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DailyDirt: Helping The Blind With Technology (Studies)

by Michael Ho

from the urls-we-dig-up dept on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 @ 5:00PM
We've seen some early-stage advances for ways that might help restore sight to people with low vision (or no vision), but it will take many more years before the clinical trials and safety approvals are complete. And not everyone will want to undergo an eye surgery to try to regain some vision, either. Fortunately, robots and wearable technology continue to improve, and these gadgets could become very useful for the blind (and the rest of us, too). Maybe we won't just see telecommuting iPads for remote workers -- but also robot assistants for casual and everyday uses, as well. After you've finished checking out those links, take a look at our Daily Deals for cool gadgets and other awesome stuff.

State Court Says University Can't Punish Student For Off-Campus Tweets (Free Speech)

by Tim Cushing

from the the-things-to-like-about-this-case-do-not-include-the-plaintiff dept on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 @ 4:07PM

The Appeals Court of Kansas has upheld a lower court's decision finding it beyond the reach of a university to expel a student for off-campus behavior.

Beneath this logical conclusion are some not-so-pretty facts. The origin of the lawsuit is a "bad breakup" that resulted in criminal charges for the former boyfriend, Navid Yeasin. (h/t That Anonymous Coward)

In Johnson County during the summer of 2013, an argument occurred between Yeasin and his now ex-girlfriend after he saw messages from another man on her phone. The two drove around arguing and she asked Yeasin to let her out, but he refused. He also refused to return her phone.

She complained to the Johnson County police. Court records show Yeasin was charged with criminal restraint, battery and criminal deprivation of property. To resolve this incident, Yeasin voluntarily entered a no-contact order, meaning he could not contact his ex-girlfriend.
What Yeasin did next did not play a role in this decision, which was ultimately decided on the merits (or lack thereof) of the University of Kansas' interpretation of its own policies. But it does say something about the reach of the school's no-contact order (the school added its own on top of the one handed down by the county court), which was certainly further than it should have been.
“The Judge who entered the order ruled that it was entered by consent with no findings of abuse,” [attorney Terry] Leibold said. “In order to comply with the no-contact order, Navid removed the ex-girlfriend as a follower of his tweets. His Twitter account was private and could only be accessed by his followers.”
Yeasin still used his Twitter account to make disparaging remarks about his ex-girlfriend (referred to simply as "W" throughout the proceedings). But he never directed messages towards her. He tweeted about her but never used her name. This didn't keep the tweets from being mostly despicable and they certainly were "decoded" by those familiar with both parties, but the university's no-contact order went far enough to make even this indirect non-communication a potential violation. From the ruling:
You are hereby informed that this 'no contact' order means that you understand you are prohibited from initiating, or contributing through third-parties, to any physical, verbal, electronic, or written communication with [W.], her family, her friends or her associates. This also includes a prohibition from interfering with her personal possessions. . . . Moreover, retaliation against persons who may pursue or participate in a University investigation, whether by you directly or by your associates, is a violation of University policy.
On the same day the university opened its investigation into his off-campus actions, Yeasin tweeted:
On the brightside you won't have mutated kids. #goodriddens
After being informed of the university's no-contact order, he tweeted:
Jesus Navid, how is it that you always end up dating the psycho bitches?' #butreallyguys
Over the next few weeks, he tweeted the following:
Oh right, negative boob job. I remember her.

If I could say one thing to you it would probably be "Go fuck yourself you piece of shit." #butseriouslygofuckyourself #crazyassex

Lol, she goes up to my friends and hugs them and then unfriends them on Facebook. #psycho #lolwhat
These tweets were reported to the university. (No reports were made to law enforcement.) The university's Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access (IOA) sent Yeasin an email telling him that even though the tweets didn't mention W's name, they were still a violation of the no-contact order, which was expanded to cover even more potential communications.
Brooks gave Yeasin a second warning that "[g]oing forward, if you make any reference regarding [W.], directly or indirectly, on any type of social media or other communication outlet, you will be immediately referred to the Student Conduct Officer for possible sanctions which may result in expulsion from the University."
Seven hours later, Yeasin tweeted:
lol you're so obsessed with me you gotta creep on me using your friends accounts #crazybitch
Yeasin was summoned by the IOA, where he made conflicting statements about whether or not the tweets referred to W. He also made this concession:
Yeasin told McQueeney that he would not tweet anything that could be perceived as being directed at W. and he recognized doing so was a violation of both the protection order and the no-contact order.
The university moved ahead with its investigation and decided Yeasin's tweets had violated the no-contact order and expelled him, along with banning him from the campus until W. had graduated.

