Teaching Copyright Law – Blurred Lines

(Jake Linford) “Blurred Lines,” the summer hit of 2013, is the subject of a copyright dispute. The estate of Marvin Gaye claims that the composers of the hit song (Pharrel Williams, Robin Thicke, and T.I.) appropriated the song from the Gaye hit, “Got to Give it Up.” Williams et all filed a declaratory judgment action, and moved to dismiss the Gaye family’s counterclaims alleging copyright infringement. Last month, Judge John A. Kronstadt denied a motion to dismiss. The order interests me for two reasons. Here I focus on the first.

I used the “Blurred Lines” case last year as the basis for a memo assignment on substantial similarity in my copyright class. For those of you who don’t think often about copyright law, proving infringement requires evidence of copying, which is usually inferred from 1) access to the original work and 2) substantial similarity between the original and the alleged copy. In this case, Alan Thicke said in multiple interviews that he and Pharell meant to write an homage to the Gaye song, so I let the students assume access. I tasked the students with summarizing the state of the law in the Ninth Circuit on protectable elements of musical composition, i.e., which elements in a song can be copied without triggering liability, and which elements cannot. I then asked them to opine on a likely outcome in the case. At the time, the report from a musicologist hired by the Gaye family had leaked via Hollywood reporter. There was no competing report from the Williams camp available at the time, so I invited a musicologist from across campus, Brian Gaber, to walk the students through differences in the two works of music as if he were advising Williams and his co-writers about the similiarity of the musical elements.

The students were nervous about digging into the similarities and differences in the musical composition (what the song would look like if you wrote it up in standard notation) and the sound recording (what the song sounds like). Some students expressed concern that classmates who knew something about music would perform better on the assignment than those who knew little or nothing. But I invited them to think of the assignment as an opportunity to learn about substantial similiarity in a musical context, and to develop the ability to teach themselves about a complex issue in the course of preparing for a case. This is a challenge that will face lawyers providing legal advice in any substantial similarity case. Handling substantial similiarity requires familiarizing oneself with the norms of an industry, and how common elements or scènes à faire (unprotectable stock elements) manifest in a given genre.

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Screening Applicants With Domestic Violence Criminal History

(Melanie Chaney) The National Football League’s handling of several recent high-profile domestic violence incidents involving players Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Jonathan Dwyer has raised the national consciousness regarding how employers handle domestic violence issues. Domestic violence has been, and continues to be, a prevalent problem that creates many challenging issues for employers.  A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that domestic violence victims lose a total of nearly 8.0 million days of paid work which is the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs as a result of the violence.  Employers have to consider issues including workplace security, whether discipline is appropriate for off-duty conduct, and handling accommodations for the victims of domestic violence.

Because of the many challenges that employers face, the natural inclination may be systematically to screen out all job applicants who have any criminal history of engaging in domestic violence, so that the agency can protect against the pernicious effects of domestic violence on the workplace.  However, employers should be extremely cautious in screening for particular types of criminal history, including when it involves domestic violence. Employers must comply with all applicable federal and state laws regarding the collection and consideration of criminal history records.

California “Ban the Box” Law

Since July 1, 2014, California state and local agencies are prohibited from making any inquiry about conviction history on the initial employment application.  This does not mean that the employer cannot inquire about convictions at all.  Rather, criminal background inquiries can only be made after the employer has established that the applicant meets the minimum qualifications of the position. This does not apply to those positions in which the agency is required by law to conduct a criminal history background check (e.g., peace officers) or to positions within a criminal justice agency.

Once minimum qualifications have been established, the employer can ask about criminalconvictions. In California, with the exception of peace officers, the agency still cannot ask about arrests not resulting in convictions.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and other protected classifications. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) interprets and enforces Title VII. According to the latest EEOC Guidance on the use of criminal records information, blanket criminal record exclusions may have a disparate impact on African-American and Hispanic applicants. While a policy that automatically screens out applicants with a domestic violence criminal history does not on the face of it discriminate against any protected classification, employers must avoid creating a disparate impact on any protected group.  If an applicant can establish that the policy has a disparate impact, then the employer must show the policy is job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.

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Defense lawyers press for more info as probe of FBI agent linked to dismissed cases continues

(MARTHA NEIL) After news that the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., has agreed to dismiss 28 drug cases, including approximately a dozen that had already resulted in convictions, defense lawyers are pressing for more information.

An investigation is continuing concerning an FBI agent accused by the feds of tampering with evidence being held for trial, though he is not criminally charged. Meanwhile, defense lawyers want to know why some of the individuals whose cases are linked to the agent are being granted immediate dismissals, while others are not, the Washington Post (reg. req.) reports.

