Copyright and the Courts: Four Recent Headlines (and What they Mean)

The world-famous Copyright logo, image from the Wikimedia Commons

You have probably seen recent headlines about Volkswagen lying to consumers and emissions regulators about how fuel-efficient and eco-friendly their diesel engines actually are. The cars were installed with special software in their on-board computers that would detect when the vehicle was being tested, and then feed false data to the device testing the car’s emissions. Worse still, Volkswagen had been doing this since 2009! Why did it take so long for anyone to catch on?

According to Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the answer is copyright law.

The software in most newer cars (as well as many other machines) is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This means that the programming that tells the computers in the machine what to do is the intellectual property of the manufacturer. Not only that, but if that software is encrypted to hide the software’s code from any peering eyes – and, thanks to the risk of industrial espionage and piracy, the code on these cars is almost always encrypted – the DMCA makes it illegal to break the encryption.

This is good for the manufacturer and bad for spies and pirates. However, the Volkswagen scandal shows where having a single, blanket ban can actually harm the public good. For years, nobody was willing to risk looking at the code inside Volkswagen’s cars, even though many advocacy groups and even U.S. government officials were suspicious of the company’s claims that its diesel engines were some of the most environmentally friendly in the world. If anyone tried to look at the code in Volkswagen’s cars, they would be breaking the law. It wasn’t until a West Virginia laboratory decided to go ahead and risk it that somebody finally had a look at that code and made the discovery.

This is just one example of how copyright law directly affects each and every one of us in our day-to-day lives. It is expected that soon Volkswagen will be forced to issue a recall of all affected models, and if that happens, anyone who drives a diesel Volkswagen would need to find out how they are affected and what their options are.

This is just one of several headlines in the news recently about copyright law. In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I tend to follow this stuff pretty closely. Here are a few more copyright-related headlines in the past few weeks you might have missed:

The “Happy Birthday” song isn’t copyrighted after all!

Birthday Cake image from Normanack

Remember when I told you about how Warner Music Group owned the copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song?

Well, that is no longer the case. In fact, according to a recent federal court ruling, it was never legally the case.

As you may recall, the tune for “Happy Birthday to You” was taken from “Good Morning to You”, a song written by two sisters in 1893. That tune has been in the public domain for years. However, the lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You” were copyrighted in 1935. Or so everyone thought.

According to the court ruling, the 1935 copyright registration was for a piano arrangement, not the lyrics themselves. Furthermore, the paperwork was filed incorrectly, and on top of that, there is plenty of proof that the song existed long before the copyright registration in 1935, with versions published as early as 1901. Lastly, there is no evidence that the original sisters who wrote “Good Morning to You” ever wrote the “Happy Birthday” variant, and even if they had, there is no evidence that they gave the copyright to the company that ultimately filed that 1935 registration that Warner Music Group depends on to assert ownership of the song.

Thus, the court ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” has been in the public domain for all of these years. Now, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are demanding Warner Music Group refund all of the millions of dollars in royalties they have been collecting from the song for decades.

So, now that I can do this without fear of being sued…

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday dear friends,

Happy Birthday to You!

Cars can be copyrighted

Batmobile photo by Jennifer Graylock

Let me tell you a tale of a humble auto mechanic who wanted to make some money off of somebody else’s brand recognition. Mark Towle of Temecula, California modified cars so that they looked like the Batmobile. DC Comics, makers of the Batman comics and owners of all intellectual property associated with the character, sued Towle.

Towle argued that you can’t copyright a vehicle because it is a useful object. He also argued that he was basing his cars off of the Batman TV shows and movies, so DC Comics couldn’t sue him. On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Towle had no idea what he was talking about.

In the court’s ruling, they found that the Batmobile is a “distinct character” that was worthy of copyright protection. The fact that it is a car is irrelevant. Also irrelevant, according to the courts, is the fact that Towle based his vehicles on the movies and TV shows. DC Comics still owns the “underlying” copyrights to anything Batman-related. They didn’t give up those copyrights when authorizing film adaptations of their comics; indeed, the contracts DC signed specifically ensure that DC still owns the copyrights to the characters in the films.

