On Being Nice


Last week, I wrote this article about ways to fight back against infringers that didn't require commencing a lawsuit. It was well-received and widely read. In that article, I threw in a blurb describing why you should be nice to your adversaries and how doing so could lead to a better legal outcome for you. To my surprise, I got a lot of pushback on that. Several readers found the advice to be downright controversial. Their general view was "I'm the victim, so why do I owe it to someone who stole from me to be nice?"

It's a legitimate point and hard to argue against. But I'll try anyway.

From my seat, being nice makes practical sense. Judges and juries are people too, and like us mere mortals, they're susceptible to all sorts of biases. And since these are the people who will determine your legal fate, you want them to LIKE YOU. Making an effort to show magnanimity in light of your victimization can do just that. It's really that simple. "But Greg, it shouldn't matter if I'm likable. The judge and jury have a civic duty to do justice even if the victim is a jerk." Yes, absolutely right. Except the law is never as one-sided as it appears from your side. While you may feel victimized, it may in reality be a gray area. Most cases fall closer to the middle than any one side, which is why your appearance, your attitude, and your facial expressions may be enough to sway a jury your way (or not).

I'm not saying you have to be friendly to your adversary. I'm not saying you need to walk over to him in front of the jury, shake his hand, and call him your mate. But neither should you rail against him, call him names, and undermine him. Let your arguments stand on their own without interference from your emotions. You can - and always should - be direct in your dealings when it comes to legal matters, but that doesn't preclude being nice either. In a legal setting you will be adversaries, but that doesn't mean you need to be enemies as well.

Here's another reason. We have a real kindness deficit in this country. American culture is adversarial by design (our government and judicial systems were built on principles of adversity, as juxtaposed with the British system, which is inquisitorial) and when it goes unchecked, it can make us meaner, less trusting, and more litigious. It can lead to situations like one I experienced today. A young Hispanic man approached me while I waited for my train at Back Bay Station in Boston. He smiled and introduced himself in broken English. He showed me his cell phone and told me it wasn't working, and he began to ask if he could make a call on my phone. Before he finished his statement, I pointedly told him "No!" It took him a few moments to register my denial and he sputtered out a few more words before looking dejected and shuffling off to ask someone else for help. Before he left, he meekly thanked me for my time.

I was immediately crushed by how casually cruel I had been. I shut him down before he could even ask for help... how easy it was for me to be so dismissive and disrespectful to someone I didn't know. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of my rationalizations withstood any kind of scrutiny. Yes, I didn't know him. Yes, I didn't trust him. Yes, he might have stolen my phone. But so what? I can afford a new one. I can easily wipe the memory of the old one from my computer so sensitive data couldn't be accessed. Assuming I was right to distrust him, what was I was protecting anyway? I was so disrespectful to someone I had just met, imagine how effortless it would have been if I had actual animosity towards him.

Being nice takes work, it takes effort. It's especially hard when you think someone has wronged you and your instinct is to treat them like the worst rat bastard that ever lived. I ask you to take the higher road; don't act like I did today. Be the better person and treat your adversary with respect. That's how you win allies in and out of court. BE NICE. Because even if you lose your case, you can at least walk out of that courtroom with your head held high.

Vince Gilligan Thinks Piracy Helped Breaking Bad, Turns Out He Might Be Right


Vince Gilligan, the genius/ creator/ writer/ director/ dark wizard behind Breaking Bad said this in an interview with the BBC last week:

If I’m being honest I see that the illegal downloading led to a lot of people watching the series, becoming aware of the series who otherwise would not have been... I see that in some ways illegal downloading has helped us, certainly in terms of brand awareness, so that’s a good side.

At first I met this statement with a heavy dose of skepticism. It's not exactly like Breaking Bad went unnoticed for the last six years... it was a monstrous hit, critically and commercially. A cultural touchstone, it's repeatedly mentioned in the same breath as The Wire and The Sopranos as one of the greatest modern television shows of all time. Whatever awareness could be raised by illegal downloads surely pales in comparison to the massive word of mouth and AMC's multi-media marketing push.

