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copyright

Warner/Chappell Music continues to demand and collect royalties for public performance of the ditty, although its melody was first published more than 120 years ago and the familiar celebratory words have been sung to it for more than a century. A new lawsuit seeks a judicial ruling that the song is in the public domain and asks a return of wrongfully collected royalties. [The Hollywood Reporter via Mike Masnick, TechDirt]

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You’d think if anyone owned the phrase, it would be Her Majesty’s Government or, failing that, the bookselling couple in the North of England who brought the W.W. II-vintage poster back from obscurity. But one former TV producer has different ideas, and would like to own the rights. [CBS News (autoplays; I've removed the previously embedded video because I couldn't disable autoplay); earlier]

Judge Clifton of the Ninth Circuit (via ArsTechnica):

Abraham Lincoln told a story about a lawyer who tried to establish that a calf had five legs by calling its tail a leg. But the calf had only four legs, Lincoln observed, because calling a tail a leg does not make it so,” the opinion begins.

Before us is a case about a lawyer who tried to establish that a company owned a copyright by drafting a contract calling the company the copyright owner, even though the company lacked the rights associated with copyright ownership. Heeding Lincoln’s wisdom, and the requirements of the Copyright Act, we conclude that merely calling someone a copyright owner does not make it so.

“Canada Post — a failing, state-owned Crown Corporation — not only claims a copyright on the database of postal codes (a collection of facts, and not the sort of thing that usually attracts copyright). They also claim a trademark on the words ‘postal code,’ and have sent legal threats to websites that use the words factually, to describe actual postal codes.” (U.S. = zipcodes) [Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing; Eruci]

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Cathy Gellis, guesting at Popehat, has a long post on the latest in the Prenda Law saga. A relevant paragraph:

The default rule in American litigation is that everyone pays for their own lawyers. But some laws, the Copyright Act being one of them, have provisions so that the loser pays for both sides’ lawyers. … But just because a judge may grant an award of attorney fees doesn’t mean the money will ever be recovered; enforcing a judgment often presents its own expensive challenges, meaning a wronged defendant can still be saddled with the costs of his own defense. However the California Code of Civil Procedure has a provision, § 1030, to help mitigate that financial risk by allowing defendants in similar positions as Mr. Navasca [a man seeking fee recovery from Prenda Law over a questionable copyright action] to require plaintiffs to make an “undertaking;” that is, to post a bond that would guarantee, when the defendant inevitably wins his fees, that he would actually get the money.

Both provisions could prove important in bringing the rogue legal enterprise to heel. If only other areas of law besides copyright had loser-pays, and other states besides California emulated the “undertaking” idea. Earlier on Prenda Law here and here.

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While I often part company from the views of L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, in this case he shines helpful light on the doings of now-infamous copyright mill Prenda Law (earlier), much discussed by Ken at Popehat in recent weeks.

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  • Sounds promising: “Peeved politicians want ‘loser pays’ rule for patent trolls” [Joe Mullin, Ars Technica] Defense of patent trolls in Wired mag [Michael Risch]
  • Scènes à Faire: the copyright exception for scenes that inevitably suggest themselves [Bruce Boyden, ConcurOp]
  • If the terms of service/purchase say you don’t have a right to resell the digitized book or song, maybe you don’t [The Digital Reader on court decision against ReDigi startup]
  • Pay to quote a single word from a newspaper? That’s what the popup at Canada’s National Post seems to suggest [Doctorow, BoingBoing]
  • Inside copyright enforcers’ “bait-car” operations [TechCrunch]
  • “Firm and two of its lawyers must pay $200K over frivolous patent case” [Sheri Qualters, National Law Journal]
  • “Crazy copyright bot (now suspended by Twitter) threatens those who tweet tiny poem” [Rob Beschizza via @ChrisBellNZ]

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The Supreme Court ruled that the first-sale doctrine of copyright law protects the rights of someone who buys books abroad for resale here, whether or not the publisher approves. [Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons: Joe Mullin/Ars Technica, SCOTUSBlog, Margot Kaminski/Concur Op ("this is all statutory interpretation" and subject to change by Congress; conflict with existing international trade agreements), earlier here and here] More: Chris Newman.

Terry Teachout, WSJ (via About Last Night):

…In Europe, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release. Once that happens, anyone can reissue them, which makes it easy for Europeans to purchase classic records of the past. In America, by contrast, sound recordings are “protected” by a prohibitive snarl of federal and state legislation whose effect was summed up in a report issued in 2010 by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress: “The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire.”