I suppose this is very bad news to anyone who is hoping to design and build an invisible jet.

The curious case of the “monkey selfie”

The famous monkey selfie

When photographer David Slater left a camera out beside a troop of macaques in Indonesia in 2011, one of the female macaques picked the device up and started playing with it. It ended up taking several photographs, including the famous “monkey selfie” above.

Slater assumed that he still held the copyright to the photographs; it was his camera, after all. However, this claim was soon disputed by several websites, including Wikipedia. Eventually, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that the photograph was not Slater’s creation, it was the macaque’s creation, and “To qualify as a work of ‘authorship’ a work must be created by a human being. Works that do not satisfy this requirement are not copyrightable.”

That would have been the end of it, except on Wednesday a new wrinkle was added to this tale. PETA filed a lawsuit claiming that the macaque should be legally recognized as the ‘author’ of the photographs and that the copyrights belong to her. They even filed the lawsuit under the monkey’s name.

For his part, Slater told the Washington Post “PETA are deluded in this stunt,” and New York University law professor Chris Sprigman told Slate “The fact is, copyright’s not there to reward people for their labor—it’s to incentivize people to create new books or poems.” He adds that a macaque has no real incentive to create anything.

Still, the PETA lawsuit brings up some interesting ideas, according to MSNBC’s Christopher Buccafusco: “If a computer programmer writes computer code that creates an artificial intelligence capable of writing music, who owns the copyright in the resulting song: the programmer, the A.I., both, or neither?”

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, my latest “blogging about copyright” fix. What can I say? My interests are what they are. I hope you all enjoyed, at least.

Surprising Facts You Might Not Know About Japan’s Surrender


World War II ended 70 years ago with Japan surrendering to the Allied Powers. It was no easy task to get a nation whose culture said “death before dishonor” to surrender, and even though Japan is now one of America’s closest allies and a global economic power, the legacy of this moment in history remains controversial to this day. Should we have dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? To what extent does Japan owe an apology to China, Korea, and other countries its troops occupied and committed horrendous atrocities against their people? Should Japan honor convicted war criminals together with the rest of its war dead?

In spite of the fact that the fallout from Japan’s surrender continues to affect our world today, the story about it that we are told in our history books is an overly simplistic tale: “We dropped the atom bomb, and Japan gave up.” This glosses over so many important events and details that we can’t see the whole picture. For example…

It wasn’t just the atom bomb

Nagasaki atom bomb image from Wikimedia Commons

When the United States built the B-29 Superfortress, it gained the ability to reach Japan by air. No longer would the fact that Japan was an island on the other side of the Pacific Ocean protect it. In November 1944, American bombers began targeting Tokyo itself. Then on March 9, 1945, the United States dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, setting fire to the millions of mostly-wooden buildings in the city, killing 80,000-130,000 Japanese civilians and leaving the city in ruins.

Still, Japan fought on, but as the Allies advanced its ability to do so was wearing out. By the end of July, the Japanese Navy had practically ceased to exist from a military perspective. Both the Allies and Japan were preparing for an invasion.

That’s when the atomic bombs were dropped, but even then, there was another factor that forced Japan’s hand: the USSR. Up until this point, the Soviets had been neutral in the Pacific theater of the war, but on August 8, two days after the destruction of Hiroshima, the Soviets declared war on Japan. Soviet troops invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, easily outmatching the Japanese troops stationed there. It turns out that Japan had been hoping – planning, even – to convince “neutral” Russia to get the Allies to back down and negotiate a peace settlement that would preserve at least some of the gains Japan had made during the war. With this declaration of war, the Japanese leadership lost their last hope of an easy out.

The Emperor risked his life for peace

Hirohito image from Wikimedia Commons

Even with the war clearly lost, there were some in Japan’s military that believed it was better to go down fighting than surrender, especially since the Allies were demanding an unconditional surrender. When the Emperor Hirohito began preparations to accept the Allies’ terms and order the military to lay down its arms, conspirators within the Ministry of War and Imperial Guards drew up a plan to stop the surrender by staging a military coup and seizing power for themselves.

