I'm very happy that the US has very broad safe harbors for liability in the form of Section 230, though I still don't think such a law should be necessary. It should be common sense that you don't blame a third party for actions of someone else. And yet, even with Section 230 safe harbors, third parties get sued all the time in the US. And, it's even worse in other countries where there are no such protections, and some judges will put liability on a third party, creating horrible chilling effects. Over in Singapore, there's a lawsuit that could be worth following when it comes to the proper application of liability on blog comments. Reader Veri alerts us to the news that a school based in Singapore (though it runs schools around the globe) the Global Indian Foundation (GIF), sued a parent who keeps a blog about the school, not for anything that parent wrote, but what some others wrote in the comments, claiming that the comments are defamatory.
The guy who's being sued, Ajith K Narayanan, points out that he didn't write the words in question, that the terms of service on his blog make it clear that commenters are responsible for their own language and, finally, that there wasn't any defamation anyway because the comments are true. The latter two arguments are interesting, but it's the first one that's the important one. If Singapore properly applies liability to those actually responsible, the case should just get tossed out on that first issue, and the other two issues shouldn't matter at all. If the school really wants to go after the commenters for defamation, it should be required to show that there's a strong likelihood that the material was defamatory, and then request a subpoena for the commenters' information (at which point the blogger can decide whether or not to fight it). But simply suing the blogger and claiming he's liable for the possible defamation takes third party liability way too far, and hopefully the court in Singapore recognizes this.
It should be noted that there are some other oddities involved in this lawsuit as well, many of which are summarized at this Techgoss post. It appears that the school initially filed criminal charges, but those were quoshed by a judge earlier this year. Then there's the really bizarre back and forth from April, that began with a report in an Indian newspaper that police had arrested a former GIF employee, claiming that he had started the blog and that it was a "fake" blog to discredit GIF. That report claimed that Narayanan had revealed this ex-employee to be his co-blogger in an affidavit. Yet, in a post on the site, denies pretty much all of that. This seems like a bit of a sideshow, but it does make the whole case a bit more confusing...
Two big stories recently were Google's decision to effectively leave China and the NY Times' agreement to pay Singapore's leaders for daring to refer to the fact that a father and son pair had both been prime minister as a "dynasty." The Times' public editor is now comparing the two situations -- and while he notes that Singapore is an important market for many media publications, and from a business perspective, the decision makes sense, he seems to suggest that Google got this right, while the Times got it wrong:
Google faced a similar painful dilemma in China. With potentially billions of dollars at risk, it stuck to its principles, and The Times applauded editorially. I think Google set an example for everyone who believes in the free flow of information.
In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune's op-ed page, agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In a February 15, 2010, article, Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.
There's so much that's bizarre in this short paragraph that it's difficult to know where to start. But, what may be even more bizarre is what the NY Time's apparently left out. According to other reports, the NY Times also paid $114,000 to the father and son (and to a lawyer representing both). Either way, this whole thing is very odd. Why would a reporter for a respectable publication ever agree not to give an opinion on something? And why would the NY Times' cave for merely stating that having a father and son both as prime minister's represents something of a dynasty?
As copyright-watchers are well aware, recently there was an important case that went through the US court system over whether or not cable company Cablevision could provide a remote DVR service. Effectively, Cablevision was setting up a bank of TiVo-like devices at its own datacenter, and allowing users to record and playback shows as if they were recording them on a DVR settop box sitting under their television. The only real difference is where the box is (or, you might say, how long the wire is between the TV and the DVR). Since it's already well established that time-shifting is perfectly legal it was difficult to see how anyone could make the argument that Cablevision's setup was infringing. The only difference was the length of the wire. But, of course, the TV guys objected strenuously with bizarre analogies that didn't make much sense.
The appeals court sided with Cablevision, saying that such a service doesn't infringe, and the Supreme Court chose not to hear the appeal, so this ruling stands, at least in the Second Circuit, for the time being. But what was most telling about the actual appeals court ruling was how the judges had to contort themselves into all sorts of odd ways to make such a ruling make sense under the law. The conclusion clearly made sense. Copyright law wouldn't make any sense at all if the length of a wire could change something from infringing to non-infringing. And yet, there were ways to read copyright law that would have found in favor of the networks. The issue is really twofold. First, technology advances faster than copyright law, and the conditions that were in place when the law was written aren't the same as what happens later. Second, to deal with this our esteemed elected officials simply apply duct tape-like patches to copyright law, adding new definitions and categories, that didn't exist before. But, then when new technologies come along, the question is what categories do the resulting outputs fall into, and the arguments are often about who gets to categorize the output to their benefit.
