Clogging the Courts With Technological Nonsense

Categories: Tech

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Let's take a quick romp through a few recent examples of tech jackassery in the legal system:

First, the Supreme Court has declined to review the case of Jammie Thomas-Rasset, the Brainerd, Minn., woman who is one of the more notable victims of the Recording Industry Association of America's insane lawsuits against people accused to downloading music in the 2000s. As she made her way through the courts for having downloaded utterly devalued corporate-rock hits by the likes of Journey, Def Leppard, and Richard Marx, the judgment against her rollercoastered from $220,000 to $1.9 million to $54,000, back up to $1.5 million, back down to $54,000 and finally coming home again, back to $220,000. With the court's decision, that's what she now owes.

The 35-year-old mother of four with an unemployed husband works for a tribal government. She can't pay, of course. She might be able to negotiate the amount with the RIAA, or she might have to file bankruptcy.

The music labels who were the real plaintiffs in the lawsuit could use the money. They wrecked their own business over the past decade or so, in part by concentrating on vindictive lawsuits against their own customers rather than on transforming their industry for the digital age.

Meanwhile, CNET reported Monday that a federal judge has ruled that police are allowed to secretly install surveillance cameras on private property without a warrant. If that sounds like a bald violation of Fourth Amendment rights, it certainly is, but the courts haven't yet caught up to advances in technology, so we're seeing more and more rulings like this, and we will likely see more.

The DEA, without a warrant, installed cameras on the property of some guys who are accused of growing pot in Wisconsin. Those guys were busted based on what the cameras caught and now face the possibility of life in prison, plus millions in fines. In a 1984 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that "open fields" (land not near a residence) could be searched without a warrant, The judge in the Wisconsin case based his ruling on that case.

But does setting up wirelessly networked surveillance cameras on private property change what is meant by a "search," and does that render the 1984 "open fields" ruling outdated? The judge thinks not. But there are still appeals courts and perhaps the Supreme Court to consider. CNET'S Declan McCullagh notes that, in January, "the Supreme Court rejected warrantless GPS tracking after previously rejecting warrantless thermal imaging."

So there's hope that the guardians of our Constitution might actually reject what seems to be a clear violation of it.

Finally, a patent troll is threatening the existence of podcasts. Really. A troll (which is a company that doesn't actually do anything but file patent-based lawsuits) called Personal Audio has named Adam Carolla, HowStuffWorks.com and Togi Entertainment in a lawsuit. It has also sent threatening letters to other popular podcasters such as comedian Marc Maron.

This is all based on a patent filed in 1996. That's right -- the patent was filed years before other people actually developed -- completely independently -- the technology for podcasting, and the suit was filed years after podcasting had become ubiquitous. And what does the patent cover? Well, it's vague, to say the least: "Apparatus for disseminating a series of episodes represented by media files via the Internet as said episodes become available."

Which, you know, could describe just about anything on the Internet. But podcasters are growing more popular, and some of them have real money just sitting there waiting to be extracted by soulless lawyers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is collecting information from anyone who might be affected, and offers legal help to those who need it.




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