The so-called Kyujo incident began in the evening of August 14, mere hours after the Emperor made the formal decision to surrender, but before the decision had been publicly announced. The conspirators, who told themselves that “defeatists” had “kidnapped” the Emperor and were certain that the other generals would rally to their cause, attacked the Imperial Palace itself. They murdered the commander of one of the Imperial Guards divisions, and then forged fake orders commanding the palace police to let their soldiers through. Once inside the palace, they seized several of the staff and personnel on duty, and began hunting through the palace, room by room, for the Emperor, the recording he had made announcing the surrender, and two trusted palace advisers who knew of their Emperor’s plans. The rebels never found their targets, who were hiding in a secret underground chamber.

Indeed, other soldiers that were in on the conspiracy found that they had a similar lack of luck. The rebels went to seize the Prime Minister at his office, only to discover he was not there. They shot up and burned the building in frustration.

What these mutineers did not know was that all of the highest-ranking military commanders had sworn to carry out the Emperor’s order to surrender, and so were oath-bound to obey. This is why, rather than help the coup, the military moved to suppress it. One of the officials in the palace staff had tipped everyone off that the coup attempt was coming, so everyone had prepared for it. By 3 a.m., the rebels realized that the nearest Army forces were on their way to arrest or kill them. At 5 a.m., the mutiny’s leader, Maj. Kenji Hatanaka, burst into the studios of NHK, Japan’s national radio broadcaster, with a pistol in his hand. He demanded that they put him on the air so that he could explain his actions. Within an hour, he and his men had given up. Hatanaka and the other coup leaders all committed suicide.

In 1968, a film was made about the incident, called Japan’s Longest Day. A remake of the film is currently in the works, according to Variety magazine.

The end of the war didn’t happen all at once – and in one case, it didn’t quite happen at all.

V-J Day celebration image from Wikimedia Commons

The Emperor’s announcement was broadcast on August 15, 1945. In his speech, the first time most Japanese people had ever heard their emperor’s voice, he never actually used the words “defeat” or “surrender”, merely stating that he would accept the Allies’ terms.

This confused some of the soldiers, who continued fighting for several days. The last air battle between the Japanese and American air forces was on August 18. The fighting between Japanese and Soviet forces lasted until August 23. It wasn’t until August 28 that the U.S. occupation of Japan began – with a mere 150 soldiers. Of course, more followed; Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the man assigned as Supreme Allied Commander of the occupation force, arrived on August 30. The official surrender ceremony was held on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Yet even holding a formal ceremony wasn’t the end of the story. When Germany surrendered earlier that year, they had already lost everything. Adolf Hitler was dead, Soviet troops occupied Berlin, German forces across Europe were giving up by the millions, all that was left to do was sign a piece of paper to make the inevitable official. Japan, on the other hand, still occupied vast swathes of territory in China, southeast Asia, and the Pacific. All of these forces spread across the Asian continent had to surrender, which meant (1) they had to be told the war was over, and (2) the Allies had to send somebody there to accept the surrender.

In China, this was a bit of a problem, since the country was divided between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. The United States told the Japanese troops in China to only surrender to the Nationalists, but not every unit listened, in part because often the nearest Nationalist troops were hundreds of miles away and the Communists were right there.

Japanese forces in southeast Asia surrendered in Singapore on September 12. Japanese troops occupying Taiwan surrendered on October 25. Yet even after this, there were quite a few holdouts scattered across remote Pacific islands who either hadn’t heard about the surrender or refused to believe it to be true. Still others decided that instead of surrendering, they would join up with whatever local wars were going on wherever they were stuck, fighting in guerrilla campaigns for various revolutionary movements. These holdouts kept coming out of the woodwork over the course of the next decade, and by 1956 most of them had surrendered or been killed in action. However, two soldiers were found on the island of Guam in May 1960, and a third was captured in 1972. The last confirmed holdout was Teruo Nakamura, who was found in Indonesia in 1974 and surrendered. Still, rumors persisted about others, and in 1991, two Japanese civilian contractors who had joined a Communist guerrilla terrorist group in Malaysia finally returned home after it had signed a peace agreement with Malay authorities.

