Monday, 19 June 2017

India: Balancing Competition - SEP Injunctions

SEP Injunctions and the Balance of IPRs and Competition in India is a posting on the IP finance blog by Mike Mireles, linking to an article in the Financial Express by Professor V.K. Unni of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta entitled 'Promoting Innovation: Moving Towards a Better Intellectual Property Regime'. 

The balance between IP rights and competition law is of course a crucial one to lawyers in either of (or, more likely, both) those disciplines. The learned Professor notes that the the Delhi High Court has recently considered whether the competition authorities are entitled to consider possible abuses of dominant positions by owners of standards-essential patents, and has concluded that they can, which sounds rather like the process that the Court of Justice went through many years ago to reconcile the provisions of the (then) Treaty of Rome with national intellectual property laws. But it's not for me to tell you what IP Finance, or Prof Unni, said - follow the link and read it for yourself. As my students might find themselves doing next year ...

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Theft: A History of Music

Thinking about how to engage students coming to intellectual property law for the first time is something that occupies my thoughts quite a lot these days. A copyright comic might be just the answer - and if it deals mostly with the law from that other common law jurisdiction across the Atlantic, that's not necessarily a disadvantage if the purpose of the exercise is to kindle interest rather than teach hard law. And if it has "theft" in the title I will be prepared to suspend my usual reaction to the connection of that concept with intellectual property.

A large part of grabbing a student's attention is finding a route into intellectual property law from somewhere they already know and like. Music provides an excellent entrée into copyright law - probably not Mozart, but possibly some of the more recent and high-profile cases, the two most celebrated of which were US cases (but there are many from the UK too). Music copyright is precisely what James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins’ new scholarly comic book tells us about. It is (the blurb tells us) 'a celebration of these and other musicians and composers who crossed barriers and built the playlist of extraordinary Western music from ancient Greece to classical to hip-hop. Published by the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, “Theft: A History of Music,” brings these artists’ musical borrowings to the forefront, saying that instead of stifling creativity, such “thefts” were essential to musical cross-fertilization and creation of new genres.'

The blurb continues: 'But the book also comes with a warning: At every point of new musical innovation, there was resistance and efforts to control music, whether it was from philosophers, the church, or politicians.'

You can read the full article here, and listen to James Boyle discuss the comic on NPR's The State of Things. The mere fact that it's the work (partly) of Jim Boyle is enough to sell it to me: he's an excellent writer and lecturer and I have enjoyed his work in the past, although this is the first comic book of his that I have read (the first comic book of any kind that I've read, since I gave up "war bluds" at school). I read it, pretty much in one sitting, and found it stimulating, entertaining and informative. It's going to be an ideal introduction to copyright concepts in courses I teach in the future, and best of all (coming as it does from individuals and an institution committed to the furtherance of the public domain) it's a free download. What  more could you ask?

Friday, 16 June 2017

Positional goods

Many things bother me about the state of the world. One idea that made a deep impression on me when I first read about it in "Social Limits to Growth" by the  late Fred Hirsch is what he called positional goods. I took a couple of Prof Hirsch's courses at Warwick, and learnt a great deal from them (I could have learnt a great deal more, but a memo from him tucked inside my copy of "Social Limits" explains why I didn't: it starts "I don't seem to have been seeing you at the seminar lately ..."). I bought his books, and remember struggling to read "Social Limits" during a sleepless night at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, when camping in a tent brought on an attack of asthma and I spent several hours sitting in the Hillman Avenger in which my brother and I had travelled to the event. But I digress - except that this explains why my attempt to read the book were less than successful.

I did, however, take on board the idea that there are limits to growth. If everyone moves to the countryside because it's pretty and quiet, it will cease to be pretty and quiet. This is happening right now all around me. And contemplating what I think JK Galbraith identified as the problem of private affluence and public poverty (highlighted by the appalling death toll in the Grenfell Tower fire, which must have at least something to do with the public sector being starved of money), I wonder how the super-rich imagine they will derive any pleasure from their wealth if, as they travel between their City base and their place in the country, they have to negotiate traffic jams and potholed roads, or a rail system brought to a halt by defective signals or a "jumper" (a "person under a train", in official language). Even if they fly, they will see plumes of smoke from burning tower blocks. Not every day, of course, but once in a decade is much too often.

