“Blurred Lines” trial starts today

I wrote a piece for a new-ish publication called Ratter about the impending copyright trial between Pharrell, Robin Thicke, and the estate of Marvin Gaye, about whether the song “Blurred Lines” infringes on “Got To Give It Up.” In particular, the judge has done some unusual things in terms of what is allowable evidence, given that the Gaye song predates the lifting of notice-and-registration requirements, so only the material in the deposited copy of the sheet music is covered by copyright, under the 1909 Act. From my piece:

But in the last week or so, the docket filings have been piling up and the judge has changed course on that position. The Gaye estate had already filed mash-ups of the two songs to demonstrate how similar they were. Perhaps inspired by those recordings, the judge suggested an unusual and uniquely modern twist: both sides could try submitting versions of “Got To Give It Up” that consist of only the copyrighted elements of the song. In other words, both sides should agree how to distil “Got To Give It Up” down to its basic copyrighty essence — a fire mixtape of pure copyrightium.

Both sides eventually agreed to this condition and edited together the versions of “Got To Give It Up” the jury is likely to hear. If it’s not written down in the sheet music it’s off the table, meaning that the courtroom version of “Got To Give It Up” likely sounds like the MIDI version that auto-played on a Geocities home page, or a rendition by the animatronic band at Chuck E. Cheese.

Since that was published, my Ratter editor Kate was able to get and publish a copy of the actual courtroom recordings, and we were relieved to hear they sound about as weird as we’d hoped.

In a sense, I think this case mirrors Aereo, but for music. That is to say, it’s undisputed that Pharrell and Thicke wanted to emulate the sound of “Got To Give It Up,” and attempted to do so in a way that deliberately complied with the law. One of the perverse outcomes of Aereo is that it creates the sense that a careful compliance with the law might be deemed a violation—”too cute by half,” maybe, or a Rube Goldberg machine. I hope that doesn’t happen with “Blurred Lines,” because it’s the concept of musical influence that would suffer.

Now after several delays, the trial begins today! While I was hoping to make it, I’ll have to watch from afar.

How does Fraktur degrade across platforms?

The Unicode Consortium, in its ∞ wisdom, decided a long time ago that the Fraktur script—that  weird old-fashioned German style of text—should not be encoded in its own block, but rather considered a font in which standard latin text can be rendered. That has some implications for ligatures, but that’s beyond the scope of this post and my knowledge.

However, most of the Fraktur alphabet is available deep in the math characters code points. Using a simple conversion tool, like this text converter I keep bookmarked, you can replace standard characters with those math symbols that resemble them. By doing that, you can copy and paste what looks like formatted text into plain text boxes, and—for example—make jokes with it on Twitter.

Which raises the question of how various platforms support it, and how that support degrades. After all, we’re talking about pretty deep recesses of the Unicode character space, so it can vary pretty wildly.

Earlier tonight I made a joke on Twitter to my friend Noah that used these characters. Here’s how it appeared on my OS X box running Firefox:

But here’s how it looked to him on his iPhone:


I wanted to see how it appears on different platforms, so I asked people to send me screenshots, and got a whole bunch of responses. On multiple versions of Windows and different platforms, you get empty boxes:


While on Android, across many different apps, it degrades to the plain latin text!


I also got evidence that it worked fine on a range of GNU/Linux boxes, every OS X combination I saw, and a Chromebook.

The frustrating result is that not only can you not count on all popular platforms to support these characters, you also can’t count on them to fail the same way. Android removes the context that these are “special” characters, while iOS, Windows, (and, incidentally, Sailfish OS) render it completely unreadable.

So I guess don’t use it for mission-critical Twitter jokes.

P.S. If you’ve read this far about Fraktur, you really ought to read about the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute, which is an amazing piece of typographic history.

Earth to Elon: please let the public domain have space photos

It probably goes without saying that I am a strong supporter of Techdirt’s call for Elon Musk to release space photos taken by SpaceX into the public domain. It would continue a tradition of unrestricted space photos that began with NASA’s images—necessarily public domain, coming from a U.S. government agency—but which is jeopardized when space photographs come from private companies.