Of course, once the war was over, it was time to establish peace with Japan. In 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco was signed by 48 countries, officially bringing the war to an end. Well, not quite. Not every country that was at war with Japan in World War II signed the peace treaty, most notably the USSR, China, and India.

India was the easiest of the three for Japan to deal with. It turned out India just wanted to meet Japan one-to-one as equals instead of imposing a treaty at a big conference. India and Japan signed their own peace treaty in 1952. The matter of China was a bit trickier, though. The problem was that since the Communist takeover of mainland China and Chiang Kai-Shek setting up shop in Taiwan, there was some confusion as to which regime represented “China”. Since this was the 1950s and the Cold War was in full swing, Japan initially sided with Chiang’s regime, signing the “Treaty of Taipei” with the “Republic of China” (meaning Taiwan). Then, this happened:

Nixon meets Mao image from the National Archives

And suddenly the world dropped Taiwan like a hot potato and decided to accept the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. Japan joined the Beijing bandwagon, first signing a joint communiqué in 1972, then an official peace treaty in 1978.

That just leaves the USSR, and the really big sticking point. On August 18, 1945, after the Emperor’s announcement of surrender, Soviet troops occupied a number of islands just north of Hokkaido. These islands, they claimed, were a part of the Kuril Islands that had once been under Russian rule and that the Allies explicitly agreed to give to the Soviets when the war ended. Japan claimed that these islands were not a part of the Kuril Islands, that they had always been Japanese, and that the Soviet Union was therefore illegally occupying their territory.

In 1956, Japan and the USSR signed an agreement to officially declare that they were no longer at war, and agreed that they should conclude a peace treaty to resolve the dispute. This peace treaty never came. To this day, no peace treaty has ever been signed between Russia and Japan, who still dispute those islands. At least in that sense, it seems World War II never really ended after all.

Lessons I Learned Spending One Month Without A Vehicle

Pickup truck image by Valder137

Early this month, my truck broke down far from home, and it turned out the damage was so extensive that it needed a whole new motor. I decided to express my frustrations by recounting my experience here on Cat Flag. At the time, I figured that I would get my newly-repaired truck back in a few days. That’s not what happened.

First, the repair shop couldn’t start working on my truck until the new motor arrived from the dealer. That took about a week. Then, it took them another week to put the new motor in. Removing and replacing an engine is a huge, laborious process. Not helping matters, it turned out that the new engine they got from the dealer used metric connections, while my truck was built with connections using U.S. units. That was a huge source of frustration for the poor mechanics. Then, when they got it installed and started the engine to see if it worked, two of the valves were busted! They had received a defective engine from the dealer!

That was when they decided to call me and talk over the options. I had been without a vehicle for two weeks already by now, but the mechanic and I both asked each other, “If the valves are defective, what else is wrong with the engine?” Rather than simply replacing the valves and hoping for the best, we decided to take the defective engine out and install yet another engine. This meant even more waiting, and it wasn’t until just yesterday that I finally got my truck back.

You would hardly believe how excited I was to finally have wheels! Going a whole month without a vehicle was such an immense annoyance, and I learned quite a few lessons from the experience. Lessons such as…

Cabin fever starts to set in before too long

Blizzard image from Wikimedia Commons

It probably seems obvious that having no vehicle limits one’s mobility. However, there is a big difference between knowing something rationally and dealing with it emotionally. I felt the lack of a vehicle.

I couldn’t so much as go shopping for groceries without either getting a ride from someone who would go shopping with me or limiting my purchases to what I could carry by hand on the walk home. I sometimes had to ask co-workers for a ride home after work. No more going to hang out in Cayucos or Downtown San Luis Obispo on a whim because it was a sunny day.

That last one smarted the most – I am practically solar-powered; when it is sunny and nice out I generally don’t want to stay indoors all day. Yet, that is exactly what I had to do. I tried to satisfy my itch to get some sun with long walks, but that just wouldn’t do it for me. Besides, there is only so far I could walk, and often by the time I got back I was hot and sweaty. It felt like I was cooped up, tethered to my house.

