could impose sanctions for conduct that has become widely, imposing outsized penalties on unsuspecting people for trivial violations. But the UK example reminds us that the law/norm gap may be a major problem for law itself, especially in light of the tendency of lay observers to infer from a single out-of-step provision that an entire regulatory structure is flawed.
*Yes I used the name of this band in this illustration for amusement (mainly my own). But also yes, there actually is a band called Fartbarf, and perhaps more surprisingly, they actually have appeal once the juvenile humor value of their name fades, assuming that you’re into 80s-inflected synth-pop performed by a bunch of guys in gorilla masks. And hey, isn’t everyone?
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Nope, Mormons aren't successful because of their legacy of nineteenth-century wealth
Unless you live in a remote cabin without an internet connection you’ve heard that Amy Chua and Jeb Rubenfeld have authored a book, The Triple Package, that purports to explain the economic success of certain ethnic and religious groups – Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Jews, some Asian groups, south Asian Indians, and Iranians – in terms of a particular constellation of culturally ingrained outlooks that lead to successful striving. By and large respectable liberal opinion is outraged. The consensus is that Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is silly and probably racist in some way.
I have no particular sympathy for The Triple Package. I haven’t read the book, but from what I’ve seen it strikes me as a pop-psychology gimmick rather than a serious social explanation. I am sympathetic to the idea that culture matters when it comes to economic outcomes, but I find it’s often invoked as a kind of deus ex machina. I have much stronger sympathies with thinkers like Douglas North, who give explanatory pride of place to institutions. So, I’ve no brief for Chua and Rubenfeld, even though my knees don’t jerk in synch with respectable liberal opinion.
I am, however, both a practicing Latter-day Saint and a student (of sorts) of Mormon history. Hence, what has been most interesting to me about The Triple Package has been the way that Mormonism has played out in the argument over the book’s thesis. Enter Daria Roithmayr. In a hostile review on Slate, she argues that the true explanation for differing economic outcomes across groups lies largely in their initial endowment of wealth, although she is willing to admit room for other factors at the margins. On the Mormons, she writes:
It’s not just that Mormons have developed a “pioneer spirit” or that they believe that they can receive divine revelations, as Triple Package would have us believe. It’s more that the first Mormons started with enough money to buy a great deal of land in Missouri and Illinois. They then migrated to Utah, where Brigham Young and his followers essentially stole land from the Shoshone and Ute tribes, refusing to pay what the tribes demanded, and petitioning for the government to remove them. Beyond thousands of acres of free land, early political control over Utah was helpful.
Hence, Mormon success, such as it is, is due mainly, according to Roithmayr, to the Mormons’ initial endowment of wealth. The problem with this claim is that it is wrong. Roithmayr’s review is not primarily about Mormons, of course, and within a 1600-word article historical nuance goes out the window. The problem with Roithmayr’s claim, however, is not that it lacks nuance. It’s that it is flat wrong.
Roithmayer invokes nineteenth-century Mormon history, which can be divided into two periods. From 1830 to 1847, the Mormons were centered in the eastern United States, first in New York, then Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The second period spans 1847-1890, when the Mormons moved en mass to the Great Basin, settled Utah and the surrounding territories, and fought a long battle with the federal government over polygamy that they eventually lost. So during these periods did the Mormons benefit from huge windfalls of wealth that set future Latter-day Saints on the road to economic success?
The early coverts to Mormonism tended to be very poor. Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, came from an impoverished family of New Englanders trying desperately and ultimately unsuccessfully to make it in upstate New York. Their creditors got the family farm, to which they never had clear title. Most converts came from similar backgrounds. In Missouri the Mormons tried to create their own settlements by squatting on federal land, improving it, and then hoping to purchase it from the federal government when Congress passed one of its periodic pre-emption statutes. (Prior to the Homestead Act of 1862 the federal government demanded payment from those who wished to get title to government land.) When it became apparent that Congress was going to pass a pre-emption statute, non-Mormon elites in Missouri organized mob violence against the Mormons, who were driven from the state. Their improved land ended up in the hands of the leaders of the mob who in due course bought the land from the federal government.
In Illinois, the foundation for Mormon settlement was laid by a large purchase of land from a land speculator. This purchase was financed on credit by non-Mormon investors on the east coast that were betting (unsuccessfully as it turned out) on the long-term success of Mormons in Illinois. The initial speculator, however, did not have good title to much of the land that he “sold,” the Mormons were unable to repay the accrued debt, and Joseph Smith and the church were driven into bankruptcy. To be sure, some Mormons in outlying settlements were able to acquire property independently, but Mormon settlment in Illinois ultimately floated on sea of debt rather than resting on a foundation of wealth. In 1844, a non-Mormon mob murdered Joseph Smith, and thereafter violence against the Mormons increased. Eventually the bulk of the Mormons abandoned Illinois, in most cases selling what property they had in fire sales to finance the purchase of a few wagons. The failure of the Illinois period to produce a pool of Mormon wealth was exacerbated by the fact that after Smith’s murder the Mormon church splintered. Many Mormons remained in Illinois, ultimately leaving Mormonism altogether or founding various splinter sects, the largest of which is now called the Community of Christ. The Mormons that followed Brigham Young west were disproportionately English converts from the slums of Birmingham and were likely to be among the poorest Latter-day Saints.
But what about Utah? Didn’t the Mormons get all this wealth out there?
It is true that the Mormons, like all white American settlers, benefited at the expense of Native Americans. However, the land that they acquired in the Great Basin was extremely marginal. It’s a very arid region that is difficult to farm. Indeed, the Mormons were only able to farm it because their intensely cooperative approach to settlement allowed them to create extensive irrigation networks and provided risk pooling in a marginal setting. Even so, the early settlement of Utah was marked by extreme poverty on the part of the Mormons (something frequently remarked upon by non-Mormon visitors) and periodic brushes with starvation. If the value of land acquired in 1850 by one’s ancestors was a primary determinant of economic performance today the descendants of Mormon pioneers should be impoverished relative to those descended from settlers in Iowa or Kansas.
What about Mormon political power in Utah? Didn’t that translate into wealth in the nineteenth century?
Mormons tried to use their dominance of Utah territory to create a utopian religious commonwealth that they called Deseret or Zion. In the early stages of settlement this intense cooperative ethos benefited Mormons greatly. It allowed them to settle very marginal land and fend off starvation. However, for much the period it probably operated as an impediment to economic growth. The central goal of Brigham Young and his successors was economic self-sufficiency. As is generally the case, however, the push for autarky probably exacerbated poverty rather than alleviating it. The Mormons poured tremendous effort into ultimately doomed projects like growing cotton in the red-rock country of Southern Utah, introducing silk culture along the Wasatch Front, and trying to compete with the furniture manufacturing centers in the East after the coming of the railroad. To support these efforts, the church tried to cartelize the Mormon economy and pushed for boycotts of “Gentile” businesses. These efforts, coupled with polygamy, created chronic political and legal conflict in Utah, which tended to suppress investment and development.
In fairness to Roithmayr, I have spent nearly as many words in this blog post responding to a paragraph or two about Mormonism as she spent in her entire review of Chua and Rubenfeld’s book. Still, Mormon history is one of my interests, and I think Roithmayr gets it wrong, not just in terms of the nuances but in terms of the central claims that need to be true to support her argument. I know nothing about the economic history of Nigerian or Cuban immigrants, but to the extent that one wishes to explain current economic outcomes in terms of economic endowments a century or more previous, Mormons are not a good example. On this point, I suspect that Roithmayr’s argument is driven mainly by the assumptions of luck egalitarianism and critical race theory rather than a clear reading of Mormon economic history.
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Repealing the Federal Eminent Domain Power
Ilya Somin notes the renewed House action on the Private Property Rights Protection Act, a federal bill that would eliminate funding for economic development takings like those that would be forbidden by the Kelo dissent. As Ilya also notes, the bill seems unlikely to become law, but the fact that there is any activity at all is a sign that at least some members of Congress would like to cast a symbolic vote for narrowing eminent domain authority, even if it's an authority that the judiciary has upheld.
If so, may I suggest a new way for members of Congress to do that? By repealing the federal eminent domain power. Since 1875, the Supreme Court has held that the federal government has the power to take land through eminent domain. But as I explain at length in the most recent issue of the Yale Law Journal, that decision was probably wrong as an original matter, and was certainly inconsistent with the very widespread understanding and tradition from the Founding until the Civil War. Congress repeatedly avoided using eminent domain (except in the District and territories); when it needed land, the states took it. Even the Supreme Court agreed.
The most that can be said for the modern understanding is that the Supreme Court has upheld it. But the supporters of the Private Property Rights Protection Act have shown that they're willing to pursue their own views of the proper scope of eminent domain, even if the judiciary would uphold a broader one. So perhaps
If that's too radical, there's an alternative. Current federal law doesn't require any specific Congressional authorization for a federal taking. Under 40 U.S.C. 3113:
At a minimum, the House could propose a bill repealing this statute, and requiring that exercises of constitutionally dubious federal eminent domain authority be specifically authorized by Congress.
An officer of the Federal Government authorized to acquire real estate for the erection of a public building or for other public uses may acquire the real estate for the Government by condemnation, under judicial process, when the officer believes that it is necessary or advantageous to the Government to do so.
Thursday, June 06, 2013
Immovable ladders, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and property rightsThis piece, from Slate, by "Atlas Obscura," is wonderful. Was "Andy" striking back at the heavy hand of status-quo bias, trespassing, stealing, occupying, or -- like that French archeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark, messing with things best left alone?
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Book Club: Even More on Midlevel Principles in IP Law - Response to Bracha
In a previous post I explained the concept of midlevel principles in IP law. In this post I respond to a couple of detailed points made in a very insightful post on this topic by Oren Bracha. Oren has a number of interesting things to say, but his critique has two main points: (1) the conservative bias of midlevel principles; and (2) the fuzzy nature of midlevel principles, a product of their origin in a (hypothetical) consensus-building procedure.
(1) The conservative bias: I think there are two senses of "conservative." In my view, what are conserved are meta-themes that derive from but transcend specific practices. These themes do not uniformly point to results that are "conservative" in the other sense -- tending to preserve the status quo; continuing with trends currently in place. Let me illustrate with two specific examples. When Wendy Gordon introduced the idea of "fair use as market failure," she tied together a number of emerging themes in copyright law and connected them with a large body of thought (including caselaw) that came before. But her ideas -- based largely on what I would call the efficiency principle, though surely infused also with considerations of proportionality, nonremoval (public domain), and perhaps even dignity -- were not conservative with respect to outcomes. In fact they created a revolution in consumer or user rights, by shifting the focus from the copyright owner's interests, the amount copied, etc., to higher-level issues such as transaction costs and the nature of markets for IP-protected works.
A second example is eBay. The majority opinion, based on traditional equity doctrine (as codified in the Patent Act), was conservative in the sense that it deployed well-known rules. The Kennedy concurrence had a richer policy discussion, which centered (in my view) on the proportionality principle. The basic idea was that sometimes the automatic injunction rule gives patent owners "undue leverage" in negotiations; and that equity was flexible enough to take this into account. I see this as the embodiment of a very general principle, one that finds expression in many areas of IP law, from the rules of patent scope (enablement, written description, claim interpretation, etc.) to substantial similarity in copyright law, and so on. Again the discussion "conserved" on meta-principles by deploying a familiar theme from the body of IP law. But the outcome was not therefore necessarily conservative in the sense of preserving the staus quo. The status quo heading into the case was the automatic injunction rule. And that was rejected in favor of a more flexible approach.
(2) The fuzz factor: Oren's second point is that the midlevel principles just do not seem to have the requisite level of granularity to resolve difficult problems in IP policy. This leads him to conclude that the only way to gain true resolution is to engage each other at the (admittedly contentious) level of our foundaional commitments.
Here I would advert to the master for some guidance. John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, describes a detailed multi-stage procedure by which fair institutions can be established. In the course of the discussion he says this about the problem of fuzziness:
"[O]n many questions of social and economic policy we must fall back upon a notion of quasi-pure procedural justice: laws and policies are just provided that they lie within the allowed range, and the legislature, in ways authorized by a just constitution, has in fact enacted them. This indeterminacy in the theory of justice is not in itself a defect. It is what we should expect. Justice as fairness will prove a worthwhile theory if it defines the range of justice more in accordance with our considered judgments than do existing theories, and if it singles out with greater sharpness the graver wrongs a society should avoid." (A Theory of Justice, sec. 31, pp. 200-201).
So foundational consensus will inevitably be general. But that does not mean that citizens cannot engage each other in contentious argument at more operational, implemenetation-oriented stages. The way I see things, the midlevel principles are expansive enough to cut through the generality required to agree on them. (Note that this pluralistic sensibility is a product not of the early Rawls of A Theory of Justice but of the later Rawls of Political Liberalism.) These principles admit of sharper disagreement and a deeper level of engagement than Oren seems to believe. Perhaps they require greater elaboration than my brief treatment made possible. But they are not in my view fatally vague as a vocabulary of policy debate.
I should add one additional point. Oren notes my emphasis in JIP on the complete independence of foundational commitments and midlevel principles. I have begun to rethink that a bit, based in large part on a thoughtful critique of this aspect of the book by David H. Blankfein-Tabachnick of Penn State Law School. His critique and my response are both still in process and are forthcoming in the California Law Review, so I do not want to say too much. But suffice it to say that I have rethought the "complete independence" thesis a little bit. I can see that in a few rare instances, where policy issues are in equipoise, resort to one's ultimate commitments -- the foundations of the field as one sees them -- may be useful and even necessary. So, to close with Oren's wonderful imagery, after the flash of white light on the road to Damascus, the rider surely does remount and head on down the road. But he or she is changed utterly at some level -- and that change is bound to peek out, now and then, in the clinch.
