Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Intellectual Property

Excuse me, my tattoo is ringing

Vibrating tattoo illustration
Meet Nokia, the king of synergy.

Many young people today seem to covet two things -- smartphones and tattoos. So Nokia has filed a patent for, as my colleague Deborah Netburn writes, "a tattoo that would send 'a perceivable impulse' to your skin whenever someone tried to contact you on the phone."

And you thought those Bluetooth things stuck in people's ears were silly!

Still, coming on the heels of a report that Apple sold more than 3 million new iPads in the first three days of its release, I'm not about to rain on a company's technology parade.

So how would this "tattoo ringer" work?

According to the patent filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the phone would communicate with the tattoo through magnetic waves. The phone would emit magnetic waves and the tattoo would act as a receiver. When the waves hit the tattoo, it would set off a tactile response in the user's skin.

The patent also suggests that it would be possible to customize the physical response depending on who is calling -- similar to having a different ring tone for different family members. So if your husband calls, you might only feel a dull tingling, but if it's your teenage daughter calling you'd feel a mighty itch.

Isn't technology great?  I can envision the future:  The whole family stops at the smartphone store, then troops next door to the tattoo parlor for customized "tattoo ringtones." 

Or more likely, the tattoo artist will be right there in the smartphone store. Heck, maybe it'll even be a robot tattoo artist.  How cool would that be? You pick a tattoo from a screen, press a button and presto, off with your shirt and on with your tattoo.

I'm sure apps will be written to take advantage of this; there's an app for most everything now. Perhaps you'll be able to download the app to your phone and it would instruct little brother in how to tattoo a ringtone.

Maybe there will be ringtone tattoo parties.

Yes, in this brave new world, a tattoo that says "Mom" will mean just that: Mom calling.

Of course, there are obstacles.  Girlfriends and boyfriends come and go, as do husbands and wives. So, I'd advise caution: Stay away from "I love Kate" or "My sweet Phil" tattoos. 

Something generic, perhaps. Like "I love her/him."

Yes. That has a certain ring to it, I'd say.

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Nokia's patent for a vibrating tattoo. Credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

A judge tells Kaleidescape to stop copying movies

Movies
The legal situation for Kaleidescape, a company making pricey home-movie servers, has taken a turn for the worse, although not a surprising one. In an order disclosed Monday, a state Superior Court judge barred the company from selling its flagship products, which rip movies off of copy-protected DVDs and store them for later playback.

The judge's ruling echoes the findings of a California appeals court in 2009, which tossed out an earlier ruling that upheld the legality of Kaleidescape's products. In essence, Judge William J. Monohan held that the contract Kaleidescape signed with the DVD CCA requires that its devices play a movie only by reading the actual DVD.

Kaleidescape says it will appeal. According to the company, the DVD CCA -- the coalition of movie studios, tech companies and consumer electronics manufacturers that controls the licenses to the anti-piracy technology on DVDs -- has admitted that it has suffered no harm from Kaleidescape's products. The company's expensive media servers are roach motels; once a movie file goes in, it can't be copied or redistributed. And the target market for Kaleidscape's systems, which cost more than $20,000 when the DVD CCA originally filed suit, has little conceivable overlap with the universe of disc pirates. Instead, company officials say, their customers buy more movies.

The problem for Kaleidescape is that the legal battle has focused on the terms of the contract the DVD CCA requires companies to sign in order to obtain the right to decrypt discs. The company contends that the contract doesn't forbid the sort of disc ripping its devices do, but that's a semantic argument based on a hunt for loopholes. An appeals panel and, now, Monohan have agreed with the DVD CCA that the contract offers no such wiggle room.

The more interesting argument is that the DVD CCA is a cartel that used its control over encryption technology on discs to block innovative new entrants into the home-video market. For the consumer electronics and tech companies in the association, Kaleidescape is a competitor with a novel high-end gadget. The Hollywood studios, meanwhile, may not object to Kaleidescape's products -- they're equipped with military-grade security, after all, and they're far too expensive to attract hackers. But they don't like the idea of Kaleidescape setting a precedent for other, less piracy conscious companies to follow.