At a Monday hearing, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the U.S. Attorney General’s office to provide daily updates on the progress of the investigation but said some defendants will have to await developments.

“The proper thing to do is to assess what happened, and then if we have to do something, we do so swiftly,” Sullivan said.

Attorney Robert Bonsib represents the agent being investigated. He declined to discuss specific allegations against his client but called some accusations “grossly overblown” and said his client is cooperating.

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The Injustice of Bumpy Laws

(Adam Kolber) Whether a person has been sexually assaulted can turn on the reasonableness of a defendant’s belief that the alleged victim consented. Presumably, the more reasonably one believed consent was given, the less culpable one is for proceeding with sexual intercourse. Similarly, the more reasonably one believed consent was given, the less dangerous one is likely to be. For both these reasons, the amount of punishment a person receives should be at least in part a function of the reasonableness of his belief in consent. In my terminology, reasonableness is an input into a legal decision that likely ought to have a smooth relationship with the pertinent output: amount of punishment. As the input gradually increases, the output gradually decreases. At some point, a person’s beliefs are sufficiently reasonable that he no longer warrants any punishment (because he is not sufficiently culpable or because the costs of punishing him exceed the benefits).

In this instance, we seem to prefer smoothness in theory, but the criminal law’s treatment is in fact quite bumpy. One person deemed just reasonable enough that consent was given may have no criminal liability while a similarly-situated person who was just a bit less reasonable may be sentenced to at least the statutory minimum. Even though both defendants are virtually alike in terms of culpability and dangerousness, they are treated quite differently under our bumpy treatment of beliefs about consent: gradual changes to the reasonableness input do not affect conviction, except at a critical threshold. At that threshold, a gradual change in reasonableness has enormous effects. 

So there appears to be a deviation between our normative theories of criminal law and what the law actually does. Now, criminal law may actually be less bumpy than many other areas of the law. At sentencing, judges can smooth the relationship to some degree by giving more reasonable offenders shorter sentences than less reasonable ones. But judges are often limited by statutory minima. Such minima may have certain advantages, too, by controlling the allocation of sentencing discretion. But the value of such discretion must be weighed against the harms of deviating from our best theories of just punishment. And many retributivists are committed to never knowingly overpunishing an offender, allocations of discretion be damned.

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Intellectual Property Infringement as Vandalism (Part 1)

(Irina Manta) In addition to empirical work in intellectual property, another area that has been keeping me occupied is the intersection between IP and criminal law. A few years ago, I wrote an article entitled The Puzzle of Criminal Sanctions for Intellectual Property Infringement, 24 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 469 (2011), in which I explored why we have criminal sanctions for copyright and trademark infringement but not for patent violations. Earlier this year, I published a paper called The High Cost of Low Sanctions, 66 Florida Law Review 157 (2014), that examined how low sanctions can lead undesirable laws to be passed and can eventually morph into high sanctions, an analysis whose focus was partly on copyright law. I then moved on to study, in an article called Intellectual Property and the Presumption of Innocence that is forthcoming in the William & Mary Law Review next year, the constitutional dimension of intellectual property criminal cases. I argued that prosecutors should have to prove that every element of such crimes, including the jurisdictional element, has been met beyond a reasonable doubt before convictions can occur. Most recently, I turned my attention to the relationship between the criminal (and civil) sanctions in intellectual property and those that we observe in property. This project, co-authored with Robert E. Wagner, is entitled Intellectual Property Infringement as Vandalism, and I would like to take the opportunity to describe it further here.

One of the recurring questions in scholarship is whether intellectual property qualifies as property and, as a correlative matter, whether IP infringement is theft. Content owners significantly push this analogy, including in heavy-handed ads that seek to remind people not to “steal” songs or movies. Meanwhile, critics have chipped away at the theft label. They have argued that when an object is stolen, the owner is entirely deprived of it, whereas IP owners maintain integral copies of their works when infringement takes place. Unlike in the case of theft, the intellectual property owner can also continue to sell copies of said work to willing buyers, if the market will bear it. Furthermore, to the extent the owner suffers a loss at the hands of the IP infringer, that loss is difficult to calculate. Not every infringer would have bought the work had he lacked the opportunity to infringe. At the same time, nobody can say with certainty about herself—even assuming perfect honesty—which works she would have bought in a zero-infringement world because the impulse to rationalize one’s actions in this setting is strong.

