Blog Ipsa Loquitur

The internet is a funny place. In the very first days, when it included computers at all of four universities, the internet was very clearly an extension of the “real world.” For a great number of years, people just used their actual names on the internet: see the 1982 Usenet discussion of the creation of the emoticon. (This discussion quickly deteriorated into arch-nerdery, because the guys on the internet in 1982 were arch-nerds.)

At some point, (perhaps the Eternal September?) the internet took a turn for the anonymous. The problem with anonymity is perhaps best summed up in a cartoon, of all things. Specifically, in a mathematical equation within a cartoon. Normal people do crazy things on the internet, because they’re anonymous and they can do crazy things. You grow up understanding that actions have consequences, but when you’re SkiRacerX88, and not Jimmy down the street, there really aren’t any consequences for behaving like a jackass.

It Knows

However, the internet is the largest collection of information about any topic ever assembled. In the face of such unabashed hyperbole, the revelation that some of this information is about you, Dear Reader, should not surprise. (In fact, there’s even some information about me.)

To pretend that you’re anonymous on the internet is to open yourself up to hilarious consequences. The internet forums at are famous for their anonymity: you don’t have to use your real name, and you don’t even have to use a username. But you’re only anonymous up until you make a big enough mess that someone goes through the few steps needed to find you. The guy who read Governor Palin’s email is a great example, because he made a really really big mess.

I’d like to discuss two news stories that illustrate the tension between some very different viewpoints about just how anonymous you are on the internet.

Can’t Stop the Music

The first regards a web site called that collects data about the music its users listen to. When you register for the service, you have the option of installing a plugin on your computer that sends data about your listening habits to the servers. Users compare their musical tastes, and the site sorts out users into compatible groups based on the kinds of music they like.

sidebar: I think it’s telling that the internet has facilitated communication and co-mingling with other people to such an absurd degree that we have_ too many _people to talk to. Now sites can provide a service by telling you how much in common you have with other people, so you know whether or not you want to talk music with them. Sure, we both like the same Hendrix song, but you like the Stones and I like the Beatles; do we really want to have this conversation about “The Wind Cries Mary?” I’d rather have it with someone who can relate it to Revolver, thank you.

Back to my point about anonymity, the music industry is famous for their litigious approach to people infringing on their hard-earned copyrighted songs. (They liked Old Media, and the New Media isn’t their cup of tea. They’ve lawyered up and are being dragged into the sunset kicking and screaming.) When word gets out that U2’s newest album is being pirated before it even goes on sale, the music industry’s lawyers are on the case.

The difficult task of tracking down pirates is mitigated significantly when the pirates tell (and through that site, the entire world) that they’re pirating the U2 album. Apparently, a number of people have forgotten to turn off their plugins that report their listening habits to before listening to their shiny new (pirated) copy of U2’s new album. That number seems to be about 7,000.

Why on earth would you publish the exact time and date that you listened to an album that isn’t legally on sale yet? It could be because you’re forgetful. It could be because you don’t live in America. It could also be because you have a username like TheFly1983, or jetjaguar72, and you forget that this pseudonym is easily linked to your actual name in the actual world in your parents’ basement actual apartment. Which is, not coincidentally, where the guy serving you notice of the copyright infringement lawsuit is going to find you. The internet is a public place: do not advertise your exploits on it.

A Small Detour re: The Feds

As a legal note, the federal law that governs the release of server logs against the user’s wishes present a barrier to government agencies getting their hands on said logs, but not to private parties who want to do the same. Voluntary release of server logs (in this case, by’s parent company, CBS) is legal if it’s to a private party (in this case, the music industry’s lawyers), even if it’s against the user’s (in this case, Mr. TheFly1983) wishes.

But if the FBI had asked CBS to turn over the server logs, the FBI would need a special subpoena for those records, or CBS would have been forbidden by law to hand them over. This also goes for your ISP’s logs: be kind to the people that know about your exploits if you do publish them on the internet. If you’d like to read the legalese, you’re looking for 18 U.S.C. 2702, which is part of the Stored Communications Act.

The Show Me State

The second news story is not about people with a false sense of anonymity; this is a story about a British couple living with a bad case of the digital willies. (A cursory Google search reveals that I am the first person to use this term on the internet for technophobia, as opposed to a reference to genitalia.)

