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blogs by Gio

Tagged: ip

⚖ How Nintendo Misuses Copyright

When I’m looking for an example of copyright abuse, I find myself returning to Nintendo a lot on this blog. Nintendo is a combination hardware/software/media franchise company, so they fit a lot of niches. They’re a particularly useful when talking about IP because the “big N” is both very familiar to people and also egregiously bad offenders, especially given their “frdiendly” reputation.

Nintendo has constructed a reputation for itself as a “good” games company that still makes genuinely fun games with “heart”. Yet it’s also infamously aggressive in executing “takedowns”: asserting property ownership of creative works other people own and which Nintendo did not make.

You’d think a company like Nintendo — an art creation studio in the business of making and selling creative works — would be proponents of real, strong, immutable creative rights. That, as creators, they’d want the sturdiest copyright system possible, not one compromised (or that could be compromised) to serve the interests of any one particular party. This should be especially true for Nintendo even compared to other studios, given Nintendo’s own fight-for-its-life against Universal, its youth, and its relatively small position1 in the market compared to Disney, Sony, and Microsoft.

But no, Nintendo takes the opposite position. When it comes to copyright, they pretty much exclusively try to compromise it in the hopes that a broken, askew system will end up unfairly favoring them. And so they attack the principles of copyright, viciously, again and again, convinced that the more broken the system is, the more they stand to profit.

Introducing Nintendo🔗

Nintendo, even compared to its corporate contemporaries, has a distinctly hostile philosophy around art: if they can’t control something themselves, they tend to try to eliminate it entirely. What Nintendo uses creative rights to protect is not the copyright of their real creative works, it’s their control over everything they perceive to be their “share” of the gaming industry.

Let me start with a quick history, in case you’re not familiar with the foundation Nintendo is standing on.

Nintendo got its start in Japan making playing cards for the mob to commit crimes with. It only pivoted to “video games” after manufacturing playing cards for the Yakuza to use for illegal gambling dens.

Nintendo got its footing in America by looking to see what video game was making the most money, seeing it was Space Invaders, and copying that verbatim with a clone game they called “Radar Scope”:

Then, when that was a commercial failure, they wrote “conversion kit” code to turn those cabinets into a Popeye game, failed to get the rights they needed, and released it anyway. They kept the gameplay and even the character archetypes the same, they just reskinned it with King Kong. They didn’t even name the protagonist after they swapped out the Popeye idea, so he was just called Jumpman.

Popeye/Donkey Kong comparison

But then Nintendo was almost itself the victim of an abuse of IP law. “Donkey Kong” derived from King Kong, and even though the character was in the public domain, Universal Studios still sued Nintendo over the use. Ultimately the judge agreed with the Nintendo team and threw out the lawsuit, in an example of a giant corporation trying to steamroll a — at the time — small business with over-aggressive and illegitimate IP enforcement.

This was such an impactful moment for Nintendo that they took the name of their lawyer in the Universal Studios case — Kirby — and used it for the mascot of one of their biggest franchises. It was a significant move that demonstrates Nintendo’s extreme gratefulness — or even idolization — of the man who defended them against abuse of IP law.

You would hope the lesson Nintendo learned here would be from the perspective of the underdog, seeing as they were almost the victim of the kinds of tactics they would later become famous for using themselves. But no, it seems they were impressed by the ruthlessness of the abusers instead, and so copied their playbook.

⚖ Apple's Trademark Exploit

Apple puts its logo on the devices it sells: not just the outer casing, but also each internal component. The vast majority of these logos are totally enclosed and invisible to the naked eye. This seems like an incredibly strange practice — especially since Apple doesn’t sell these parts separately — except it turns out to be part of a truly convoluted rules-lawyering exploit only a company like Apple could pull off and get away with.

Remember, trademarks are a consumer protection measure to defend against counterfeits. Apple’s registered logo trademark protects consumers from being tricked into buying fake products, and deputizes Apple to defend its mark against counterfeits.