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White Collar Criminal Sentences: How Long Is Too Much?

(Daniel Solove) An article in the New York Times discusses the debate over the increasingly long sentences for those convicted of white collar crimes:

Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chairman of WorldCom who was convicted of masterminding an $11 billion accounting fraud that bankrupted the company, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Because Mr. Ebbers is 63, some have contended that the sentence amounts to a life term. Likewise, John J. Rigas, the 80-year-old founder of Adelphia Communications, was sentenced to 15 years.

“You have to ask yourself whether the proof in these cases warrants such a sentence,” said Otto G. Obermaier, a former United States attorney in Manhattan, who had been an aggressive prosecutor of white-collar crimes when he ran the office from 1989 to 1993. “Ebbers’s sentence moved the goal posts pretty far back. You can describe it as a pendulum switch, but it is an overreaction.” . . .

No lawyer is suggesting that white-collar criminals not serve time. Rather, lawyers and jurists are asking what the appropriate sentence is for white-collar crimes relative to punishments for other crimes in a post-Enron world.

The article continues with some quotes from Jonathan Simon (law, Boalt) who compares the punishments of white collar crimes to drug crimes and notes that “both represent increasingly irrational and inhumane levels of punishment.” 

Quite frankly, I have a hard time feeling upset about the lengthy sentences being doled out to white collar criminals these days. For decades, those convicted of drug crimes have been sentenced to prison for extremely long periods of time, even for amounts of drugs with not a very high monetary value.   In contrast, white collar crimes have often been punished lightly, in prisons that resemble boarding school.   

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Tax and Criminal Law

(Kristin Hickman) So here’s another interesting “tax and” topic:  the criminalization of tax shelters (and, possibly, tax practice?).  This is a thought I have only preliminarily considered, so I will merely present the problem and hope that those with more experience will weigh in.  Apologies in advance for a long post; but I think it’s worth it.

Tax shelters have a bad reputation, for some pretty obvious reasons.  Among other things, abusive tax shelters illegitimately deprive the government of revenue, force the rest of us to pay higher taxes to make up for that deprivation, and generally breed disrespect for the tax system.  Note that in that last sentence I added the descriptive “abusive,” however.  Not all tax shelters are illegitimate, at least in the eyes of the law.  While most tax experts will agree that abusive tax shelters have become a big problem, those same folks will disagree over precisely how to distinguish legitimate non-shelter tax planning from tax shelters, and legitimate from abusive tax shelters. 

Most people know the story of the demise of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm. Certain partners of the firm behaved very badly in connection with the Enron scandal.  The Department of Justice indicted the entire Andersen firm (not just the partners) for the actions of those individuals.  The indictment alone destroyed Andersen and eliminated the jobs of tens of thousands of employees who had nothing to do with the Enron case, long before Andersen was ever convicted.  Moreover, even though the DOJ won at trial, the Supreme Court last term overturned Andersen’s conviction and, in so doing, strongly hinted that Andersen likely was not guilty of the crime for which it was indicted.

More recently, another top accounting firm, KPMG, came under scrutiny for its tax shelter promotion activities.  Under threat of criminal indictment, KPMG decided to save itself from Andersen’s fate.  KPMG admitted criminal culpability, paid a hefty fine, and agreed to implement a compliance and ethics program and submit to several years of government monitoring in exchange for deferred prosecution.  Yet, as I understand it, many people believe that the tax shelters promoted by KPMG were at least arguably within the boundaries of the tax laws and not abusive at all.  (Vic Fleischer thinks otherwise.)

The federal tax laws are enormously complex and often ambiguous.  Reasonable people disagree all the time over their meaning.  The IRS’s win/loss record before the courts in recent civil tax shelter cases is less than stellar.  And the courts did not have the chance to consider whether the IRS’s interpretation of the relevant tax laws was correct with respect to KPMG’s tax shelter activities.  Even if the IRS’s interpretation was correct, if reasonable people can disagree over the law’s meaning, shouldn’t the rule of lenity apply to preclude criminal sanctions?  The tax laws contain extensive civil penalties for failure to adhere to tax rules and regulations and for improper behavior in representing clients before the IRS.

Whether you’re dealing with a DUI case or minor criminal charges, you can definitely benefit from consulting an experienced and well famed criminal defense attorney.

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Why the Necessity Defense is Unneccesary

From a deterrence standpoint, I’ve never understood why there is such a thing as a necessity or duress defense in criminal law. The deterrence view of criminal law is that we choose punishments to deter judgment-proof individuals from committing acts that harm social welfare. If this is the case, then why bother with the necessity defense.  A harmful act is a harmful act, whatever the reason it was committed. There is no reason to allow harmful acts because we think the reasoning behind them was good.

