Crossing the Offensive Line

Quang Trang, Managing Editor

In my opinion, Autumn is easily one of the top four seasons of the year. It is a season where pumpkin becomes a spice, the leaves change colors, I wear cardigans, and of course FOOTBALL. And yeah, the Supreme Court of the United States becomes a thing again.

During its next term, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear Lee v. Tam, a case that may determine the constitutionality of the U.S. Patent Office’s (“USPTO”) authority to refuse a trademark. The USPTO threw a yellow flag and refused to trademark the name of a band called “The Slants” after finding the name crossed an offensive line against Asians. The Slants threw a red flag challenge to have the decision reviewed. Under review, the Federal Circuit reversed the ruling on the field citing First Amendment protection. The USPTO Hail Mary’d the Supreme Court of the United States to protect its authority to reject offensive trademarks.

Under Section 2 of the Lanham Act (15 U.S.C. § 1052(a)), the U.S. Patent Office may refuse to register a trademark that “[c]onsists of or comprises a . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” However, granting the USPTO such authority may violate the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” The Federal Circuit found the band’s name to be private speech, and thus entitled to First Amendment protection.

At this point you may be wondering “why is Quang making all these football puns?”, “Does Quang think his puns are funny?”, and “will he stop making bad puns?”

A Supreme Court decision in Lee v. Tam may intercept a case in the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit is currently reviewing the USPTO’s refusal to trademark the Washington Redskins after finding the name offensive and disparaging to Native Americans.

If the Supreme Court finds Section 2 of the Lanham Act unconstitutional, then the Fourth Circuit must overturn the USPTO’s refusal to trademark the Washington Redskins. However, if the Supreme Court limits its decision in Lee v Tam to the facts of the case or if the court affirms the USPTO’s ruling, then the Washington Redskins’ challenge may be sacked for good.

If the Washington Redskins loses its challenge, the organization may still keep the name and seek state trademark protection. The team would still be financially impacted if it loses federal protection against copycat merchandising. Changing the team name may then become a financial decision.

The “Fourth Industrial Revolution”: Queue Chaos And Disarray

Rhett Schwichtenberg, MJLST Staffer

We are all familiar with Hollywood’s drastic miscalculations when predicting the future. In Timecop, which took place in 2004, time-travel was the conventional means of transportation. In the world of Marty McFly, 2015 marked the year where hoverboards were the standard means of transportation. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the moon was colonized by 2001. The list goes on. While we [unfortunately] see none of this today, perhaps Hollywood was not too far off.

Today, robots are shaping the way we live and have contributed a world of good to society. While Google Glass might have been an utter failure, Google’s Self-Driving Car Project is making fast advances to provide the world with hand-free, piece-of-mind driving. Taxi giant, Uber, has also entered the self-driving market with the implementation of self-driving Uber vehicles in the Pittsburgh market. Self-driving technology has the ability to eliminate the extreme and unnecessary amount of traffic deaths occurring every day in addition to providing a reliable mode of transportation for individuals that cannot operate a vehicle. Apart from the transportation industry, robots are growing rapidly in nearly every industry including the agriculture, food service, manufacturing, military, and rehabilitation industries.

Earlier this year, the EU made a proposal calling for the classification of autonomous  robots as “electronic persons.” If codified, this proposal could bestow legal rights upon robots, require companies to pay a social security tax for using them, and impose a liability insurance upon companies using robots in order to protect against any harm they might cause. While ridiculed by many, is there no merit in this proposal?

The age of robotics that is currently among us is being referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution” by economists. The first industrial revolution introduced steam power, the second, electric power, and the third, electronics and information technology. While the past three industrial revolutions have advanced at a linear rate (occurring approximately one-hundred years apart) the current revolution is advancing exponentially. Previous technology has threatened blue-collar jobs, but has never caused us to question whether jobs will even exist in the near future. With the implementation of quantum computing looming, the professionals in scientific and medical fields might experience issues of job security.

