Laws in the Digital World

In the beginning there was one law: the Law of the Jungle. It was quite simple: “eat or get eaten”. About 3500 years ago Moses set down ten laws and ever since, laws have multiplied almost without number.

Go into any decent law library and you will wonder how it is possible for a modern American NOT to break any laws. In his new book “Three Felonies a Day,” Boston civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate estimates the average American now unwittingly commits three felony crimes every day. Digital technology has become so complex that lawmakers are unable to write laws that are simple enough for anyone to understand, even prosecutors and judges.

As confusing as that may sound, consider the following:

L. GORDON CROVITZ in the WSJ, You Commit Three Felonies a Day

In 2001, a man named Bradford Councilman was charged in Massachusetts with violating the wiretap laws. He worked at a company that offered an online book-listing service and also acted as an Internet service provider to book dealers. As an ISP, the company routinely intercepted and copied emails as part of the process of shuttling them through the Web to recipients.

The federal wiretap laws, Mr. Silverglate writes, were “written before the dawn of the Internet, often amended, not always clear, and frequently lagging behind the whipcrack speed of technological change.” Prosecutors chose to interpret the ISP role of momentarily copying messages as they made their way through the system as akin to impermissibly listening in on communications. The case went through several rounds of litigation, with no judge making the obvious point that this is how ISPs operate. After six years, a jury found Mr. Councilman not guilty.

Patent Law as well has yet to catch up to new technology. There are now idiots who are getting patents for bogus “technology” because those who grant these patents have no expertise in the fields they are reviewing. Consider patent number 7,113,911 issued September 26, 2006:

Voice communication concerning a local entity , Abstract

A local entity without its own means of voice communication is provided with the semblance of having a voice interaction capability. This is done by providing a beacon device at or near the entity, the beacon device transmitting, over a short-range communication link, contact data identifying a voice service associated with, but hosted separately from, the entity. The transmitted contact data is picked up by equipment carried by a nearby person and used to contact the voice service over a wireless network. The person then interacts with the voice service, the latter acting as a voice proxy for the local entity. The contact data can be presented to the user in other ways, for example, by being inscribed on the local entity for scanning or user input into the equipment.

Patent Sharks
Photo: Many Worlds

This is so vague and so general that it can describe any number of possibilities: a text to speech browser that lets you text a webpage into your phone and reads the page back to you; or a system where you call a service in India and they read back the text of a webpage, or you place a speaker next to a dog and a dog translator interprets what the dog wishes to say to you, and so on.

Nonsense like this has enabled patent sharks like the extortion patent holding company NTP which sued BlackBerry maker Research in Motion in 2006 for violation of their supposed NTP “patents” which RIM settled for over $600 million even though those “patents” were later declared invalid.

I almost feel like trying to patent the ‘e’ key on the keyboard. I believe I might actually get a patent for it. This way, every time someone types the letters eBay, they’ll have to pay me 25 cents. I leave the other letters to others, after all, I’m not a greedy person.

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