Book Club: Justifying IP -- Midlevel Principles: Response to Jonathan Masur
In this post I respond to some comments on my book (abbreviated "JIP") by Jonathan Masur. It is not surprising to me that Jonathan takes aim at Part II of JIP, in which I introduce and explain what I call the midlevel principles of IP law. It seems whenever the book is addressed in depth (most notably at a full-day conference at Notre Dame organized by Mark McKenna; and a number of discussions at a conference on the Philosophy of IP rights at San Diego convened by Larry Alexander), this is the topic that seems to stir up the greatest interest.
Before I turn to Jonathan's specific points, let me say a word about what I mean by midlevel principles. Basically, these are meta-themes in IP law that mediate between pluralist foundational commitments and detailed doctrines and case outcomes. They are meant to serve as the equivalent of shared basic commitments in the “public” and “political” sphere as described by Rawls in his book Political Liberalism (2005). That is, midlevel principles supply a shared language, a set of conceptual categories, that are consistent with multiple diverse foundational commitments. They are more abstract, operate at a higher level, than specific doctrines and case outcomes; but they are pitched in a language that is distinct from that of foundational commitments. They create, as I say in JIP, a shared public space in which abstract (non-case-specific) policy discussions can take place. The payoff is this: a committed Kantian can conduct a sophisticated policy argument with a firm believer in the Talmudic (or Muslim, or utilitarian) basis of IP law about the proper scope of fair use in copyright, or the proper length of the term for patent protection, or what should be required to prove that a trademark has been abandoned. The argument can proceed without the Muslim needing to convert the Kantian or utilitarian to a religious worldview, and without the Kantian talking others out of the view that religious texts provide a set of workable guiding principles for right behavior. Diverse people can – and indeed, often do! – speak in terms of an appropriate public domain (i.e., the nonremoval principle); a fair reward for creators (the proportionality principle); the importance of moral rights (the dignity principle); or the cheapest way to offer legal protection at the lowest net social cost (the efficiency principle). All without the conversation devolving into fights over ultimate commitments.
Jonathan Masur recognizes the versatility of the midlevel principles. And he acknowledges that although these principles are fully consistent with utilitarian foundations, the IP system as a whole has failed to fully implement the policies called for by those with a thorough commitment to utilitarian foundations. As he puts it:
"The problem, as Merges correctly describes it, is that IP doctrine, as implemented by courts and other parties, has failed to advance the economic aims that it set out. This is an empirical judgment, and quite possibly a correct one."
As Masur notes, I have come to believe that utilitarian foundations are inadequate in the IP field. The data required by a comprehensive utilitarian perspective are simply not in evidence in this field -- at least not yet. Put simply, I do not think we can say with the requisite degree of certainty that IP systems create net positive social welfare. Yet I still had the intuition that IP rights are a valuable social institution. Which is what led me to search for alternate foundations. Hence Part I of JIP, in which I describe foundational commitments growing out of the ideas of Locke, Kant and Rawls. These deontic conceptions provide a better set of foundational commitments for the IP field, in my view. Others of course disagree, which is why the midlevel principles are so important as a shared policy language for those with divergent foundational commitments.
Masur notes the lack of empirical support for utilitarian IP foundations, but says in effect that deontic foundations do not provide much of an alternative. As he puts it,
"But what is the comparable standard by which a deontic conception of IP is to be judged? What would it mean for IP doctrine in practice not to have properly advanced Lockean or Kantian ethics? How could anyone tell? The problem—or, more accurately, the advantage for Kant and Locke—is that those approaches are purely theoretical and do not generate testable predictions. Economic theory has foundered on a set of tests that cannot be applied to the alternatives Merges proposes."
The way I see things, Jonathan has conflated two separate issues here. The first is whether IP can be justified at all. The second is how well any particular IP system is performing, given that there is a basic consensus that there should be such a system in the first place. The first issue is where foundational commitments come in. The second is operational; it is a question more of "how" or "how well" as opposed to "whether." (I address this in more detail in an article forthcoming in the San Diego Law Review, "The Relationship Between Foundations and Principles in IP Law.")
Seen in this light, there is no need for empirical tests to prove the viability of Lockean, Kantian, and/or Rawlsian foundations for the field. The only question that needs to be answered is whether a body of IP law can be envisioned that is consistent with these systems of philosophical thought. If so, the foundational question has been successfully answered. Then it's on to the operational level -- designing actual institutions and rules to implement a workable IP system. In my view this is where the efficiency principle comes into play: one important design principle for IP law is and should be getting from our IP system the greatest social benefit at the lowest net cost (as best we can estimate these values). Efficiency is an operational (midlevel) principle, in other words. It does not (and in my view cannot) justify the existence of the field. But it can serve us well in crafting the detailed operations of the field -- once we decide, consistent with ultimate commitments, that it makes sense to have such a field in the first place.
Thursday, June 07, 2012
The Virtual Honesty Box
As a fan of comic book art, I'm often thrilled to encounter areas where copyright or trademark law and comic books intersect. As is the case in other media, the current business models of comic book publishers and creators has been threatened by the ability of consumers to access their work online without paying for it. Many comic publishers are worried about easy migration of content from paying digital consumers to non-paying digital consumers. Of course, scans of comics have been making their way around the internet on, or sometimes before, a given comic's onsale date for some time now. As in other industries, publishers have dabbled with DRM, and publishers have enbraced different (and somewhat incompatible) methods for providing consumers with authorized content. Publishers' choices sometimes lead to problems with vendors and customers, as I discuss a bit below.
While services like Comixology offer a wide selection of content from most major comics publishers, they are missing chunks of both the DC Comics and Marvel Comics catalogues. DC entered a deal to distribute 100 of its graphic novels (think multi-issue collections of comic books) exclusively via Kindle. Marvel Comics subsequently struck a deal to offer "the largest selection of Marvel graphic novels on any device" to users of the Nook.
Sometimes exclusive deals leave a bad taste in the mouths of other intermediaries. DCs graphic novels were pulled from Barnes & Noble shelves because the purveyor of the Nook was miffed. Independent publisher Top Shelf is an outlier, offering its books through every interface and intermediary it can. But to date, most publishers are trying to make digital work as a complement to, and not a replacement for, print.
Consumers are sometimes frustrated by a content-owner's choice to restrict access, so much so that they feel justified engaging in "piracy." (Here I define "piracy" as acquiring content through unauthorized channels, which will almost always mean without paying the content owner.) Some comics providers respond with completely open access. Mark Waid, for example, started Thrillbent Comics with the idea of embracing digital as digital, and in a manner similar to Cory Doctorow, embracing "piracy" as something that could drive consumers back to his authorized site, even if they didn't pay for the content originally.
I recently ran across another approach from comic creators Leah Moore and John Reppion. Like Mark Waid, Moore and Reppion have accepted, if not embraced, the fact that they cannot control the flow of their work through unauthorized channels, but they still assert a hope, if not a right, that they can make money from the sales of their work. To that end, they introduced a virtual "honesty box," named after the clever means of collecting cash from customers without monitoring the transaction. In essence, Moore and Reppion invite fans who may have consumed their work without paying for it to even up the karmic scales. This response strikes me as both clever and disheartening.
I'll admit my attraction to perhaps outmoded content-delivery systems -- I also have unduly fond memories of the 8-track cassette -- but I'm disheartened to hear that Moore and Reppion could have made roughly $5,500 more working minimum wage jobs last year. Perhaps this means that they should be doing something else, if they can't figure out a better way to monetize their creativity in this new environment. Eric Johnson, for one, has argued that we likely don't need legal or technological interventions for authors like Moore and Reppion in part because there are enough creative amateurs to fill the gap. The money in comics today may not be in comics at all, but in licensing movies derived from those comics. See, e.g., Avengers, the.
I hope Mark Waid is right, and that "piracy" is simply another form of marketing that will eventually pay greater dividends for authors than fighting piracy. And perhaps Moore and Reppion should embrace "piracy" and hope that the popularity of their work leads to a development deal from a major film studio. Personally, I might miss the days when comics were something other than a transparent attempt to land a movie deal.
As for the honesty box itself? Radiohead abandoned the idea with its most recent release, King of Limbs, after the name-your-price model adopted for the release of In Rainbows had arguably disappointing results: according to one report, 60% of consumers paid nothing for the album. I can't seen Moore and Reppion doing much better, but maybe if 40% of "pirates" kick in a little something into the virtual honesty box, that will be enough to keep Moore and Reppion from taking some minimum wage job where their talents may go to waste.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Breaking the Net
Mark Lemley, David Post, and Dave Levine have an excellent article in the Stanford Law Review Online, Don't Break the Internet. It explains why proposed legislation, such as SOPA and PROTECT IP, is so badly-designed and pernicious. It's not quite clear what is happening with SOPA, but it appears to be scheduled for mark-up this week. SOPA has, ironically, generated some highly thoughtful writing and commentary - I recently read pieces by Marvin Ammori, Zach Carter, Rebecca MacKinnon / Ivan Sigal, and Rob Fischer.
There are two additional, disturbing developments. First, the public choice problems that Jessica Litman identifies with copyright legislation more generally are manifestly evident in SOPA: Rep. Lamar Smith, the SOPA sponsor, gets more campaign donations from the TV / movie / music industries than any other source. He's not the only one. These bills are rent-seeking by politically powerful industries; those campaign donations are hardly altruistic. The 99% - the people who use the Internet - don't get a seat at the bargaining table when these bills are drafted, negotiated, and pushed forward.
Second, representatives such as Mel Watt and Maxine Waters have not only admitted to ignorance about how the Internet works, but have been proud of that fact. They've been dismissive of technical experts such as Vint Cerf - he's only the father of TCP/IP - and folks such as Steve King of Iowa can't even be bothered to pay attention to debate over the bill. I don't mind that our Congresspeople are not knowledgeable about every subject they must consider - there are simply too many - but I am both concerned and offended that legislators like Watt and Waters are proud of being fools. This is what breeds inattention to serious cybersecurity problems while lawmakers freak out over terrorists on Twitter. (If I could have one wish for Christmas, it would be that every terrorist would use Twitter. The number of Navy SEALs following them would be... sizeable.) It is worrisome when our lawmakers not only don't know how their proposals will affect the most important communications platform in human history, but overtly don't care. Ignorance is not bliss, it is embarrassment.
Cross-posted at Info/Law.
Posted by Derek Bambauer on December 19, 2011 at 01:49 PM in Blogging, Constitutional thoughts, Corporate, Current Affairs, Film, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Law and Politics, Music, Property, Television, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Six Things Wrong with SOPA
America is moving to censor the Internet. The PROTECT IP and Stop Online Piracy Acts have received considerable attention in the legal and tech world; SOPA's markup in the House occurs tomorrow. I'm not opposed to blacklisting Internet sites on principle; however, I think that thoughtful procedural protections are vital to doing so in a legitimate way. Let me offer six things that are wrong with SOPA and PROTECT IP: they harm cybersecurity, are wildly overbroad and vague, enable unconstitutional prior restraint, undercut American credibility on Internet freedom, damage a well-working system for online infringement, and lack any empirical justification whatsoever. And, let me address briefly Floyd Abrams's letter in support of PROTECT IP, as it is frequently adverted to by supporters of the legislation. (The one-word summary: "sellout." The longer summary: The PROTECT IP letter will be to Abrams' career what the Transformersmovie was to that of Orson Welles.)
- Cybersecurity - the bills make cybersecurity worse. The most significant risk is that they impede - in fact, they'd prevent - the deployment of DNSSEC, which is vitally important to reducing phishing, man-in-the-middle attacks, and similar threats. Technical experts are unanimous on this - see, for example, Sandia National Laboratories, or Steve Crocker / Paul Vixie / Dan Kaminsky et al. Idiots, like the MPAA's Michael O'Leary, disagree, and simply assert that "the codes change." (This is what I call "magic elf" thinking: we can just get magic elves to change the Internet to solve all of our problems. Congress does this, too, as when it includes imaginary age-verifying technologies in Internet legislation.) Both bills would mandate that ISPs redirect users away from targeted sites, to government warning notices such as those employed in domain name seizure cases. But, this is exactly what DNSSEC seeks to prevent - it ensures that the only content returned in response to a request for a Web site is that authorized by the site's owner. There are similar problems with IP-based redirection, as Pakistan's inadvertent hijacking of YouTube demonstrated. It is ironic that at a time when the Obama administration has designated cybersecurity as a major priority, Congress is prepared to adopt legislation that makes the Net markedly less secure.
- Wildly overbroad and vague- the legislation (particularly SOPA) is a blunderbuss, not a scalpel. Sites eligible for censoring include those:
- primarily designed or operated for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, or DMCA § 1201 infringement
- with a limited purpose or use other than such infringement
- that facilitate or enable such infringement
- that promote their use to engage in infringement
- that take deliberate actions to avoid confirming high probability of such use
If Flickr, Dropbox, and YouTube were located overseas, they would plainly qualify. Targeting sites that "facilitate or enable" infringement is particularly worrisome - this charge can be brought against a huge range of sites, such as proxy services or anonymizers. User-generated content sites are clearly dead. And the vagueness inherent in these terms means two things: a wave of litigation as courts try to sort out what the terminology means, and a chilling of innovation by tech startups.