Said Kaleidescape Chief Executive Michael Malcolm:

For the past eight years, we've been baffled about why this lawsuit ever happened, since our products don't encourage piracy but do increase sales of movies. Maybe it's because the large CE companies in Japan and the big computer companies in the USA, on the board of the DVD CCA, are afraid that Kaleidescape is building a better way to enjoy DVDs and Blu-ray discs than they are. Imagine a world where Apple wasn't allowed to build the iPod because Sony wanted a "level playing field" for the Walkman.

But the dispute really isn't all that baffling. One of the studios' biggest bugaboos is the thought of consumers making permanent copies of the movies they rent or borrow from friends. Never mind that the Internet supplies any number of ways to do that already, often at no cost. The studios just can't seem to abide the idea of companies building a business around consumer copying of movies. But again, although Kaleidescape tried to guard against "rent, rip and return" abuse, there's no guarantee other device makers would take the same steps.

The idea of a home DVD server seems quaint now, with rentals, subscription services and digital outlets on the rise and DVD sales drooping. Nevertheless, the studios seem committed to the idea of wringing more money out of consumers for the privilege of creating digital video jukeboxes to go along with their iTunes music collections and their digital photo galleries. Witness the recent introduction of a digital copying service from Rovi, which is expected to charge a small fee for converting a disc into a downloadable or streamable digital file.

The injunction issued last week means that Kaleidescape will have to stop selling its DVD-ripping system, at least until an appeals court intervenes. The injunction doesn't appear to apply to the company's Blu-ray system, which also copies movies but requires the corresponding discs to remain in the device for playback.

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--Jon Healey

Photo: A woman and child check out the DVDs at a Target in Culver City. Credit: Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times

Putting the right price on Megaupload chief Kim Dotcom's release

Kim Dotcom out on bail
A week after a judge in New Zealand finally allowed Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom out on bail, U.S. prosecutors are still trying to keep the accused criminal copyright infringer behind bars. The New Zealand government heads to court Monday to appeal Dotcom's Feb. 22 release, arguing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice that the multimillionaire may try to disappear instead of facing trial.

Let's pause for a moment while you come up with your own joke about how someone as, umm, large as Dotcom could slip through the government's fingers. Extra points for including the line "the round mound of remand."

I'm no fan of Megaupload, and the indictment lays out a plausible case that Dotcom and other company executives were engaged in a conspiracy to promote copyright infringement on a massive scale for their own enrichment. It's just an allegation at this point, however, and we in the United States like to say that we believe people are innocent until proved guilty. The same notion holds sway in New Zealand.

That principle doesn't preclude holding people without bail if they pose a demonstrable risk to society or there's a real chance they won't show up for trial. But the latter consideration is why courts have the power to set conditions on bail. In Dotcom's case, his assets have been frozen and a home he owns in New Zealand stands as collateral for his $4.3-million bail. If he skips trial, he loses the home and, most likely, those assets.

Although prosecutors say they're afraid Dotcom has hidden assets, the New Zealand judge who granted him bail (after almost a month behind bars) said authorities have looked and found nothing of consequence. Besides, prosecutors are paid to advocate on behalf of only one side of the case at this point -- the side that wants to convict Dotcom. Nevertheless, it undermines their credibility when they seek the same kind of treatment for an accused copyright infringer as they would for a suspected serial killer.

If fleeing would cost Dotcom all of his known assets, that seems like a sufficient deterrent. After all, aside from jail time, that's as large a penalty as prosecutors could hope to obtain at trial. 

By the way, Dotcom argues that Megaupload stayed within the bounds of copyright law. His lawyers also contend that he won't flee because he has three children and a pregnant wife in New Zealand.

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-- Jon Healey

Photo: Megaupload chief Kim Dotcom speaks to the media shortly after being granted bail. Credit:  Brett Phibbs / New Zealand Herald/AP

The Supreme Court shouldn't make resume-padding a crime

Xavier AlvarezWednesday was a bad day for liars at the Supreme Court. Even liberal justices seemed unsympathetic to a Pomona man who was prosecuted under a law known as the Stolen Valor Act for boasting at a public meeting that he had received the Medal of Honor. (That wasn't his only whopper. He also claimed to have played professional hockey and to have been injured while rescuing a U.S. diplomat during the Iran hostage crisis.)

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law. One judge drolly argued that if "false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he's Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won't hurt a bit. Phrases such as 'I'm working late tonight, hunny,' 'I got stuck in traffic'  and 'I didn't inhale' could all be made into crimes."