But instead of writing another anti-piracy screed like I did last year, I decided to do some research. And against the odds (and my own prejudices), I discovered that Gilligan may in fact be right. Two years ago, the Swiss government commissioned a study measuring the effect of copyright-infringing downloading. The result? Piracy actually does help copyright holders (take that Congress)! The study, released by the European Commission Joint Research Centre, found that users who download content illegally are actually 2% more likely to pay for content because the money they save on illegal downloads ends up getting spent on other content. Additionally, they often use the illegal downloads to sample material before they buy, helping to spread the word about lesser-known artists in the process. According to the researchers:

It seems that the majority of the music that is consumed illegally by the individuals in our sample would not have been purchased if illegal downloading websites were not available to them. The complementarity effect of online streaming is found to be somewhat larger, suggesting a stimulating effect of this activity on the sales of digital music.

It's worth pointing out several caveats: (1) this study is considered highly controversial in a lot of circles, (2) the focus of the study was on music downloads and did not extend to other digital content, and (3) all of the subjects in the study were Swiss citizens who are generally WAY more law abiding than Americans.

Even still, it's a tempting theory. While I'm not convinced illegal downloads could raise much awareness for a show with the brand recognition Breaking Bad has, you can see where this might benefit artists who don't have the reach or cultural cache that Gilligan commands. After all, with increased awareness comes greater financial success.

But that doesn't mean Gilligan approves of piracy:

The downside is that a lot of folks who worked on the show would’ve made more money, myself included. But you know, like with most things, there’s two sides to the coin. We all need to eat, we all need to get paid, and I get paid very well, I can’t complain.

Which is exactly why pirating content is not something I can ever really support. Sure, Gilligan and stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are making bank no matter how often the show is stolen (the finale was illegally torrented half a million times), but most of the people who worked on that show aren't making Cranston-money. They're working stiffs like you and me. Money not spent on a show they worked hard on is money they don't get to see. And most artists don't ever get to work on something as high profile as Breaking Bad, so they'll feel that loss all the more.

Here's what I wrote last year on this topic and even in light of the Swiss study, I stand by these words:

[W]hen you legitimately purchase copies of movies and music, you’re telling the artist that you support her. You put her in a place financially where she can continue generating the stuff you love.  When you steal a movie or piece of music, you’re telling the artist that you don’t care if she can make a living and you’re threatening her ability to continue generating that work.  Help me keep artists working and put a stop to the torrenting.

Tortious Interference on Parks and Recreation: How Rent A Swag Can Fight Back Against Tommy's Closet

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[Parks & Recreation is the best comedy on TV these days, so in honor of its new season, I've taken a look at one story issue that's been bugging me since last season's finale.  Enjoy!]

Tortious interference occurs when a person intentionally damages the  business relationships of another.  Parks & Recreation occurs at 8:00pm, Thursday nights on NBC.  The former is a type of civil liability imposed on one party who financially harms another party.  The latter is an exceptionally sweet and intelligent sitcom that none of you are watching.  What do the two have in common?  A lot, surprisingly.

Last season, Tom Haverford - played by Aziz Ansari as a pop-culture obsessed, clothes horse, mogul wannabe - started a business called Rent-a-Swag, a store where the "teens, tweens, and in-betweens" of Pawnee, Indiana could rent "the dopest shirts, the swankiest jackets, the slickest cardigans, the flashiest fedoras, the hottest ties, the snazziest canes and more!"  Per the store's fake website, "before you waste your money on something that won't fit in a month, or fight with your parents over that sick velvet blazer they won't buy for you - step into Rent-A-Swag."  It's a good idea, right?

Anyway, the business took off and Tom was thisclose to leaving his job at the Parks and Recreation Department.  Unfortunately, Tom discovered that a competitor opened a rival store directly across the street called Tommy's Closet.  The competitor (whose identity I won't reveal here) informed Tom that Tommy's Closet was designed specifically to drive Rent-a-Swag out of business.

