Thursday Threads: Legal Implications of SOPA/PROTECT-IP, Learning from Best Buy, Open Source in Medicine

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Welcome to the new year! Threads this week include a brief analysis of the legal problems in store if SOPA and PROTECT-IP become law, what an analysis of the problems with Best Buy might teach libraries, and why open source licensing of clinical tools is important.

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A Look at the Legal Aspects of SOPA and PROTECT-IP

Two bills now pending in Congress—the PROTECT IP Act of 2011 (Protect IP) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House—represent the latest legislative attempts to address a serious global problem: large-scale online copyright and trademark infringement. Although the bills differ in certain respects, they share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.

- Don’t Break the Internet, by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post, Stanford Law Review

In case you missed the dramatic events in the last days of 2011, SOPA and PROTECT-IP Act, just before Congress recessed for the year lawmakers concerned with the provisions of SOPA offered and debated enough amendments to the draft legislation that they effectively stalled passage through the House Judiciary Committee. At the end of the last committee meeting, the sponsors of SOPA acknowledged that there were significant issues and seemed to agree that they needed a confidential briefing from the Department of Homeland Security on the possible effects on DNSSEC — a highly technical but very important consideration. (Why it needs to be confidential when DNSSEC is an open specification stretches my imagination, but there you go…)

This paper by Lemley, Levine and Post describes the legal implications of enforcing the key provisions of SOPA and PROTECT-IP as drafted. The authors say “the bills represent an unprecedented, legally sanctioned assault on the Internet’s critical technical infrastructure” and describe how it is a bad prescient and why it won’t work in the end. In more positive news, there is an effort underway to draft legislation that would accomplish much of what SOPA and PROTECT-IP say they want to do without many of the downsides.

Why Best Buy is Going out of Business…Gradually

Electronics retailer Best Buy is headed for the exits. I can’t say when exactly, but my guess is that it’s only a matter of time, maybe a few more years.

The authors tell a story about how as a Best Buy customer he was approached by a salesperson wanting to sell him an on-demand video package of some sort, and that reminded me just a little bit from my academic experience of trying to push bibliographic instruction on students rather than solving the problem they had at hand. The article goes on to describe how online retailers like Amazon are more in tune with customer needs and demands. I couldn’t help but wonder if our library processes and procedures and polices are more like Best Buy or more like Amazon. From what I hear at my consortial perspective we are trending towards Amazon, but are we going to get there fast enough?

By the way, I can highly recommend a recent 51 minute audio interview with Robert Stephens, founder of the Geek Squad and now Chief Technology Officer of Best Buy (after Best Buy purchased and integrated the Geek Squad electronics service chain early last decade. It is a fascinating view of how customer service must trump all other concerns, and how efficiently executing customer service is the true path to survival. There are some lessons in there for libraries as well.

Open Source Licensing Defuses Copyright Law’s Threat to Medicine

Enforcing copyright law could potentially interfere with patient care, stifle innovation and discourage research, but using open source licensing instead can prevent the problem, according to a physician – who practices both at the University of California, San Francisco and the San Francisco VA Medical Center – and a legal scholar at the UC Hastings College of Law.

- Open Source Licensing Defuses Copyright Law’s Threat to Medicine, News service of the University of California, San Francisco

Here’s something to think about. What if new medical advances where suppressed because the diagnostic instruments used were protected by copyright. The doctor in the above article goes on to say that clinical tools tend to resemble one another “not because their creators are unoriginal, but because the tools are based on the same research and the same science.” That is a legal grey area where clinics decide to err on the side of caution and not use something that could be protected by copyright. It sort of reminds me about the unsettled law surrounding orphan works — just enough grey to stifle innovation.

Another “by the way”: I can also recommend a 16 minute recording of Karen Sandler speaking at the recent O’Reilly Media Open Source conference on the need to publish the source code of embedded medical devices under an open source license so the programs could be independently inspected. It, too, comes by way of the IT Conversations podcast. Two podcast mentions in one DLTJ Thursday Threads? What can I say…I listened to a lot of podcasts over the December break.