The Loaded Gun🔗

While some counterfeiting happens domestically the major concern is usually counterfeits imported from foreign trade. This brings us to Customs and Border Patrol, which you might know as the other side of the ICE/CBP border control system. You might be surprised to see them involved with this, since Border Patrol agents are fully-militarized police outfitted to combat armed drug cartels.

But among its other duties, Border Patrol takes a proactive role in enforcing intellectual property protection at ports of trade — backed by the full force of the Department of Homeland Security — by seizing goods it identifies as counterfeit and either destroying them outright or else selling them themselves at auction.1 To get your property back, you have to sue Border Patrol — an infamously untouchable police force — and win.

⚖ You've Never Seen Copyright

Hear me out.

When it comes to copyright, it can be very easy to lose the forest for the trees. That’s why I want to start this series with a bit of a reset, and establish a baseline understanding of copyright doctrine as a whole, and the context in which our modern experience of copyright sits.

The current state of copyright law is a quagmire, due not just to laws but also international treaty agreements and rulings from judges who don’t understand the topic and who even actively disagree with each other. That convolution is exactly why I don’t want to get lost in those twists and turns for this, and instead want to start with the base principles we’ve lost along the way.

You don’t need to understand the layers to see the problem, in fact, intellectual property is a system whose convolutions hide the obviousness of the problem. Complexity is good only when complexity is needed to ensure the correctness of the outcome. But here, far from being necessary to keep things working right, the complexity hides that the outcome is wrong.

But that outcome, our current regime that we know as copyright policy, is so wrong — not only objectively bad, but wrong even according to its own definition — that at this point it takes significant work just to get back to the idea that

This is my controversial stance, and the premise of my series: copyright (as properly defined) is a cohesive system, and, when executed properly, is actually good for everyone. And I’m not “one true Scotsman”ing this either; copyright isn’t an just arbitrary legal concept, it’s a system that arises naturally from a set of solid base principles.

The first step in my “understanding the forest for the trees” project is separating the big, nebulous, polluted idea of “copyright” out into the parts people can mostly agree on and the parts that are just evil and bad. Fortunately, the “good” and “bad” groups line up really well with “original intent” compared to “junk that was added later”. Generally speaking, it’s not useful to just make a distinction and act like doing so is the whole job done, unless you just care about smarmy pedantic internet points. But I’m not doing this to be pedantic, I’m making the distinction between the core idea and the junk that’s corrupted it because it turns out to be really important.

What we’re subjected to today in the name of copyright does not come from the real principles of copyright. Compared to the current state of US intellectual property law, the “real copyright” I’m talking about is like grass so utterly smothered by concrete that not only do no strands poke through, everyone involved has forgotten it was ever there.

The situation is so bad that even though I think copyright should be a good thing, I think our current bastardization of it is worse than nothing at all. We’d be better off with the problems real copyright is meant to solve than with all the new, worse problems it’s inflicted on us.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bp92AGvlWl0/

But because what we’re enduring now is a corruption of another thing and not its own original evil, we’re not limited to measuring it by the harm it inflicts: we can also measure it by its deviation from what we know it should be.

So what’s the good version? This true, unadulterated form of creative rights?

⚖ Netflix's Big Double-Dip

Netflix is finally turning the screws on multi-user accounts. That “finally” is exasperation in my voice, not relief. Netflix is demanding you pay them an extra surcharge to share your account with remote people, and even then caps you at paying for a maximum of two. It’s been threatening to do something like this for a long, long time:

Since 2011, when the recording industry started pushing through legal frameworks to criminalize multi-user account use by miscategorizing “entertainment subscription services” as equivalent to public services like mail, water, and electricity for the purposes of criminal prosecution,

Since similar nonsense in 2016 exploiting the monumentally terrible Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,

Since 2019, when Netflix announced (to its shareholders) that it was looking for ways to limit password sharing,

Since 2021, when Netflix started tracking individual users by location and device within a paying account,

Since 2022, when it started banning group use in Portugal, Spain, and New Zealand, to disastrous consequence. Also, Canada, but temporarily. And, of course, then threatened to “crack down” on “password sharing” in “Early 2023”,

Since January, when it threatened to roll out “paid password sharing” in the “coming months”,

Since February, when it released a disastrous policy banning password sharing, then lied about the policy being an error and made a big show of retracting it due to the massive backlash, but then went ahead and did it in Canada anyway,

And finally now since just now, as it’s finally, really, for-realsies banning password sharing this quarter.