It appears that the US is not the only country going through this sort of debate. I've been alerted to a recent ruling in Singapore that actually comes to a different conclusion and finds infringing behavior on the part of the service provider. The story here is slightly different. In this case, the company is RecordTV -- a separate service, rather than provided by the cable company itself. Also, it's a web-based service, rather than a TV-based one. Users log in and can designate which shows (only from Singaporean channels that broadcast over-the-air) they want to record, and the service will record those shows and make them accessible to that user only for a limited amount of time. There is one
other complicating factor, in that the way RecordTV works has shifted over time. Initially it would record a show once and allow anyone who requested that recording to access the single file. But later it switched to keeping a separate recording of each show that someone requested, which seems massively inefficient in terms of storage.
What's stunning again, however, as you read through the ruling is how conflicted the judge appears to be. There's a ridiculous amount of "on the one hand, on the other hand, but on the other other hand"-type reasoning found throughout the ruling, which you can see below:
It's also interesting to see that, despite this ruling being in Singapore, under Singaporean rule, the discussion spends a lot of time looking at the Cablevision case in the US (and some other US and UK cases as well).
So, why does the judge come to a different conclusion? Well, it almost feels like it depended on which eventual flip of the coin came up which way. The judge agrees with the basic ruling in Cablevision that it is not the service provider who is liable for direct infringement. As in the Cablevision case, it's the end users who "pushes the button" and thus is actually responsible for the action. All good. But, the lawsuit also focused on a secondary level of infringement, and here the court found that RecordTV, while not liable for the actual recording, could be found liable of secondary infringement in the later transmission of the content.
This seems like a total headscratcher. So a user is responsible for recording the file, but not responsible for then accessing it (recognize that the user accessing the file is the same as the service provider transmitting it)? How does that make sense?
There is a second issue also, which is that the court had trouble with the fact that RecordTV meant to be a commercial enterprise in which it would make money by having ads. It used this issue as one of a few factors that removed a "fair dealing/fair use" defense by the company. Again, though, there's a lot of "on the one hand, on the other hand" type debates in the ruling until the judge basically says that under the law, as it stands, the site is guilty of infringement. But even it seems really troubled by what this means from a practical perspective:
I leave open the possibility that such a DVR or VCR product or service, operating remotely or locally, digitally or via analog means, could amount to fair dealing under our Copyright Act only for the non-commercial facilitation of end-users' time shifting. As we have seen earlier... it is inconsistent that the VCR is permitted to be sold at a price (in stores) but the [remote] DVR (through advertising revenue) is not, but until the occasion requires, I shall not make any pronouncements on this anomaly.
And there you are. Even the judge seems to recognize that it's silly to find one service infringing and the other not, but basically says that with the way copyright law is set up, that's the ruling that makes sense.
Finally, this should be worrisome on all sorts of levels for a variety of online services that seek to replicate perfectly legal analog equivalents. The fact that where a storage device is stored or how long a wire is could totally change the legality of a product should suggest that something is seriously wrong with copyright law.
The Wall Street Journal is running a story about how it's been fined by Singaporean courts for two editorials the paper published over the summer. The story notes how nearly every foreign publication distributed in Singapore has been sued in court at one point or another, and the article goes through detailing the specific charges against it by Singapore. Obviously, the WSJ's story can be seen as biased since they were a party in the lawsuit, but from the description, it sounds like Singapore was upset that the WSJ accurately reported on a defamation lawsuit by a former government official against an opposition party candidate, and later a critical study by the International Bar Association on the rule of law in Singapore. It's difficult to see how those reports can be said to be "contemptuous of the judiciary," but in a country that isn't known for taking criticism well, perhaps it's not that surprising.
Still, what's most interesting is that in response to this, the Wall Street Journal has chosen not to publish this particular story about the decision in the Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal -- though, the story is obviously available online. Apparently the WSJ recognizes, probably accurately, that if they published the story about the decision, where they are somewhat critical of that decision, they would probably be in for yet another "contempt" charge. To some extent, this decision makes you wonder how effective suppression of the press can be going forward. Yes, countries can build filters and block out certain publications, but online content can always be filtered through eventually. The very fact that the WSJ is purposely leaving the editorial out of Asian editions of the paper seems more likely to draw more attention to the story from within Singapore as well, accomplishing exactly the opposite of what the country thinks it's doing in fining the paper.
Ah silly patents. Remember back when British Telecom thought that it held a patent on hyperlinks? And then there've been multiple different patents claiming ownership of the idea of putting an image on a website. Well, it appears that a company in Singapore has recently merged the two ideas into its own patent, and boy, is it ever ready to sue just about everyone. Slashdot points us to the news that Singaporean image search firm Vuestar Technologies claims to hold a patent on linking images from a website to another site and is sending out threatening letters to a bunch of websites. No one has linked to the actual patent so it's difficult to see what it really covers -- but the idea that a recent patent would cover the concept of linking images seems preposterous.