July 28, 2010

Jailbreaking Copyright’s Scope

Filed under: DMCA, code, markets, open, phone — wseltzer @ 8:29 am

A bit late for the rule’s “triennial” cycle, the Librarian of Congress has released the sec 1201(a)(1)(C) exceptions from the prohibitions on circumventing copyright access controls. For the next three years, people will not be ” circumventing” if they “jailbreak” or unlock their smartphones, remix short portions of motion pictures on DVD (if they are college and university professors or media students, documentary filmmakers, or non-commercial video-makers), research the security of videogames, get balky obsolete dongled programs to work, or make an ebook read-aloud. (I wrote about the hearings more than a year ago, when the movie studios demoed camcording a movie — that didn’t work to stop the exemption.)

Since I’ve criticized the DMCA’s copyright expansion, I was particularly interested in the inter-agency debate over EFF’s proposed jailbreak exemption. Even given the expanded “para-copyright” of anticircumvention, the Register of Copyrights and NTIA disagreed over how far the copyright holder’s monopoly should reach. The Register recommended that jailbreaking be exempted from circumvention liability, while NTIA supported Apple’s opposition to the jailbreak exemption.

According to the Register (PDF), Apple’s “access control [preventing the running of unapproved applications] does not really appear to be protecting any copyright interest.” Apple might have had business reasons for wanting to close its platform, including taking a 30% cut of application sales and curating the iPhone “ecosystem,” those weren’t copyright reasons to bar the modification of 50 bytes of code.

NTIA saw it differently. In November 2009, after receiving preliminary recommendations from Register Peters, Asst. Secretary Larry Strickling wrote (PDF):

NTIA does not support this proposed exemption [for cell phone jailbreaking]…. Proponents argue that jailbreaking will support open communications platforms and the rights of consumers to take maximum advantage of wireless networks and associated hardware and software. Even if permitting cell phone “jailbreaking” could facilitate innovation, better serve consumers, and encourage the market to utilize open platforms, it might just as likely deter innovation by not allowing the developer to recoup its development costs and to be rewarded for its innovation. NTIA shares proponents’ enthusiasm for open platforms, but is concerned that the proper forum for consideration of these public policy questions lies before the expert regulatory agencies, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Congress.

The debate affects what an end-user buys when purchasing a product with embedded software, and how far copyright law can be leveraged to control that experience and the market. Is it, as Apple would have it, only the right to use the phone in the closed “ecosystem” as dictated by Apple, with only exit (minus termination fees) if you don’t like it there? or is it a building block, around which the user can choose a range of complements from Apple and elsewhere? In the first case, we see the happenstance of software copyright locking together a vertically integrated or curated platform, forcing new entrants to build the whole stack in order to compete. In the second, we see opportunities for distributed innovation that starts at a smaller scale: someone can build an application without Apple’s approval, improving the user’s iPhone without starting from scratch.

NTIA would send these “public policy” questions to Congress or the Department of Justice (antitrust), but the Copyright Office and Librarian of Congress properly handled them here. “[T]he task of this rulemaking is to determine whether the availability and use of access control measures has already diminished or is about to diminish the ability of the public to engage in noninfringing uses of copyrighted works similar or analogous to those that the public had traditionally been able to make prior to the enactment of the DMCA,” the Register says. Pre-DMCA, copyright left room for reverse engineering for interoperability, for end-users and complementors to bust stacks and add value. Post-DMCA, this exemption helps to restore the balance toward noninfringing uses.

In a related vein, economists have been framing research into proprietary strategies for two-sided markets, in which a platform provider is mediating between two sets of users — such as iPhone’s end-users and its app developers. In their profit-maximizing interests, proprietors may want to adjust both price and other aspects of their platforms, for example selecting fewer app developers than a competitive market would support so each earns a scarcity surplus it can pay to Apple. But just because proprietors want a constrained environment does not mean that the law should support them, nor that end-users are better off when the platform-provider maximizes profits. Copyright protects individual works against unauthorized copying; it should not be an instrument of platform maintenance — not even when the platform is or includes a copyrighted work.

