Saturday, May 30, 2009

If You Can't Type Something Nice About Someone Don't Type Anything At All

I read an article this week about the dangers of getting sued for comments made while blogging. While this may seem like a remote possibility to those who frequent Facebook and Twitter, this sort of litigation is becoming a very real phenomenon. In the past couple of months I have counseled a client who was sued in another state simply for posting a true comment and a photograph on his website. Conversely, I had another client contact me because of disparaging and untruthful remarks posted about him on an internet message board.

In the first example , most people would immediately think that a case like that would be thrown out of court. While that may be ultimately true , remember the broad range of the internet. Essentially, my client is having to defend an action in a foreign state at great expense. As attorney Miriam Wugmeister said in the Wall Street Journal article I read “Though the likelihood of a plaintiff winning a lawsuit (of this type) is not high, you could go bankrupt just from defending against them.” Just to make matters more complicated, it also appears that the rules of personal jurisdiction as they apply to the internet are changing and expanding, after we thought they were fairly well settled.

There is something about the ease and instantaneousness of posting on the internet which makes it fairly certain that these cases will continue. Remember that the common law principles of defamation are not suspended on the internet, nor are the core principles of trademark law and copyright law.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Barbara Ringer

I read last weekend about the death of Barbara Ringer, who as the Register of Copyrights from 1973 to 1980, helped negotiate the massive overhaul of US copyright law that resulted in the Copyright Act of 1976.  Although the seminal provisions of the Act are taken for granted today, Ms. Ringer is probably the person most responsible for codifying the termination of assignments provision of the Act, which allow authors and their heirs the right to reclaim their work, Although the 1909 Act had a variation of this provision as one of its tenets (in its two term approach) the system was abused and inherently unfair to authors and composers. The 1976 Act also codified the provisions of Fair Use for the first time. This paved the way for the decision in Sony v. Universal City Studios- certainly the most important technology case in the last 50 years

Ms. Ringer’s obituary in The Wall Street Journal quoted a law professor who opined that from a technological standpoint, the 1976 Act was obsolete from the moment it was passed. I disagree. I think that one of the great strengths of our copyright law is its ability to expand to handle each new technological innovation. although the challenges  and possibilities presented by technology today could not have been imagined in the 1970’s.

Most importantly, I think that all artists owe Ms. Ringer a debt for her role in helping protect and secure their rights in their work.

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Praise of Biz Town

I had a great opportunity several weeks ago. I volunteered to assist my daughter’s sixth grade class on their two day visit to Junior Achievement’s Biz Town. I wish that there had been something like this when I was her age (or even in college). Essentially, Biz Town is a miniature city where the student- citizens fill all the roles from banker to mayor to postal worker, broadcaster, restaurant workers, right down to the Chief Financial Officer of the pet food store.

If I understand the principal correctly, Biz Town is a model of “circular flow”. The kids learn how money flows from the government to the bank to local businesses, to individuals, back to business and charities and back to the government in the form of taxes. The cool part was that the students assumed all of the responsibility of business owners and consumers. They had to deal with every aspect of running their business from borrowing money to figuring out how to price items to sell. The kids I was watching actually had to deal with the fact that the bank screwed up their loan application, which necessitated nine trips back to the bank. They had to learn to act with grace under pressure. As consumers, they had to balance their checkbooks, pay taxes, deposit their paychecks and save money for lunch, etc. If a student was overdrawn, they couldn’t buy anything else. If a business didn’t make a profit, it went bust. It was fascinating to watch this little microcosm unfold over the course of a two day period. I think the students learned something truly valuable about the way the world works.

Back when I was in school, I had a vague conception of what Junior Achievement was. I thought that they sold things like leather key rings, bookmarks and other non-essential items. I had no idea that Junior Achievement had become so relevant and so much fun. This is a truly unique enterprise, which should be commended.