- Unconstitutional prior restraint - the legislation engages in unconstitutional prior restraint. On filing an action, the Attorney General can obtain an injunction that mandates blocking of a site, or the cutoff of advertising and financial services to it - before the site's owner has had a chance to answer, or even appear. This is exactly backwards: the Constitution teaches that the government cannot censor speech until it has made the necessary showing, in an adversarial proceeding - typically under strict scrutiny. Even under the more relaxed, intermediate scrutiny that characterizes review of IP law, censorship based solely on the government's say-so is forbidden. The prior restraint problem is worsened as the bills target the entire site via its domain name, rather than focusing on individualized infringing content, as the DMCA does. Finally, SOPA's mandatory notice-and-takedown procedure is entirely one-sided: it requires intermediaries to cease doing business with alleged infringers, but does not create any counter-notification akin to Section 512(g) of the DMCA. The bills tilt the table towards censorship. They're unconstitutional, although it may well take long and expensive litigation to demonstrate that.
- Undercuts America's moral legitimacy - there is an irreconciliable tension between these bills and the position of the Obama administration - especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - on Internet freedom. States such as Iran also mandate blocking of unlawful content; that's why Iran blocked our "virtual embassy" there. America surrenders the rhetorical and moral advantage when it, too, censors on-line content with minimal process. SOPA goes one step farther: it permits injunctions against technologies that circumvent blocking - such as those funded by the State Department. This is fine with SOPA adherents; the MPAA's Chris Dodd is a fan of Chinese-style censorship. But it ought to worry the rest of us, who have a stake in uncensored Internet communication.
- Undercuts DMCA - the notice-and-takedown provisions of the DMCA are reasonably well-working. They're predictable, they scale for both discovering infringing content and removing it, and they enable innovation, such as both YouTube itself and YouTube's system of monetizing potentially infringing content. The bills shift the burden of enforcement from IP owners - which is where it has traditionally rested, and where it belongs - onto intermediaries. SOPA in particular increases the burden, since sites must respond within 5 days of a notification of claimed infringement, with no exception for holidays or weekends. The content industries do not like the DMCA. That is no evidence at all that it is not functioning well.
- No empirical evidence - put simply, there is no empirical data suggesting these bills are necessary. The content industries routinely throw around made-up numbers, but they have been frequently debunked. How important are losses from foreign sites that are beyond the reach of standard infringement litigation, versus losses from domestic P2P networks, physical infringement, and the like? Data from places like Switzerland suggests that losses are, at best, minimal. If Hollywood wants America to censor the Internet, it needs to make a convincing case based on actual data, and not moronic analogies to stealing things off trucks. The bills, at their core, are rent-seeking: they would rewrite the law and alter fundamentally Internet free expression to benefit relatively small yet politically powerful industries. (It's no shock two key Congressional aides who worked on the legislation have taken jobs in Hollywood - they're just following Mitch Glazier, Dan Glickman, and Chris Dodd through the revolving door.) The bills are likely to impede innovation by the far larger information technology industry, and indeed to drive some economic activity in IT offshore.
The bills are bad policy and bad law. And yet I expect one of them to pass and be signed into law. Lastly, the Abrams letter: Noted First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams wrote a letter in favor of PROTECT IP. Abrams's letter is long, but surprisingly thin on substantive legal analysis of PROTECT IP's provisions. It looks like advocacy, but in reality, it is Abrams selling his (fading) reputation as a First Amendment defender to Hollywood. The letter rehearses standard copyright and First Amendment doctrine, and then tries to portray PROTECT IP as a bill firmly in line with First Amendment jurisprudence. It isn't, as Marvin Ammori and Larry Tribe note, and Abrams embarrasses himself by pretending otherwise. Having the government target Internet sites for pre-emptive censorship, and permitting them to do so before a hearing on the merits, is extraordinary. It is error-prone - look at Dajaz1 and mooo.com. And it runs afoul of not only traditional First Amendment doctrine, but in particular the current Court's heightened protection of speech in a wave of cases last term. Injunctions affecting speech are different in character than injunctions affecting other things, such as conduct, and even the cases that Abrams cites (such as Universal City Studios v. Corley) acknowledge this. According to Abrams, the constitutionality of PROTECT IP is an easy call. That's only true if you're Hollywood's sockpuppet. Thoughtful analysis is far harder.
Cross-posted at Info/Law.
Posted by Derek Bambauer on December 14, 2011 at 09:07 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, Film, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Law and Politics, Music, Property, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Copyright and Your Face
The Federal Trade Commission recently held a workshop on facial recognition technology, such as Facebook's much-hated system, and its privacy implications. The FTC has promised to come down hard on companies who abuse these capabilities, but privacy advocates are seeking even stronger protections. One proposal raised was to provide people with copyright in their faceprints or facial features. This idea has two demerits: it is unconstitutional, and it is insane. Otherwise, it seems fine.
Let's start with the idea's constitutional flaws. There are relatively few constitutional limits on Congressional power to regulate copyright: you cannot, for example, have perpetual copyright. And yet, this proposal runs afoul of two of them. First, imagine that I take a photo of you, and upload it to Facebook. Congress is free to establish a copyright system that protects that photo, with one key limitation: I am the only person who can obtain copyright initially. That's because the IP Clause of the Constitution says that Congress may "secur[e] for limited Times to Authors... the exclusive Right to their respective Writings." I'm the author: I took the photograph (copyright nerds would say that I "fixed" it in my camera's memory). The drafters of the Constitution had good reason to limit grants of copyright to authors: England spent almost 150 years operating under a copyright-like monopoly system that awarded entitlements to a distributor, the Stationer's Company. The British crown had an excellent reason for giving the Company a monopoly - the Stationer's Company implemented censorship. Having a single distributor with exclusive rights gives a government but one choke point to control. This is all to say that Congress can only give copyright to the author of a work, and the author is the person who creates / fixes it (here, the photographer). It's unconstitutional to award it to anyone else.
Second, Congress cannot permit facts to be copyrighted. That's partly for policy reasons - we don't want one person locking up facts for life plus seventy years (the duration of copyright) - and partly for definitional ones. Copyright applies only to works of creative expression, and facts don't qualify. They aren't created - they're already extant. Your face is a fact: it's naturally occurring, and you haven't created it. (A fun question, though, is whether a good plastic surgeon might be able to copyright the appearance of your surgically altered nose. Scholars disagree on this one.) So, attempting to work around the author problem by giving you copyright protection over the configuration of your face is also out. So, the proposal is unconstitutional.
It's also stupid: fixing privacy with copyright is like fixing alcoholism with heroin. Copyright infringement is ubiquitous in a world of digital networked computers. Similarly, if we get copyright in our facial features, every bystander who inadvertently snaps our picture with her iPhone becomes an infringer - subject to statutory damages of between $750 and $30,000. Even if few people sue, those who do have a powerful weapon on their side. Courts would inevitably try to mitigate the harsh effects of this regime, probably by finding most such incidents to be fair use. But that imposes high administrative costs, and fair use is an equitable doctrine - it invites courts to inject their normative views into the analysis. It also creates extraordinarily high administrative costs. It's already expensive for filmmakers, for example, to clear all trademarked and copyrighted items from the zones they film (which is why they have errors and omissions insurance). Now, multiply that permissions problem by every single person captured in a film or photograph. It becomes costly even to do the right thing - and leads to strategic behavior by people who see a potential defendant with deep pockets.
Finally, we already have an IP doctrine that covers this area: the right of publicity (which is based in state tort law). The right of publicity at least has some built-in doctrinal elements that deal with the problems outlined above, such as exceptions when one's likeness is used in a newsworthy fashion. It's not as absolute as copyright, and it lacks the hammer of statutory damages, which is probably why advocates aren't turning to it. But those are features, not bugs.
Privacy problems on social networks are real. But we need to address them with thoughtful, tailored solutions, not by slapping copyright on the problem and calling it done.
Cross-posted at Info/Law.
Posted by Derek Bambauer on December 10, 2011 at 06:03 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Corporate, Culture, Current Affairs, Film, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Property, Torts | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Yesterday, the House of Representatives held hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act (it's being called SOPA, but I like E-PARASITE tons better). There's been a lot of good coverage in the media and on the blogs. Jason Mazzone had a great piece in TorrentFreak about SOPA, and see also stories about how the bill would re-write the DMCA, about Google's perspective, and about the Global Network Initiative's perspective.
My interest is in the public choice aspect of the hearings, and indeed the legislation. The tech sector dwarfs the movie and music industries economically - heck, the video game industry is bigger. Why, then, do we propose to censor the Internet to protect Hollywood's business model? I think there are two answers. First, these particular content industries are politically astute. They've effectively lobbied Congress for decades; Larry Lessig and Bill Patry among others have documented Jack Valenti's persuasive powers. They have more lobbyists and donate more money than companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, which are neophytes at this game.
Second, they have a simpler story: property rights good, theft bad. The AFL-CIO representative who testified said that "the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks." That is perfectly true, and of course perfectly irrelevant. (More accurately: it is idiotic, but the AFL-CIO is a useful idiot for pro-SOPA forces.) The anti-SOPA forces can wheel to a simple argument themselves - censorship is bad - but that's somewhat misleading, too. The more complicated, and accurate, arguments are that SOPA lacks sufficient procedural safeguards; that it will break DNSSEC, one of the most important cybersecurity moves in a decade; that it fatally undermines our ability to advocate credibly for Internet freedom in countries like China and Burma; and that IP infringement is not always harmful and not always undesirable. But those arguments don't fit on a bumper sticker or the lede in a news story.
I am interested in how we decide on censorship because I'm not an absolutist: I believe that censorship - prior restraint - can have a legitimate role in a democracy. But everything depends on the processes by which we arrive at decisions about what to censor, and how. Jessica Litman powerfully documents the tilted table of IP legislation in Digital Copyright. Her story is being replayed now with the debates over SOPA and PROTECT IP: we're rushing into decisions about censoring the most important and innovative medium in history to protect a few small, politically powerful interest groups. That's unwise. And the irony is that a completely undemocratic move - Ron Wyden's hold, and threatened filibuster, in the Senate - is the only thing that may force us into more fulsome consideration of this measure. I am having to think hard about my confidence in process as legitimating censorship.
Cross-posted at Info/Law.
Posted by Derek Bambauer on November 17, 2011 at 09:15 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Corporate, Culture, Current Affairs, Deliberation and voices, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Music, Property, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack
Saturday, November 05, 2011
The House of Representatives is considering the disturbingly-named E-PARASITE Act. The bill, which is intended to curb copyright infringment on-line, is similar to the Senate's PROTECT IP Act, but much much worse. It's as though George Lucas came out with the director's cut of "The Phantom Menace," but added in another half-hour of Jar Jar Binks.
As with PROTECT IP, the provisions allowing the Attorney General to obtain a court order to block sites that engage in criminal copyright violations are, in theory, less objectionable. But they're quite problematic in their particulars. Let me give three examples.
First, the orders not only block access through ISPs, but also require search engines to de-list objectionable sites. That not only places a burden on Google, Bing, and other search sites, but it "vaporizes" (to use George Orwell's term) the targeted sites until they can prove they're licit. That has things exactly backwards: the government must prove that material is unlawful before restraining it. This aspect of the order is likely constitutionally infirm.
Second, the bill attacks circumvention as well: MAFIAAFire and its ilk become unlawful immediately. Filtering creep is inevitable: you have to target circumvention, and the scope of circumvention targeted widens with time. Proxy services like Anonymizer are likely next.
Finally, commentators have noted that the bill relies on DNS blocking, but they're actually underestimating its impact. The legislation says ISPs must take "technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States" to Web sites targeted under the bill, "including measures designed to prevent the domain name of the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) from resolvingto that domain name's Internet protocol address." The definitional section of the bill says that "including" does not mean "limited to." In other words, if an ISP can engage in technically feasible, reasonable IP address blocking or URL blocking - which is increasingly possible with providers who employ deep packet inspection - it must do so. The bill, in other words, targets more than the DNS.
On the plus side, the bill does provide notice to users (the AG must specify text to display when users try to access the site), and it allows for amended orders to deal with the whack-a-mole problem of illegal content evading restrictions by changing domain names or Web hosting providers.
The private action section of the bill is extremely problematic. Under its provisions, YouTube is clearly unlawful, and neither advertising or payment providers would be able to transact business with it. The content industry doesn't like YouTube - see the Viacom litigation - but it's plainly a powerful and important innovation. This part of E-PARASITE targets sites "dedicated to the theft of U.S. property." (Side note: sorry, it's not theft. This is a rhetorical trope in the IP wars, but IP infringement simply is not the same as theft. Theft deals with rivalrous goods. In addition, physical property rights do not expire with time. If this is theft, why aren't copyright and patent expirations a regulatory taking? Why not just call it "property terrorism"?)
So, what defines such a site? It is:
- "primarily designed or operated for the purpose of, has only limited purpose or use other than, or is marketed by its operator or another acting in concert with that operator for use in, offering goods or services in a manner that engages in, enables, or facilitates" violations of the Copyright Act, Title I of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or anti-counterfeiting laws; or,
- "is taking, or has taken, deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the U.S.-directed site to carry out the acts that constitute a violation" of those laws; or,
- the owner "operates the U.S.-directed site with the object of promoting, or has promoted, its use to carry out acts that constitute a violation" of those laws.