July 16, 2010

Bilski and the Value of Experimentation

Filed under: innovation, patent — wseltzer @ 7:40 am

cross-posted from Freedom to Tinker, where I’m delighted to be joining the crew on a more frequent basis

The Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Bilski v. Kappos brought closure to this particular patent prosecution, but not much clarity to the questions surrounding business method patents. The Court upheld the Federal Circuit’s conclusion that the claimed “procedure for instructing buyers and sellers how to protect against the risk of price fluctuations in a discrete section of the economy” was unpatentable, but threw out the “machine-or-transformation” test the lower court had used. In its place, the Court’s majority gave us a set of “clues” which future applicants, Sherlock Holmes-like, must use to discern the boundaries separating patentable processes from unpatentable “abstract ideas.”

The Court missed an opportunity to throw out “business method” patents, where a great many of these abstract ideas are currently claimed, and failed to address the abstraction of many software patents. Instead, Justice Kennedy’s majority seemed to go out of its way to avoid deciding even the questions presented, simultaneously appealing to the new technological demands of the “Information Age”

As numerous amicus briefs argue, the machine-or-transformation test would create uncertainty as to the patentability of software, advanced diagnostic medicine techniques, and inventions based on linear programming, data compression, and the manipulation of digital signals.

and yet re-ups the uncertainty on the same page:

It is important to emphasize that the Court today is not commenting on the patentability of any particular invention, let alone holding that any of the above-mentioned technologies from the Information Age should or should not receive patent protection.

The Court’s opinion dismisses the Federal Circuit’s brighter line test for “machine-or-transformation” in favor of hand-waving standards: a series of “clues,” “tools” and “guideposts” toward the unpatentable “abstract ideas.” While Kennedy notes that “This Age puts the possibility of innovation in the hands of more people,” his opinion leaves all of those people with new burdens of uncertainty — whether they seek patents or reject patent’s exclusivity but risk running into the patents of others. No wonder Justice Stevens, who concurs in the rejection of Bilski’s application but would have thrown business method patents out with it, calls the whole thing “less than pellucid.”

The one thing the meandering makes clear is that while the Supreme Court doesn’t like the Federal Circuit’s test (despite the Federal Circuit’s attempt to derive it from prior Supreme Court precedents), neither do the Supremes want to propose a new test of their own. The decision, like prior patent cases to reach the Supreme Court, points to larger structural problems: the lack of a diverse proving-ground for patent cases.

Since 1982, patent cases, unlike most other cases in our federal system, have all been appealed to one court, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Thus while copyright appeals, for example, are heard in the circuit court for the district in which they originate (one of twelve regional circuits), all patent appeals are funneled to the Federal Circuit. And while its judges may be persuaded by other circuits’ opinions, one circuit is not bound to follow its fellows, and may “split” on legal questions. Consolidation in the Federal Circuit deprives the Supreme Court of such “circuit splits” in patent law. At most, it may have dissents from the Federal Circuit’s panel or en banc decision. If it doesn’t like the test of the Federal Circuit, the Supreme Court has no other appellate court to which to turn.

Circuit splits are good for judicial decisionmaking. They permit experimentation and dialogue around difficult points of law. (The Supreme Court hears fewer than 5% of the cases appealed to it, but is twice as likely to take cases presenting inter-circuit splits.) Like the states in the federal system, multiple circuits provide a “laboratory [to] try novel social and economic experiments.” Diverse judges examining the same law, as presented in differing circumstances, can analyze it from different angles (and differing policy perspectives). The Supreme Court considering an issue ripened by the analysis of several courts is more likely to find a test it can support, less likely to have to craft one from scratch or abjure the task. At the cost of temporary non-uniformity, we may get empirical evidence toward better interpretation.

At a time when “harmonization” is pushed as justification for treaties(and a uniform ratcheting-up of intellectual property regimes), the Bilski opinion suggests again that uniformity is overrated, especially if it’s uniform murk.

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