It appears that one Mr. and Mrs. Boring (you really can’t make this stuff up) were horrified to learn that Google had taken a photograph of their house and put it on the internet. Google did this as part of its Google Street View product, which takes pictures of streets and puts them on the internet in a huge searchable database. For instance, here’s a picture of my law school.

The Borings do have a valid point in asking that the pictures of their property be removed from Google Street View. Their house sits on its own road, which is also apparently their driveway, and is marked “private.” Yet the Google Street View images let you see their driveway/private road, and now people can see the pool and houses that were already visible from the satellite maps.

The $25,000 question remains, though: who cares? I’d never heard of the Borings, and neither had you, Dear Reader. I suppose it’s possible that someday they could have upset someone who could use Google Street View to examine the Boring property. But that same person could just drive over to the Boring property and snoop about anyway: there’s no fence, no gate, and nothing but a sign marked “private.” Google hasn’t invaded the Borings’ privacy, just shown how superficial any expectation was.


The judge in this case has thrown out the lawsuit, although I think the Borings had a valid claim for trespassing if Google’s employees had set foot on the Borings’ property. It’s not necessary to cause any damage to someone’s property to be liable for trespassing: in America, we’re pretty big on sovereign property rights. (See also: that guy in Texas who shot some kids that broke into his house. Don’t mess with Texans.)

The lawsuit was by and large without merit for the same reason that other prior lawsuits relating to Google Street View were unsuccessful: you haven’t lost any privacy simply because your house is visible from the sidewalk. No one has invaded your home because you left your curtains open and people can see your cat. The fact that I don’t have to leave my house to look at your sidewalk is nicely tempered by the fact that the photos are months or years out of date. Your cat’s probably not perched on the back of that couch.

I’ve already alluded to the second big reason: nobody cares about Mr. and Mrs. Boring. Or Mary Kalin-Casey. Until they made a big enough fuss about the internet removing their privacy, they were all anonymous: nobody knew who they were. While it was possible to look at their pool or their cat, nobody did. Ironically, in their failed quests to salvage their privacy, they obliterated both their anonymity and their privacy. A quick Google search reveals the home addresses of both The Borings and the apartment building in which Ms. Kalin-Casey lived.

Does this mean that we live under the tyranny of the Techno-Info-Fascist rule of Google, and the only way to remain anonymous is to keep your mouth shut and hope that the great panopticon’s lantern is not shone on you? I don’t think so. Photographs of public places are hardly oppressive - that you are visible in public is not an invasion of privacy.

Honestly, the telephone book provides more useful information than Google does. Any crazed stalker will need to know where you live before he needs to know whether your house has red shutters or green ones. You could drive around for hours in Oakland, looking for a single beige apartment building. I just don’t see the harm or lost privacy in taking photos like this in public places.

The internet is not some magical wonderland, where social norms break down because information is digital. Publishing details of your criminal activities is always a bad idea, whether online or in the newspaper. And likewise, public places are just that: public, whether online or in the phone book.

Filed on under The News

Like Socrates, I know that I know nothing. (Unlike Socrates, if someone hands me a Hemlock smoothie, I’ll probably pass.) But I do know how to create a corporation.

It’s actually a remarkably simple process: you get a person called an “incorporator” to sign a legal document called the Certificate of Incorporation which has some Magic Language (dictated by statute). You send the document off to the Secretary of State (of your state, not Ms. Clinton), and some clerk stamps the document, files it, and proceeds to do the same for the next ten thousand documents in the inbox.

he corporation now exists: there are three categories of people that are more or less unique to the corporate anatomy. We’ve all heard about these people, but I for one was almost completely ignorant of their actual relationship to one another and the corporation before law school.

The first group of people by necessity is the Board of Directors. These people individually have little to no power to run the corporation. Any single Director is virtually powerless, but like the Justice League, when they assemble, they wield formidable powers. By majority vote, they make the big decisions for the corporation like entering into contracts and hiring the second group of people.

The second group of people is the Officers. They have familiar titles like President and Vice President and Treasurer and so on. The officers are elected by the Board of Directors, and hired for lots and lots of money because they’re in charge of running the day to day operations of the corporation. They hire employees like management (who hires other employees like middle managers and janitors) and have meetings and look at charts and pick which widgets they want the company to sell.

The third group of people are the Shareholders. These are people who’ve invested money into the corporation, and in exchange, have the right to get some money back (in the form of dividends) when the company is doing well enough to hand it out.