Yeasin then sued the university for kicking him out over incidents that had occurred off-campus, including the original confrontation that had resulted in his arrest. The lower court found in favor of Yeasin.
[G]iven its finding that the University erroneously interpreted the Student Code by applying it to off-campus conduct, the district court found that the University's decision that Yeasin violated Article 22 was not supported by substantial evidence because it failed to establish that Yeasin's conduct occurred on campus or at a university-sponsored event.
The district court ordered that the University readmit Yeasin, reimburse or credit Yeasin for his fall 2013 semester tuition and fees that he paid, and pay the transcript fees. However, the court issued a stay order at the University's request.
The appeals court agrees. It points out that the sections of the student code the university cited to support its expulsion of the student both contain wording that limits the university's discipline to actions taken on campus or during university-sponsored events.
Through every step of the disciplinary proceedings, the University relied on Article 22 of the Student Code as the basis for Yeasin's discipline. But, on appeal, the University cherry-picks a small phrase from Article 20 to argue that it did indeed have the authority to expel Yeasin for his actions in Johnson County during the summer and for his tweets in violation of the no-contact order.

The University asks us to find that the district court should have interpreted the phrase "or as otherwise required by federal, state or local law" found in Article 20 to mean that the University's jurisdiction to discipline a student for violating Article 22.A. extended to a student's off-campus conduct.


If we construed Article 20 as the University wants, we must insert words to the effect "for conduct wherever committed." The phrase then becomes, "or as otherwise required by federal, state, or local law for conduct wherever committed." If that is what the drafters of the Student Code meant, the article could have been written in that fashion.
Following this conclusion, the appeals court affirms the lower court's decision and lifts the stay order. Because the case was limited to school policies, the question of whether Yeasin's speech was protected by the First Amendment (almost definitely) isn't addressed.

While it's hard to conjure up much enthusiasm for an abusive jerk being told he's right by the appeals court, the decision prevents the eruption of negative side effects. For one, Kansas universities will still have to limit their disciplinary efforts to incidents on school property or during school-sponsored events. No one should be in any hurry to allow educational institutions to extend their reach into the private lives (and homes) of their attendees.

On top of that, there's the nature of the tweets themselves. While undeniably unpleasant and misogynistic, they were never aimed directly at W. Also unaddressed by the court's decision is the breadth of the university's no-contact order, which basically forbade Yeasin from engaging in private disparagement of his ex-girlfriend.

From Yeasin's lawyer:
The tweets made their way back to the ex-girlfriend who told the IOA about the tweets claiming the tweets were in violation of the no-contact order issued by the IOA…The tweets were no different than if Yeasin had complained to his friends about his ex-girlfriend and whatever he said ultimately reached the ex-girlfriend.”
The ruling here makes sense, even as it protects the unsavory actions and words of an apparently terrible person. But it is very much limited to the policies in place at the University of Kansas. The ruling notes that the school could claim jurisdiction over events occuring off-campus, but it apparently hadn't considered that angle until it was in the middle of a lawsuit. Expanding that reach may be the school's perogative, but any attempts it makes to control off-campus speech will only result in addtional lawsuits -- these ones predicated by the First Amendment.

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The TPP And The Tobacco Carve-out Bring Together Strange Bedfellows... While Highlighting The Problems Of The TPP (Legal Issues)

by Mike Masnick

from the not-a-good-idea dept on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 @ 2:54PM
It's been rumored for years, but reports out of Atlanta suggest that it's now confirmed that in order to finalize the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, everyone agreed to carve tobacco out of the corporate sovereignty system, better known as ISDS (investor state dispute settlement). These systems allow companies to sue countries for passing regulations that the companies feel harm their ability to profit -- and tobacco companies have already filed ISDS complaints in a few countries that have pushed to put health warnings on cigarette packages.