So, houses in the countryside are positional goods. They rely for their value on scarcity. This thought brought me to something else which has troubled me for years (though it is not something that would ever bring about the end of the world*), namely parallel imports of luxury goods. Trade mark owners resist parallel imports because they interfere with their pricing strategy, which is based on maintaining exclusivity, which means that luxury branded goods are positional goods like country cottages. Consumers - some of them, anyway - want to be able to buy them cheap from Tesco, but the whole point about positional goods is that if they are available cheap from Tesco they are no longer worth having.

Hirsch also wrote about the commercialization effect (and yes, he did spell it with a "z"), under which supplying something commercially diminishes the quality of a good or service. Or, to put it another way (as Wikipedia does) "market exchange ... diminishes the inherent value of the transaction by subordinating social well-being to the commodification impulse." And that leads me to think about commodification (a topic on which Marx had a lot to say), which seems to me to be what intellectual property law is all about - taking intangible creations and turning them into something that can be traded. There's a lot to think about here, and I think it is now high time I read the book (which I notice I bought in 1980 at the bookshop at Conservative Central Office, and that in itself raises some interesting questions).

* Although as my old friend - as in, he was a friend a long time ago, but I have not seen him for many years - Sir Michael Fallon once said, "it's not the end of the world - but you can see it from there". No, I won't tell you of where he was speaking.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Oxford Comma

Although it is certainly not a point of interest only to intellectual property lawyers, this cautionary tale is as relevant to us as it is to any other species of lawyer. The Oxford (or "serial") comma is often considered to be of interest only to the worst sort of pedant (though "pedant" isn't actually a bad thing to be at all, not on the proper meaning of the word). It can however be crucial to the interpretation of a piece of writing - as a company in Maine found out recently.
Relying on a statute which exempted from an obligation to pay overtime to employees engaged in “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" of certain perishable products, it did not pay overtime to employees engaged solely in distribution. The District Court decided that distribution was a "stand-alone exempt activity", but the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that the lack of a serial comma to mark off the last listed activity meant that the provision was ambiguous. The state's default rule of construction required the court to resolve the ambiguity in favour of the beneficiaries of the exemption, namely the drivers. So, for want of an Oxford comma, the drivers got their overtime payments.
It wasn't that the court decided that the absence of the comma was in itself determinative: and I think it would clearly have been wrong had it so decided. To give the words the meaning contended for by the employers, it would have been necessary to obey the rules about parallel construction, inserting a conjunction (in this case "or") between "storing" and "packing", to make clear that "packing for shipment or distribution" was one activity. But how often do you see that rule obeyed?
Thanks to Thomson Reuters Legal Solutions Blog for alerting me to the story.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Eminem in dispute about use of music in NZ party's election campaign

The amount of trouble that using popular music for election campaigns causes seems to be limitless. Not every party can rely on Lord Lloyd Webber to arrange some conveniently out-of-copyright Purcell for the occasion (though the Rondeau from Abdelazar is better known as the theme used by Benjamin Britten for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which makes it a strange choice for a Conservative Party campaign tune though it's certainly stirring enough). It features at the end of this election broadcast from 1992 - which is worth watching in itself, I think, reminding us of a very different political era.

New Zealand's National Party, for a campaign in 2014, didn't try Lord Lloyd Webber, but instead went for a piece called "Eminem-esque", which it bought from a stock music purveyor. An odd choice of artist, and genre, for a centre-right party to associate with, you might think, and it gets worse because unfortunately for the Nationalist Party it sounds very like Eminem's song "Lose Yourself" - an even more unwelcome association, you'd have thought: alluding to any song with the word "lose" in the title can't be a good idea. As the BBC reports, it has led to a copyright infringement suit. You can hear both pieces played in court here. Neither has the judge dancing in the aisle, and I'm left with the feeling that I would want to punish any political party that inflicted either piece on me. But that's not the point.