That is an extraordinarily broad ambit. Would buying keywords, for example, that mention a popular brand constitute a violation? And how do we know what a site is "primarily designed for"? YouTube seems to have limited purpose or use other than facilitating copyright infringement. Heck, if the VCR were a Web site, it'd be unlawful, too.
The bill purports to establish a DMCA-like regime for such sites: the IP owner provides notice, and the site's owner can challenge via counter-notification. But the defaults matter here, a lot: payment providers and advertisers must cease doing business with such sites unless the site owner counter-notifies, and even then, the IP owner can obtain an injunction to the same effect. Moreover, to counter-notify, a site owner must concede jurisdiction, which foreign sites will undoubtedly be reluctant to do. (Litigating in the U.S. is expensive, and the courts tend to be friendly towards local IP owners. See, for example, Judge Crotty's slipshod opinion in the Rojadirecta case.)
I've argued in a new paper that using direct, open, and transparent methods to censor the Internet is preferable to our current system of "soft" censorship via domain name seizures and backdoor arm-twisting of private firms, but E-PARASITE shows that it's entirely possible for hard censorship to be badly designed. The major problem is that it outsources censorship decisions to private companies. Prior restraint is an incredibly powerful tool, and we need the accountability that derives from having elected officials make these decisions. Private firms have one-sided incentives, as we've seen with DMCA take-downs.
In short, the private action measures make it remarkably easy for IP owners to cut off funding for sites to which they object. These include Torrent tracker sites, on-line video sites, sites that host mash-ups, and so forth. The procedural provisions tilt the table strongly towards IP owners, including by establishing very short time periods by which advertisers and payment providers have to comply. Money matters: WikiLeaks is going under because of exactly these sort of tactics.
America is getting into the Internet censorship business. We started down this path to deal with pornographic and obscene content; our focus has shifted to intellectual property. I've argued that this is because IP legislation draws lower First Amendment scrutiny than other speech restrictions, and interest groups are taking advantage of that loophole. It's strange to me that Congress would damage innovation on the Internet - only the most powerful communications medium since words on paper - to protect movies and music, which are relatively small-scale in the U.S. economy. But, as always with IP, the political economy matters.
I predict that a bill like PROTECT IP or E-PARASITE will become law. Then, we'll fight out again what the First Amendment means on the Internet, and then the myth of America's free speech exceptionalism on-line will likely be dead.
Cross-posted at Info/Law.
Posted by Derek Bambauer on November 5, 2011 at 05:06 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Intellectual Property, Law and Politics, Music, Property, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, October 13, 2011
The Pirates' Code
There have been a number of attempts to alter consumer norms about copyright infringement (especially those of teenagers). The MPAA has its campaigns; the BSA has its ferret; and now New York City has a crowdsourced initiative to design a new public service announcement. At first blush, the plan looks smart: rather than have studio executives try to figure out what will appeal to kids (Sorcerer's Apprentice, anyone?), leave it to the kids themselves.
On further inspection, though, the plan seems a bit shaky. First, it's not actually a NYC campaign: the Bloomberg administration is sockpuppeting for NBC Universal. Second, why is the City even spending scarce taxpayer funds on this? Copyright enforcement is primarily private, although the Obama administration is lending a helping hand. Third, is this the most effective tactic? It seems more efficient to go after the street vendors who sell bootleg DVDs, for example - I can buy a Blockbuster Video store's worth of movies just by walking out the front door of my office.
Yogi Berra (or was it Niels Bohr?) said that the hardest thing to predict is the future. And the hardest thing about norms is changing them. Larry Lessig's New Chicago framework not only points to the power of norms regulation (along the lines of Bob Ellickson), but suggests that norms are effectively free - no one has to pay to enforce them. This makes them attractive as a means of regulation. The problem, though, is that norms tend to be resistant to overt efforts to shift them. Think of how long it took to change norms around smoking - a practice proven to kill you - and you'll appreciate the scope of the challenge. The Bloomberg administration should save its resources for moving snow this winter...
Sunday, October 02, 2011
What Commons Have in Common
Thanks to Dan and the Prawfs crew for having me! Blogging here is a nice distraction from the Red Sox late-season collapse.
Last week, NYU Law School hosted Convening Cultural Commons, a two-day workshop intended to accelerate the work on information commons begun by Carol Rose, Elinor Ostrom, and Mike Madison / Kathy Strandburg / Brett Frischmann. All four of the above were presented as case studies (by Dave Fagundes, Sonali Shah, Charles Schweik, and Mike Madison, respectively). Elinor Ostrom gave the keynote address, and sat in on most of the presentations. It's exciting stuff: Mike, Kathy, and Brett have worked hard to adapt Ostrom's Institutional Analysis and Development framework to analysis of information commons such as Wikipedia, the Associated Press, and jambands. Yet, there was one looming issue that the conferees couldn't resolve: what, exactly, is a commons?
The short answer is: no one knows. Ostrom's work counsels a bottom-up, accretive way to answer this question. Over time, with enough case studies, the boundaries of what constitutes a "commons" become clear. So, the conventional answer, and one supported by a lot of folks at the NYU conference, is to go forth and, in the spirit of Clifford Geertz, engage in collection and thick description of things that look like, or might be, commons.
As an outsider to the field, I think that's a mistake.What commons research in law (and allied disciplines) needs is some theories of the middle range. There is no Platonic or canonical commons out there. Instead, there are a number of dimensions along which a particular set of information can be measured, and which make it more or less "commons-like." Let me suggest a few as food for thought:
- Barriers to access - some information, like Wikipedia, is available to all comers; other data, like pooled patents, are only available to members of the club. The lower the barriers to access, the more commons-like a resource is.
- State role in management - government may be involved in managing resources directly (for example, data in the National Practitioner Data Bank), indirectly (for example, via intellectual property laws), or not at all. I think a resource is more commons-like as it is less managed by the state.
- Ability to privatize - information resources are more and less subject to privatization. Information in the public domain, such as Shakespeare's plays, cannot be privatized - no one can assert rights over them (at least, not under American copyright law). Some information commons protected by IP law cannot be privatized, such as software developed under the GPL, and some can be, such as software developed under the Apache License. The greater the ability to privatize, I'd argue, the less commons-like.
- Depletability - classic commons resources (such as fisheries or grazing land) are subject to depletion. Information resources can be depleted, though depletion here may come more in the form of congestion, as Yochai Benkler argues. Internet infrastructure is somewhat subject to depletion, while ideas or prices are not. The greater the risk of depletion,the less commons-like.
Finally, why do we care about the commons? I think that commons studies are a reaction to the IP wars: they are a form of resistance to IP maximalism. By showing that information commons are not only ubiquitous, but vital to innovation and even a market economy, legal scholars can offer a principled means of arguing against ever-increasing IP rights. That makes studying these resources - and, hopefully, putting forward testable theories about what are and are not attributes of a commons - vital to enlightened policymaking.
(Cross-posted to Info/Law.)
Thursday, July 21, 2011
What Makes it Okay for Reporters to Trespass After Disasters?
Am I alone in being bothered by the fact that so many television news reporters, on the scene of a natural disaster, consider themselves at liberty to traipse through people's ruined homes and buildings, rifling through what they find there?
I recall after the Tuscaloosa tornado in April 2011, Brian Williams went into some home – or what was left of it – and found a DVD of University of Alabama football in the remains of someone's home. He picked it up and attempted to say something poignant about it on camera. It struck me – why does he think he has the right to do that?
Maybe television reporters sometimes get permission from owners before they go into homes or buildings. It's possible Williams did in that circumstance. But I certainly doubt that's the custom and practice. A common lack of permission also seems evidenced by the way reporters often speculate about who may have lived there and what may have happened.
As my fellow torts professors know, the law of trespass to land is quite strict. No damages are needed to make out a claim. And there's no need for bad intent. Plain-old going on to someone's land is actionable. That doctrine reflects our society's deeply felt commitment to the integrity of a person's land and domicile.
I'd bet most evening news viewers imagine there's some sort of legal privilege for reporters to do this. But, of course, there's not. Unless they've gotten permission from the lawful possessor, it's trespassing. It's also invasive. Of course it's not exactly the same as News of the World's phone hacking, but it is certainly similar.
I know, of course, why it's not a scandal. It's not done surreptitiously. Moreover, there's now a well established practice of post-disaster rummaging by TV news crews. We've become inured to it. Granted, it's also probably harmless. In fact, it's not hard to argue that it's beneficial, since we generally consider it to be a good thing when the journalistic press offers in-depth reporting on issues of public interest. But I'm not convinced that makes it right.
Saturday, July 02, 2011
The Ikea Effect and Locke's Theory of Property
I'm reading Predictably Irrational a behavioral economics popularization by Dan Ariely. I was struck by how much Ariely's exposition of irrational human attitudes toward ownership tracks John Locke's theoretical justification for private ownership of property. Ariely writes:
[T]he more work you put into something, the more ownership you begin to feel for it. Think about the last time you assembled some furniture. Figuring out which piece goes where and which screw fits into which hole boosts the feeling of ownership. ... I can say with a fair amount of certainty that pride of ownership is inversely proportionally to the ease with which one assembles the furniture ...
(Predictably Irrational, p. 175)
Ariely calls this the "Ikea effect." For me, living with a bunch of furniture I got from Ikea about 10 years ago, I would say the Ikea effect is that the more time I wasted assembling the furniture back then, the greater is my present-day desire to destroy it with an aluminum baseball bat. But anyway, check out what Locke says:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
(Second Treatise of Civil Government, ch. 5)
Perhaps this suggests that Locke's theoretical justification may have been driven less by detached logic and more by intuition springing from irrational impulse.
(Photo and composite by me; Locke engraving from public domain.)
Sunday, April 03, 2011
Why Teach the Rule Against Perpetuities?
It is always a profound, sensual pleasure to be back guesting at Prawfs, especially so near the occasion of this inimitable site’s glorious sixth (!) anniversary. I will begin this guest stint with a question that is particularly salient for property profs, though anyone who has experienced first-year property may relate.
The question is: Why should property professors teach the Rule Against Perpetuities (RAP)? Most readers will likely recall the hoary RAP from their 1L property course. The rule, which has its roots in the Duke of Norfolk’s Case (1682), expresses a simple principle against excessive dead-hand control of property (usually land) transfers, albeit in terms that are famously challenging to understand. Thomas Grey’s may be the most familiar formulation: No interest in land is valid unless it must vest, if at all, within 21 years of the end of some life in being at the time of the transfer.
The RAP is notorious as one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, concepts students traditionally learn in law school (I'm not sure this is right, but it's certainly the RAP's reputation). In Lucas v. Hamm (1961), the California Supreme Court held that the RAP was so confusing that drafting an instrument that violated the Rule could not be a basis for attorney malpractice. The Rule's confounding nature also plays a central role in the major plot twist of the 1981 neo-noir film Body Heat.
There are some plausible reasons to be skeptical that the RAP belongs on a modern property syllabus. First, many states have abolished the RAP by statute, so it’s not even law in many jurisdictions. Moreover, the RAP is complex enough that teaching it well takes, I’ve found, at least four full class-hours, and given that property is often hard enough to cover (at least if you have only four credits to do it), this time could be allocated to other issues that people may find more instinctively interesting or important.
These are reasonable arguments, but having thought about them a lot, I still think it is worthwhile and spend some time teaching the RAP in my property class. I explain the reasons for this choice, and what it may mean about law pedagogy more generally, below the fold.There are some reasons I’ve heard others advance for teaching the RAP that are non-starters. One colleague explained that he teaches the RAP because it’s a rite of law school passage, creating an experience that all law professionals can look back on one day with a rueful smile as they reflect on the rigors of law school. I don’t buy this one. Given the high cost of tuition, we owe students better justifications for taking up class time than simply preferring to indulge in a hazing ritual. Getting rid of the RAP in a given class may mean that all lawyers cannot commiserate about the fertile octogenarian or the unborn widow, but this seems like a pretty thin consideration if teaching it doesn’t bring any meaningful advantages.
Another reason often suggested for teaching the RAP is that it continues to appear on the MBE section of the bar, and given its complexity, students need an early introduction to it. This justification inveighs in favor of covering the RAP, albeit pretty weakly. I’m not against the idea that class should, to some extent, provide a basis for material that will be tested on the bar, but law school courses are about much, much more than bar prep, so merely invoking the notion that a subject will be on the bar doesn’t weigh very heavily in this respect.
I am unpersuaded by the objections to teaching the RAP, and actually believe it's an important and useful subject for 1Ls. Part of the reason is substantive. The RAP is not as important as it used to be, given some states' abolishing it, but it remains the law in many states (including California, where most of my students will practice). And even though boilerplate savings clauses may provide a ready tool for accounting for the RAP, it still remains necessary to consider its implications for property transactions, particularly in the context of trusts and estates.
But the more important reason has more to do with pedagogy than substance. I teach the RAP because of, not despite, its notorious difficulty, and because facing (and, hopefully, overcoming) this difficulty can be an important instructive experience for law students. It is true that understanding the RAP isn’t easy. I struggled with it in law school and when I teach it in first-year property, I still review the subject matter extensively to refresh my facility with it. But it is not true that understanding the RAP is impossible. As I tell my students, it’s like a crossword puzzle: at the beginning, it’s all blank space and obscure clues, but with the right amount of concentration and work, what once seemed impossibly foreign actually becomes comprehensible.