Alan Manning, leading author in labor economics and professor at the London School of Economics, seems to remain calm, cool, and collected when tasked with answering the question of how autonomy will affect the labor market. He strongly opines that such technology should not be taxed. Implementing the proposed tax will slow the advancement and use of such technology. Instead, Manning expects investment in modern technology to increase productivity and, at worst, leave the labor market where it currently stands. Manning believes the expert prediction that 47% of jobs will be threatened by autonomic robots is just that, a mere prediction. He retorts that such a prediction is grounded in ignorance rather than educated measures. Manning states that the entire job market must be looked at, not just the specific occupations that will see job reduction. Looking at the job market as a whole, Manning admits that jobs will be lost in some areas, but trusts that new jobs will arise due to an increase in companies’ spending power through the use of autonomic robotics.

So given that autonomic robotics and advanced computing technology is already written in our future, what are the implications of such technology? The simple answer is: we must wait and see.

Copycats to Copycows: The Cloned Livestock Industry Emergence

Ryan Dowell, MJLST Staffer

In the two decades since Dolly, a comically named sheep, animal cloning has remained little more than fiction to the average person. Behind the scenes, however, the field has progressed tremendously.  Success rates today are estimated to be 70% or higher, compared to less than half a percent when cloning Dolly and her siblings. As the technique has been perfected, the obvious result has occurred: animal cloning has become a nascent industry.

Cloning has long been present in human society, in a form that many people may not recognize: plants. From simple home-garden cutting & replanting to industrial-scale cultivation from tissue samples; these techniques produce genetically identical individuals (i.e. clones) used as floral cultivars, tree planting, and especially foods. A large number of plants grown for human consumption are clones—which means that you, dear reader, have probably eaten a clone. Plant cloning has not encountered the same scrutiny as that with animals, perhaps due to its natural occurrence or millennia-long history of human use.

Dolly was merely the proverbial ‘dipping our toe into’ animal cloning. True to the writings of Michael Crichton (or the movies, if one so prefers), it didn’t take long for Jurassic Park-esque attempts to clone endangered and extinct animals. Cloning was not limited to such an idealistic use—a market emerged. Grieving pet owners could, at significant cost, get clones of their beloved pets. Despite the cost (still a five-digit price tag), a market for such services has continued to develop. Further demonstrating the human capacity for expensive animal-keeping hobbies, equine cloning has emerged as a means to “insure that prized horse and its unique qualities.” If one were to stop here, cloning seems to be a niche market for the wealthy.

The emerging cloning industry has not stopped at pets and exotic creatures. With the science complete and industrial production moving forward, livestock cloning is set to erupt in the coming years. A ‘cloning factory’ is opening in China. This factory is intended to produce not only pets and horses, but also prime beef cattle and drug-sniffing dogs. Following the same reasoning underlying farming’s predilection for plant clones, elimination of genetic variations could significantly improve farming techniques—maximizing yield, minimizing labor and resource inputs, matching strains to specific regions, and so on. In a world with mounting concern over the meat sustainability, improvements to production are key and cloning provides the means to significantly advance the field.

In many emerging fields, law and regulation react to the development and often impede progress. Fortunately, the issue of animal cloning has already been addressed—the FDA regulates the field & was essentially prescient. In 2008, the FDA released a guidance stating “meat and milk from cow, pig, and goat clones and the offspring of any animal clones are as safe as food we eat every day.” The FDA examined cloning (also known as somatic cell nuclear transfer or SCNT), under the umbrella of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), which have long been utilized by farmers. The analysis noted that these animals would have essentially identical genetics to the source, unless reprogramming occurred (which can be done with other ARTs); that risk associated with the cloned animals is no different than the source organism. It was noted that cloned offspring have higher risk of adverse health issues early in life compared to offspring from other ARTs. However, none of these issues are unique to clones and other than early-life issues, clones are as healthy as non-clones. Livestock cloning has passed FDA scrutiny  and manufacturing infrastructure is in place; it is poised to develop rapidly.

