Owning Bits

Miscellaneous Homework 5: Select A Topic

Summary: In this exercise, you will select a topic that you explore in tutorial for the remainder of the semester.

Purpose: To begin your topic-based work.

Assigned: Thursday, 4 September 2003

Due: 8:00 a.m., Thursday, 11 September 2003

Background: Each member of this tutorial will select a particular issue or topic that relates to the relationship between intellectual property and information technology. Each of you will then be responsible for (0) creating an online journal that records your thoughts as you explore the topic; (1) identifying a potential set of sources for exploring that topic in depth; (2) choosing one or two sources for everyone in the class to read; (3) leading a half-hour discussion on those sources; (4) preparing an annotated bibliography from a subset of your broader set of sources; (5) writing a moderate-length (2000-3000 words) paper on the subject; and (6) presenting your paper to the class (and, possibly, to a broader audience).

The Assignment: Identify two or three subjects that you expect will reveal interesting connections between intellectual property law and information technology. You may focus on a particular kind of IP law (e.g., copyright, fair use, patents, trademarks) or on IP law in general. Similarly, you can focus on a particular kind of technology (e.g., Web links) or upon information technology in general. You should feel free to phrase your subject as a question, as a statement, or even as a sequence of ideas.

Some Selected Starting Sites:

You can (and perhaps even should) start your exploration for this assignment by talking to people. Who should you talk to? Mr. Rebelsky and Ms. Green are good resources. Your colleagues in tutorial are also good resources.

You might find it useful to search newspaper archives (ask a librarian for assistance) to see if there are recent cases that you find surprising or worth investigating in more depth.

A number of books cover these kinds of topics in depth. Feel free to ask Mr. Rebelsky or Ms. Green for help finding one. (Mr. Rebelsky will also bring some to tutorial next Tuesday.)

You might consider one of the following Web sites:

Some Sample Topics:

Trademarks are typically associated with a limited domain (so that, for example, Roadrunner could be a trademark of a car manufacturer and a record label). Domain names, on the other hand, are universal. How have the courts handled conflicts between trademark law and the reality of domain names?

Web links can mislead readers about authorship and can show elements of a Web site in ways in other than those the author intended. Do such links violate U.S. copyright law or are they acceptable? If they do not violate copyright law, should Congress update copyright law to incorporate issues of linking?

Until about ten years ago, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) considered computer programs a form of mathematical formula and did not permit them to be patented. Programs and algorithms are now eligible for patent. What effects has that change had on the way in which people write and use programs?

Many Web sites now offer page mediators that modify Web pages from other sites before they are presented to the reader. For example, a mediator might translate a page from one language to another or highlight particular terms on the page. What are the legal implications of such mediators?

Every time you run a computer program, the computer makes a copy of that program in memory. How have the courts interpreted copyright law (and how has Congress modified copyright law) to permit such copying but not permit broader copying?

Many instructors complain that the Web has led to students regularly copying essays from other students. However, instructors have also been known to copy work (such as assignments). When instructors copy work on the Web, do they follow appropriate guidelines for academic citation?

In a virtual community or discussion board, the copyright to each posting is held by the author of that posting. How do boards and communities accommodate the regular copying that happens without violating the law?

In the past, the courts have ruled that natural collections of information, such as phone books, are not protected by U.S. Copyright law. More recently, the courts and the Congress have permitted certain automatically-created collections to be protected by copyright law. How is it determined what is and what is not protected?

Some opponents of the broad reach of copyright suggest that technology can be used to support other ways of benefiting the author of works, such as guaranteed micropayments. What is the current status of such proposals?

The open source software and free movements have spawned a host of licenses that both free and limit those who might choose to modify software. What are the benefits and drawbacks of such licenses? How might they be applied to other works?

The patent duration of twenty years seems appropriate for industries that change slowly. However, twenty years is four or more lifetimes in the computer industry. What has been or might be done to treat patents for computer-related products differently?

Many individuals have used and abused the domain name registration system to select names similar to well-known brands. Some are intended primarily as fan or critical sites,such as washingtonpostsucks.com and ilovethewashingtonpost.com. Others are clearly intended to benefit from the name, such as harvardbusinessschool.com. How have Congress and the courts reacted to these potential infringements of trademark?

Scholars of fair use regularly debate whether fair use is an assertive right (in that you choose to fairly use something) or a defensive right (in that you only apply fair use when accused of copyright violation). How has computer technology changed people's perspectives on this debate?

The status of computer user interfaces under IP law is somewhat confused. In some cases, they have been protected by patent law. In others, by copyright law. Perhaps more importantly, many critics have suggested that granting protections to user interfaces is much like granting protection to the user interface for a car. If we protected the creator of a steering wheel or gas pedal, the auto industry would not have advanced as quickly as it did. What is and should be done to protect the authors of user interfaces while benefiting society at large?

For years, artists have developed new works, in part, by reusing the work of others. Computer technology makes such reuse much easier. Perhaps as importantly, it makes the detection of such reuse much easier. In many cases, the ease of copying and detection has led to lawsuits about copyright violation. How have the courts and Congress balanced the needs and rights of artists?

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is increasingly used by manufacturers as a way to protect goods that might otherwise be protected by patent. For example, ink cartridge manufacturers have sued remanufacturers for violating their copyright (or their right to keep information encrypted). Are such uses appropriate under the DMCA? If so, what are the implications of the ability to sue under the DMCA?



Wednesday, 3 September 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]

Thursday, 4 September 2003 [Samuel A. Rebelsky]


Disclaimer: I usually create these pages on the fly, which means that I rarely proofread them and they may contain bad grammar and incorrect details. It also means that I tend to update them regularly (see the history for more details). Feel free to contact me with any suggestions for changes.

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