This is the bigger point: A common misapprehension is that the point of law school is just to transmit information about the blackletter content of substantive rules. This is, of course, really only part of the story. If telling students about rules were the whole point of law school, we might as well just read from a BarBri outline. Especially in the first year, when courses are pitched at a higher level of generality, the point of courses is not only to deliver the content of the law, but also to hone skills that college increasingly fails to impart: critical thinking and close reading; understanding and application of complex rule systems; and the ability to patiently and thoughtfully engage the kinds of intellectual challenges that lie at the core of any legal problem.
I teach the RAP because it provides excellent training in all of these skills. Understanding the RAP requires students to parse the language of the rule; comprehend it through repeated application; and to invest significant time concentrating on these tasks. This is especially true in light of the Rule’s notorious difficulty. Mastering the RAP is both a classic exercise in training the mind to think legally as well as an object lesson in the rewards of engaging complex rule structures. Once you’ve run a marathon, a mere 10K is no sweat (or so I assume). Similarly, students who conquer the RAP earn the sense of self-belief that inheres in conquering any significant challenge, so that the myriad other intellectual challenges of law school and beyond will seem less daunting by comparison.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Shawn Bayern's Conveyance Interpreter
My FSU colleague, the incomparable Shawn Bayern, is generously circulating an instructional tool for those who teach property. Here's how wunderprawf Al Brophy describes and reacts to this new teaching tool over at the Property Prof Blog.
I've been worried for some time about computers taking over; here's more evidence of it....
Shawn Bayern of Florida State University has a web program that is a "conveyance interpreter" that diagrams grants of estates ("To A for life, but if he becomes a lawyer, then to B for 21 years" and so on). The program uses a "context-free grammar" to understand the language of the conveyance, and then it generates an image that maps out the resulting property interests. Shawn borrowed the style of the images from diagrams that Andrea Peterson, his Property professor at Berkeley, used in class. In fact, Shawn wrote it when he was a property student.
I've been playing with it some this morning --- and I have to report that it's pretty darn cool. Just in time for the start of the new year. This could be the new teaching tool of the season! Hours and hours of fun just waiting you and your students.
For instance, [above you can see] the diagram Shawn's program drew for the grant "to A for life, then to B and her heirs if B survives A." The "conveyance interpreter" is available here.
The fact that we're one step closer to our jobs being taken over by computers is a story for another time.
Now, Shawn, where's the program to evaluate the rule against perpetuities?
Friday, July 30, 2010
Final July 2010 Posting on Nazi-looted Art Trafficking
A document I recently saw for the first time really opened my eyes to the amount of trafficking in Nazi-looted art into U.S. museums. It was a report completed by art historian Laurie A. Stein that was mentioned in the final report of the Bergier Commission, an Independent Commission of Experts established by the Swiss Parliament to study the role of Switzerland in trafficking during World War II. The Bergier Report came out in March 2002. To my knowledge, Ms. Stein's report has never been published, but last year was given by the Swiss government to Raymond J. Dowd, a claimants' lawyer in the Bakalar and Grosz litigation, which he discusses often on his blog. Because of how sensitive this is, I will use quite restrained language.
Ms. Stein's report indicates that research to date has only scratched the surface of the "extraordinary breadth of traffic in art to the United States that was occurring in the Nazi era." Ms. Stein stated that "the myths of American museum directors and collectors purchasing art in the 1930's through Swiss sources, in order to rescue it from the National Socialists, need to be reconsidered." She added: "It must be remembered that while Europe went to war, America was still conducting business as usual, even in the cultural arena--defining new museum collecting policies, mounting exhibitions, and building private collections from the best possible art available on the market."
The report focuses mostly on art channeled into U.S. museums via Nazi sales of "degenerate art" taken from German museums to auction in Switzerland (as advertised in Art News in New York) to raise foreign currency. Some art world insiders could not resist the temptation to scoop up a masterpiece for a bargain despite knowing that the net effect would be to "transform works of art into armaments." Many of those masterpieces eventually would come to be sold or donated to U.S. museums. There are some big names implicated by the report as having handled or ultimately received this art - the Museum of Modern Art, the Fogg Art Museum, Curt Valentin, "this country's most influential figure in the development of modern art", and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., to name just a very few names recognizable to a wide cross section of Prawfs readers.
The report supports the hypothesis that the high-profile dealers and collectors who facilitated the transactions likely are many of the same individuals who trafficked in Switzerland in art taken from Jews in forced and duress sales. To highlight the breadth of the issue, Ms. Stein wrote: "The range and constancy of recently-arrived works being offered and acquired by Americans evidences that the United States became a welcoming homeland for confiscated and looted art, and Switzerland became probably the most important conduit country for the rush of American art collecting during the era." According to the report, "[i]t is clear that there was much more dealing between American-based buyers . . . either in front of the auction block or behind the scenes, than has been recognized up until now."
So, in conclusion, the Nazi-looted art problem will not disappear any time soon. As heirs become aware of their possible claims and start to research, we can expect more litigation. One can only hope that the Nazi-looted art commission about to be born within the Department of State has an extraordinary impact within the United States and beyond in terms of truth and justice. There is still a long road ahead, but we owe it to Truth and Memory to continue.
Thursday, July 08, 2010
Nazi-looted Art - Modern Claims
I promised some info on modern litigation concerning Nazi-looted art. Here is a link to a chart, which shows how the tide in Nazi-looted art claims has completely shifted since a major win for claimants in the United States Supreme Court in 2004. Some profs may remember Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004), a Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act case in which a Holocaust survivor in her eighties prevailed (ultimately in arbitration in Vienna) against the claim of a foreign government, supported by the Bush administration, that federal courts lack jurisdiction over a foreign sovereign that possesses Nazi-looted art.
The chart summarizes how since then in every other Nazi-looted art case, except the one with the most egregious facts, the courts have rejected the restitution claims, typically on procedural grounds such as a federal construction of a state statute of limitations or on the affirmative defense of laches. These cases appear to reflect either a categorical refusal to permit fact finding or – worse – a de facto presumption that survivor’s and heirs’ claims to Nazi-looted art are invalid.
So eager have some museums and private collectors in this country been to remove the dark cloud of the Nazi past from their title to disputed artworks that many of them have gone to court as plaintiffs seeking swift dismissal without addressing the merits of rightful ownership. For example, in Toledo Museum of Art v. Ullin, 477 F. Supp. 2d 802 (N.D. Ohio 2006), a district judge actually held that the statute of limitations ran in 1943, before the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy, let alone defeated the Wehrmacht and liberated survivors in work camps and mass killing centers.
It may be time to update the chart again soon. Here is some info on the face that launched a thousand claims, Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele, which is set for trial July 26 in the Southern District of New York and reportedly is close to settlement.
Egon Schiele's Portrait of Wally, 1912
Monday, July 05, 2010
History of U.S. Executive Policy Since WWII
My first post focused on the most recent Nazi-looted art appeal in the United States, which was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. To put this appeal into context, an analysis of federal court cases adjudicating Nazi-looted art claims since 2004 demonstrates a de facto presumption against the legitimacy of these claims. I will lay out a summary of the other cases in question in my next (third) post.
This post will focus on the history of U.S. executive policy. Dismissing such claims without reference to the complex historical factors delaying assertion of owners’ claims violates foreign policy goals pursued by the United States and the Allies during and immediately after World War II, and in recent diplomatic breakthroughs in 1998, 2000, and 2009. This executive policy is the subject of this post. Historical context dating back to 1933 will be provided in my fourth post.
In the normal course of judicial administration touching on foreign policy, federal judges typically defer to determinations of policy matters by the executive branch. For example, in 1949 this Court ruled inadmissible the statements of a Jewish victim of Nazi persecution describing his brutal imprisonment by the Nazis that led him to “transfer” major assets under duress, on the ground that to do so would denigrate a foreign country. Bernstein v. N. V. Nederlansche-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart-Maatschappij, 173 F.2d 71 (2d Cir. 1949). In 1952, however, as will be familiar to any international law professor, Jack B. Tate, Acting Legal Advisor in the Department of State, clarified:
[The U.S.] Government’s opposition to forcible acts of dispossession of a discriminatory and confiscatory nature practiced by the Germans on the countries or peoples subject to their controls . . . [and] the policy of the Executive, with respect to claims asserted in the United States for restitution of such property, is to relieve American courts from any restraint upon the exercise of their jurisdiction to pass upon the validity of the acts of Nazi officials.
26 Dept. St. Bull. 984-85 (1952) (the “Tate letter”). Once the Second Court was fully informed of the government’s views of coerced “transactions” during the Nazi era in Germany, it promptly reversed its previous ruling in the same case. Bernstein v. N.V. Nederlansche-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart-Maatschappij, 210 F.2d 375, 376 (2d Cir. 1954).
U.S. diplomats led efforts to warn other countries against looting in the landmark London Declaration of January 5, 1943, 8 Dept. St. Bull. 21 (1952), which “declare[d] invalid any [coerced] transfers of, or dealings with, property . . . whether such transfers or dealings have taken the form of open looting or plunder, or of transactions apparently legal in form, even when they purport to be voluntarily effected.” Immediately after the war, the Nuremberg Tribunal evaluated detailed evidence of coerced sales, and the plunder of art was declared a war crime and is so recognized today. At Nuremberg, it was perfectly clear to the fact finders who had done what and to whom. For example, Alfred Rosenberg, head of infamous Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (“ERR”) art looting unit, was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.
Shortly thereafter in Bonn and Vienna it was equally clear that, in order to rejoin the human family, Germany and Austria had to repudiate all spurious “transactions” of the entire Nazi era, including art “deals” that were really seizures. E.g., Restitution of Identifiable Property; Law No. 59, 12 Fed. Reg. 7983 (Nov. 29, 1947) (Military Government Law 59). Thus, the model chosen was a restitution model for individual claims, and these claims were not subsumed in reparations paid after the war, which were limited as we made room for the Marshall Plan.
Current foreign policy requires deference like this Court gave to the Tate letter. Diplomats from the State Department, particularly Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, played a leading role in securing public commitment by the forty-four nations that adopted the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and the Terezín Declaration, which emerged from the international conference hosted by the Czech Republic in June 2009. These declarations call for effective, fact-based resolution of Nazi-looted art claims. Principle eleven of the Washington Principles encourages nations “to develop national processes to implement these principles, particularly as they relate to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for resolving ownership issues.” The Terezín Declaration states in its principles under the heading “Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art”:
3. . . . [W]e urge all stakeholders to ensure that their legal systems or alternative processes . . . facilitate just and fair solutions with regard to Nazi-confiscated and looted art, and to make certain that claims to recover such art are resolved expeditiously and based on the facts and merits of the claims and all the relevant documents submitted by all parties. Governments should consider all relevant issues when applying various legal provisions that may impede the restitution of art and cultural property, in order to achieve just and fair solutions, as well as alternative dispute resolution, where appropriate under law. (Emphasis added)
To give credit when due, this development in foreign policy was sparked in no small measure by Guidelines issued by the Association of American Museum Directors (“AAMD”) in June 1998. Thus, it is quite shocking that U.S. museums are asserting statute of limitations and laches defenses, often as plaintiffs, and distorting the historical record and law in the process.
My next post will lay out the progression of cases since the 2004 Altmann victory in the United States Supreme Court and subsequent restitution of the Gustav Klimt Adele Bloch-Buaer II, a portrait of a relative of the claimant formerly known as Austria’s Mona Lisa. This progression shows that federal courts do not seem to be giving Nazi-looted art cases the fair assessment they deserve.
Friday, July 02, 2010
Thanks for the Invitation - My Topic: Historical Cultural Property Claims
Thanks to Dan Markel and everyone else at PrawfsBlawg for the invitation to write this month. Since 1999, I’ve been working as a practitioner and then an academic on Holocaust-era claims. My posts will focus on cultural property law, a subset of property law and international law. Co-counsel, Prof. Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., and I filed this amicus brief within the last ten days on behalf American Jewish Congress, Commission for Art Recovery and the following Jewish community leaders, Holocaust educators, artists and art historians, and legal scholars and practitioners dedicated to the promotion of alternative dispute resolution: Filippa Marullo Anzalone, Yehuda Bauer, Michael J. Bazyler, Bernard Dov Beliak, Michael Berenbaum, Donald S. Burris, Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman, Talbert D’Alemberte, Marion F. Desmukh, Hedy Epstein, Hector Feliciano, Irving Greenberg, Grace Cohen Grossman, Marcia Sachs Littell, Hubert G. Locke, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Arthur R. Miller, Carol Rittner, John K. Roth, Lucille A. Roussin, William L. Shulman, Stephen D. Smith and Fritz Weinschenk.
Thanks to Dan Markel and everyone else at PrawfsBlawg for the invitation to write this month. Since 1999, I’ve been working as a practitioner and then an academic on Holocaust-era claims. My posts will focus on cultural property law, a subset of property law and international law.
Co-counsel, Prof. Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., and I filed this amicus brief within the last ten days on behalf American Jewish Congress, Commission for Art Recovery and the following Jewish community leaders, Holocaust educators, artists and art historians, and legal scholars and practitioners dedicated to the promotion of alternative dispute resolution: Filippa Marullo Anzalone, Yehuda Bauer, Michael J. Bazyler, Bernard Dov Beliak, Michael Berenbaum, Donald S. Burris, Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman, Talbert D’Alemberte, Marion F. Desmukh, Hedy Epstein, Hector Feliciano, Irving Greenberg, Grace Cohen Grossman, Marcia Sachs Littell, Hubert G. Locke, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Arthur R. Miller, Carol Rittner, John K. Roth, Lucille A. Roussin, William L. Shulman, Stephen D. Smith and Fritz Weinschenk.