The Shareholders are the only group that doesn’t owe a very strict duty to act in the best interests of the corporation: the Directors and the Officers can be sued for all kinds of money if they use their powers to do anything to enrich themselves personally: they’re there to serve the corporation and the corporation only. Shareholders can even take their dividends and use it to start a company that directly competes against the corporation. A director would be in big trouble if he tried that.

However, in return, the Shareholders have even less power than the Directors. The Shareholders all get together and elect the Board of Directors: generally speaking, (there are always exceptions in the the law, it seems.) you get one vote for one share. This makes sense: the more money you invest in the corporation, the more of a say you get in the election of the people who have all the say in hiring the people who run the company.

Of course, then, if one person owns a majority of the shares, he can elect whomever he likes to the Board of Directors. It follows that this majority Shareholder, controlling the Board of Directors, can then control who is appointed as an Officer. He can have himself appointed as the President, CEO, or whatever he likes.

Of course, as a practical matter, he’s got the biggest stake in whatever mess he makes, so if he insists on appointing himself President and promptly runs the company into the ground, no shareholder has lost more of their investment than he. The employees are a different story, however. They had better hope that if there’s an egomaniacal shareholder trying to get 51% of the shares, he’s got some solid business acumen.

Filed on under Legal Theory

I have to confess to being completely ignorant of how income taxes work as recently as last month. I’m still pretty ignorant, but I’m law school ignorant, which is a fair sight more educated than the guy who tries to sell you on Gold as the ultimate investment. Or folks who think that a 240% interest rate signals “safe bet.”

sidebar: The people who lost their savings were, by and large, operating through brokers. If ever there were a time when judges should consider sentencing someone to serve as the aggrieved party’s butler, (like that show within a show on Seinfeld) I think this is it. It’s not nice to throw away other peoples’ money.

The first and most fundamental concept of income tax is deciding what a taxpayer’s Gross Income is. Your Gross Income is your “raw” income, before you start doing any crazy deductions or hiding money in bizarre off-shore pyramid-shaped tax shelters. Tax liability is set at a certain percentage of a person’s gross income, so you have to know what that number is before you can decide what percent of it’s owed to Uncle Sam.  

Marginal Rates, An Intro To

Note that there’s no single percentage for your entire income. I don’t have the precise numbers in front of me, but as an example,

  • -Your first $30,000 is taxed at 10%,
  • The next $30,000_ [income between $30,001 and $60,000] is taxed at 15%,
  • The next $40,000 is taxed at 20%,
  • And then your next $100,000 [your income between $100,001 and $200,000] is taxed at 22%.
  • and so on and so forth.

There’s a popular misconception that if you made $120,000, your entire income would be subject to the 22% tax rate. Really, only $20,000 would be subject to that 22% tax rate in this fictional tax schedule. The real tax schedule works just like this, but with different numbers.

Back to Gross Income

The Internal Revenue Code lists a whole bunch of examples of what the IRS will consider gross income: the list isn’t exhaustive, but it does illustrate just how much stuff is gross income that you wouldn’t think should count.

In a rather recursive example, if your employer notices that you owe $15,000 in income tax this year, and promptly gives you the $15,000 to pay the IRS, that $15,000 is actually gross income. As a result, while you just handed the IRS a check for $15,000, now you’re counted as having made $15,000 more than you thought you did: you didn’t owe $15,000 in taxes, but $18,000.  You owe the IRS $3,000 more.

So now if your employer pays this extra $3,000, you’ll owe an extra $600, and so on and so forth. This recursion can only go on for so long: eventually, your employer will be tossing you fractions of pennies, and the IRS will be taxing a fraction of those fractions of pennies. You can whip up an Excel spreadsheet to do this math for you in a few minutes, if you like. Or you can read what Zeno had to say about these sorts of fractions of fractions of fractions.

So why on earth does the IRS get to keep taking more and more? If my employer will pay for my taxes, why should that count? I don’t get to keep the money. If I’m smart, I don’t ever even touch the money - it just goes right to the IRS. Surely you can’t tax me for money I never received, right?

Bringing it Home

Think about it this way: say you backed into Tony Soprano’s favorite Mercedes trying to park your car. He seems like a nice enough guy: he’s only going to take 10% of what you earn every week until you fix his car. The next day, you go into work and tell your boss that from now on, you want your company to pay for your rent, so Tony is none the wiser, and you get to keep more of your money.

