Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Remember that Reagan-era punchline about ketchup being classified as a vegetable for school lunches? I grew up thinking it was just a joke, but it has a 7,000 word Wikipedia article. This is probably how archaeologists in the future will measure the social impact of everything in the pre-nuclear wasteland: the length of the wikipedia article. As of this writing, the most important thing in society are… Supreme Court clerks. Huh. Well, I guess we know what those folks do in between terms.

So ketchup is a vegetable. Sure. Why not. But apparently, we’ve reducto’d this ad a little bit more absurdum:

Pizza is one of the school-food companies’ most popular products; schools purchase more than $450 million worth every year. Under the old rules, companies could market pizza slices as a product combining grains, protein and a full serving of vegetables.

This was possible thanks to a longstanding loophole: Rather than count the two tablespoons of tomato paste on a serving of pizza as two tablespoons of tomato paste, they could count it as eight tablespoons of tomatoes, the theory being that at some point before being processed, the two tablespoons had existed in the form of several whole tomatoes.

I love it when the pull quote is its own punchline.

Seriously, the New York Times Magazine wrote a surprisingly engrossing piece about this, titled How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground. I’m surprised at how complicated it gets and how strange the bedfellows become, but that really comes with the territory at a certain point.

Published on under Not The Onion

By way of the always excellent Pirated Thoughts comes news that the Supreme Court of the United States has refused to hear the Sherlock Holmes case. Well, with all the questionable evidentiary issues, I’m more surprised it took this long for it to hit the high court, really. All right, so which one is this? The Blind Banker? The Lady in Pink? The Noodle Incident?

Actually, it’s about whether Sherlock Holmes is copyrighted or not:

Beginning in the 1880’s, [Sir Arthur Conan] Doyle authored and published four novels and 56 short stories about the exploits of detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusted sidekick, Dr. John H. Watson. When Leslie Klinger, an author and co-editor of a series of short stories of new and original stories in the Sherlock Holmes universe, sought to publish his book. The estate of Doyle soon came a’ knocking and stated Klinger must be licensed to use the characters and their likeness.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Dominic, the first Sherlock Holmes story appeared in the same year that earmuffs and phonograph were patented. That’s basically the Stone Age.”

Yes, but, via SCOTUS Blog, the stupid argument which birthed so many billable hours. As they wrote over the summer:

Doyle has been dead for eighty-four years, but because of extensions of copyright terms, ten of his fifty-six short stories continue to be protected from copying. All of the short stories and four novels were published between 1887 and 1927, but all of the collection except ten short stories have entered into the public domain as copyrights expired.

The Doyle estate, though, is pressing a quite unusual copyright theory. It contends that, since Doyle continued to develop the characters of Holmes and Watson throughout all of the stories, the characters themselves cannot be copied even for what Doyle wrote about them in the works that are now part of the public domain and thus ordinarily would be fair game for use by others.

You got that, right? The Doyle estate admits Sir Arthur started writing Sherlock stuff in 1887, but he kept writing about it later, and so copyright should extend backwards in time from the very last story all the way to the first story. Like an inverse tachyon pulse phased through the deflector dish. No, that sentence didn’t make any sense, and neither did the other one.

Doyle’s estate even tried to invent the idea of “rounded” and “flat” characters, Holmes and Watson being the former, which deserve to be protected backwards in time. It was… interesting.

Given the way Congress has been all too happy to retroactively extend copyright for dead people, (“to promote the useful arts and sciences,” don’t forget), I guess it was worth a shot. But Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had some choice words for shooting that particular theory down.

Lacking any ground known to American law for asserting post-expiration copyright protection of Holmes and Watson in pre-1923 stories and novels going back to 1887, the estate argues that creativity will be discouraged if we don’t allow such an extension.

If [Doyle] loses copyright on the original character, his incentive to improve the character in future work may be diminished because he’ll be competing with copiers, such as the authors whom Klinger wishes to anthologize.

Of course this point has no application to the present case, Arthur Conan Doyle having died 84 years ago.

Read the whole opinion here. It’s Posner, so you know it’s enjoyable.

Published on under The News

A couple of interesting statistics jumped out at me in this Village Voice story about the rise and decline of illegal cabs in New York City, against the backdrop of the two existing fleets. Essentially, you have the Yellow cabs, which have been around for decades and are licensed to serve the entire city, and you have the newer Green cabs, which are licensed for “everywhere but Manhattan.” You also have the illegal cabs, which are the focus of the story, and it’s very compelling and you should read it but I’m not touching here.

So yes, New York City has two separate taxi fleets. This might seem a little silly if you haven’t spent a lot of time in New York City. If the Yellow cabs serve the entire city, why did they make another set of taxis just to serve a subset of the city? Well, there are reasons. One of them is that the Yellow cabs can serve the entire city, but they don’t:

A [Taxi and Limousine Commission, the regulatory body for all taxis in New York City,] analysis released in 2012 found that 95 percent of yellow-taxi pickups happened either in central and Lower Manhattan or at airports, leaving the outer boroughs badly underserved.

