A Network to Oppose the SDMCA

On Friday, there was a “Happening” (conference call+live chat) among grassroots groups opposing the SDMCA in different states: Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina, Tenessee, and Texas).
We focused primarily on states where there are urgent deadlines on the legislative calendar. We’ll meet again this Friday, to recap the week’s event, provide support and ideas for other state groups.
A number of people on the call were eager to link together a national network of grass roots groups, to continue co-ordinated efforts on digital rights issues that play out at a local level. I think this is a fantastic idea. The more organized we are on the ground, the more our voices can affect local and national technology policy.
If you’d like to know more, about opposing the SDMCA, and/or discussions about bringing a network together, contact me directly, at alevin AT alevin DOT com.

Opposing the SDMCA

Last week, there was a surprise hearing on Tuesday night on HB 2121, the house version of the Super-DMCA.
We got the word at 5pm, confirmed at 6pm, and were in the hearing room at 6:30pm when the hearing started.
The MPAA lobbyists were in town. The committee waived the notice rule and put the bill on the schedule.
The bill finally came up at 1am after a set of utility regulation bills.
The bill was presented as a simple case of preventing piracy and theft of service. It sounded like the sponsor expected a quick hearing with an evident result.
The first people to testify were Vans Stevenson and Todd Flournoy from the MPAA in DC, presenting the bill as a minor revision of existing cable-TV piracy law. Stevenson presented the bill as an uncontroversial measure that had already passed in a number of states.
We spoke against, as did a representative for Verizon, opposing the bill on behalf of a coalition of telecom and ecommerce companies types. They were concerned with the bill’s breadth, since it might place them in the role of policing their customers’ communications.
During our testimony, we helped to raised doubts in committee members mind about the bill’s lack of clarity and excessive civil penalties. The representatives agree with the bill’s goal, preventing theft of internet services, but had not given thought to the negative side effects of the bill’s breadth and side effects.
We noted that as awareness of the bill’s problems had spread, there is now strong opposition in other states. Also gave examples of ways that the bill was having chilling effects on research (a Michigan researcher who’s put his thesis offshore) and on business in other states where it has passed (Labrea in Illinois).
Representatives Consumers Union and Public Citizen put in cards against the bill but didn’t testify.
The chair ended saying that the bill clearly needed a lot of work, and encouraging the groups in attendance to work on modifying the bill.
Since then, we’ve been talking with other committee members, explaining why this is not a good bill as it’s written, although the intent — preventing theft of internet services — is reasonable. And we’re working with other groups in Texas who are opposed to the bill.
If you want more information about opposition to this bill, please contact me directly, alevin AT alevin DOT com.

A patent on footnotes

Ross Mayfield reports that the SBC’s is claiming a patent on website navigation, via BoingBoing

SBC is claiming that it holds a valid patent on website navigation and has begun to shake down websites for license fees. Near as I can tell, they think their patent applies to virtually every website extant.

SBC is claiming to patent the concept of a menu with tabs that correspond to specific locations within a website.
This is the online equivalent of somebody attempting to patent footnotes and tables of contents.
The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, by Elizabeth Eisenstein, is a long but fascinating study of the impact of printing on European culture, including the renaissance, reformation, and scientific revolution.
Standard navigation in books — tables of contents, indexes, tables of figures, footnotes — were made possible by the printing press. Each printed book in an edition had the same page numbers, makeing it possible to refer to the same content in different books by the page number. This wasn’t possible with handwritten books; each manuscript had different pagination.
The standardization of print navigation made it easier for scholars to collaborate across distance, since they could easily refer to the same content in the same book. Better scholarly collaboration helped fuel the renaissance and scientific revolution.
Think about the different destiny of European civilization if a single publisher had been able to patent footnotes.
also thanks to Chip Rosenthal for a heads-up on this.

Does the DMCA ban reverse engineering?

Lexmark is suing Smartek, a company that makes replacement toner cartridges, under the DMCA.
News.com reports: “Lexmark alleges that the Smartek chip mimics the authentication sequence used by Lexmark chips and unlawfully tricks the printer into accepting an aftermarket cartridge.”
Now, I am not and have never been a lawyer. But isn’t this the kind of reverse engineering that used to be a protected exemption to copyright law?
Will the case actually test whether the DMCA bans reverse engineering?

iTunes, iMovie, and the DMCA

Thinking about David Weinberger’s call for DMCA civil disobedience.
An amazing hack for Apple’s iTunes and iMovie would be to enable blog entries to refer to music and movie clips.
Wouldn’t it be great to point to a movie scene or link to a tune that you’re talking about.
That would be 100% classic fair use, as intended by the Founding Fathers. It would be entertaining to try that one on in court!
I don’t have a Mac, so I don’t know whether and how it is doable but it would be fun.
This could use some good LazyWeb juice.

Can we own our personal information?

There’s an intriguing article by Kevin Bedell over at the O’Reilly site suggesting that we trademark our personal information. If we get legal protection for our personal data, then we can charge others for using it and restrict others from using it.
This sounds like an absolutely wonderful idea to me — I always wondered why other have legal rights to our personal data and we don’t.
I’d love to see this idea batted around the blogosphere, vetted by the friendly lawyers, implemented in the lazyweb.

Lessig explains the Eldred arguments

Prof. Lessig explains in his weblog about the legal issues that the Supreme Court will consider in deliberating on the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case (about whether Congress has the legal ability to extend copyright protection ad infinitum). Lessig’s explanation is far more helpful than most of the journalists and citizenbloggers who covered the arguments like a sporting event.
I hope that the decision in the spring comes out in favor of Eldred and the public domain. Either way (as I wrote on the comments page of Prof. Lessig’s blog), this is just one battle in a long war, with battlefields in the courts and congress and the press and the public.
If the Justices understand the problem, and Lessig felt they did, that’s one step forward. If technologists understand the problem, that’s a step forward. If a few politicians start to understand the problem, that’s another step forward. If the mainstream press starts to understand the problem, another step forward.
Pardon the rhetoric, but this is one of the major issues of our time. The rise of the internet has the potential to return to ordinary people the power to contribute to culture; a power that has been greatly diminished in modern times by the dominance of mass media. The entertainment industry would like to preserve its oligopoly on cultural expression, and is trying to use technology and the legal system to stifle our rights to culture.
This is a subject worth understanding and a fight worth fighting (assuming we don’t start World War 3, rendering the legal and cultural struggles of our society an academic subject for future archeologists.)

SiliconValley.com: Bills proposed to protect fair use

A couple of congresspeople have proposed laws to restore customers rights to make copies of digital media for personal use, to share with a family member or friend. The bills repeal restrictions on the rights of “fair use” imposed by the DMCA’s draconian enforcement of copy protection policies.
There’s a sensible discussion of the bills on SlashDot. The level of SlashDot discussion about these issues has improved greatly in the last few years, from knee-jerk antigovernment libertarianism and simple ignorance of government to a greater understanding of how laws are made and how to influence the legislative process.
The bills are being proposed at the end of the Congressional session, so they are unlikely to get passed this year — but that’s ok — I hope they spark more press coverage and good discussion. I hope the SlashDot conversation can coalesce into an advocacy group of tech-savvy people who influence the creation of more sensible laws. I hope these ideas become mainstream common sense, so politicians can be populist about making sure ordinary people can lend a recording to a friend, the same way we can lend a book to a friend.