Thursday, August 5, 2010

Google, Verizon, and Net Neutrality

There's a lot of talk going on right now about a possible agreement between Google and Verizon for prioritized data transfer. The New York Times stated that the two companies are negotiating a deal that would allow Verizon clients to access information stored on Google's networks more quickly than other online content. Bloomberg further reports that this agreement applies only to the Verizon mobile network, not to broadband internet. If such an agreement were realized it would stand in direct opposition to the net neutrality principle that Google has repeatedly championed in the past. Both companies have issued statements denying any discussion of priority data transfer, with Google stating that it remains "committed to an open internet."

The details are still quite murky so it's hard to say exactly what is going on here. The Times and Bloomberg could both be completely off their rocker, though that seems somewhat unlikely. They were at least correct in pointing out that Google and Verizon are indeed talking about net neutrality from a business standpoint. But it would be a dramatic change of face for Google to be pursuing any sort of data prioritization policy. As Mashable points out, the two companies are more likely doing just what they say they are: discussing an official agreement on the terms of net neutrality. It is kind of a hot topic right now. Marvin Ammori posting at Balkinization does a great job of outlining how bad it would be if the allegations were 100% correct. I encourage you to give his piece a read, as well as some of his older posts about net neutrality and especially the discussions at the F.C.C.

Rather than jump to apocalyptic conclusions, lets take this as an opportunity to consider the value of net neutrality and the need for government regulations to preserve it. Right now it's easy to take it for granted that the internet is unregulated in terms of our ability to access all content equally, but that could easily change. We are incredibly lucky that companies as powerful as Google (generally/publicly) favour a philosophy so geared towards the consumer, and this event demonstrates how easy it would be for the rug to be pulled out from under us. Unless specific government regulations are set in place the control of internet access will fall on the providers. Net neutrality needs to be government policy, not just philosophy, and this all shows that the F.C.C. negotiations might not be enough to ensure that in the U.S.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Heroes in Law: Judge Barbara Crabb

It's not often that you can hold up someone in the legal system as a shining example of awesomeness, but today I have the pleasure of doing just that. This post is about U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb (on a side note how amazing is it that there's such a thing as Judgepedia?!). Last week Judge Crabb ruled that three characters "created" by Todd McFarlane were actually derived from characters previously created by Neil Gaiman.

The dispute originates with issue #9 of McFarlane's Spawn comic book series. Released in 1993, the issue was guest written by Gaiman and introduced a set of "Medieval Spawn" characters into McFarlane's universe. In 2002 a US federal court found that Gaiman was a co-copyright holder of three of these characters, namely Medieval Spawn, Angela the angel bounty hunter, and Count Nicholas Cogliostro.

Spawn #9, featuring Angela
Gaiman further questioned the origins of three characters in the 1999 series Spawn: The Dark Ages, believing them to be imitations of his Medieval Spawn characters. Judge Crabb ruled in favour of Gaiman, determining that Dark Ages Spawn and a pair of female angels, Domina and Tiffany, were derived from the characters the Gaiman created.

Judge Crabb made it awesomely clear that she had taken the case seriously, describing and utilizing the official mythology and logic of the Spawn universe in her ruling. The decision is available in full here, and is totally read-worthy, but here are the some of the more relevant passages:

Much as defendant tries to distinguish the two knight Hellspawn, he never explains why, of all the universe of possible Hellspawn incarnations, he introduced two knights from the same century. Not only does this break the Hellspawn “rule” that Malebolgia never returns a Hellspawns to Earth more than once every 400 years (or possibly every 100 years, as suggested in Spawn, No. 9, exh. #1, at 4), it suggests that what defendant really wanted to do was exploit the possibilities of the knight introduced in issue no. 9. 


If defendant really wanted to differentiate the new Hellspawn, why not make him a Portuguese explorer in the 16th century; an officer of the Royal Navy in the 18th century, an idealistic recruit of Simon Bolivar in the 19th century, a companion of Odysseus on his voyages, a Roman gladiator, a younger brother of Emperor Nakamikado in the early 18th century, a Spanish conquistador, an aristocrat in the Qing dynasty, an American Indian warrior or a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I? It seems far more than coincidence that Dark Ages (McFarlane) Spawn is a knight from the same century as Medieval (Gaiman) Spawn.

McFarlane has been instructed to provide Gaiman an accounting of money earned from any comic books and other merchandising in which Dark Ages Spawn, Domina, and Tiffany appeared. He has until Setpember 1st to comply.

Spawn: The Dark Ages
It's unfortunate to see artistic disputes like this, especially from people as talented and passionate as Gaiman and McFarlane. McFarlane has tweeted "COMMENT: Neil Gaiman has the absolute right to defend his position. That’s one of the great privileges we all have in this country. TODD." Gaiman described his reaction to the victory on his blog:

I wish I took some kind of joy in this, but I don't.

At this point all I hope is that Todd can do an accounting for all the comics I wrote for which he paid no royalties, and the rest of it; and that he'll settle up and I will make some comics charities very happy; that his comics company will finally come out of bankruptcy; and that I can forget this forever.

Gaiman also provides further reading about the case via Maggie Thompson's blog and his own archives.

Bringing this post back to the positive angle, Judge Crabb clearly did her homework and then some. She dove head first into the incredible universe that McFarlane (and Gaiman) created and took it seriously. More so, it seems, than some of the series' authors. She used logic, evidence, and critical thinking to elucidate exactly why Gaiman deserved copyright interest in the Dark Ages Spawn characters, and even stated it in the terms of the Spawn lore. As someone who is seriously considering a career in law, I can say that Judge Crabb is the kind of legal practitioner that I would hope to be. She made the right call for the right reasons, and what's more she made it awesomely. A true hero in law.

(Via Geekosystem, where you can see some side-by-side character comparisons to judge for yourself)