Among countless other undesirable things, this means that American record companies that aren’t interested in reissuing old records can stop anyone else from doing so, and can also stop libraries from making those same records readily accessible to scholars who want to use them for noncommercial purposes. Even worse, it means that American libraries cannot legally copy records made before 1972 to digital formats for the purpose of preservation—not unless those records have already deteriorated to the point where they may soon become unplayable.

That’s crazy.

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Ken at Popehat and Mike Masnick at TechDirt are on the case of Prenda Law, which is in the business of monetizing low-value copyrights to adult entertainment properties. The story, which recently resulted in the filing of defamation suits against Prenda critics, is highly convoluted, so I recommend scrolling down to earlier posts in the series (such as this one by Ken).

Some stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes and his associates are still under U.S. copyright, but most (50 of them) are public domain. The Conan Doyle estate, however, has made royalty rumblings over the use of the characters in new imaginative works, and one author has now gone to federal court seeking a ruling that the characters and their overall setting (as distinct, presumably, from elements specific to the still-copyrighted stories) are fair game for the makers of new books and films. [Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing]

  • The term “space marine” dates way back in sci-fi writing, but Games Workshop says it’s now a trademark [Popehat] “Site plagiarizes blog posts, then files DMCA takedown on originals” [Ars Technica; related, Popehat]
  • D.C. suburban school district: “Prince George’s considers copyright policy that takes ownership of students’ work” [WaPo]
  • New book Copyright Unbalanced [Jerry Brito, ed.; Tom Palmer/Reason, David Post/Volokh] “Copyright, Property Rights, and the Free Market” [Adam Mossoff, TotM]
  • Neither doll left standing: “After Long Fight, Bratz Case Ends in Zero Damages” [The Recorder]
  • “Podcasting patent troll” [Gerard Magliocca, Concur Op]
  • “The EU-funded plan to stick a ‘flag this as terrorism site’ button on your browser” [Ars Technica]
  • “The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013 (So Far): It Is Now a Crime to Unlock Your Smartphone” [Derek Khanna, Atlantic]

The “public domain” isn’t just some hedonistic collective consumption good, but a vital resource for creators; thus Disney was able to base its golden-age animation features on literary properties and tropes that it could freely transform without permission. Among the properties we could have started freely transforming and remixing in this country had Congress not unilaterally and drastically extended copyright lengths: The King and I, Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, My Fair Lady, and the novel 101 Dalmatians. [Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain via BB, similar, related]

IP and technology roundup

by Walter Olson on December 10, 2012

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The House Republican Study Committee calls for reconsideration of over-restrictive copyright law, then un-calls for it a day later [TechDirt, rueful update; Alex Tabarrok]

P.S. And check out this upcoming Dec. 6 Cato discussion of the newly published Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive To Excess (Mercatus Center; Jerry Brito, ed.)

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Sony Pictures has decried the suit as frivolous:

In Midnight In Paris, Gil Pender, the disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson, says, “the past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.” The rightsholder[s] say the slightly paraphrased quote could “deceive the infringing film’s viewers as to a perceived affiliation, connection or association between William Faulkner and his works, on the one hand, and Sony, on the other hand.”

David Olson, a professor of law at Boston College (and no relation), disputed the notion that a license was needed just because the movie was intended to make a profit. “Commercial use isn’t presumptively unfair” he said. He said no one watches “Midnight in Paris” as a substitute for buying “Requiem for a Nun.” [Deadline.com, Washington Post]

P.S. “Is the complaint written in Faulknerese?” [@jslubinski]

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  • “The patent, used as a sword” [NY Times, Flowing Data]
  • Default judgment over 528 songs against contumacious defendant: “Website ordered to pay $6.6 million for posting song lyrics” [NLJ]
  • “Monsanto Seed Patent Case Gets U.S. Supreme Court Review” [Bloomberg Business Week]
  • New book tells story of Ira Arnstein, whose frivolous suits against Cole Porter, Irving Berlin et al set important precedent [WSJ]
  • “Do it ‘on the Internet,’ get a patent, sue an industry — it still works” [Joe Mullin, Ars Technica]
  • “Court rules book scanning is fair use, suggesting Google Books victory” [Timothy Lee, ArsTechnica]