April 2006

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Congress will soon begin considering laws to extend copyright protection to make it even more broad and intrusive than it is now.

One of the major backers is the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) an organization which should strike fear into your heart if you know anything about the current state of intellectual property law. They’re the Evil Empire of copyright.

Other evil supporters of this bill include Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner, the gung-ho drug warrior and PATRIOT Act booster who really won’t be satisfied until we’re all in jail for something, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is apparently worried that money from illegal copies of Britney Spears CDs could be funneled to terrorists.

Among other things, the draft bill would create the crime of attempted copyright infringement, punishable in the worst case by 10 years in jail. It’s probably unimaginative of me to point out that rapists often get less time than that.

The bill would also increase both jail time and asset forfeiture penalties for a variety of copyright infringements. The asset forfeitures would follow the same rules as forfeitures under the drug laws…so that particular cancer of the legal system is spreading.

Worst of all, the changes would broaden the scope of the anti-circumvention laws, making mere possession of circumvention software a crime. Current law makes it illegal to sell software that can break copyright protection on digital media, even if the end user breaks protection for purposes that don’t violate copyright law, such as transferring owned music to a different medium.

That is, copyright holders in the entertainment industry use technological tricks to prevent copying that the law of the land allows. The anti-circumvention laws prevent you from having tools to defeat those tricks, even though it’s perfectly legal for you to do so. In other words, this law allows copyright holders to enforce limits far beyond the written copyright law.

Blonde Justice is giving advice to prospective law students on finding good public interest law schools:

I’m certainly not saying you can’t go to Stanford, Yale, or Harvard and work in public interest. You can, and people do. I’m sure that there’s not a law school in the country that hasn’t produced at least one public interest lawyer, or that wouldn’t tell you on your tour “Oh sure, we encourage pro bono and public interest work.”

But I think there’s a difference between that and a school that has a reputation for public interest. There are schools—sometimes lower ranked, sometimes state schools, but not always—that put more of an emphasis on practical experience and have more graduates entering public interest jobs.

(You may run into the chicken and the egg problem here—do students in lower ranked schools go to public interest jobs because that’s all they can get? Or do those students genuinely leaning toward public interest gravitate toward these schools?)

Ms. Justice asks some interesting questions in her last paragraph that I think I can shed some light on with a little economics. In the grand tradition of armchair economics, I have not of course bothered to do any research nor ask either law students, law schools, or public interest lawyers how they make these kinds of decisions. Also, I don’t know much about law schools. Take all this with a few grains of salt.

The simplest answer to both questions is “Yes.”

To see why, consider two of the main professions in the healthcare field: Doctor and Nurse. Doctors make more money, and being a doctor is more prestigious than being a nurse. On the other hand, a doctor’s education is longer and far more expensive than a nurse’s. This makes sense, because doctoring has to pay better than nursing, otherwise people wouldn’t go through all the trouble of becoming doctors when they could become nurses with far less work.

Now let’s re-ask Blonde’s question: Do students in nursing schools go to nursing jobs because that’s all they can get? Or do those students genuinely leaning toward nursing gravitate toward nursing schools?

Obviously, the answer is that both are true. Someone who’s only been through nursing school can’t become a doctor, and someone who wants to be a nurse will go to nursing school.

From what I understand, public interest law does not differ from other kinds of law as much as nursing and doctoring differ, but to the extent that they are somewhat different professional paths, the same logic applies. Due to the advantages of specialization, law schools will tend to target certain types of students.

Since public interest law doesn’t pay very well, public interest law students will be unwilling to pay very much for a legal education. Any law school that wishes to cater to this market niche will necessarily have to trim costs, and that will have an indirect effect on its ranking among law schools. Targeting price-sensitive students is another form of specialization.

Consider also that success in public interest law may be less dependent on the things a top-ranked law school provides. Even assuming that top-ranked schools really do provide a better education, it may be that personal qualities and on-the-job training are more important to the success of public interest lawyers. In that case, why should public interest law students bother to pay for a high-quality legal education?