There are more and more cases like this coming to the courts - not the English courts, necessarily (I can't think of any cases like this) but there are plenty of others from elsewhere, whether involving politicians or not. There's a recent piece about it on IP Watch which mentions a new "scholarly comic book" (what an interesting concept) by James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, about which I am going to post separately.

In the last couple of years there's been Led Zeppelin v Spirit and Marvin Gaye (the estate of) v  Robin Thicke and Pharrell WilliamsAs a recent programme on BBC Radio 4 showed, there is a lot of activity in the area - with a new profession of forensic musicologist emerging as an important part of the picture. The fear of being sued for copyright infringement has a significant chilling effect on creativity, and especially on improvisation. A consequence of the fact that control doesn't lie with the musicians, but with the suits of the record company, and an illustration of how big business isn't content with the limited exclusive rights given by the copyright system, but strives to turn them into a true monopoly.

But back to the story ... The Nationalist Party seems to have taken the view that, if there were a copyright problem, it was the stock library's problem rather than theirs. I doubt New Zealand copyright law is different enough from ours to make that proposition any less risible than it would be if trotted out by an infringer here. Whether "Eminem-esque" does infringe copyright in "Lose Yourself" is another matter, but it does seem like a strong possibility.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Debate rages over controversial copyright standard for the web

New Scientist reports that a new standard that is intended to enable web browsers to deal with digital rights management software is proving controversial. The Encrypted Media Extensions mechanism replaces browser plugins, which have a bad track record for security. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is seeking to standardise EME, to avoid compatibility problems across different browsers.

The controversy stems from fears that EME might introduce security flaws into browsers, and as tampering with DRM systems is illegal under many countries' laws (including the USA and EU Member States) researchers will not be able to check for bugs.

With the widespread use of DRM, without which film studios would not make their products available on services such as Netflix and Amazon, take-up by the browser-makers is unavoidable, and W3C's approval almost inevitable. But standardisation is often the enemy of innovation: and in this case, it might also be the enemy of security.



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Friday, 24 March 2017

How much intellectual property is a good thing?

The World Intellectual Property Organisation tells us that it was a Record Year for International Patent Applications in 2016 and that there was "strong demand" for international trade marks and registered designs. Applicants from the U.S. led the patents field, as they have done for 39 years, with Japan second and China third. “In an interlinked, knowledge-based global economy, creators and innovators are increasingly relying on intellectual property to promote and protect their competitive edge around the world,” said Director General Francis Gurry, which actually strikes me as such a bland statement that it was hardly worth saying. Of course there is no way of measuring success qualitatively, so a crude quantitative measure is the only one available, but even so it is surely a mistake to consider more patent applications to be unequivocally a good thing.



The days when patents protected big inventions passed a long time ago. I doubt that any of last year's PCT applications were for today's equivalent of the steam engine or the hovercraft, or even the dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner. There might be a blockbuster drug in there somewhere, and that should be a matter for celebration when (and if) it becomes apparent, but the mere fact that thousands of patent applications have been filed is meaningless in terms of technological development and benefit to human kind (although one can understand why patent agents, patent attorneys and patent office bureaucrats might be pleased). Please don't confuse the number of patent filings with the amount of innovative activity in the world - much of it is probably mobile phone companies building their portfolios, the better to defend themselves (or counter-attack) when they are sued for infringement by their competitors. Not an edifying use of the intellectual property system, IMHO. But applauding the number of applications rather than the real achievements of patent protection is another symptom of the modern disease of confusing means and ends.



One interesting fact emerges from reading to the end of the press release: the Hague Agreement is most-used for furniture designs, and the leading user of it is a Dutch company. Who'd have thought? But then again, who'd bother with a registered design to start with? What is there in furniture design that's truly novel? No doubt I am missing something ...



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