Members of the Supreme Court weren't about to salute that parade of horribles.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked the U.S. solicitor general if the government also could punish people who lied about attaining a high school diploma, but Roberts didn't seem to find the idea all that objectionable. Even more revealing of Roberts' attitude was a question he posed to the lawyer for Xavier Alvarez, the Medal of Honor wannabe: "What is the 1st Amendment value in a lie, pure lie?" 

The lawyer fumbled at first but later re-framed the issue in what I think is a persuasive way: "Our founders believed that Congress as a general principle doesn't get to tell us what we as individuals can and cannot say."  Obviously there are exceptions: If Alvarez had lied about his military record to obtain money, he would have been  guilty of the eminently prosecutable crime of fraud. But in itself a  pathetic claim to military glory -- a claim easily debunked by a visit to the Internet -- isn't the sort of statement a free society should criminalize.

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-- Michael McGough

Photo: Xavier Alvarez. Credit: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Gotta get some Google Goggles

Google Goggles illustration

You know what's so great about the world we live in?  It's that there are people out there right now inventing stuff you don't even realize you need.

Take Google. Its Google X lab is reportedly hard at work developing Google Goggles.

Despite the tongue-twister name, Google Goggles will apparently be the next must-have gadget. The so-called smart glasses (gee, who knew that regular glasses were "dumb"?) would somehow connect with the Internet to relay information in a heads-up display. (Shhhh. No one tell Rick Santorum. He'll want to pass a law banning Google Goggles. He thinks God gave us "eyes" for this sort of thing.)

Actually, Google Goggles remind me of Segways. You know, those really cool, high-tech scooters that relieve users of the chore of "walking"?

Anyway, here's what The Times said Wednesday about Google's latest ploy, er, toy:

Google Goggles uses photos, rather than text or voice, to conduct Web searches that can identify artwork, books, albums, contact information from a business card, logos, landmarks, wine bottles and even text to translate.

The experience offered by the glasses would be "Terminator-style" and would display information "based on preferences, location and Google's information," 9to5Google reported.

"The glasses will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby," the New York Times reported. Google intends that users not wear the glasses all the time, but only as needed, the report said.

Uh huh: "Only as needed." Not like that's a slippery slope or anything. Today's young people can't go five minutes without texting, surfing the Web or being on Facebook. (Heck, who am I kidding: A lot of adults can't go five minutes!) Giving these folks Google Goggles would be like those lab experiments in which rats push a button every time they want cocaine. What happens? Bing! Bing! Bing! Bye-bye happy rats!

I mean, didn't anyone at Google see "Brainstorm"? (R.I.P., Natalie Wood.)

However, it's not as if Google isn't taking precautions:

"Internally, the Google X team has been actively discussing the privacy implications of the glasses and the company wants to ensure that people know if they are being recorded by someone wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in camera," the New York Times said.

Which -- I don't know about you -- really puts my mind at ease. That should be an easy problem to solve. After all, Google is famous for worrying about privacy. (However, if Facebook is working on Friend Finder Frames, that's another story.)

OK, enough with the hyperbole. Here's what you really want to know:

According to the New York Times, Google wants the glasses on sale by the end of the year at a price ranging from $250 to $600 -- about the same as a smartphone.

Which is great -- because I thought they would be expensive or something.

Still, I'll bet Apple is toiling away right now on Apple Eyes (or would they be Apple i's?)

And why stop there? How about Nokia Noses, or Samsung Snouts, to help us smell better? And Ericsson Ears?

After all, my nose, and my ears, are pretty "dumb" too.

Bing! Bing! Bing!

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The Dow is climbing! The Dow is climbing!

 -- Paul Whitefield

Image: Illustration from a YouTube video of how Google's Google Goggles technology uses photos to conduct Web searches. Credit: Google Inc.

'Creatocracy' and the Internet free-for-all

Jay-Z
Author Elizabeth Wurtzel -- of "Prozac Nation" fame -- argues in a June episode of "Studio 360," which re-aired a couple weeks ago, for preserving the integrity of intellectual property. "Our GDP is now 47% intellectual property," she told host Kurt Andersen. Distributing artists' work free of charge not only threatens the existence of art and creativity, it also threatens a substantial part of our economy.