Netflix threatening this for so long was a mistake on its part, because that’s given me a long, long time for these thoughts to slowly brew in the back of my head. And there’s a lot wrong here.

the teat one this is a real graphic Netflix made!

Netflix’s pricing model🔗

So, first, what are multi-user accounts in the first place, and how does “password sharing” relate to that?

🖱 So you want to write an AI art license

  • Posted in cyber

Hi, The EFF, Creative Commons, Wikimedia, World Leaders, and whoever else,

Do you want to write a license for machine vision models and AI-generated images, but you’re tired of listening to lawyers, legal scholars, intellectual property experts, media rightsholders, or even just people who use any of the tools in question even occasionally?

You need a real expert: me, a guy whose entire set of relevant qualifications is that he owns a domain name. Don’t worry, here’s how you do it:

This is an extremely condensed set of notes, designed as a high-level overview for thinking about the problem

Given our current system of how AI models are trained and how people can use them to generate new art, which is this:

sequenceDiagram
    Alice->>Model: Hello. Here are N images and<br>text descriptions of what they contain.
    Model->>Model: Training (looks at images, "makes notes", discards originals)
    Model->>Alice: OK. I can try to make similar images from my notes,<br>if you tell me what you want.
    Curio->>Model: Hello. I would like a depiction of this new <br>thing you've never seen before.
    Model->>Curio: OK. Here are some possibilites.

The works🔗

The model and the works produced with the model are both distinct products. The model is more like processing software or tooling, while the artistic works created with the model are distinctly artistic/creative output.

Models do not keep the original images they were trained on in any capacity. The only keep mathematical notes about their properties. You (almost always) cannot retrieve the original image data used from the model after training.

sequenceDiagram
    Curio->>Model: Send me a copy of one of the images you were trained on
    Model->>Curio: Sorry, I do not remember any of them exactly,<br>only general ideas on how to make art.

There is a lot of misinformation about this, but it is simply, literally the case that a model does not include the training material, and cannot reproduce its training material. While not trivial (you can’t have a model if you can’t train it at all), when done properly, the specific training data is effectively incidental.

AI-generated art should be considered new craftsmanship — specifically, under copyright law, it is new creative output with its own protections — and not just a trivial product of its inputs.

Plagiarism🔗

The fact that AI art is new creative output doesn’t mean AI art can’t be plagiarism.

Just like with traditional art, it’s completely possible for specific products to be produced to be copies, but that doesn’t make that the case for all works in the medium. You can trace someone else’s artwork, but that doesn’t make all sketches automatically meritless works.

The inner workings of tools used in the creation of an artistic work are not what determines if a given product is plagiarism, or if it infringes on a copyright. Understanding the workings of the tool can be used in determining if a work is an infringement, but it is not the deciding factor.

🖱 Lies, Damned Lies, and Subscriptions

  • Posted in cyber

Everybody hates paying subscription fees. At this point most of us have figured out that recurring fees are miserable. Worse, they usually seem unfair and exploitative. We’re right about that much, but it’s worth sitting down and thinking through the details, because understanding the exceptions teaches us what the problem really is. And it isn’t just “paying people money means less money for me”; the problem is fundamental to what “payment” even is, and vitally important to understand.

Human Agency: Why Property is Good🔗

or, “Gio is not a marxist, or if he is he’s a very bad one”

First: individual autonomy — our agency, our independence, and our right to make our own choices about our own lives — is threatened by the current digital ecosystem. Our tools are powered by software, controlled by software, and inseparable from their software, and so the companies that control that software have a degree of control over us proportional to how much of our lives relies on software. That’s an ever-increasing share.