This Second Circuit appeal concerns the dismissal of Grosz v. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Too many of us, unfortunately including a fair number of federal judges, seem to presume that claims to property taken long ago must be time-barred under some legal doctrine. That presumption, however, is blocking our ability to bring sunlight to the dark, hidden history of the vastness of Nazi-looting, the art market’s greed in secretly snapping up bargains and the fact that claimants often were unable to make claims in the post-war period. Too many in the art community would have us believe that the fact that Nazis plundered more art than any other regime in history, surpassing even Napoleon, remained a mystery until academics and lawyers turned their attention to newly opened archives in the mid-1990s. This simply is not true, and it is directly relevant to whether purchasers acted in good faith and whether claimants could have identified their property claims and asserted them before now.
United States diplomats from the State Department played a leading role in securing public commitment by the forty-four nations that adopted the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art in 1998 and the Terezín Declaration, which emerged from the international conference hosted by the Czech Republic in June 2009. These declarations call for effective, fact-based resolution of Nazi-looted art claims – not defeating them in court on statute of limitations grounds.
The brief captures the current hostile climate for claims to Nazi-looted art, wherein museums are trampling the conciliatory and transparency touchstones in the Washington Principles, Terezin Declaration and their own guidelines while convincing federal courts to accept distorted versions of historical fact going back to 1933 and contravene consistent executive branch policies dating back from today to 1943.
Some American museums and others have managed to convince our federal courts that claims to Nazi-looted art are not worthy of treatment on the merits – grossly distorting the historical record in the process. Some courts seem to have been convinced that enemies of the Third Reich could all freely engage in voluntary property and business transactions up until the passage of the Nuremberg Laws or even as late as 1938. This brief uses irrefutable historical evidence to demonstrate the falsity of this position and that the art world had contemporary knowledge of the massive infection of the art market with “flight art” starting in 1933.
In the Grosz case, the district court, in contradiction to Fed. R. Ev. 408, took snippets of settlement discussions completely out of context to improperly rule that MoMA Director Glenn Lowry refused the claim before MoMA clearly did so, such that the plaintiffs missed their court filing window under New York’s “demand and refusal” rule by a few months. This ruling flies in the face of the court’s express finding that Lowry’s language was “almost certainly designed to entice plaintiffs to continue negotiating and to prevent the dispute from becoming public or escalating into litigation.” The court’s ruling calls out for application of the equitable doctrines of tolling and estoppel and de-incentivizes good faith negotiation while incentivizing museums to draw out negotiations in the hopes that plaintiffs will miss the limitations cut-off.
This ruling guts executive policy since 1943. Executive policy clearly acknowledges the length to which the Nazis went to mask aryanizations and forced sales of real and personal property as voluntary transactions and calls for their un-winding (London Declaration, Tate Letter, Military Government Law 59, Nuremberg Trials, etc.). Moreover, recent U.S.-led efforts achieved the support of 44+ nations of declarations signed in Washington (1998), Vilnius (2000) and Terezín (2009) supporting resolution of Nazi-looted art claims via ADR premised on liberal access to provenance (ownership history) records to air the factual merits. Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) and American Association of Museums (AAM) Guidelines mirror these standards.
MoMA, trampling over the declarations and guidelines, refuses to disclose provenance records relevant to the case, much less resolve the claim on the merits, despite Lowry’s 1998 testimony to Congress stating that MoMA and the museum community support transparency and MoMA’s words on its own web site stating that MoMA’s archives are open to all serious researchers. The court seems to have pre-judged the case at the motion to dismiss stage, characterizing evidence about the tainted history of the paintings at issue as “rank hearsay” despite logical inferences to be drawn from the true historical context, endorsing MoMA’s protestations of confidentiality and inappropriately accepting MoMA's statute of limitations arguments mischaracterizing settlement communications.
This case concerns paintings by George Grosz, who fled Germany in 1933 and was later declared an “enemy of the State” by the Nazi regime. He left his art with Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, who also later fled. The historical record documents that his galleries were aryanized. MoMA bought one of Grosz’ paintings in 1947, and another in 1954. Two "red flag" names identified as traffickers by the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the Office of Strategic Services, which would be familiar to any provenance researcher, appear in the provenances of the paintings at issue. Not caring does not equate to not knowing.
Unfortunately, this case is not unusual. More to come in my next post. In the meantime, here's my web page if you'd like to contact me.
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Property at the Park
Since becoming a parent, I’ve encountered a whole new realm of social norms involving children in public spaces in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights. E.g., the playground rules technically bar food and drink, but both are commonplace and accepted. It’s totally fine to forget a park acquaintance mom’s name, but socially embarrassing to forget her child’s name. Stay in the swing as long as you want until there is someone identifiable waiting; then the first-in must be the first-out, within about 3 minutes. (I am, admittedly, still learning the ropes here so for any Brooklyn Heights parents, my apologies if I’ve gotten any of these norms wrong.)
One set of norms that particularly intrigues me relates to toddler toys at the park. A local park, Cadman Plaza, features a large open field with no play equipment. Children arrive with all manner of toys (scooters, baby strollers, balls, etc.). In typical toddler fashion, the owner of the toy will generally use it for a few minutes, then lose interest and become obsessed with another child’s toy. The norm seems to be that, unless small enough to be secreted away in a stroller basket and so stowed, toys become common property open to the use of other toddlers as long as the “owner” toddler isn’t presently using the toy. I specify here toddler because this norm does not appear to extend to baby toys or “big kid” toys. Thus, it is not ok for a toddler to take a baby’s rattle from the baby’s blanket or for a big kid to take another big kid’s stroller out for a spin. The toddler norm seems designed to accommodate the mobility and short attention span of toddlers as well as their failure to appreciate “mine” vs. “yours,” and to avoid turning the park space into a series of fraught “no” encounters. It also seems to reflect a view of these bright shiny toys as a honeytrap for the toddler set. In other words, if you bring a bright shiny toy to the park and set it alluringly out in my toddler’s line of site, it is akin to entrapment.
These norms regarding park toy use remind me faintly of the attractive nuisance doctrine in tort which requires (real) property owners to exercise reasonable care with respect to child trespassers under certain conditions. The property owner’s rights are limited primarily out of recognition of the diminished capabilities of children. (It also seems to me that there might be some analogous instances in property law where property rights become similarly limited under certain circumstances (property profs?).)
The conditions that the Restatement requires to invoke the attractive nuisance doctrine follow, with my annotations indicating how they likewise seem to be satisfied in the park/toy scenario described above. So my very limited observation as a result of this exercise – it is mildly interesting, for purposes of thinking about the relationships between norms and law, to note that the requirements for invoking a legal rule that limits (real) property rights are (perhaps unsurprisingly) similar to those that underlie a social norm limiting (personal) property rights.
Restatement (Second) of Torts § 339 (1965)
Artificial Conditions Highly Dangerous To Trespassing Children
A possessor of land is subject to liability for physical harm to children trespassing thereon caused by an artificial condition upon the land if
(a) the place where the condition exists is one upon which the possessor knows or has reason to know that children are likely to trespass [toy bringers know other children are likely to be at the park], and
(b) the condition is one of which the possessor knows or has reason to know and which he realizes or should realize will involve an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm to such children [toy bringers know that bright shiny toys pose an unreasonable risk of attempts at expropriation], and
(c) the children because of their youth do not discover the condition or realize the risk involved in intermeddling with it or in coming within the area made dangerous by it [toddlers don’t understand private property yet, “mine” vs. “yours”], and
(d) the utility to the possessor of maintaining the condition and the burden of eliminating the danger are slight as compared with the risk to children involved [sharing the toy or not bringing it at all is much easier than forcing everyone else to keep their toddlers away from the toy], and
(e) the possessor fails to exercise reasonable care to eliminate the danger or otherwise to protect the children [notably, if a toy is secreted way in a stroller, it doesn’t fall within the “mine is yours” park norm].
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Property As/And Constitutional Settlement
I've posted a new paper with this title to SSRN. The article addresses the constitutionality and propriety of governments settling constitutional issues or claims by disposing of public properties through various forms of privatization or by taking the subject properties. Settlement-by-disposition has occurred with increasing frequency in Establishment Clause contexts. Salazar v. Buono, which was argued in October and may be decided early next year, is an example. Public forum properties such as streets and parks have also been disposed of in order to settle constitutional controversies. Settlement-by-disposition is neither a new phenomenon, nor one limited to the sometimes contentious public display of religious symbols. In addtion to the foregoing, consider Boumediene v. Bush, in which Justice Kennedy pointedly reminded federal officials that the power granted by the Constitution to acquire and dispose of federal territories does not carry with it the power to "switch the Constitution on or off at will."
The article traces the practice of settlement-by-disposition to the civil rights era, when officials devised a variety of creative dispostions in an effort to avoid integration. Decisions from the 1960s and 1970s revealed no clear answer to the question whether officials could dispose of constitutional claims by disposing of public properties. Some lower courts stretched the nascent state action doctrine and equal protection principles to prevent dispositions that were plainly intended to thwart integration orders. But other courts, including the Supreme Court in a decision involving the disposition of public swimming pools, permitted officials to dispose of properties even though the result was to negate integration. The Court did resist dual school system and other sham dispositions in the public education context. But it was never forced to decide whether officials could simply close the public schools entirely in the face of desegregation mandates; although such proposals were made by segregationist public officials, southern parents and officials ultimately rejected the idea.
In the aftermath of the oral arguments in Buono, some media and commentators seemed rather disappointed that the case might be decided on mere "property" grounds rather than on the Establishment Clause merits. But I think settlement-by-disposition is actually the most significant aspect of the case, not least because this practice has implications far beyond the "donut hole" in the Mojave. As Nelson Tebbe recently posed the fundamental question: "When should we allow governments to deploy private-law rules in order to circumvent public-law obligations?" I propose a general framework for thinking about and analyzing the constitutionality and propriety of settlement-by-disposition, one that draws upon the lessons of the civil rights experience. The framework focuses on the fiduciary duties owed by public officials with regard to the critical assets subject to disposition. The trust analogy I propose is not perfect. But it responds directly to the danger that settlement-by-dispositon can be used to render constitutional liberties discretionary.
I invite those interested to read the draft, and of course would welcome any comments.
Monday, November 09, 2009
There is one more coda in what is probably the most-controversial-office-park-development in recent memory, the Pfizer facility that ousted Susette Kelo from her house in New London, Connecticut. The Hartford Courant reports:
Pfizer Inc. will shut down its massive New London research and development headquarters and transfer most of the 1,400 people working there to Groton, the pharmaceutical giant said Monday.
Susette Kelo's house has since been relocated elsewhere in New London. I wonder if she will be allowed to move it back.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Disneyland and property rights in tickets
Due to a family matter, I had to head down to Los Angeles last week, so naturally my wife and I took our two little boys to Disneyland as well. While there, the following two possibly analogous incidents occurred that got me thinking about property rights in tickets.
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
The Vacuous Private Law of Homeowners' Associations (Below the Fold) After Vacuous Reflections About My Vacuous Life
Here we are, back for the fourth summer stint on PrawfsBlawg. It's hard to believe, when Dan first invited me to do this, in July, 2006, I was an outsider to the legal academy looking in (per Bob Uecker, "gosh, they're having fun in there.") Also, Twitter was unknown. Twitter has done a lot to focus my blogging, because, call me an old whatever, but I can't believe anybody gives two hoots about the mundane details of my life, whether by blog entry or tweet, something I wasn't considering back in 2006 while in a New Orleans carwash watching what looked like melted rainbow sherbet ooze all over my car. Steve Bainbridge seems to be able to get away with food and wine, but he seems to know what he's talking about. I try to maintain a connection to something legal (or, if not legal, funny).
If I were inclined to vacuous reflections about life, however, I would extol the pleasures of not of litigating, but of home brewing beer, a subject touched upon in these parts recently. My son, Matthew, and I are on our third batch of the summer, having invested $100 in the basic tools of the trade. Our first 43 bottles were an Irish stout recipe, which we named "Max and Annie's Jewish Stout," after our two dogs. We've since moved on to "Max and Annie's Michigan Porcupine Pale Ale" (a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale recipe), and "Charlevoix Steam Beer," which is presently fermenting in the crawl space where it is cool. Our plan is to lay down a carboy full of mead for a full year in a few weeks. This is a stretch but the legal connection is that I can't post the labels, because I am positive at least the second two violate a whole raft of copyright and trademark rights.
But enough of me. Let's go below the fold where YOU can hear me whine about the governance of homeowner's associations.
We spend the summers in Charlevoix, Michigan, where we bought a lot sixteen years ago, and built a house twelve years ago. In Michigan, there is something called a "site condominium," which is basically another way of imposing regulations in a subdivision of free-standing homes, and that's what we have. There are thirty-six lots, and common elements, which consist of two roads and landscaping, and a beach lot with a removable "Brock Dock" through which residents not on the lakeshore itself have access to the lake. You own your own lot and house in fee simple absolute, but the lot is established pursuant to a master condominium deed, which contains the property rules, and which incorporates a set of recorded bylaws, which establish the five-person Board of Directors (classified board - two and three seat classes, elected for two years) and the architectual review board, empower the collection of assessments for the maintenance of the common elements, and set use restrictions such as no short-term leasing, no open garage doors, and no boats, trailers, RVs, etc. left in the driveways.