Public opinions may prove to be the final hurdle for livestock cloning. If one tells a fruit-eater that he or she is eating a clone (or as a botanist might put it the ovary of a clone), the fruit-eater will likely be unaware of this fact and less than pleased that his or her enjoyment of that fruit has been disrupted by the interjection. Alternatively, a substantial portion of the population believes GMOs are not safe for them to consume, which is untrue (see herehere, here, here, and here). A similar scenario to either of these might present itself here: (1) everyone blissfully consumes food without the need for nitty-gritty detail of its origin (since there is no discernable or material difference), or (2) misinformation is allowed to spread and ‘poison the well.’ The deciding factor will likely be education; the current state of affairs presents the opportunity to preemptively educate the public on the FDA’s findings and regulations.

Livestock cloning is poised to expand rapidly in the future and now we face a crucial time in its acceptance: a public educated on the issue will be equipped to fairly determine whether such livestock should be consumed, without a torrent of pseudo-science obscuring the decision. The FDA has examined clones and found them to be nearly identical to non-clones (pun very much intended) in regards to human consumption.


Food “Hot Off the Printing Press”: Insights into 3-D Printed Food

Theodore Harrington, Managing Editor

Would you food hot off the 3D printing press? In Jaspers Tran’s article, 3-D Printed Food, he explores the potential legal issues surrounding the commercialization of 3D printed food. (see here).

The article suggests that “. . . the 3D printer may become the fundamental daily appliance in every household . . . .” The pros are easy to see—As the demand for food increases at an exponential rate, the ability to create food quickly and avoid the current environmental impacts caused by food production would be a game-changer. The benefits here are fairly obvious and easy to wrap our heads around. However, large barriers still remain.

A tougher point for me to grasp is Tran’s suggestion that 3D printing will solve issues related to malnutrition, particularly over-nutrition, or obesity. Tran seems to leap from personalized nutritional food (tailored to an individual’s exact nutritional needs) to an obesity solution. This reminds me of the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Even if 3D printers end up in every household, my gut-feeling is that it will be a very long time before people are accepting of the idea of eating food that was just spit out of a machine (although there is a large amount of processing in today’s food, it goes on behind closed doors. Ignorance is bliss.). As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Blink, the way we taste food is as much psychological as it is physical (see example of declining sales in a pork product when a life-like pig was placed on packaging instead of a cartoon pig).

Something to chew on.

Three’s a Crowd: Identifying the Shifting Parental Rights in Three-Parent Babies

Daniel Green, MJLST Staffer

Once again, science is spurring the law to adapt in ways it never could have predicted. A baby boy was recently born with genetic material of three different people. Aside from being born slightly premature, the now three-month-old child is very healthy. Even though three-parent techniques have been used before, this child marked the first healthy birth.

Given the obvious religious, safety, and ethical disputes behind such a medical procedure it may seem unclear as to why anyone would want to go through with it. The answer, however, avoids the arguments that the procedure is simply done to “play God” or for polyamorous relationships. The mother underwent the treatment to ensure both the happiness of parents and the health the child.

In this instance, the mother carried genetic defects identified to cause Leigh syndrome. This disorder which affects the brain resulted in the mother having had four pregnancy losses in addition to the death of two previous children at the ages of 8 months and 6 years. Leigh syndrome is caused by defects in a cells mitochondria, and the three-parent treatment was able to bypass the damaged mitochondrial DNA.

The process involves implanting the mother’s DNA into an egg from a donor. The egg has the donor’s main genetic DNA removed prior. The egg is then fertilized with sperm from the father. This process allows the DNA from the mother to pass down virtually unchanged since “mitochondrial DNA makes up less than 1% of the total cellular DNA.” However, small amounts of the donor’s mitochondrial DNA are still left throughout the child’s body.