Perhaps even more important, law schools provide other services to students besides education in the law. For one thing, they provide connections which will be useful to anyone starting out in the legal profession. If public interest law students need different kinds of connections from other law students, schools can provide better connections by specializing. (Very large law schools may be able to avoid specializing by dividing into specialized sub-groups within the law school.)

Law schools also provide a service for students that economists call signalling. Think of it as a celebrity endorsement: If Michael Jordan says the shoes are good, you know they’re probably not too bad, because you know Jordan doesn’t want to squander his reputation by endorsing crappy products. Because you know this about Jordan, he can charge for endorsing products.

Similarly, one thing you know about a Harvard Law grad is that Harvard thought enough of him to allow him to say he is a Harvard Law grad. Just like Michael Jordan, Harvard can charge for this endorsement and presumably does, in the form of higher tuition.

We then have to ask whether the customers of public interest lawyers care what Harvard thinks of their lawyer. If they care less than other legal customers about the endorsements of elite law schools, then public interest lawyers would be foolish to pay for the kinds of elite schools that provide such endorsements.

I’m not sure if any of this is right, but I think it’s the right way to think about these kinds of questions…

Just saw this:

Eminem’s dysfunctional relationship with wife Kim has hit another low — he has filed divorce papers, less than three months after remarrying her.

“There has been a breakdown in the marriage relationship to the extent that the objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved,” according to the filing, which was made in Macomb County on Wednesday on behalf of Marshall Bruce Mathers III, Eminem’s real name.

The filing also states that the 33-year-old rapper and his wife signed a prenuptial agreement a week before their Jan. 14 wedding ceremony in Rochester. It doesn’t describe the specifics of the prenuptial agreement, other than to say that “the property of the parties should be divided in accordance with” the agreement.

You know—as much as I could care about any celebrity relationship—I really was hoping they’d make a go of it. Eminem always struck me as something of a romantic.

No, really. I mean, you don’t write all those vicious songs about your ex-wife unless she tore your heart out.

When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

I recently ran across the above lyric somewhere on the web that I can no longer remember. You might think, as I did, that it sounds like a piece of gangsta rap about some gangbanger deciding between surrendering to the police or trying to shoot it out. In other words, trying to decide between being smart and being hard.

If you know more about music than I do, however, you recognized it right away as “The Guns of Brixton” by The Clash off of their landmark 1979 album London Calling. It’s about police violence against blacks in Brixton (a part of London). Apparently, police were assaulting and sometimes killing blacks at an alarming rate. This eventually lead to riots and then to reform of the Brixton police.

Now consider this part of the same song:

When the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement
Or waiting on death row

These lines appear at first glance to present a similar choice between aquiescence and resistance. But the situations are radically different. In the first situation, there is uncertainty about the outcome. If the police kicking down the door are not killers, it makes sense to give in peacefully instead of starting a violent confrontation that can’t be won. Many members of inner-city drug gangs are aware of this, and once the police catch them, they come along peacefully. That’s because they know the police are going to take them in but do nothing worse to them, so why get themselves injured in the process?

In the second case, there is no uncertainty. The pounding on the door is a death squad, coming to shoot you down. The only choices they offer are certain death or a chance to die fighting…or maybe, just maybe, to escape.

(I have no idea what was going on in real life Brixton. I’m just responding to the lyrics here.)

It’s an important distinction. Throughout history, people have often found themselves in the uncertainty of the first situation without knowing that they were really in the second situation.

When the Nazis started to clear all the Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto in the late summer of 1942, most Jews believed that the Germans were sending them to work camps, and that resistance would only result in their needless deaths. Better to stay alive, even if it meant working as a slave.

In reality, the Germans were sending the Jews to the death camp at Treblinka, and they only stopped when they ran out of Jews. The Jewish population was reduced in 52 days from about 380,000 people to perhaps 60,000. Most of those remaining were either working for the German war effort or hiding.