I don't know how the Parks & Recreation writers intend to resolve the situation (it will likely be sweet and goofy), but if I was Tom's attorney, I would advise him to sue the pants off (hehe) the owner of Tommy's Closet.  In tort law, there's something called tortious interference with an expected economic advantage and it gives business owners a way to stop those who maliciously attempt to drive expected consumers away from their business.  To win, Tom would have to prove that:

  1. Tom had a reasonable expectation of economic benefit from the operation of Rent-a-Swag,
  2. The competitor had knowledge of that expectation,
  3. The competitor intentional interfered with Tom's expected economic benefit, and
  4. Tom suffered economic damage as a result of the interference.

It wouldn't be very entertaining to watch, but Tom would most assuredly win a lawsuit against his competitor.  First, Tom had a good reason to expect an economic benefit; he was already receiving it!  His business was booming during the tail end of Season 5.  Tom was even able to hire employees and pay dividends to his stockholders.  Second, the competitor told Tom (in front of other people, I might add... witnesses!) that he was aware of Rent-a-Swag's financial success.  In fact, during the Season 5 finale, he tried to buy Rent-a-Swag from Tom because it had become a known moneymaker.  Third, the competitor admitted his desire to drive Tom out of business out of a misplaced sense of revenge and was actively luring customers away with free pizza and prizes.  Finally, we see in the Season 6 opener that Tommy's Closet had succeeded in drawing customers away from Rent-a-Swag; the episode shows Tom alone in his store, all the customers having fled across the street.  Tom has clearly suffered an economic damage.

While these kinds of malicious actions are rare, they do happen.  Therefore it's important for all artists and small business owners to be aware that there are options available to them should they become victims of tortious interference.  As a rule, the law doesn't look kindly upon those who open a business solely to spite another business.  In the real world, Tom has options - and so do you.  Of course, this is TV and I'm sure that whatever the Parks & Recreation writers come up with, it will be a hell of a lot funnier than watching this play out in a courtroom.

[You can also make a credible argument that Tom has a trade dress claim - a form of trademark infringement that protects a store's interior design - against the competitor since we learn that the interior of Tommy's Closet looks exactly like the interior of Rent-a-Swag.]

Don't Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater: Changing Laws, The "I Have A Dream" Speech, And Copyright Policy


This Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. If you're like me, then you've probably seen snippets of that speech a hundred times, but never seen the full unedited version. That's because the speech is protected under copyright law until 2038, and anyone who copies, distributes, shares, or posts a video of the speech online will be violating copyright law and will legally owe restitution to the video's owner... Sony.* [Like when Sony ordered advocacy group Fight For The Future to remove the video from its website.]

Am I the only who thinks this is terrible? What kind of policy allows a major corporation to sue someone who wants to share with others THE ICONIC CIVIL RIGHTS MOMENT OF OUR TIME? Who is this policy protecting?

You may have noticed that I'm pretty vocal when I think changes should be made to U.S. policy, specifically copyright law. As a result, I've been accused several times of pursuing a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" agenda. But that's not really accurate since I've never called for scrapping laws wholesale. I have, on the other hand, advocated for revising laws that don't work as intended. I personally see advocating for better and smarter laws as my duty, not just as a lawyer, but as an American citizen (which, not so ironically, was kind of the point of Dr. King's speech).

And what's wrong with supporting change anyway? Not to be overly dramatic here, but America was founded on this whole idea of "it's not working out, so let's do something better." We went to war with England because we didn't like the way they governed us. We constructed a republican system of government that permits us to remove and replace politicians we don't like. We gave Congress the power to revise, update, and repeal laws because we recognized that people are imperfect and they will pass imperfect laws. When a law doesn't achieve its goal, it should absolutely be amended. The U.S. Copyright Act alone has been amended at least 10 times since 1790.

I keep saying it, but it bears repeating: copyright law wasn't created solely for the purpose of rewarding the artist. It was also designed to foster originality and ingenuity for the betterment of society (the founding fathers didn't measure capitalist success purely through personal wealth. Community prosperity was also a driving factor) and to shield artists from theft. It wasn't intended to be used as a weapon to attack others. Which is why the problem isn't that Sony owns the copyright to Dr. King's speech; the problem is what it can do to harm individuals who wish to share it. Simply put, Sony has the muscle and will to litigate against anyone who posts the video, regardless of the intent of the individual or their ability to fight back. And I don't think that's right.

In that spirit, here are two ideas that I think will be effective in revamping copyright law to better serve the American people.

