Copyright Enforcement Run Amok

Apology for singing shop worker:  The agency responsible for collecting copyright royalties in Scotland warned Sandra Burt, a food-store employee, to stop singing while she worked or face thousands of pounds in fines.  First the Performing Rights Society notified the store it must have a license “to play a radio within earshot of customers.”  The owner ditched the radio and Mrs. Burt broke into song “just to keep me happy because it was very quiet without the radio.”   The PRS’s threat provoked a “furore” (love those U.K. spellings!) and the agency reversed course, sending Mrs. Burt flowers and apologizing for its “big mistake.”

It’s a silly little story with disturbing elements.  That an organization involved in copyright enforcement believed Mrs. Burt’s singing warranted bullying and punishment makes copyright holders look foolish and obscures the real issues at stake in the copyright wars.

What Was He Thinking?

Having recently dissed Yahoo!’s event planners, fairness requires mention of a story I read in the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, which picked it up from the Legal Profession Blog.  This past spring Illinois solo attorney Samir Chowhan advertised for secretarial help for himself and another solo on Craigslist–in the Adult Gigs section:

Duties will include general secretarial work, some paralegal work and additional duties for two lawyers in the firm.  No experience required, training will be provided.  Generous annual salary and benefits will be provided, including medical, dental, life, disability, 401(k) etc. If interested, please send current resume and a few pictures along with a description of your physical features, including measurements.

A woman responding to the ad received an email from Chowhan that spelled out those “additional duties:”

As this is posted in the “adult gigs” section, in addition to the legal work, you would be required to have sexual interaction with me and my partner, sometimes together sometimes separate. This part of the job would require sexy dressing and flirtatious interaction with me and my partner, as well as sexual interaction. You will have to be comfortable doing this with us.

He goes on to explain the interview process:

Lastly, we’ve actually hired a couple of girls in the past for this position. But they have not been able to handle the sexual aspect of the job later. We have to be sure you’re comfortable with that aspect, because I don’t want you to do anything that you’re not comfortable with. So since that time, we’ve decided that as part of the interview process you’ll be required to perform for us sexually (i didn’t do this before with the other girls i hired, now i think i have to because they couldn’t handle it). Because that aspect is an integral part of the job, I think it’s necessary to see if you can do that, because it’ll predict future behavior of you being able to handle it when you have the job.

Illinois’s attorney disciplinary authority is investigating.  After first denying responsibility Chowhan admitted he posted the ad and sent the email, claiming  he “was just screwing around, just curious to know if anyone would respond. Unfortunately, someone did.”  He no longer practices law, a decision he says was not related to this exercise in curiosity.  That’s good, because I expect he’ll lose his license to practice.

SAD and Blue

I don’t know whether more students are sick this fall than in prior years or H1N1 makes students more cautious about incipient flu symptoms, but illness-related class absences are unusually high.  On top of that both of my Intro to Law sections were listless today.  I thought the lassitude might be limited to the first section but the later section was no better.  I thought they might be preoccupied by an exam in another class–I’ve seen the stats-induced blank stare before–but when I asked they said no,  an exam is not the cause.  “Then why are  . . . . your brain waves so flat today?”  (At the last moment I veered away from asking “why are you brain dead?”)  “It’s raining.”  “It’s gray.”  It’s rained before without this effect.  Finally someone said to blame the transition to shorter days and winter weather.  “Aha.  The transition to depression.  Got it.”  A mass outbreak of season affective disorder.  Alert the Surgeon General.

Law Career Blues

I’m not trying to discourage prospective law students.  Honestly.  I just want to reduce the number of former students who return to shout in my face “practicing law sucks!” or “the only job I could get is doing document-review piecework as a $23/hour contract attorney!”

Forewarned is forearmed.

Case Prep

A former student currently in law school passes along this advice about reading and preparing cases for class:  “If I can pass any knowledge down to the current undergrads, I would push the 5-highlighter technique as although it seems a bit cumbersome at first, it makes case recall so much easier in class and actually makes book briefing efficient and effective.”  In other words (and he’ll correct me if I am wrong), employ highlighters of five different colors to mark the facts, issue, legal principles, analysis, and holding for each case.

I might even give this a try.  Thanks, TG.

The Nadir News Network

I cannot tolerate television news.  A few minutes viewing makes me sputter “that’s not newsworthy!” at the screen, after which Judy kicks me out of the room.  My students roll their eyes at these rants; this is the only television news they have known. The latest twist in the “balloon boy” story is the allegation that media outlets were in on the hoax.  No details yet, but it is easy to believe.  Any nitwit who pursues public attention diligently enough will receive it from media enablers.  In 1974 in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. the U.S. Supreme Court presciently classified as public figures for purposes of defamation law people who are in the public eye “by reason of the notoriety of their achievements or the vigor and success with which they seek the public’s attention.”  The Court could not have anticipated in 1974 the extent to which notoriety and celebrity, divorced of talent, merit, or accomplishment, would become ends in themselves.  After “discovering” that his son might have climbed aboard the drifting balloon the father’s first call was not to 911, but a television station.  Where do these people come from?

Mandatory Sentencing

I disagree with mandatory sentences in criminal law–and school punishments.   Zachary Christie’s suspension from school for possession of a folding combination knife, fork, and spoon shows why.  Zachary is six years old, in first grade, and was proud to use his new cub scout utensil at lunch.  For violating its no-weapons policy the school punished him with 45 days suspension–45 days!!!!!–and required him to attend its alternative program for disciplinary hard cases during the suspension period.  (Since this story broke a few days ago the school board voted to reduce the punishment for kindergarten and first grade violators to suspension of three to five days.)  The no-weapons policy applied regardless of the possessor’s intent so the school had no choice but to suspend him.  No discretion, which means no application of common sense, was allowed.  Schools defend such policies as being necessary to protect schoolchildren, an objective whose emotional freight crowds out rational discussion of a policy’s merits.  Questioning their wisdom opens one to accusations of callous disregard for the well-being of children, of playing roulette with children’s lives.  Not the way to ingratiate oneself to the neighbors.

Supporters justify zero-tolerance policies with five words,  you can’t be too careful, as if uttering these words were conclusive, irrefutable proof of their position.  I disagree. You can be too careful.  However laudable their goals, zero-tolerance policies sacrifice justice, common sense, wisdom, and human dignity for expediency.  Zero-tolerance is the opposite of thought.  It negates our miraculous ability to reason.  Someone (possibly Mark Twain, but I doubt it) said “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  To an institution with a zero-tolerance policy, every violation looks like a life-or-death threat on Childhood, or National Security, or whatever the policy is supposed to protect.  The fact that a zero-tolerance policy was instituted becomes justification for applying it without considering whether less rigid policies would better serve the stated goals. One instituted, zero-tolerance policies rarely tolerate modification.

Retail’s Evolution

Here’s an interesting story by Eric Torbenson from the New York Post:  “The monster that ate the recovery–Why the rise of Internet shopping could destroy jobs and the economy.”  [It’s alternate subheadline is “could filling your iPod destroy the economic recovery?”] The premise is “online sales mean fewer employees and fewer physical storefronts.  That means falling salaries and rents, decreased construction, lower payroll taxes[, and lower] sales taxes.”  Internet sales are projected to grow faster than brick-and-mortar sales, taking a toll on retail employment, those sectors of the economy that feed on retail employment, and governments that rely on sales tax revenue.  The evolution towards online sales may be inevitable, but the recession’s quickening of its pace amplifies the resultant economic dislocation.