If you want to experience the thrills of corporate governance in a microcosm, do as I have done and be a member of the condominium association Board of Directors for going on fifteen years. I would have resigned long ago, except that nobody is as anal about the record-keeping as I am, and so I've been the secretary (and now webmaster) for all these years. The lesson I take from the experience, as a legal theorist, is the tenuous (vacuous?) relationship among (a) the actual private law of the association as reflected in its governing documents, (b) what people think their actual rights are, and (c) how, when it comes to asserting and defending one's interests as between the law and the lore (or custom), a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (see Prawfs guest blogger Brian Tamanaha on Law as a Means to an End). Take, for example, a matter of no small interest: the ability to see the lake from your living room if you have a house that is not on the lakeshore. There are local zoning rules that define setbacks, as well as an architectural review board within the condominium association, but it has been almost impossible to restrain the lakeshore residents from building setback to setback (i.e., very large homes on relatively small lots), so that the space between the houses is a mere sixty feet, filled with fast growing (and kind of ugly) white pines that the original developer planted at the lot lines to keep the place from looking like a landing strip. But there is no legal right anywhere in the documentation that says you have a property right in your view of the lake. The only way to control this is through community controls on landscaping (which doesn't help with the stuff that was here before) or an appreciation of the Prisoner's Dilemma we find ourselves living in, and the ensuing need to cooperate. Nevertheless, I find myself educating a neighbor every year on the fact that there is no legal right to a "view corridor" as it has come to be known. If there were, I would have already done something about the forest of scrubby white pines that block my view.
Then there is the question of the separation of ownership and management. We just issued a rule to the effect that there were to be no permanent firepits built on the beach. You can have fires, but you have to use a portable firepit (they exist), which means that you clean up after yourself, and there's no lingering hot embers for a kid to fall into. My publication of this rule prompted the following "Berle and Means" response from a neighbor (otherwise, a very nice person - beware the pitfalls of the inference one draws from e-mail): "Does the board act and make rules based on the good of the people that live here?"
Well, I could go on, but there is shameless self-promotion yet to be written.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
A Casual Casebook: The Canon of American Common Law
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Acknowledging What Harvard Law Owes to Slaves
Harvard Law School was founded with money amassed through slavery.
This is a fact that HLS, my alma mater, does not try to hide. But it is a truth that is not exactly advertised either. If you visit the “Our History” page of the law school’s website, you get a somewhat-whitewashed version of the school’s heritage. More than a third of the 311-word synopsis of HLS history reads as follows:
The Law School traces its origins to Isaac Royall, who in 1781 left land from his estate in nearby Medford to Harvard University, with the proceeds intended to "endow of a Professor of Laws at said college, or a Professor of Physics and Anatomy." Harvard took the opportunity to fund its first chair in law, and the Royall chair continues to support an HLS professor today, more than 200 years later.
In 1806, Royall’s heirs sold the rest of his estate and used the funds to establish a school of law at Harvard University. The Royall family coat-of-arms -- three stacked wheat sheaves beneath the university motto, Veritas -- was adopted as the school’s shield.
What this account omits entirely is that Isaac Royall was a slaveholder – his donated estate was built from slave labor and the slave trade.
I appreciate that the issue of how Harvard Law deals with its slave-money origins raises a set of very difficult questions. (A very thoughtful and wonderfully engaging discussion by Janet Halley, Harvard’s current Royall Chair, can be found here.)
Nonetheless, I think there is one simple question of fairness that transcends the historical, political, and social complexities: Shouldn’t HLS acknowledge Royall’s slaves as it does all other benefactors?
Surely they are benefactors. We know that the slaves were not paid the wages they were owed for their labor. So, to borrow a concept from remedies, it seems only fair that Royall’s slaves should, in retrospect, be awarded something like a constructive trust on their unremitted earnings. That trust property, having been converted to charitable contribution, leaves a residue of acknowledgement of giving. That acknowledgement is currently possessed, posthumously, by Royall. It seems only equitable to shift that res to the account of the slaves, or at least allow them to share as co-tenants.
I think it follows that, at a minimum, Harvard Law ought to acknowledge the slaves’ contributions in the school website’s historical narrative. And I think a tangible statement on campus – a wall-mounted inscription somewhere – would very much be in order. Many of the slaves’ names are known and are listed by The Royall House Association. Those individuals should be acknowledged. Using the information found on the Royall House Association’s rolls, I imagine the inscription might read as follows:
IN GRATEFUL ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THE INVOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE SLAVES OF THE ROYALL ESTATE FOR THE FOUNDING ENDOWMENT OF HARVARD LAW SCHOOL:
OLD NEGRO MAN
GIRL 6 YEARS OF AGE
AND OTHERS WHOSE NAMES ARE LOST
Friday, August 29, 2008
Why course packets ought to be fair use
Yesterday I received a set of "scholarly perspectives" from UCLA Law School -- a handy little reprint containing digested versions of their faculty's scholarship. Doug Lichtman's contribution contained the following statement about publishers' desire to facilitate the creation of course packets -- an assertion that is, from my experience, so wildly implausible that it makes me suspect that Lichtman has never actually spoken with an employee of a publisher's "permissions department" in person.
Here is the statement: "Without fair use, copyright holders would for the most part license [course packet excerpts from their copyrighted works], anxious to earn the additional royalties associated with classroom adoption and cognizant of the fact that a faculty member can always assign other reading if a given copyright holder asks for an unreasonable price or imposes unreasonable terms."
As someone who has done a bit of casual field research in this area, this statement seems to me an especially egregious example of economoid tendencies to mistake a model for reality. In fact, in my several interactions with the permissions departments of various publishers, I have never detected the slightest hint of anxiety to negotiate a plausible price. The reason, as I'll explain after the jump, is that assembling material for a course packet is like assembling parcels for a New York City skyscraper: The transaction costs destroy the possibility of a voluntary assembly even when the assembly value obviously exceeds the value of the disassembled pieces. This is why I'd argue that course packets ought generally to be "fair use."
When I've asked publishers for permission to use a chapter -- always less than 10% -- of a historical work, the clerk at the end of the 'phone never budges from a price that is wildly disproportionate to the value of the property that I am trying to purchase. They simply do not care that (for instance) charging my students $10-15 each for the one-time use of a 20-30 page chapter of an out-of-print history of political parties is preposterous. Inevitably, I walk. Inevitably, the clerk does not give a damn. Inevitably, the publisher loses the opportunity to earn a few bucks off of a book that now gathers dust in libraries.
The clerk knows that I can easily choose another book on political parties: Morton Keller, Richard McCormick, Joel Silbey, John Aldrich, and many others allegedly vie for my business. Much more significant, the clerk knows that I can simply write up my own summary of the relevant history using their copyrighted material, which is what I generally end up doing. (Publishers cannot copyright history itself, after all). Indeed, I tell the clerk all of this in response to the absurd price quote before I thank him or her and hang up.
So why does the clerk not negotiate "anxious[ly]" as Lichtman predicts? The reason is probably transaction costs: I suspect that it simply is not worth publishers' money to hire someone with the knowledge and training to exercise discretion in the permissions department to negotiate over the penny-ante sums available in the course packet business. Instead, the clerk is given a price sheet -- say, a nickel per page -- from he or she can no more budge than a salesclerk at CVS can haggle over the price of toothpaste. Course packets are custom-tailored anthologies, typically used for specialized seminars with small numbers of students. The material is assembled from a lot of different books and magazines, so no single copyright holder will reap a significant reward. Sure, the Copyright Clearance Center will handle the 'phone calls for the prof -- but they do not haggle over the price: If they did, they'd get the same response that I got. And the CCC has no more capacity than the permissions department gnome to negotiate intelligently over the relative value of, say, Silbey's chapter on the "Shrine of Party" versus my time in writing up a summary of the same.
The transaction costs are the result of what my former colleague and co-author Michael Heller would call a "tragedy of the anti-commons." (His recent and extraordinarily readable book, Gridlock Economy , provides illustrations in areas ranging from real estate to intellectual property). Lots of owners have small entitlements necessary for a more valuable assembled item, such that assembling the bits into a single valuable whole becomes a major headache. Like a land assembly, a course packet assembly can falter simply because the publishers cannot pool their resources to hire an agent with authority to bargain intelligently over a realistic price for their bits of prose. (Unlike land assemblies, the particular transaction cost is not strategic behavior but simple administrative costs of collecting and evaluating information).
Keep in mind that this price ought to be very, very low, if the publisher is economically rational. The publishers, after all, are absolved from the need to pay production, shipping, marketing, or administrative overhead: The prof handles all of that. The books' being out of print, any money that the publisher makes is pure profit, and the course packet itself is free advertising for the press and author. Academic presses are happy to move even 2,000 copies of a book that is expensive to produce and usually badly marketed. The notion that they would lose revenue from charging a low price -- say, a cent per page -- for chapters of out-of-print academic titles is goofy.
Sadly, the sort of frictionless world of anxious sellers and cagey buyers that Lichtman assumes in his scholarship has become the foundation for really bad "fair use" precedent in Princeton University Press v. Michigan Document Services, 99 F.3d 1381 (6th Cir. 1996)(en banc) (a case that Lichtman cites approvingly). Moreover, I doubt that the Congress will amend the statute any time soon: The classic Olsonian political economy of course packets is that publishers are well-organized and student-consumers are not, leading to Congress' refusing to touch preposterous results like MDS.
The rational solution would be to treat as "fair use" any course packet that used a fraction of a book so small that it would be implausible to expect the students to buy the whole book. Lichtman's response would be, I'd guess that such a doctrine might undermine some incentive for publishers to increase production to sell to a market that they are manifestly ignoring. When he produces some evidence that publishers have any interest in serving this market, I'll re-think my position that Lichtman is an apostle for pure deadweight loss.
But I've got no time to investigate the question right now: I've got to write up a summary for a course packet.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Michael Heller's The Gridlock Economy
This past weekend, I read Michael Heller's new book The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives. The "this past weekend" part of the previous sentence says a lot of good things about the book -- I have two young kids, and not a lot of free time on the weekends. The Gridlock Economy is one of those rare books that makes important theoretical points while being an easy, enjoyable read. Like Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital, The Gridlock Economy is clearly written and illustrates its points with engaging examples. You could assign the whole book for a week's reading in a class and not feel guilty about overwhelming your students.
The book's core points build on insights that Heller first developed in The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transition from Marx to Markets. The basic idea of the anticommons is that highly-divided ownership of property can lead to the underutilization of resources. If too many people have control over a resource, decisionmaking gets gummed up, transaction costs multiply, and resources are underused. Heller's iconic example of the anticommons is Moscow storefronts, where the right of many "owners" to veto various uses led to stores that remained vacant while kiosks thrived on the sidewalks just outside. If the tragedy of the commons can be seen as being caused by an absence of property rights, the tragedy of the anticommons can be seen as being caused by an overabundance of property rights. Heller argues that we should be seeking the sweetspot between too much and too little property: "Well-functioning private property is a fragile balance poised between the extremes of overuse and underuse." (p. 19).
The Gridlock Economy explores this theme in a number of interesting settings, including biotech patents, broadcast spectrum, land use regulation, and land assembly. My one quibble is that the book occasionally crams problems that don't seem to fit into the anticommons category. One example is the fiasco of underutilized broadcast spectrum owned by television broadcasters. (p. 96) If the broadcasters had stronger property rights in this spectrum, it probably would not be underutilized to such a degree. This particular problem therefore seems to be more about too little property, rather than too much property. Another example is the problem of highly-fractionated interests that results from multiple generations of a family passing property through intestacy. After a few generations, a single plot of land can have scores of owners. These multitude of owners can lead to real anticommons problems -- just imagine trying to get the consent of thirty cousins to do anything with a piece of property. As a remedy for this sort of multiple-ownership problem, the law allows the property to be partitioned. For property with many owners, partition is usually achieved through a judicial sale of the property, with the proceeds divided among the owners. As Heller describes (p. 121)the partition process has a ton of flaws, and needs to be reformed. But Heller's complaints about partition are about the flaws in a remedy for an anticommons problem, not the anticommons problem itself.
As noted, these are just quibbles. This is a great book.
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Law Prof as Graduate Student
I have a very bad habit of sitting in my office and coming up with things to do that make the relatively straightforward job of being a law professor more complicated. One example is starting up a blog, an extremely rewarding but highly time consuming thing to do. Another is going back to graduate school. For the past two years, I’ve been taking graduate courses in philosophy at the University of Maryland at College Park. I hope to complete my Ph.D. coursework this coming year.
This raises an obvious question: why would I go back and do a Ph.D. when I already had a tenure-track job as a law professor? The answer has a couple of parts. First, I write about property theory and teach a property theory seminar. Pretty much every major moral philosopher has something interesting to say about property. If I was going to teach and write about these philosophers, it made sense to improve my basic grounding in their work (or, in other words, to stop practicing philosophy without a license). Second, when I started writing about theoretical issues, the cliché that law school does not provide academic training started to hit home. I thought that I could add depth to my scholarship by getting the academic training that a Ph.D. provides. Third, my undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and I really like the subject. Fourth, I thought it would be both fun and challenging to get exposure to new issues and ideas. Finally, there is the credential, though it really isn’t that important in comparison to the others. A J.D. and a Ph.D. would make me one of the more overeducated people in my circle of friends, but even here the credential doesn’t help that much – one of my good friends has a J.D. and an M.D.