The treatment was done in Mexico involving a team of fertility specialists from the United States and Great Britain. The procedure took place in Mexico since the treatment used has not yet been approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration, but this may not be the case for long due, in part, to recent successes. Another indicator of this possible change is that the treatment has already been approved in Britain.

Given this rapidly changing landscape, the law, in particular regarding parental rights, needs to somehow catch up quickly on an incredibly complex topic. As the donor parent will only be contributing 37 genes out of the total 22,000, it is likely that a donor’s right will be the most contested. Given the precedent already set forth, courts may adopt one of several strategies if and when three-parent babies are no longer barred in the United States.

  1. The donor parent has no legal claims: This would be similar to the mostly commonly accepted view concerning to sperm donors. In most states, if a sperm is donated through a licensed medical professional then the donor loses all legal claims to the child unless the parents are married. It seems logical that the treatment of an egg donor, in a three-parent situation, would be similar given what the term “donor” implies. Great Britain, which has already approved the three-parent treatment, has already adopted a stance similar to this. However, states are in contention regarding of parental rights and even custody of traditional style egg donors. Given the distribution of DNA it may be easier for a court to rule against the egg donor, but this is still very unclear.
  1. The donor parent has an equal claim to the child: California has already passed a version of a three-parent law, but this was mainly for same-sex couples who wish to have the donor on the birth certificate as well. However, the process leaves the door open for unintended parents, such as the donors, to assert claims over a child. In such a case, a court may find that, despite the objections of two parents, the donor has a right to be considered as a parent. Instances of this have already come up in traditional sperm and egg donation. Such conflicts could create a great degree of instability for the life of the child.
  1. The parties agree through a contract prior to the treatment as to what claims exist: The last apparent possibility is that parties may be able to contractually agree what their family is to look like. This would likely create the most amiable way to go about the process, but it is time-consuming and still may run into problems with the existing laws of certain states.

Clearly, there is no solid answer regarding three-parent babies even though three-parent birth certificates are already becoming more common in the United States. It seems like it is only a matter of time before three-parent babies are introduced into the culture as well. This leaves the question as to whether the law will be ready in time so as to hopefully create a circumstance that, whatever the family may look like, is best for the child.

Westward (And Then Some) Expansion: One Theory of Property Rights on the Moon and Mars

Jordan Rude, MJLST Staffer

Recently a friend of mine received, for his birthday, a deed to one acre of land on Mars. That’s right—he is the proud owner of property located approximately 34 million miles from Earth. This is possible thanks to the efforts of various (and often interconnected) websites such as Buy Mars, Buy Planet Mars, Lunar Registry, and Lunar Land. While selling extraterrestrial property is not a recent development (see here and here), and there does not appear to be any recent lawsuits regarding this practice, these methods still deserve scrutiny. With the rapid advancement of technology in recent decades and increasing participation by private companies in space programs (SpaceX recently tested a Mars-capable rocket), human settlement on the Moon and Mars is becoming a possibility (albeit a distant one) within our lifetimes. At that point, property ownership will become an important and possibly contentious issue. For the millions of people who have bought land on the Moon and Mars, the question of whether their claims will be recognized in such a situation is a not insignificant one.

Some of these websites claim to have legal standing for their ownership of property on Mars. Consider Buy Mars (owned by Lunar Land). Under the heading “Lunar Land’s Legal Right To Offer Planet Mars Land,” the site makes reference to the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967 as well as the tradition “dating back to early U.S. settlers” of staking a claim on surveyed land through the U.S. Office of Claim Registries. The Outer Space Treaty has been previously discussed by this blog (in a different context). Suffice it to say that this treaty prohibits countries from claiming ownership of land on Mars and other extraterrestrial property, but says nothing about individuals or corporations. Thus, the argument would be that Buy Mars, because it is not a sovereign nation, is not subject to the treaty specifically prohibiting claims of ownership on Mars.