  1. Shorten the term limits on copyrights. Yeah, I've talked about this a lot. That just shows you how much I care about this issue. Copyright law was not designed to allow copyright owners to make money off a work in perpetuity. In fact, under the Copyright Act of 1790, copyright terms were set by the founders for a mere 14 years, specifically to prevent perpetual ownership. By shortening copyright terms, major corporate copyright owners such as Sony won't be able to bully individuals when they share something as innocuous and educational as Dr. King's speech. You can read a more complete take on that here.
  2. Create exemptions in our copyright laws for works that hold special historical significance. The "I Have A Dream" speech literally changed lives and shaped events in the 20th Century. Yet under our current copyright law, it's treated like every other work of artistic expression. A work of such historic stature shouldn't be owned by any one entity. It belongs to all Americans in the same way the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation do and it should be available to everyone, free of charge.

Change is in our national DNA. History has borne that out repeatedly, so why fight it? Dr. King believed that. Who are we to assume differently?


* Dr. King himself owned the copyright and even sued to prevent unlawful reproductions of the speech so that he could distribute profits from it to civil rights causes. After his death, the copyright passed to his family, who sold the copyright to EMI in 2009. EMI was purchased by Sony in 2011.

Robin Thicke Sues Marvin Gaye's Family To Prevent Being Sued By Marvin Gaye's Family


John F. Kennedy once said that "victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan."  This is never more true than in the entertainment world, which is why Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. (aka Clifford Harris Jr.) have decided to sue Marvin Gaye's family and Bridgeport Music in order to deny their parental rights to Blurred Lines.

The Gaye family claims that Blurred Lines ripped off Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up, and they're demanding a substantial monetary payout.  If they don't get it, they'll sue for copyright infringement.  In response to the threat of legal action, Thicke preemptively sued them and is seeking a declaration from the court that Blurred Lines doesn't infringe Got To Give It Up.

Before we go any further, listen to both songs and compare for yourself.

Here's the SFW version of Blurred Lines:


And here's Got To Give It Up:


The lawsuit also contains allegations by Bridgeport Music that Blurred Lines plagiarized Funkadelic's Sexy Ways:


Now I consider myself something of a musical ignoramus, but even I can tell when one thing sounds like another thing.  While there are some similarities between the songs, primarily because of the up-tempo beat, I think it's pretty clear that Blurred Lines is a wholly separate entity.  Which means no infringement took place because copyright law doesn't protect individual elements of a work when those elements are commonly used in an industry or genre (known in the legal biz as "scènes à faire").   So in the hip-hop/R&B world, where uptempo bass-heavy beats are the norm, that similarity by itself would not be enough to constitute copyright infringement.  There would have to be greater similarities between the songs in the lyrics and melody for a court to find some form of plagiarism.

So, if Thicke isn't in danger of losing an infringement case, then why did he sue the Gaye family in such an aggressive fashion, especially after stating in his complaint that he has the "utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies"?  Certainly Thicke and his partners aren't content to share the glory with 997 other fathers.  Blurred Lines is THE most talked about song of the summer.  It's a legitimate phenomenon.  Why should they share the substantial revenues they'll accrue with another artist?  Even if that artist inspired them to begin with?

But I actually think this lawsuit is less about money than about sending a message.  See, Blurred Lines is a real winner, and if Thicke can be bullied into settling out of court for several hundred thousand dollars in order to avoid a long and costly trial... well that's a pretty easy way to make a few bucks.  Sadly, this type of thing isn't uncommon in the entertainment world.  In fact, it's downright mundane.

"Your hit song/TV show/movie has something vaguely in common with my lesser known song/TV show/movie and if you don't pay me, I'll tie you up in litigation for years."

It's a very common tale.  My guess is that Thicke decided to take the fight to the Gaye family to show that he can't be bullied.  Will this type of preemptive lawsuit work or will a judge dismiss it and basically tell Thicke to wait until he gets sued?  I have no reason to believe it won't have the desired effect.  If it does, I think you'll see a lot more of these preemptive lawsuits.  If it doesn't, the moral of the story will remain the same: you can't be a hit without people bleeding you for everything you're worth.