In 2012, there weren’t any Green taxis at all. So that’s almost all of the taxis in New York City serving just one small area of the city. (Specifically, the area with all the money.)

Well, is that because there are just a lot of people in Manhattan? Maybe it has almost all the people?

When the green cabs finally arrived, in August 2013, they were met with immediate praise from residents of the outer boroughs, where more than 80 percent of the city’s population resides, according to U.S. Census data. In the program’s first year, the green cabs collectively made more than 43,000 trips a day. They flocked to popular neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Harlem and Astoria, though they also fanned out into the further reaches of the outer boroughs.

So that’s a no. Most of the people don’t live in Manhattan. Okay. So not only does the vast majority of New York City not live in Manhattan, but when Green taxis hit the streets, there are more than 40,000 people every day that want a ride. It sounds like that’s a lot, but the Yellow taxis do 485,000 trips per day. That’s absolutely insane.

The Yellow taxis do 95% of their pickups in Manhattan, and then when Green taxis are out and about, the Yellow taxis have 93% of the combined Green and Yellow rides. It may be that the 20% of the population living in Manhattan just needs to use taxis more than the 80% living outside Manhattan.

One last fact, I promise:

And [Green taxis] proved that they weren’t a major threat to Yellow taxis, which only saw their fares and tips dip by 2 percent from the previous year.

So, to recap, Green taxis only serve the parts of New York City where 5% of Yellow taxi pickups happen (despite those parts having 80% of the population). Green taxis are now 7% of all taxi trips in the city, a change which has cut into taxi revenues by 2% year over year. Inflation last year was 1.7% – so Green taxis ate into the Yellow taxi business just about as much as a sluggish recovery from a global recession.

Of course, they’re both happening at the same time; the Yellow taxi lobby can’t do anything about inflation, but there are ways to do something about Green taxis.

Published on under Hail Hydra!

By way of the best Intellectual Property newsletter you’re probably not reading, Five Useful Articles, a tale search engine optimization, but not the kind you’re used to:

Google has announced some changes to its search algorithm aimed at making “pirate sites” slightly harder to find, either by pushing them down further in the results or by removing words associated with them from the autocomplete feature. Experts predict that the movie and music industries will be totally satisfied with these efforts and stop scapegoating the search company for every perceived dip in possible revenues in markets real or imagined.

Just kidding! Presumably those industry groups will not be satisfied until searching for the title of a film—say 2005’s Will Smith classic Hitch, a favorite film of approximately 50% of the Five Useful Articles team—produces a blank page and automatically dings your credit card for $3.50.

Seriously, Sarah Jeong and Parker Higgins write this (almost) week, and it’s always hilarious. Easily my favorite newsletter.

Published on under The News

The Electronic Frontier Foundation takes a look at sketchy software that local law enforcement agencies are handing out to parents. This software is designed to track and report kids’ internet activities, and there are some problems:

As security software goes, we observed a product with a keystroke-capturing function, also called a “keylogger,” that could place a family’s personal information at extreme risk by transmitting what a user types over the Internet to third-party servers without encryption. That means many versions of ComputerCOP leave children (and their parents, guests, friends, and anyone using the affected computer) exposed to the same predators, identity thieves, and bullies that police claim the software protects against.

This is a catastrophically huge problem. The whole point of the internet is that it’s full of strange computers. When you load a web page or send a photo, that information is bouncing all around from one computer to another until it hits you.

If that information is, for example, everything you type? And it’s not encrypted at all? That’s your username, your password, your credit card information, every site you go to, etc. That sounds pretty criminally negligent to me.

In investigating ComputerCOP, we also discovered misleading marketing material, including a letter of endorsement purportedly from the U.S. Department of Treasury, which has now issued a fraud alert over the document. ComputerCOP further claims an apparently nonexistent endorsement by the American Civil Liberties Union and an expired endorsement from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Oh, and fraudulent, too.

Published on under The Digital Age

The New Yorker has a curious article about copyright which begins with a discourse on the Statue of Anne, the 18th century British copyright law.

I say ”curious” because the article starts out strong before taking a stunning nose dive in accuracy when it gets to the part about copyright on the World Wide Web: it claims linking to articles online is a form of copyright infringement.

Huh. Well, let’s hear it, then:

When you click on a link, you have the sensation that you no longer are at a place called awesomestuff.com but have been virtually transported to an entirely different place, called newyorker.com. A visual change is experienced as a physical change. The link is treated as a footnote; it’s as though you were taking another book off the shelf.

You’re mixing your metaphors, but I’m with you so far.

Some courts have questioned the use of links that import content from another Web site without changing the URL, a practice known as “framing.” But it’s hard to see much difference.

Okay. Whoa. Pause. Giant error number one. There’s a titanic difference between me linking to your article and me embedding your article in a frame on my web site. A link does not intrinsically have anyone else’s copyrighted content. How is anyone’s copyright violated with this link? Should I anticipate a cease and desist order from Ms. Swift’s attorneys? How about this? Linking is not embedding full stop.

Published on under Legal Theory