Beyond the lack of a direct prohibition, Buy Mars also claims historical precedent as an affirmative justification. This reference to historical precedent is problematic for two reasons: first, the U.S. Office of Claim Registries does not exist, and likely never existed; and second, this is not an accurate statement of the process by which the West was settled. In fact, the federal government sold the land—first as townships and other large plots, and later in smaller, more affordable plots, before finally offering land for free under the Homestead Act of 1862 (see Michael C. Blumm & Kara Tebeau, Antimonopoly in American Public Land Law, 28 Geo. Envtl. L. Rev. 155, 165–71 (Winter 2016)). That is, the federal government owned the land it sold to speculators and other settlers (though this ownership came more or less from the government declaring it to be so, not dissimilar to what Buy Mars has done). So, because the U.S. government does not own land on Mars that it could sell to Buy Mars (to then sell to us), on its face the claimed historical precedent is not in fact proof of the legality of the process.

However, setting aside the flaws in Buy Mars’ formulation of the argument, let’s assume that the principles of westward expansion can be applied to property on Mars—would this type of claim survive a legal challenge?

Most likely it would not. Construing the westward expansion analogy narrowly, the U.S. government would have to first own land on Mars and then distribute it to corporations like Lunar Land or individuals. This is clearly prohibited by the Outer Space Treaty. That being said, if a company like SpaceX lands on Mars, the Outer Space Treaty would potentially not restrict its ability to claim land. At that point, it is unclear what the legal policies governing ownership would be. In that situation, a process loosely similar to westward expansion could be utilized, wherein a larger entity (in this case a large company) distributes land to newcomers. The key difference between the Buy Mars argument and SpaceX landing on Mars would be the latter company’s physical presence on the planet—an important aspect of making such property claims and the most likely way to get around the Outer Space Treaty. This could be extremely lucrative for SpaceX but problematic for those who have already purchased land on Mars. Ultimately, the websites currently offering land on the Moon or Mars do not have legal standing to do so, and any person who bought such land is unlikely to find legal protections should the need arise. The law in this field is very uncertain, if it exists at all, and the day may come where a true answer is needed.

Of course, the legal implications of this process should not deter you from investing in extraterrestrial property for the fun of it. My friend’s deed comes from Buy Planet Mars, whose website makes quite clear, in the FAQ section, that the deed is “a novel gift and for entertainment purposes only.”

Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics: More Discretion of District Courts in Granting Enhanced Damages

Tianxiang (Max) Zhou, MJLST Staffer

The recent US Supreme Court case, Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, grants district courts more discretion in determining “enhanced damages.” The previous clear standard of the enhanced damages became murkier after this case and left much room for lower courts to decide what constitutes enhanced damages.

Section 284 of the Patent Act provides that, in a case of infringement, courts “may increase the damages up to three times the amount found or assessed.” Enhanced damages are appropriate only when the patentee proves, by clear and convincing evidence, that the infringer “willfully” infringed the patent. Prior to Halo, courts adopted a bifurcated approach to enhanced damages established in In re Seagate: First, the patentee must show the infringer’s recklessness by clear and convincing evidence, that “the infringer acted despite an objectively high likelihood that its actions constituted infringement of a valid patent.” If the objective standard of recklessness is satisfied, then patentee must demonstrate that the risk was either known or so obvious that it should have been known to the accused infringer.

In Halo, the jury in the district court found a high probability that the infringement was willful. However, the district court refused to grant an enhanced damages based on the two-part test, and found as a matter of law, that the patentee did not prove objective recklessness of the infringer. The Federal Circuit Court affirmed the decision.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeal Court’s decision, and rejected the two-part test set forth in In re Seagate. Specifically, the Supreme Court, citing Octane Fitness LLC v. ICON Heath & Fitness, Inc, found that the test is “unduly rigid, and it impermissibly encumbers the statutory grant of discretion to district courts.” Though rejecting the two-part test, the Supreme Court did not give a clear guideline for lower courts to follow. Halo provides that, “[a]s with any exercise of discretion, courts should continue to take into account the particular circumstances of each case in deciding whether to award damages, and in what amount.” According to the Supreme Court, district courts are “‘to be guided by [the] sound legal principles’ developed over nearly two centuries of application and interpretation of the Patent Act.” Besides, the Supreme Court found that the prior two-part test, which requires a finding of objective recklessness, excludes discretionary punishment of “wanton and malicious pirate” who intentionally infringes another’s patent, and a district may grant enhanced damages even in the absence of a finding such objective recklessness.

