Thursday, 23 October 2003
Mark Fingerman posted a comment asking some good questions about my entry on the propriety of using copyright to quell criticism ("Diebold detractors defy DMCA desist demands"). I will try to answer them all here.
First, whether Bill Gates "should be allowed to profit from" software that he designs. Of course! The law should forbid people to profit from their labor only in rare circumstances — like murders for hire. Should Ford be allowed to sell cars at a profit? And Dole to sell pineapples? Surely, no one would argue that these companies are not permitted to build and grow physical products with their own factories and land, then place those items in the stream of commerce. The difference is that cars and pineapples are physical goods, which are rivalrous, meaning that only one person can consume them at any time (and, in the case of pineapples, only one person can eat a pineapple before it becomes useless to everyone else). Software is a nontangible good, which can be copied and used by two or more people at the same time — so if you copy my Office 2002 CD, my enjoyment of the software is not diminished. That is where copyright law comes in: the law erects an artificial barrier to some activities to imbue nontangible goods with some of the same qualities that allow producers to profit from tangible goods. (Note that "artificial" sometimes carries a negative connotation, but that is not what I intend here. I mean that a legal barrier does not exist in a "natural" world without laws.)
Second, on "intermediate" products of a copyrightable nature. Surely, Tom Clancy holds a copyright in chapter 1 before he finishes writing chapter 12. Copyright law protects the expression in any creative work beginning at the instant it is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression." Courts have interpreted the term "tangible medium of expression" broadly, as anything that can hold information in a stable form for a measurable period of time — e.g., paper, rock, clay, glass, wood, magnetic disks and RAM. Section 101 of the Copyright Act defines the moment of fixation:
A work is "fixed" in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration.
The Copyright Act does not distinguish between "finished" and "unfinished" works, and the copyrights in intermediate stages of production can be analyzed separately from the copyright in a finished work. Normally we need not bother, because the copyright in the finished product is much more valuable and is the focus of disputes that arise.
Next, Mark takes exception to my claim that "The public enjoys the right to make 'fair use' of copyrighted works — especially for purposes such as criticism, satire, parody, scholarly analysis, and other uses that are necessary to preserve unfettered public debate and preserve the liberty of free expression." He asks, "So the public has the right to break into your home, steal your private correspondence, and publish it 'especially for purposes such as criticism, satire, parody, scholarly analysis...?' Can I rob a bank for the purpose of holding them up to 'scholarly analysis?'"
The answer, of course, is no, because the actions you describe are crimes and torts. Diebold has clear legal remedies against the person who broke into its computer network. It can sue him for, among other claims, trespass, theft of trade secrets, and interference with business relations. It can also press criminal charges under the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act. Take note that Diebold has done none of these legitimate things. Instead, the company has taken aim at people who have, unquestionably, never committed a crime or tort against it. The harm that Diebold fears is not further loss of trade secrets (these "secrets" are already public knowledge so, by definition, they are no longer trade secrets). Rather, it is trying to use copyright law to stymie discussion its products after the public has learned of their flaws.
The Lanham Act, the foundation of American trademark law, explicitly allows us to reproduce trademarked words, phrases, and symbols for the purpose of discussing the products they represent. This limits the general rule that reproducing a trademark without permission is infringement, and it is necessary to avoid rendering the trademark regime unconstitutional under the First Amendment. If we can write Diebold's name but cannot discuss its products, then the limitation is meaningless. Forcing the public to discuss the voting machines' shortcomings without sufficient supporting facts is tantamount to the same thing. Yes, the person who "stole" Diebold's documents should be held responsible, if Diebold chooses to press the issue. The general public, however, should not be held responsible for one person's wrongdoing.
Finally, the questions "Is Diebolds product better than hanging chads? And did Diebold provide what the state requested?" I take it, you are referring to the Georgia election I discussed in a previous article. For all the reasons stated in that article: no, Diebold's products (in their current form and with current election laws) are not better than hanging chads. And no, it did not provide what the state requested. The state certified the machines prior to the election, according to its laws. Sometime thereafter, Diebold made changes to its software and did not disclose that changes had been made — let alone the content of those changes — to anyone. There has been no allegation that these particular changes compromised the election, but one can easily imagine a scenario where such changes would cause problems. If the government is not informed of the changes and has no opportunity to examine them, what is to stop Diebold or another manufacturer from changing every tenth Republican vote to a Democratic one?
I sympathize with Diebold's problems. Nobody likes criticism. It invested a lot of time and money in developing its touch-screen voting machines, and it wants to prevent that work from being wasted. But we live in a democracy that values the integrity of its elections and a capitalist economy that values the operation of market forces in an environment of as-nearly-perfect-as-possible information. Diebold could subvert the first and has subverted the second.