In January 1943, the Nazis set out to exterminate the remaining Jews. This time the Jews knew what was going on and resisted, attacking and killing the German soldiers. The peak of the resistance was from mid-April to mid-May, 1943 and is known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Ultimately, however, the Nazis prevailed, and the Jews who had survived the fighting were sent to the death camps. This was the first uprising against Nazi rule in Europe, but it wasn’t the last. The bravery and determination of the Warsaw resistance fighters was an example to others and remains so to this day.

We have a more recent example as well. When hijackers took over four airplanes on September 11th, 2001, the passengers and crew of three of the planes did not resist (as far as we know). Faced with uncertainty about the outcome, they did what appeared safe and cooperated with the hijackers, believing that to resist would be to provoke their own deaths.

We shouldn’t be critical of them, however, because they didn’t know what we now know. In any previous hijacking they would have been right, for the simple reason that once the plane landed somewhere, the hijackers would lose their advantage and eventually be forced off or, more likely, pursuaded to surrender. That didn’t work this time because the hijackers had no intention of landing. Not knowing the true intent of the hijackers, the passengers didn’t see that cooperation wouldn’t work. They knew they were in the first situation, but didn’t realize they were in the second. They didn’t see that resistance would cost them nothing.

On the fourth plane, however, the passengers got word of what had happend to the other planes. They knew the full price of aquiescence. So they chose to act, to resist. To do otherwise would be to accept death. So they fought.

Although they probably saved the lives of a lot of people on the ground, at whatever the plane’s target was, they lost their personal struggle. As with the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, their fight remains as an inspiration for others.

Addendum: I can’t find the Clash’s version of “Guns of Brixton” online, but you can hear a nice cover of it at Nouvelle Vague’s MySpace page. (You’ll have to click the link to the song. I can’t figure out how to link direct.)

My wife and I were at a friend’s house Saturday night. Just us. Certainly not the friend who owned the house.

A few weeks ago, our Tivo missed taping a double episode of 24, but our friend had it and had made a tape of it for us on Friday. She lives far out in the Chicago suburbs, and she told us the house was never locked. She’d leave the tape just inside the door so we could just come by whenever we wanted and take it.

We didn’t drop by that night, but on Saturday morning we called and said we were coming over to get the tape. It turned out the taping didn’t work right. It had somehow recorded what was on live rather than what the Tivo box was playing. She’d try to get one of her kids to fix the problem and try again later. That evening, we were ready to go get the tape. We called ahead and no one answered. So we decided to drive over and see if someone showed while we were on our way.

When we got there, there were three vehicles parked in the driveway, but no one was home. But my wife, who knows these folks better than I do, went inside and found the tape. It just felt wrong, but I went in too.

That was unreal. I live in a condo in Chicago. I double-lock the door when I go to the basement to do my laundry, and here we were just walking into these people’s house one fine evening.

I read a lot of crime novels, including Lawrence Block’s series about Bernie the burglar. Walking around their house, I felt a strong urge to toss the place, just because I knew I could. Start in the bedroom and run through the nightstands and dresser drawers for cash, jewelry, and other valuable items. Find the house’s office area and look for new credit cards, financial records, passports. Grab a few portable electronic items—check the kids’ rooms for those. Search the closets for weapons and other valuable sporting goods. Finally, just take the whole Tivo instead of making the tape. Grab the SUV keys off the shelf by the door, toss everything inside, and away we go.

Instead, we just checked the tape and it was still the bad one. I checked the cabling to the Tivo and VCR and the problem was exactly what I thought it was: The signal path went through the Tivo and VCR in the wrong order. So I swapped the cables around, then we set up the recording and left. We left the television on with a note attached, so they’d know we’d been there and what we’d done. We went for a late dinner, and two hours later, we came back to get the tape. They were home this time.