⚖ 5G's standard patents wound it

I remember seeing a whole kerfuffle about 5G around this time last year. Not the mind-control vaccine, the actual wireless technology. People (senators, mostly) were worried about national security, because Huawei (the state-controlled Chinese tech company, who is a threat, actually) was getting its 5G patents through and making its claim on the next-gen tech IP landscape. Maybe Trump even needed to seize the technology and nationalize 5G? Everybody sure had a lot to say about it, but I didn’t see a single person address the core conflict.

Format Wars🔗

Before we get to 5G, let’s go way back to VHS for a minute.

The basic idea of the “format war” is this: one company invents a format (VHS, SD cards, etc) and make a push to make their format the standard way of doing things. Everybody gets a VHS player instead of BetaMax, so there’s a market for the former but not for the latter. Now everyone uses VHS. If you’re selling video, you sell VHS tapes, and if you’re buying video, you’re buying VHS. If you invented VHS, this is great for you, because you own the concept of VHS and get to charge everyone whatever you want at every step in the process. And, since everyone uses VHS now, you’ve achieved lock-in.

Now, this creates an obvious perverse incentive. Companies like Sony are famous for writing and patenting enormous quantities of formats that never needed to exist in the first place because owning the de factor standard means you can collect rent from the entire market. That’s a powerful lure.

And that’s just talking about de facto standards. This gets even worse when you mix in formal standards setting bodies, which get together and formally declare which formats should be considered “standard” for professional and international use. If you could get your IP written into those standards, it turns your temporary development time into a reliable cash stream.

Enter SEPs🔗

“5G” is one of these standards set by standard setting bodies, and it’s a standard packed with proprietary technology. The most important slice of those is called SEPs, or “Standard Essential Patents.” These are the Patents that are Essential to (implementing) the Standard. In other words, these technologies are core and inextricable to 5G itself. This figure represents only the SEPs:

📣 Trouble a-brewin' at Redbubble

  • Posted in fandom

Homestuck is once again lit up over fan merch. Homestuck and fan merch have a long and troubled history, but this latest incident is between artists, Redbubble, and Viz media. Here are my thoughts on that!

In late May 2021, artists who sold Homestuck merch on Redbubble got this email:

Dear [name],

Thank you for submitting your fan art for Homestuck and/or Hiveswap as part of Redbubble’s Fan Art Partner Program.

At this time, our partnership with the rights holder VIZ Media has come to an end. When a partnership expires, we are required to remove officially approved artworks from the marketplace. This means that your Homestuck and/or Hiveswap designs will be removed from Redbubble soon.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • It is important to know that licensors do not allow previously approved designs once sold on Redbubble to be sold on any other platform, even after the program ends.
  • Because this removal is not in response to a complaint, your account will not be negatively impacted.

Partnerships come and go, but don’t worry. We’re looking forward to partnering with more awesome brands in the future.

Check out our Current Brand Partnerships list to see all the properties that are actively accepting submissions. For additional information, we recommend checking out the Fan Art Partner Program FAQ.

Thank you, Redbubble

This hit a lot of people, and hit them hard:

Rut-roh!

Unfortunately for Twitter and brevity this is actually the intersection of a couple different complicated issues, which I’ll try to summarize here.

Just gonna get this one out of the way right off the bat. Copyright law gives IP owners a tremendous amount of power over what’s done with their characters and designs, even extending far into derivative fanart. If you own Homestuck, you actually can take someone to court over selling merch of their fantroll, and probably win. That’s not a great starting point, but it’s the truth.

Eevee has a great write-up of why this is bad. I’d also point you to Tom Scott’s video about how copyright law isn’t designed for intermediate platforms like Redbubble, but suffice it to say, yeah, copyright law really sucks for fanartists, actually.

This is the most complex thing going on here, certainly, but it’s not new and interesting. What is new and interesting, though, is

Redbubble forcing predatory licensing on people🔗

Now, copyright law sucks for fanartists, but that doesn’t explain what happened here.