599px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17This is an issue I’ve been vocal about before, and with other contract photographers that NASA uses. (Like for example: it strikes me as just impossibly sad that none of the photos of the retiring shuttle being flown over the US—take this beautiful shot over D.C., to pick just one—likely won’t be in the public domain for another century.)

A robust and well-documented space program is a major boon for motivating young people to study science. Images from space have formed the basis of major social movements, and been the target of activism campaigns.

And just generally, it’s an incredibly valuable thing that U.S. government works go straight to the public domain. Lots of other countries don’t have that, despite the common-sense logic behind it: we, the taxpayers, already paid for the work, which requires no additional incentive to be produced. To see that value get chipped away by private deals would be tragic.

All this is to say, society has gotten so much out of media from space being free for all to share, and that shouldn’t end as private companies get access. Please, Elon Musk, commit to releasing photography from SpaceX into the public domain. The future will thank you.

3 circus posters that changed the face of copyright law

The 1903 Supreme Court ruling in Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing Co. was a hugely influential for turn-of-the-century copyright. Bleistein was an employee of a company that had designed circus posters for The Great Wallace Shows. Donaldson was a competitor of that company, and agreed to print a subsequent run of those same posters without authorization.

At issue was whether these posters—which were certainly creative, but just as certainly commercial—could be restricted by copyright. By ruling in favor of the plaintiff, the Supreme Court made it clear that the bar for copyright eligibility is not some abstract notion of artistic merit, but simple originality. Commercial speech was just as qualified as fine art. From Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr’s majority opinion:

It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits. At the one extreme, some works of genius would be sure to miss appreciation. Their very novelty would make them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which their author spoke. It may be more than doubted, for instance, whether the etchings of Goya or the paintings of Manet would have been sure of protection when seen for the first time. At the other end, copyright would be denied to pictures which appealed to a public less educated than the judge. Yet if they command the interest of any public, they have a commercial value — it would be bold to say that they have not an aesthetic and educational value — and the taste of any public is not to be treated with contempt. It is an ultimate fact for the moment, whatever may be our hopes for a change. That these pictures had their worth and their success is sufficiently shown by the desire to reproduce them without regard to the plaintiffs’ rights.

I’d read about this case many times, but had never seen high quality copies of the three posters at the heart of the matter. After a bit of digging, I found copies in the Library of Congress, which have been scanned at an extremely high resolution. I’ve cropped, cleaned up, and color-corrected the images in this post, but if you’ve got any interest I strongly recommend downloading the huge TIFF files from the LoC. Descriptions of each image by Holmes himself:

Nowadays it seems obvious that these creative and original images would be subject to copyright. It’s a nice reminder that the assumptions of today are likely just as brittle as the ones that affected these colorful posters over a century ago.


Making Alice & Bob tees

I wanted a t-shirt in the style of the famous Experimental Jetset Beatles shirt, but with the traditional Alice & Bob placeholder names from crypto discussions. There were a few options for similar things—Bits of Freedom in the Netherlands has one that has Alice and Bob but also intelligence officials, and there are other designs online—but none was quite what I wanted.

Fortunately, it was easy to whip together a pretty convincing looking chunky white Helvetica list of names. From there, I used a company called Teespring, which lets you pick the printing threshold and retail cost. At first I just made the cut I wanted for myself—white text on a black men’s American Apparel shirt—but a bunch of my friends asked for women’s cuts, and it’s very clear to me in retrospect I should’ve made them in the first place.

Both campaigns “tipped” in the first day online, so men’s and women’s t-shirts will be printed in the next few weeks. So far, 40 shirts have been sold—it’s definitely kind of remarkable to think that sprung from my off-hand idea.

I’ve gotten other shirts from Teespring and the quality is high, so I’m looking forward to wearing it. If you want one of these, get it quick!