Rather than view the Internet as an environment that cannibalizes artists' work, some musicians such as Jay-Z have flipped the traditional music industry model on its head. Instead of relying on record sales for the bulk of their income, they use their albums as a marketing tool to get fans to buy concert tickets and merch. The easier their music is to access online, the better the promotion.

Many of the musicians I know don't mind this new model; some even prefer it. They post their new music on social networks, actively inviting fans to listen for free, banking on those listeners to help build buzz. Why wouldn't you adapt, they ask? There's been a similar shift in other creative fields too, with writers, photographers and designers, to name a few, using their personal sites to promote their work in hopes of spreading the word and getting hired.

That's crazy, says Wurtzel. "This is hard work," she told Andersen. "This isn't something people should be giving away for free." It devalues the product. For a "creatocracy" to work, she says:

Wurtzel: [W]e have the only Constitution that has intellectual property in it. […] I think the thing that [the Founding Fathers] did that was unique is that they didn't set up a minister of the arts; they set up a copyright system. They said you could profit from your creativity, they would not support it, there would not be patrons, there would not be the European system.

Andersen: Other countries have copyrights and patents. What makes our version of it special?

Wurtzel: I think that the government pretty much threw it all to the free market. […] They invented the concept of an audience supporting the arts as opposed to patrons of some other method.

Within the world of music, it would seem as though music-streaming subscription services would bridge the gap. Spotify, which is like Netflix for music, for instance, preserves intellectual property; artists get royalties and promotion; and fans get easy, immediate and inexpensive access to just about anything they want to listen to.

If only it were that simple. The editorial board recently took on this topic, writing:

To some labels and artists, the subscription services are little better than piracy. The royalties are minuscule -- about half a penny per song played on Spotify -- and the way they're calculated is maddeningly hard to understand. […]

For better or worse, the Internet makes music instantly available to anyone who wants to hear it. Many of the sources aren't legal, but they're free and easy to find. As a result, broadband has effectively ended the era when people had to buy an album to find out how good every track was (or wasn't). Consumers expect to be able to hear a recording before committing it to their collection. The challenge for artists and labels is to persuade potential fans to do so on legitimate, royalty-paying sites. At the same time, they have to find ways to introduce themselves to new generations of listeners. That means having a presence on the sites that millions of those listeners use, rather than trying to coax them to places chosen by the artist.

As a commenter, WaltMcKibben, writes on our discussion board, "an artist who can cross all the technological borders will define the century."

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: Jay-Z performs during a concert at Staples Center on March 26, 2011. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Feds pile more criminal charges onto Megaupload

Megaupload
Federal prosecutors obtained a new indictment against Megaupload and its top executives this week, replacing and expanding on the one a grand jury handed down in January. The latest version alleges 13 separate violations of federal law -- eight more than the original -- including new charges of willfully infringing copyrighted content from YouTube and committing wire fraud.

The latter are based on allegations that Megaupload misled copyright holders into believing that their takedown requests had resulted in copyrighted movies and TV shows being removed, when in fact the company had removed only some of the links, and the files were still available for downloading. The message to other sites is clear: In the feds' view, complying with a takedown request means doing more than making a file harder to find. It means actually removing it from the server.

The most interesting new nugget of information, though, was this one from the indictment's general allegations:

Megaupload.com was at one point in its history estimated to be the 13th most frequently visited website on the entire Internet. The site claims to have had more than one billion visitors in its history, more than 180,000,000 registered users to date, an average of 50 million daily visits, and to account for approximately four percent of the total traffic on the Internet. As of January 19, 2012, there were actually approximately 66.6 million users registered in the Mega Conspiracy's internal database records; of these registered users, the records further show that, at most, only 5.86 million users had ever uploaded a single file to either Megaupload.com or Megavideo.com.

Nearly 6 million users uploading files is a huge number. But the low percentage of uploaders is more typical of a file-sharing network, where the primary use is downloading files, as opposed to creating online backups or collaborating online with co-workers -- the sorts of activities that typify a legitimate cloud-based locker service.

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-- Jon Healey

Credit: AFP Photo / Megaupload.com

Should Romney take the rap for Mormon Church's 'proxy baptisms'?