While some health activists have cheered on this carve out -- it appears that almost everyone else is pissed off. Not because they think that Big Tobacco should be shaking down countries that pass anti-smoking laws (though, there may be some of that), but because they recognize the problems that occur when governments can start to set up trade deals that "carve out" certain industries. It's opening up a huge can of worms. Even some supporters of corporate sovereignty/ISDS are worried about what it means when one particular industry can just be excluded entirely from the process. Two of the biggest supporters of ISDS and TPP in Congress, Senators Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch, have both warned that the US should not carve out tobacco. Here's McConnell a few months ago, standing up for those poor, poor tobacco farmers:
“It is essential as you work to finalize the TPP, you allow Kentucky tobacco to realize the same economic benefits and export potential other U.S. agricultural commodities will enjoy with a successful agreement.”
And here's Hatch actually making a fairly salient point about the carve out:
“Although I don’t support tobacco at all, I still think it was essential,” Hatch said. “It’ll cost us some votes. And every vote is essential. And there are other things I am very concerned about. I’ve committed to read the bill, and I will read it, but right now I’m leaning against it.”
That doesn't bode well for the agreement, given that Hatch was a huge supporter of the TPP. Another Senator, Thom Tillis, has pointed out that carving out one industry opens up the possibility of carving out others:
“I’ll not only vote against it, I’ll work hard to have it defeated if it goes in the final agreement.... Once you carve out someone from dispute settlement agreements, then who’s next?”
And the tobacco carve-out, believe it or not, seems to be one thing that both big business and big labor agree on, though for entirely different reasons. The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are totally against it:
we ask all of the TPP governments to reject the exclusion of products from the coverage of the TPP and its enforcement mechanism.... Such exclusions are unnecessary and would be highly damaging to the international rules based trading system and the prospects for the TPP.
And here was the AFL-CIO opposing the entire ISDS mechanism, and noting that the tobacco carve-out just highlights the problems of ISDS. Whereas Senator Tillis worried about "who's next" to get carved out, the AFL-CIO is pointing out that maybe there should be a lot more.
Any industry-specific carve-out will not address the serious structural problems inherent in the system itself. Issues of broad public interest should not be viewed through the narrow lens of trade and investment at all, let alone decided by unaccountable private panels. Systems of justice should be transparent and accessible on an equal basis. ISDS is anything but: Only foreign investors can use it and there are no requirements that affected communities be allowed to participate or even have their view considered. In many cases, there often are not even requirements that hearings or decisions be made available to the public at all! Even in the case of clear legal error, it is almost impossible to reverse a decision.
Indeed, as Sean Flynn pointed out just last week, carving out tobacco really just enforces how dangerous corporate sovereignty really is:
The new exception validates, rather than assuages, the concerns of those who have been criticizing ISDS systems for many years. Without express carve outs, ISDS provisions do threaten common health and safety regulations.

The carve out does nothing to halt the disturbing recent trend of companies using ISDS provisions in trade agreements to enforce international intellectual property norms through ISDS tribunals. This is, indeed, the claim at the heart of the tobacco cases now being litigated in ISDS systems. The claim is that tobacco regulations requiring plain packaging violate the trademark rights of tobacco companies protected by the World Trade Organization agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has also claimed that the denial of a new use patent on an old (off-patent) medicine violates rights granted by TRIPS and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Meanwhile, US trade officials are, of course, trying to tap dance around the fact that basically everyone absolutely hates this. The USTR has tried to pretend this isn't a big deal because tobacco is "unique."
The U.S. Government seeks to include this language because tobacco is a unique product – it is highly addictive, always harmful to human health, and the single most preventable cause of death in the world. Recognizing these facts about tobacco through the TPP will represent an important step forward for public health in the international trade community.
It's true that tobacco can be a serious health concern, but shouldn't we be raising questions about why this procedure is no good for tobacco companies, but just dandy for every other industry -- including some that produce harmful products? Or those like pharmaceutical companies who are jacking up prices to keep necessary medicines out of the hands of the poor?

Oh, and then there are those who are in complete denial, who are insisting that there really isn't a carve-out for tobacco, even though there almost certainly is (we can't say for sure, of course, because the documents are secret):
“TPP will not discriminate against any agricultural commodity nor will it exclude tobacco. On the contrary, TPP will provide protections to ensure that governments can implement tobacco control measures, while guaranteeing that tobacco has the same legal status as any other product,” a U.S. official told CQ Roll Call last week.
In short, the whole tobacco carve-out situation is a microcosm of the problems with the TPP. You have a terrible idea (corporate sovereignty) mixed with a weak attempt to appease health activists (carve out tobacco), that basically fixes nothing and satisfies no one. And, now, the same Senators in Congress who demanded the fast track authority be granted, which ties their own arms behind their backs in terms of changing the agreement, are threatening to force this change, even though they've already given up the power to do so.