Of course, I still had to get to work, vehicle or no vehicle. So, I took to walking back and forth to work.

Walking can be nice or it can be miserable

Crosswalk image by Alex Proimos

Sometimes, I had to be at work very early, so I had to get up at 5 a.m. to give myself enough time to walk there. I was surprised how easily I got used to getting up before the sun. Sure, I was really tired at first, but once I started going to bed early the night before to make up for it, things evened out and I was up and moving when the alarm went off.

The most surprising thing was that walking to work at that early hour was actually quite pleasant. I liked the quiet, traffic-free streets, the cool morning fog, and the exercise. However, there was still the small matter of getting back home after work. That was not so pleasant.

This summer, the weather where I live has been very sunny and hot. Great for tourists visiting the beach, not so great when trying to walk home after a long and exhausting day at work. Remember when I said my sunny day walks would get me hot and sweaty? Well, after walking for about 45 minutes in my work clothes at the hottest time of day, I needed a shower when I got home.

Even that was bearable, though. The real struggle walking home in mid-afternoon was the traffic. Crossing the street when the roads are full of tourists who don’t know where the stop signs are is not fun. I was almost constantly having to dodge cars in practically every intersection. I took to figuring out what path would take me the furthest away from the busy streets. Even intersections with traffic lights weren’t safe – cars that want to turn right on a red light are supposed to do so only when they have room, but often inattentive drivers would ignore the fact that a pedestrian was trying to cross the street and turn right in front of me.

Lesson learned: once I start driving again, I will be paying extra attention to any pedestrians who may be trying to cross the street.

Public transportation isn’t very convenient or pleasant

Bus image by Shadowlink1014

Before I got my license, I took the bus absolutely everywhere. I was just used to it, I guess. As soon as I started driving, though, I found that I was driving absolutely everywhere, and just stopped using the bus. Driving to where I needed to go and parking was just easier.

I was reminded of just how much easier when I tried taking the bus while my truck was being worked on. I looked up the bus schedule, and planned out how I was going to get to where I needed to go. The problem is that the Central Coast of California isn’t exactly some hopping metro area, so there aren’t very many buses or bus stops.

Only one bus stop connects Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Of course, this stop was about a 45-minute walk to my house. There is a small bus that drives around Morro Bay, but it costs an extra $1.50 to ride it. This is on top of the $2.50 I had to pay to get to San Luis Obispo and the $1.25 I had to pay the completely separate bus system that takes passengers to various stops in San Luis Obispo. By the way, each of these is the one-way price; I had to pay the same amount to get back home, too.

If I were to take the bus all the time, as I had before I started driving, I could cut my costs a bit by buying a monthly bus pass. Unfortunately, I would have to do that for each bus service I used, because again, I wouldn’t be dealing with a single bus service but several. Luckily, Cal Poly has a deal with SLO Transit, the bus service that takes people around San Luis Obispo, where the university pays its students’ bus fare. That’s great, but I graduated from Cal Poly already. I’m not a Cal Poly student anymore, and therefore don’t qualify for free bus rides. Not only that, but Cal Poly doesn’t offer its students any similar deals on bus fare on any of the other bus services.

Yet even with all of these different bus services charging different fares to go on different routes, there were still only stops in the busiest parts of town. If you have to go to somewhere that’s in an unremarkable corner of town, you have to pick the nearest stop and walk for 15 minutes or more to your destination from there.

At last, we get to the bus ride itself. Here is where the “public” part of public transportation starts to appear. Most people are nice, of course, but all it takes is one rude, noisy creep to ruin the ride for everyone. Not only that, but as hot as it has been this summer, every bus smells like body odor. What’s more, the further back you sit on the bus, the more graffiti and holes you will find on the seats as teenage riders try to see what they can get away with when nobody is looking. I have to wonder how some of these bus drivers put up with it all.

Still, all that matters is that now I have my truck back! I can finally start driving again. This experience has really made me appreciate the freedom that comes with easy mobility, and I intend to take very good care of my truck from here on out.