Overall,  Halo broadened district courts’ discretion in evaluating facts of patent infringement and granting enhanced damages. While the Halo decision will definitely increase the unpredictability of patent infringement lawsuits, it is still unclear whether the broad discretion of district courts will open the gate of flood of enhanced damages. Besides, before we think about the standard of enhanced damages, it is also worthy to consider the policy implications of enhanced damages, and to ask whether and when enhanced damages are appropriate. Anyway, it would be exciting to see a clearer standard of enhanced damages in future cases, or amendments of laws and regulations.

A View to the Development of the FAA’s Ban on the Use of Galaxy 7 Phones on Airplanes.

Joshua Wold, MJLST Staffer

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 has problems. Under normal charging and use conditions, the battery in some devices can start on fire. As of September 1, Samsung reported that 35 of these problems had come to its attention, and more have been reported since that time. Samsung has already begun a recall—officially a “replacement program”—offering to replace the potentially dangerous devices with new ones. At the same time, US government agencies are also moving to prevent the harm that a malfunction from these devices could cause.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not banned the device from airplanes. According to Matt Novak at Gizmodo, the FAA stated on September 6th that it was “working on guidance related to this issue,” and said, “If the device is recalled by the manufacturer, airline crew and passengers will not be able to bring recalled batteries or electronics that contain recalled batteries in the cabin of an aircraft, or in carry-on and checked baggage.” On September 8th, the FAA issued a statement “strongly” advising airline passengers to keep the devices off, not charge them while aboard, and to keep them out of checked baggage.

Then, on September 9th the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) put out a press release urging Galaxy Note 7 owners to power off the device, and not to charge or use it. The press release indicated that it was cooperating with Samsung “to formally announce an official recall of the devices, as soon as possible.”

Based on the comments made to Gizmodo, the FAA appeared unwilling to ban the device until the official recall was put into effect. This is understandable. Cell phones are a significant part of modern life. Nearly every person getting onto a plane is carrying at least one. TSA would thus be forced to distinguish between types of cell phones. Its task would be complicated by cases and other types of personalization which obscure the appearance of a cell phone.

Even more challenging, however, is the fact that some versions of the Note 7 have a battery which is not prone to overheating, and poses no threat. Unless these safe phones were to also be banned, security personnel would need to determine which battery was in a phone in order to know if it were permissible. People want to have their phones when they get wherever they are flying to, and banning a safe phone because it looks like an unsafe phone seems like a sure recipe for passenger dissatisfaction.

It may seem that a ban is be appropriate despite the difficulties. Certainly, the potential for harm is significant. A widely circulated photo of a Jeep engulfed in flames is evocative of the threat, and airline passengers have gotten used to restrictions on items which seem to pose even less risk than an exploding phone. FAA’s suggestion that those with Note 7 phones simply turn them off and not charge them may have had the potential to eliminate the threat. On the one hand, it was only a strong recommendation, and not a rule. On the other hand, with airlines repeating the FAA’s warning, it seems unlikely that many people would have failed to take it seriously.

On the 15th of September, the situation changed further, as the CPSC announced an official recall. With that decision, the ground mentioned to Gizmodo for not instituting a ban disappeared. Considering  some data (which can be found here), suggesting that people aren’t really taking Samsung’s warnings seriously, it seemed very likely that the FAA would decide to strengthen their recommendation against use to a prohibition on use, or even a prohibition on flying with the phones at all.