So far, I’ve been really happy with the decision. I was fortunate that a seminar in the philosophy of property was offered in my first semester at Maryland. I think my academic skills have improved, though it is hard to isolate the relative impact of the Ph.D. program from the steep learning curve of a junior scholar. I’m sure that my essay on Property and Freedom, whatever its remaining faults, is far better than it would have been had I not done graduate work in philosophy. An advantage of doing graduate work at this point in my career is that I already have a research agenda, and can tailor my studies to that agenda. On the other hand, it has also been invigorating to study new things. In my first year, I took a philosophy of science seminar solely because it fit into my commuting schedule. I’ve become so taken with the philosophy of science that it has become my philosophical area of specialization, and I will do my dissertation on a philosophy of science topic (mechanisms and explanation, for any of you who might care).
There have, of course, been some drawbacks. I had to take the GRE. I live two hours from College Park, so I spend a lot of time in my car. I have to pay tuition. Many people who do Ph.D.s get tuition waivers, but these waivers are earned through teaching assistantships, and my current teaching gig pays way better than the going rate for graduate students. Still, the whole program will cost about the same as one year of law school. Perhaps most troubling, there are the obvious complications of trying to do what amounts to two jobs at once. Every semester, I have a couple of weeks where conflicts – say between grading and finishing a seminar paper or take home exam – make my life crazy. Although I have been able to incorporate some of my seminar papers into my legal scholarship, the coursework demands have slowed down my scholarly productivity a bit at a time when it is particularly important to crank out the paper. But all things considered, the pros strongly outweigh the cons, and it has been a lot of fun to be a student again.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
I assumed the worst until a Google search brought me to this Houston municipal webpage. It seems that because Houston does not have any zoning, the city takes an interest in enforcing deed restrictions to effect zoning. So maybe this is the city's way of announcing that it is doing backdoor zoning. It's a very weird way of choose-your-own-adventure government, but maybe it fits with the Texas libertarian ethos.
Given the history of deed restrictions to effect racial segregation, Houston municipal signs seem very troubling to me. The closest analogy I can think of is a Southern diner with two lines roped off, one of which is labeled "Whites Only," to designate it as a line for cholesterol conscious people who want egg whites, not yolks. But there's no state action there (maybe a government run cafeteria?)
Why announce public enforcement of private zoning restrictions in an oblique way on neighborhood signs, but only in some neighborhoods? It'd be really easy for someone to get the wrong message--that is, if it really is the wrong message.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Takings, a Second Time
In 1985, I published my book, Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain (1985), which promptly received a number of scathing reviews by authors who are best left unnamed for the moment. But I was confident then, as I am confident now, that the approach that I took to the topic was basically correct. The conventional wisdom on that subject went into overdrive to confine the scope of the takings cause so that it did not overrun the rest of the constitution, or create a strong set of imperatives that the political branches would have to observe. My own contrary view was that the clause was as comprehensive and bold as its prose, and that no more than any other broad guarantee in the constitution (think of the First Amendment on speech and religion), it did not deserve to suffer a death by a thousand cuts by judges anxious to preserve broad discretion in the national and local governments to regulate economic affairs or the use and disposition of private property.
Now 23 years later I have returned to the same topic in a new book from Oxford University Press, called Supreme Neglect: How to Revive the Constitutional Protection for Private Property. The purpose of this new volume is to do several things. The first of these is to rearticulate the positions that I set out in the earlier volume in a form that is both accessible to a general audience and rigorous enough for an academic audience. The second purpose was to update the book to take into account some topics that only came to prominence after the original takings book was published. I decided to leave out discussions of some of the procedural obstacles to raising takings claim in federal court, but I did include discussions on the issues surrounding the problem of temporary partial takings as in the First English case, and of unconstitutional conditions problem as it was raised in cases like Nollan and Dollan.
There is a sneaky character of great constitutional provisions. The shorter they are, and the more common their language, the more difficult the task of their interpretation. Private property, for example, is not just a two-word phrase, but it represents an entire world view, which necessarily needs to be distilled from sources external to the text. Takings, public use and just compensation are also terms that come easily off the tongue, but are hard to explicate in any coherent fashion. In the next few blog posts I shall work through some of the key arguments on these issues. But for the moment, I will just note that I am quite proud that my own views leave me outside the mainstream of both the political left and right.
The left of course is deeply suspicious of all forms of private property and urges various populist recipes for government intervention that turn out to be worse than the disease. The right often is so anxious to avoid charges of judicial activism that it turns somersaults to avoid giving broad constitutional texts their broad intellectual content. Both sides start with prior positions that have no grounding in either constitutional text nor the theory of limited government (that "necessary evil") which underlies the document. In future posts, I hope to show that the path I have charted does justice to both the text and the structure of our original, but now forgotten, constitutional order. It was no accident that I titled the book "Supreme Neglect," for it is the Court's tepid application of the takings clause that is the source of most of our present intellectual, and institutional, difficulties.
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Stepping Off the Cliff and Publicly Following Advice on Scholarship from the AALS New Law Professor Workshop
All of Friday at last week's AALS New Law Professor Workshop was devoted to teaching, and two speakers, Doug Berman (Ohio State), of blogging and criminal sentencing fame (he is quoted on the front page of the New York Times this morning regarding the Libby commutation), and Angela Davis (American), shared the two hours devoted on Saturday morning to scholarship. As to Doug's talk, I'll simply note that the written outline, one and a half pages of well-spaced bullet points, repeats the word "write" fourteen times. Indeed, this is a public apology to Angela, because she spoke on the mechanics of writing and placing articles, but by that time, Doug had gotten me so fired up I didn't want to listen anymore about writing, and went up to my room to write.
One of Doug's major theses was "the importance and value of quantity. . .aka. . .avoiding the false comforts of 'quality over quantity.'" (Readers of my blog posts know that has never been my concern. Indeed, I take it one step further and actively sacrifice quality for quantity.) Point number one under that thesis was "realize 80% of genius is revealed in the first 20% of efforts." On that note, I decided this morning that the introduction (12 pages) to a piece on which I have been reading, writing, and thinking for six months, and the conclusion of which, say 48 pages (or the remaining 80%) in the future, is still murky to me, is certainly not genius, but on the other hand, beyond laughable. So without further ado, and in another exercise of shameless self-promotion, I posted on SSRN a piece entitled Aboutness, Thingness, and Morphosity: A Pragmatic Ontology of Formal Systems in Law, the abstract of which follows:
Others have spoken of a sense that distinguishes areas of the law, for example, the law of property, in terms of “thingness.” I explore the implications of this sense for the phenomenon known as formalism, in which legal forms reflect a belief in a “deep reality.” I contend our tendency to formalism is more than linguistics; it reflects perceptions of forms intangible but nevertheless real, all of which raises an ontological question. I further explore the pragmatic consequences of this otherwise philosophical question, in areas of complex arrays of constitutive and regulative rules, like accounting standards, codes, business acquisition agreements, and corporate structures. Lawyers are not unique among human beings in perceiving intangible deep realities where others do not, but if we see things as real that our clients do not, perhaps we ought to address the implications. This is the introduction to a work-in-progress in which I will attempt to do so.
I have done this a whole bunch of times and it is still like stepping off a cliff.
Monday, February 12, 2007
"The Political Economy of Eminent Domain"
My favorite law professor, Nicole Stelle Garnett -- a former Prawfs guest-blogger -- is now guesting over at the Volokh Conspiracy, where she is planning a series of five posts about her recent article, "The Neglected Political Economy of Eminent Domain." The comments boxes are already hopping, so check it out.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
The Perfect Gift for the Prawf
It's that time of year -- parades, lights, candles, eggnog, latkes, and giving and getting things you never knew you needed. So, any nominations for the perfect gift for a law professor? What is it we need, appreciate, enjoy, crave, or were too ashamed to buy ourselves?
I have a couple of ideas. One is a Buddha water drawing board, to remind the prawf that our art is a work in progress. The water board helps us practice not getting too attached to anything we create. We draw something and set it free. Us prawfs are in it for the long haul and we want some of our thoughts to evolve, fade, and draw new ones on top of what we already put out.
Of course, if one looks around enough, they may run into a website such as the lawshop.com or forcounsel.com or gifts-for-the-legal-profession dot com, http://www.e-corporategifts.com/legal_gifts.html. But does anybody really wear "the constitution tie" or "the legal dictionary tie"?
Monday, December 18, 2006
One of this year's big ideas, according to the New York Times Magazine, is "creative shrinkage," i.e., a strategy employed by struggling cities to "shrink [their] way into a new identity," rather than grow their way back to prosperity:
At its peak, Youngstown supported 170,000 residents. Now, with less than half that number living amid shuttered steel factories, the city and Youngstown State University are implementing a blueprint for a smaller town that retains the best features of the metropolis Youngstown used to be. Few communities of 80,000 boast a symphony orchestra, two respected art museums, a university, a generously laid-out downtown and an urban park larger than Central Park. “Other cities that were never the center of steel production don’t have these assets,” says Jay Williams, the city’s newly elected 35-year-old mayor, who advocated a downsized Youngstown when he ran for office.
Williams’s strategy calls for razing derelict buildings, eventually cutting off the sewage and electric services to fully abandoned tracts of the city and transforming vacant lots into pocket parks. The city and county are now turning abandoned lots over to neighboring landowners and excusing back taxes on the land, provided that they act as stewards of the open spaces. The city has also placed a moratorium on the (often haphazard) construction of new dwellings financed by low-income-housing tax credits and encouraged the rehabilitation of existing homes. Instead of trying to recapture its industrial past, Youngstown hopes to capitalize on its high vacancy rates and underused public spaces; it could become a culturally rich bedroom community serving Cleveland and Pittsburgh, both of which are 70 miles away.
Youngstown’s experiment has not gone unnoticed. Williams’s office has already fielded calls from officials in a few of the many American metropolitan areas that have experienced steep population drop-offs. When cities hit rock bottom, it seems, planners can find new solutions for urban decay — if they are willing to think small enough.
In the land-use and local-government areas, there's been a lot of work done on annexation and secession. I wonder, if "creative shrinkage" catches on, can we expect a wave of efforts by cities to slough off unwilling, perhaps previously annexed neighborhoods? (Of course, the Times piece is not so much about changing the political boundaries, only about limiting new construction and capturing open spaces.) I don't know this field, but is there precedent for cities (let's assume we're talking about "home rule" cities) kicking out -- i.e., returning involuntarily to unincorporated status -- parts of themselves?
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Check out this Washington Post story, about nine hard-partying Georgetown students who live in a $2 million (!!) rowhouse in Georgetown and who are insisting that they are a religious community, and therefore entitled to an exemption from zoning laws about unrelated people living together.
The neighbors call it blasphemy and a possible precedent-setting threat to property values. It has impressed some of the young men's parents, including one who called it "ingenious" and another who said they were defending American property rights in the face of fuddy-duddy Georgetowners. And it has registered little reaction from the Catholic university, which says it doesn't consider the Apostles its business.
"It's between the owners of the property and the city," university spokesman Erik M. Smulson said.
So much for in loco parentis. Seriously, though, the rest of the article raises interesting questions about the creation and application of religious accommodations.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
"Urban Renewal's Final Implosion"
Here is an article about New Haven's "Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which for the past three decades has occupied -- some say blighted -- a downtown block of this oft-maligned city, [and which] is expected to be demolished next month."
The coliseum's destruction will be a depressing coda for Urban Renewal, the controversial nationwide movement that reshaped dozens of American cities from the late 1940s through the 1970s, claiming large swaths of rundown neighborhoods for huge government public works projects. Its foremost laboratory was New Haven, where officials spent $745 per resident on urban renewal projects from the 1940s through the late '60s, more than twice as much as the next most ambitious city (Newark, $277). The coliseum was the showpiece.
Urban renewal spread quickly after a 1949 housing act authorized and partly funded the taking of private land by eminent domain. Flush with federal money, states and cities rushed to adopt the model perfected by Robert Moses, a mid-20th-century power broker responsible for most of New York City's modern infrastructure of bridges and tunnels, parkways and highways. His imitators around the country seized entire neighborhoods, bulldozed them flat, and constructed new roads and grandiose civic buildings.
I'm sure my thinking on these matters is shaped (or distorted) by my reading of, and admiration for, Jane Jacobs. But, much of the "urban renewal" discussed in the piece, and for which Moses and his ilk were responsible, seems -- hindsight being 20-20, perhaps -- disastrously misguided. What are the lessons for today's urban planners, particularly the "urbanists" and neo-traditionalists?
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Sticking Elbows In a Picasso
Joseph Sax wrote an interesting book in the not-too-distant past about property rights and protecting cultural works (Playing Darts With a Rembrandt). I'm not sure quite how this story fits in, but it has to say something. Steve Wynn, who loves collecting art and displaying it in his casinos, tore a coin-sized hole in a Picasso painting (The Dream) worth $139 million. The reason: Wynn is a klutz. He was showing off the painting and gesticulating with his hands right next to it, notwithstanding an eye problem that impairs his peripheral vision. Elbow in painting, bye-bye tens of millions of dollars. Wynn says he'll repair the painting.