Suppose a car with a deathly-ill passenger races through a red light en route to a hospital. If the driver was “charged” with the crime, she could plead necessity and get off with nothing. But the fact remains that she went through a red light and caused social harm. Accidents are more likely because of the violated red, however good the motive behind the violation. So I would argue that we should get rid of the necessity defense in this context. 

If we charge the driver with running the red light, then she would still probably run the light; the benefit of getting to the hospital sooner exceeds the cost of the ticket. In other words, the social benefit of the violation is greater than its cost. But this is not a reason for dropping the necessity defense. We want the driver to weigh the cost of running the light against its benefit. The best way to do that is to exclude the necessity defense and let the driver make the determination.

This analysis echoes the strict liabilityvs. negligence debate in tort law. The necessity defense is basically a negligence defense. The driver may have caused harm, but she wasn’t negligent, and therefore she should get off. I am arguing for strict liability. If you run the red, you pay the penalty, even if we think running the red was a good idea. When it comes to dangerous activities (such as running red lights), strict liability has some big advantages (such as its ability to engender efficient activity levels). Basically, dumping the necessity defense is the best way to insure that “desirable” crimes are only committed when they are truly desirable.

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(Mark Drumbl) There’s been a lot of talk about the referral by the United Nations Security Council of the Darfur situation to the International Criminal Court(ICC).  Yet, the ICC is involved in more than just Darfur.  Its first case, now moving toward trial, involves a Congolese national, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who is in custody at The Hague. Lubanga is accused as a co-perpetrator of conscripting and enlisting child soldiers to fight in Ituri, a region in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

On January 29, 2007, a Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court confirmed charges against Lubanga.   Although the Lubanga Pre-Trial Chamber moved the case to trial, the judgment was controversial. In part, this was because the judges held certain phases of the Congolese conflict to be international as opposed to internal in nature, owing to the presence of Ugandan and Rwandan troops.  International criminal law differentiates internal from international armed conflict. The Pre-Trial Chamber in fact substituted a charge brought by the Prosecution with a slightly different charge applicable in international armed conflict. This substitution, however, has considerable implications for the burden of proof the Prosecution will have to discharge at the actual trial.

The Prosecution is appealing the ruling. It does not believe it can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an international armed conflict actually existed at the relevant time.  An American Society of International Law Insight reports that the Prosecution, in its application for leave to appeal, pleads that the Pre-Trial Chamber “is effectively forcing the Prosecution to, contrary to its professional assessment, include a specific crime in its charging instrument and prove it at trial.”  Controversy also has separately emerged on questions of defense representation.

This is not the first time that tension has emerged between judges and the Prosecution in regard to this case. An earlier decision on victims’ involvement, in which the judges sided with a generous interpretation of the provisions of the ICC’s constitutive document (the Rome Statute) permitting victim participation in the proceedings, also encountered Prosecutorial resistance.

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Same Crime, Different Sentence

One of the many interesting questions in the world of post-Booker federal sentencing is whether a judge, in sentencing one defendant, is required (or permitted) to take into account the sentences imposed on codefendants. Yesterday, the Third Circuit issued an interesting opinion on this question. (Doug Berman has an excerpt and link to the opinion here.) In United States v. Parker, the defendant received a sentence of 349 months, while his codefendants in the drug trafficking case received only 86 and 180 months. Parker argued this his sentence was “unreasonable” (the post-Booker standard for appellate review of sentences) “because it failed to take into account ‘the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities mong defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct’ as provided by [18 U.S.C.] 3553(a)(6).”

I have argued elsewhere that (a)(6) should not be read to encompass codefendant disparities, so I was not unhappy that the Third Circuit rejected Parker’s argument. Yet, while the court did not require codefendant sentences to be considered, the court did indicate that judges were permitted to take the factor into account. I am a big fan of increased sentencing discretion post-Booker, but I am troubled by the prospect of a sentencing judge saying something like this: “I see, Mr. Defendant, that your guidelines sentence is about 20 years, but your coconspirator, whom I sentenced a few months ago, got only 10 years. So, I’ll split the difference and give you 15.” (For an example of a real case in which the judge seemed to be doing just that (United States v. Strange), see my article linked above.) This approach seems to make the sentence depend on the vagaries of who gets prosecuted and sentenced first–precisely the sort of arbitrariness that the guidelines were intended to eliminate.

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