On the next day, September 16th, the FAA banned use of the phone on airplanes, but not the phones themselves. This new policy fits with the reality of modern cellphone use, that people rely on their phones, even if they are fire hazards. While this move takes the pressure off the TSA (which is probably a good move in terms of the overall happiness of air travelers), the regulation (which can be found here) doesn’t specifically mention the Galaxy Note 7, but refers instead to “defective or recalled” lithium batteries.

Of course, this creates the same sort of enforcement problems as appeared with earlier recommendations: can airline staff identify a Galaxy Note 7 with such “defective or recalled” lithium batteries? The FAA itself notes that it is difficult to distinguish between phones which have had the battery replaced and those which are still risked. The FAA’s recommendation on how to manage this problem is pretty general, and it essentially boils down to training of airline staff, and provision of information to airline passengers. One hopes that this is sufficient.

Who Owns Your Tattoos?

Zachary Berger, Executive Editor

Tattoos are more common today than they have ever been. More than 20 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, and among millennials nearly 40 percent have at least one tattoo. Most people probably assume that they are the owners of their tattoos. After all, tattoos are part of your body. How can you not own them? However, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. There have been a number of lawsuits relating to tattoo ownership over the years, but a recent one has brought the issue back into the news.

Take-Two Interactive Software is the parent company of 2k Sports and developer Visual Concepts, who create the popular NBA 2K video game series. Solid Oak Sketches is a company that is claiming ownership over a number of tattoos that appear in the game on several prominent players, including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Take-Two has licenses to the players’ likenesses, but Solid Oak claims they alone have the right to license the tattoos, which appear on the players in the game. Tattoos are very prominent in the NBA, and if the players had to appear without them, it would break the sense of realism the game is attempting to convey.Suits such as this one have occurred before, most notably in 2011 when Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo appeared on Ed Helms in the movie The Hangover Part II. However, all of these cases have settled, leaving tattoo ownership in a murky place.

In order to be eligible for copyright protection, a creation must meet three requirements. It must be a work of authorship, it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, and it must be original. It is up for debate whether tattoos meet all of these requirements but many believe they do.

The more interesting question, I think, is once that tattoo is finished, who owns it? Does it belong to the artist or patron? As is frequently the case in the legal field, the answer likely is that “it depends.” The default rule in copyright is that ownership is given to the artist. The University of Minnesota Law School’s own Professor Thomas Cotter is coauthor of one of the earliest and most extensive forays into the question of tattoo ownership. He concluded that there are three possibilities: 1) the artist owns the tattoo in the same way a painter owns what he or she paints on a canvas, 2) the work is a joint work, meaning that “it is prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent copyrightable expression,” or 3) the work is a work for hire. As explained by Timothy C. Bradley of the Coats & Bennet law firm, a “work for hire” applies when the work is 1) prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or 2) specially ordered or commissioned for use in certain circumstances. A “work for hire” is owned by the party that commissions the work.

Take-Two recently won a dismissal of a potentially large damages claim when Judge Laura Taylor dismissed Solid Oak’s statutory damage claim because the tattoo designs Solid Oak claims ownership to were not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office until 2015, but Take-Two first used them in 2013 with the release of NBA 2k14. In order to be able to obtain statutory damages, a plaintiff must have registered their copyright before the alleged infringement. Solid Oak argued that each new 2K game is a separate instance of infringement, but the judge disagreed.

However, Solid Oak is still able to seek actual damages, so the case will continue. In their answer and counterclaim, Take-Two is relying in particular on the defenses of  de minimis use and fair use. De minimis is Latin for “minimal things” and essentially means that the infringement was insignificant and not worthy of judicial scrutiny. Fair use is an affirmative defense that allows limited copying without the copyright owner’s permission for the purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, etc. The following factors (from 17 U.S.C. § 107) are used to analyze fair use:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Solid Oak v. 2k Games may be the first tattoo copyright infringement suit to settle on the merits rather than out of court and thus will be a very interesting case to watch going forward. The case is Solid Oak Sketches v. 2K Games and Take-Two Interactive Software, No. 16-CV-724-LTS (S.D.N.Y. filed Feb. 1, 2016).


Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property

Jesse L. Reynolds 

Postdoctoral researcher, and Research funding coordinator, sustainability and climate
Department of European and International Public Law, Tilburg Law School

Climate change has been the focus of much legal and policy activity in the last year: the Paris Agreement, the Urgenda ruling in the Netherlands, aggressive climate targets in China’s latest five year plan, the release of the final US Clean Power Plan, and the legal challenge to it. Not surprisingly, these each concern controlling greenhouse gas emissions, the approach that has long dominated efforts to reduce climate change risks.

Yet last week, an alternative approach received a major—but little noticed—boost. For the first time, a federal budget bill included an allocation specifically for so-called “solar climate engineering.” This set of radical proposed technologies would address climate change by reducing the amount of incoming solar radiation. These would globally cool the planet, counteracting global warming. For example, humans might be able to mimic the well-known cooling caused by large volcanos via injecting a reflective aerosol into the upper atmosphere. Research thus far – which has been limited to modeling – indicates that solar climate engineering (SCE) would be effective at reducing climate change, rapidly felt, reversible in its direct climatic effects, and remarkably inexpensive. It would also pose risks that are both environmental – such as difficult-to-predict changes to rainfall patterns – and social – such as the potential for international disagreement regarding its implementation.

The potential role of private actors in SCE is unclear. On the one hand, decisions regarding whether and how to intentionally alter the planet’s climate should be made through legitimate state-based processes. On the other hand, the private sector has long been the site of great innovation, which SCE technology development requires. Such private innovation is both stimulated and governed through governmental intellectual property (IP) policies. Notably, SCE is not a typical emerging technology and might warrant novel IP policies. For example, some observers have argued that SCE should be a patent-free endeavor.

In order to clarify the potential role of IP in SCE (focusing on patents, trade secrets, and research data), Jorge Contreras of the University of Utah, Joshua Sarnoff of DePaul University, and I wrote an article that was recently accepted and scheduled for publication by the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. The article explains the need for coordinated and open licensing and data sharing policies in the SCE technology space.

SCE research today is occurring primarily at universities and other traditional research institutions, largely through public funding. However, we predict that private actors are likely to play a growing role in developing products and services to serve large scale SCE research and implementation, most likely through public procurement arrangements. The prospect of such future innovation should be not stifled through restrictive IP policies. At the same time, we identify several potential challenges for SCE technology research, development, and deployment that are related to rights in IP and data for such technologies. Some of these challenges have been seen in regard to other emerging technologies, such as the risk that excessive early patenting would lead to a patent thicket with attendant anti-commons effects. Others are more particular to SCE, such as oft-expressed concerns that holders of valuable patents might unduly attempt to influence public policy regarding SCE implementation. Fortunately, a review of existing patents, policies, and practices reveals a current opportunity that may soon be lost. There are presently only a handful of SCE-specific patents; research is being undertaken transparently and at traditional institutions; and SCE researchers are generally sharing their data.

After reviewing various options and proposals, we make tentative suggestions to manage SCE IP and data. First, an open technical framework for SCE data sharing should be established. Second, SCE researchers and their institutions should develop and join an IP pledge community. They would pledge, among other things, to not assert SCE patents to block legitimate SCE research and development activities, to share their data, to publish in peer reviewed scientific journals, and to not retain valuable technical information as trade secrets. Third, an international panel—ideally with representatives from relevant national and regional patent offices—should monitor and assess SCE patenting activity and make policy recommendations. We believe that such policies could head off potential problems regarding SCE IP rights and data sharing, yet could feasibly be implemented within a relatively short time span.

Our article, “Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property: Toward a Research Commons,” is available online as a preliminary version. We welcome comments, especially in the next couple months as we revise it for publication later this year.

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