What do you get when you combine a Conan O’Brien skit about sports mascots, an ad-lib about “www.hornymanatee.com,” the pervasive threat of FCC sanctions for sponsoring inappropriate material, digital technology, and cheap domain names? You get an actual Horny Manatee website with 3 million hits in one week, an outpouring of fan-created horny-manatee themed art, what O’Brien called a “weird comedy dialogue with the audience,” a New York Times article titled So This Manatee Walks Into the Internet, and this week’s (or today’s, anyway) Internet phenomenon.
In yesterday’s Internet law class, culminating a month of readings and discussion on copyright law and digital technology, we discussed whether and how the entertainment industries might change their business models to move beyond their largely defensive, enforcement-centric response to file sharing. Today I saw a report that Clickstar, Morgan Freeman’s production company, will release his new film “10 items or Less” on the Internet on December 15, two weeks after its theatrical release today. The film, about an actor (played by Freeman) spending a day with a grocery checkout clerk to prepare for a role in an indie film, will not play in multiplexes or large commercial theaters, a factor that may have contributed to Freeman’s decision to release it online. Of his residence in Mississippi Freeman said “[w]here I live, in my town, there’s no movie house . . . There are many, many, many, many people who don’t have access.” The film’s download will be protected by digital rights management coding of a type not described in the article.
Morgan Freeman to release new film online two weeks after theater opening, SiliconValley.com, 30-Nov-06
The problem in teaching Internet law is choosing what to cover. There is no such thing as “Internet Law,” not in the sense of an integrated body of legal principles such as contract law, tort law, or constitutional law. “Internet Law” might better be described as “The Legal System’s Response to Problems Arising from Use of the Internet and Digital Technology for Commercial and Other Transactions.” That’s a title certain to scare away prospective students, and still probably incomplete.
When Internet Law, or Cyber Law, entered the legal consciousness about eight years ago textbook publishers rushed a number of Internet law texts to market. I looked at all of them, tried out a few, and now don’t use any. One problem they shared was the lack of clear vision as to what they should cover. They spent time on topics like non-disclosure agreements for employees of tech companies or forms of business organization for Internet start-ups. These are interesting topics in an employment law or entrepreneurship course, but pose no issues unique to the Internet. Teaching this course requires guidelines to determine what topics are in and what are out. Two Internet law professors might use different guidelines and disagree about whether to include a particular topic. For instance, I don’t discuss patent law in my Internet law course. Patent law raises vitally important issues these days, such as the patentability of methods of doing business and the Patent Office’s need to vet prior art thoroughly, but in my view these cutting-edge issues do not turn on unique Internet characteristics.
Fortunately the news abounds with issues of Internet law. These are some of the stories that came across my desktop yesterday:
Darren Waters, Warnings over ‘broken up” Internet, BBC News, Oct-11-06 (reporting on concerns that countries such as China will tailor Internet architecture to their specific needs, resulting in “island of connectivity that have no inter-connectivity between them”)
Jonathan Bick, E-Communications Policy: Getting It Right, E-Commerce Law & Strategy (Law.com), Oct-12-06 (recommendations about employer policies governing employee use of “Internet, computer, and electronic assets” that recognize the ubiquity inherent insecurity of current methods of electronic communication)
Jack M. Germain, The False Promise of Browser Security, E-Commerce Times, Oct-11-06 (“Vulnerabilities are so embedded in any browser that surfing the Web is no safer than driving a tank through a mine field while blindfolded.”)
Does YouTube Make Google a Big Target for Copyright Suits?, The Wall Street Journal, Oct-11-06 (Discussion between John Palfrey, Harvard law professor and Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Stan Liebovitz, University of Texas economics professor and Director of the Center for Analysis of Property Rights and Innovation)
Susanna Hamer, Google’s big bet, CNNMoney.com, Oct-12-06 (Advertisers will use databases of personally-identifable information, tracking cookies, geo-location software, and other devices to deliver personally-customized video ads to Internet users)
Like I said, the problem in teaching Internet law is choosing what to cover. There is too much.