Well, Tony might not immediately catch on that you’re lying about how much you make. But when he does, rest assured that Paulie Walnuts and Joey Baggadonuts are going to kick you and your boss in your respective shins very hard. You can’t trick either Tony or the IRS just by claiming you never touched the money: if you get someone to take care of money you owe (payment to Tony, or taxes to the IRS), that’s gross income.

Just be glad that when the IRS says they’re going to audit you, they don’t mean “beat you into unconsciousness with a baseball bat and stuff you in the trunk.”

Filed on under Legal Theory

A: “Man, Constitutional Law is seriously the third time I’ve had to read Lawrence v. Texas [wiki] [cornell]”

B: “Third time?  What was the third?

A: “Criminal Law, Family Law, and…”

B: “Your self defense?”

Even the “dude, you’re gay” jokes in law school are complicated.

Filed on under A Day in the Life

I don’t graduate until May of 2010, so the term “almost legally” is quite apt for what I’m doing here. However, when I graduate and pass the bar exam, I’ll have to come up with another name for the site. The most logical one, of course, is to move from “almost” to “barely” legally. It only makes sense.

But Hillary Duff is once again trying to upstage me: I will not stand for this duffspiracy.

Filed on under The News

You’ve probably heard the crackerjack lawyers on Law and Order stand up and yell “objection, your honor!” when their opponents say or do something untoward. If the judge remembered to wear her mind reading helmet, or it’s plainly obvious that the other attorney is engaging in shenanigans, the judge can sustain the objection without further explanation. However, most of the time, you’re going to need to provide a reason for your objection.

One of the grounds for an objection is irrelevance: you can object to evidence that isn’t relevant to an issue in the case. Filibustering is for legislation, not litigation - there are rules that prevent attorneys from dragging in irrelevant facts to confuse juries.

One of the biggest treasure troves of irrelevant evidence is character evidence: evidence that has nothing to do with the facts of the case, but instead serves to poison the credibility or reputation of a witness or the defendant. You can read the relatively simple rules for excluding character evidence for defendants or witnesses, if you like. They’re not really important for the purposes of this discussion.

This discussion is about a rather odd case we read in my Evidence class. A widower was suing the driver of a car that hit for wrongful death. When you sue for wrongful death, there are a number of specific reasons you can claim you deserve damages: there is the physical pain from the actual loss of your loved one, there is the future companionship you would have enjoyed from that person, and there could also be the future financial benefit that person would have provided you.

The first theory is pretty simple to understand: the loss of a loved one due to someone’s negligence is immensely painful. The second one is also pretty straightforward. By definition, “loss of a loved one” means the loved one isn’t around to provide comfort anymore, and this leads to some odd discussions.

A defendant can either attempt to lessen the damages he would owe by showing that the yearly amount of comfort was not as great as the plaintiff is making it out to be, or the defendant can try to show that the plaintiff (or the loved one) will/would not be around to receive/provide as much comfort as the plaintiff is claiming. Think of it like algebra:

(Comfort Provided Per Year) x (Years Both Loved One and Plaintiff Would Be Alive) = Damages

Reducing either variable will reduce the overall damages, but you might imagine that a defense of “well, she was going to die soon, and she didn’t like you very much anyway” will not be very well-received by a jury.

Getting back to the case in my Evidence class, that was exactly the defense used in the widower’s claim against the driver. While evidence of one party’s character is usually irrelevant to the proceedings, the deceased’s opinion of the plaintiff can be very critical in determining just how much comfort and support the loved one would have provided.

While you can’t ask the plaintiff’s neighbor or mother or pastor what his opinion of the plaintiff is, you can produce evidence of the deceased’s opinion (for instance: a letter the deceased wrote to someone talking about how they couldn’t wait to divorce the plaintiff, because he’s a jerk). Despite the fact that this is certainly character evidence, this is also relevant because the deceased’s opinion of the plaintiff bears directly on the amount of money the plaintiff could receive.

It’s kind of funny that our legal system has created a process by which humans can be compensated for the loss of the uniquely human relationships that we enjoy, but the process itself dehumanizes the parties involved; we’ve just reduced the relationship and the remedy to morbid algebra. In a way, this seems very rational: if two parties have failed to reach a conclusion as reasonable human beings, then the best way to handle a situation is to empanel representatives of community standards (the jury) and use objective referees (the justice system) to reduce the whole situation to an indisputable mathematical certainty.

There’s something romantic about something so cold and emotionless. Perhaps it’s my inner Kantian at work.

Filed on under Legal Theory