Mitt Romney
As if Mitt Romney didn't have enough problems with a surging Rick Santorum, the former Republican front-runner now finds himself pressured by Elie Wiesel to intercede with the Mormon Church to stop the "proxy baptisms" of Holocaust victims.  Wiesel said he hoped Romney would get involved after it was reported that Wiesel's name and those of his father and grandfather were found on a  genealogical database kept by the church. A church spokesman said that the Wiesel names "were not submitted for baptisms" and never would have been under a policy prohibiting the proxy baptism of Holocaust victims.

Wiesel's exasperation is understandable, but it was unfair to demand that Romney take responsibility for a policy that, even if it existed, wasn't his doing. Granted, Romney has served in lay leadership positions in the church and has contributed generously to it, but he is not the Mormon candidate for president any more than John F. Kennedy was the Roman Catholic candidate for president in 1960. It would have been inappropriate at that time to have asked Kennedy to try to end the then-common practice of Catholics praying for the conversion of living Jews. Publicly asking Romney to oppose the retroactive baptisms of Jews is equally unfair. The complaints should have been directed at the church.

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Photo: Mitt Romney is seen on Feb. 16 speaking at the Cuyahoga County Lincoln Day Dinner in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. Credit: Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

Mitt Romney doth protest too much about his conservative credentials

Mitt Romney CPAC
Mitt Romney's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference included a "greatest hits" of conservative policy positions, but what was striking about it was the repetition of the "C-word." I counted 23 references to "conservative," "conservatives" or "conservatism." 

Would a politician comfortable with his conservatism feel the need to wrap himself so tightly in the term? It's as if President Obama were to refer to himself repeatedly as a "liberal"  -- or  "progressive," the new preferred usage -- in a speech to a liberal-leaning group. (Or as a "centrist" if he were addressing the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.)

Just as converts to Catholicism often call attention to their religion more than do cradle Catholics, Romney clearly felt that he had to blatantly burnish his conservative credentials before an audience of longtime right-wingers. It's a wonder he didn't write "conservative Mitt Romney" on his CPAC name tag.

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 --Michael McGough

Photo: Mitt Romney speaks during an address to the 39th Conservative Political Action Committee on Feb. 10 in Washington, DC. Credit: Mandel Ngan /AFP/Getty Images

Super Bowl: The right way to combat big-game pirates

Super Bowl on the PC
The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division continued its crackdown this week on copyright and trademark violators online, seizing 16 sites that allegedly streamed NFL games and other sports illegally and 291 that allegedly sold counterfeit sports memorabilia. ICE made the announcement in Indianapolis, the site of Sunday's Super Bowl -- a treasure trove of copyrighted video and trademarked brands.

The NFL welcomed ICE's crackdown, but let's be honest -- taking down 16 streaming sites won't stop the big game from being pirated. To its credit, the league took a far more important step on that front late last year: it agreed to let NBC, the broadcaster with the rights to Sunday's game, transmit it online as well. It's the first time the Super Bowl will be available legally online, after more than a decade of it being available illegally.

As college students would tell you, the best way to combat pirated video online is to make the programming available legally on attractive terms. Hulu, for instance, has made it unnecessary to download bootlegged TV shows through BitTorrent.

The Super Bowl is practically a throwback to an earlier age of television, before cable and DVRs splintered the audience and time-shifted the programs. Millions of people around the country -- around the world, even -- watch it at the same time. It's also ideal for a big screen, given how the action stretches across the field (during the fraction of time that the players are actually playing).

That's why it's the ideal program to transmit not just over the air and via cable but also through the Internet. League executives worried about undercutting the advertising revenue that justifies the high fees they command for the broadcast rights can rest assured that anybody who can watch the game on TV will do so. The online audience represents incremental revenue because it's made up predominantly of people who don't have access to a TV.

CBS knows this from its experience broadcasting the NCAA basketball tournament. For several years, the network has made every game available online, and it's turned March Madness on the Internet into a profit center without hurting its TV ratings. That's why CBS urged the NFL almost three years ago to put the big game online, to no immediate avail.

Webcasting the game won't make it any easier for pirates to make and distribute illegal recordings; they can do that already from the telecast of the game. What it will do is provide an attractive alternative to the innumerable unauthorized streaming sites, such as the one New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady used to watch last year's Super Bowl while recuperating in Costa Rica.

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-- Jon Healey

Credit: NBC / Associated Press

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