Happy Birthday And The Problem With The Copyright Office's 'Orphan Works' Plan (Copyright)

by Mike Masnick

from the orphan-works-are-your-fault,-don't-blame-us dept on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 @ 1:55PM
A few weeks ago, we wrote about the big ruling by Judge George King in a district court in California that Warner/Chappell does not hold a valid copyright in the song "Happy Birthday." The press ran with the story, with nearly all of the coverage falsely stating that the judge had declared Happy Birthday to be in the public domain. As we noted in our post, however, that was not the case. While the plaintiffs had urged just such a finding, Judge King noted that there were issues related to this that a jury would need to answer, and he would not go that far. Instead, he merely stated that Warner did not hold a valid copyright. Many people assume that this is good enough. The likelihood of some third party magically showing up after all of these years and not just claiming the copyright, but having enough evidence to prove it seems very slim. Glenn Fleishman has done a nice job writing up a detailed explanation of this copyright mess for Fast Company, in which he notes the "uncertainty is maddening."

It's worse than that. As we noted in our original post, technically, this makes "Happy Birthday" an orphan work -- i.e., a work where the exact copyright status or owner is "unknown." Orphan works have been a big problem that the Copyright Office has been studying for some time. However, the solution proposed by the Copyright Office is ridiculous, and the case of Happy Birthday should demonstrate pretty simply why the proposal is broken.

The plan says that anyone who wants to make use of an orphaned work would have to meet six criteria to avoid possible liability:
Users must: (1) if sued for infringement, prove to the court by a preponderance of the evidence that they performed a good faith, qualifying search to locate and identify the owner of the infringed copyright before the use of the work began; (2) file a Notice of Use with the Copyright Office; (3) provide attribution to the legal owner of the copyright, if reasonable under the circumstances; (4) include a to-be-determined "orphan works" symbol with any public distribution, display, or performance of the work; (5) assert eligibility for such limitations in the initial pleading in any civil action involving the infringed work; and (6) state with particularity the basis for eligibility for the limitations during initial discovery disclosures.
Now, let's look at this in terms of Happy Birthday. If you want to sing Happy Birthday, you would first have to conduct and document a "good faith, qualifying search to locate and identify the owner" of Happy Birthday before you sang it. You would then have to file a "notice of use" with the Copyright Office, telling the Copyright Office about this use of an orphaned work. Now, obviously, for most folks singing "happy birthday" at a birthday party, they're not going to do that -- and that's fine. After all, they ignored the copyright when many believed Warner/Chappell held a valid copyright.

But -- and here's the important point -- all of the "professional" situations where the song was used would almost certainly have to go through this process. Films that used the song wouldn't be able to get "errors and omissions" (E&O) insurance without first proving they made it through this process (and you need E&O insurance to ever get a movie released). Restaurants that wanted to sing Happy Birthday rather than their made up song would need to do the same thing. And they'd all likely have to hire lawyers in order to properly document the "search" and to file the notice with the Copyright Office. And very few people are going to want to go through that process. It may be slightly better than paying thousands of dollars to Warner/Chappell, but not much.

How is this solution possibly a "good compromise" on the issue of orphan works? How does adding such a burden, just so someone can sing Happy Birthday, possibly make sense?

Once again, the "problem" of orphan works is a self-made problem, created by copyright laws that automatically grant copyright to all new fixed works, rather than requiring registration in the first place. If it required registration, there would be some sort of record and paper trail of who owned the copyright and when it was valid. But in a world where everything gets copyright protection, we get a world with millions upon millions of orphaned works -- and if anyone who ever wanted to do anything with it had to go through the convoluted mess just to do something like sing Happy Birthday, the "answer" is no answer at all. It's just making a bad problem worse.

The way to fix orphan works is not to increase the burden, it's to fix a broken copyright system, and to require registration in the first place.

Bonus content: This doesn't fit directly into this post about orphan works, but this video by Vi Hart about the copyright on Happy Birthday is totally worth watching, presenting the issue from the perspective of someone knowledgeable about music theory, rather than copyright law, and showing yet another way in which the idea that Happy Birthday ever deserved copyright is a ridiculous idea.

Techdirt Podcast Episode 45: No, You're Not The Product (Techdirt)

by Leigh Beadon

from the even-if-you're-not-paying dept on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 @ 12:52PM

There's a common refrain regarding services these days that "if you're not paying for it, you're the product" — but this notion is at best an oversimplification, and at worst outright untrue. This week, we look at the far more complex and diverse reality of how free services relate to their users.

Follow the Techdirt Podcast on Soundcloud, subscribe via iTunes, or grab the RSS feed. You can also keep up with all the latest episodes right here on Techdirt.


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