Move Fast, Break Things: How carriers could break networks in the race to 5G

In the race to deploy 5G networks across the U.S., the big carriers have adopted a “move fast, break things” mentality that threatens to break existing network architectures for the speculative promise of faster speeds and better networks. This mentality is in large part motivated by the narrative that 5G is a race where the U.S. is competing against China to deploy the next generation mobile network. This narrative of a race even led AT&T to push out an OTA update to certain phones that displayed a “5Ge” logo in the upper-hand corner when users were actually connected to was a legacy 4G LTE network with specialized updates. While modestly faster, it certainly fell short of a generational change in mobile telecommunications. 

What is 5G?

For the uninitiated, 5G refers to refers to a set of standards for the next generation of mobile networks. Here is a good summary for those looking for a deep dive on what makes 5G different. Broadly speaking 5G makes three key improvements over 4G LTE networks: 

(1) higher speeds

(2) lower latency

(3) the ability to connect to more devices at once

Like other mobile networks, 5G depends on spectrum allocations through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), that authorizes carriers to transmit through cell towers and cell phones at a specific radio frequency. However, unlike other networks, 5G relies on a wider array of spectrum allocations in order to provide more data to consumers. Generally speaking, lower frequency bands provide better coverage over longer distances, but typically don’t provide as much data bandwidth, making low band ideal for rural applications. As frequencies increase, signals typically fall off over a shorter range, but can provide higher data bandwidth. Legacy 4G LTE systems already operate on low and mid band spectrum, but new spectrum allocations in high bands, like millimeter wave (mmWave), promise significantly higher data capacity. 5G also depends on network optimizations to reduce backhaul latency to deliver faster speeds. This is what AT&T tried to argue that they deployed with “5Ge” before eventually settling a lawsuit alleging false advertising.

High Band Issues: Problems with mmWave and the 24 GHz disaster

While new high-band allocations promise the biggest potential in speed gains over legacy 4G LTE networks, these benefits will likely only be available to a select few Americans in specific areas within the biggest metropolitan centers. Due to the propagation characteristics of mmWave technologies, the towers have a very limited range – at best only a couple hundred meters – compared to up to 50-150 km for 3G/4G towers. Thus, to effectively deploy a network using mmWave technologies, a very high degree of “network densification” is necessary to provide service. Essentially, while the 5G towers are smaller, a city needs hundreds, even thousands to reach the density required for a functioning network. While this “densification” is logistically possible and economically feasible in major cities, and football stadiums, the potential promise of downloading movies in seconds will likely remain unavailable for rural Americans. 

Another issue with high-band spectrum is the recent “24 GHz disaster”, which threatens the reliability and accuracy of weather forecasts for the promise of better networks. In the recent “Spectrum Frontiers” auction, the FCC sold access to carriers for blocks of spectrum in the 24 GHz band for use in 5G networks. However, this auction was conducted despite objections from NOAA and NASA that mobile allocations in that band would cause significant interference issues with weather satellites that depend on the unique characteristics of the band 24 GHz to observe water vapor in the atmosphere. Once mobile service is active in the band, interference issues could potentially reduce the accuracy of hurricane forecasts by decreasing the forecast lead time. As strong hurricanes become more common and hit increasingly underprepared cities, this band allocation could result in an increase in property damage and potentially even additional loss of life from superstorms. 

Mid-Band Issues: C-Band & 6 GHz

Beyond the 24 GHz band, other bands the carriers are seeking for 5G have additional interference problems that could threaten incumbent services that are still critical to our telecommunications infrastructure. In the C-Band Proceeding, the FCC is considering a reverse auction to relocate or substantially reduce the number of companies using the using the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for satellite communications. These C-Band incumbents include satellite companies, cable companies, rural broadband providers, and television broadcasters. While a number of these incumbents are likely to participate in the reverse auction and sell their current licenses, some incumbents have indicated that they are either unwilling or unable to relocate their services out of the band. Mobile carriers and satellite incumbents are also fighting over exactly how the 500 MHz of spectrum should be divided between incumbents and entrants, and whether or not guard bands are necessary to protect earth stations from interference. Regardless of what decision the FCC makes, there will likely be impacts for rural Americans who depend on satellite services to receive internet, television, or other services. 

In the nearby 6 GHz band carriers are currently in conflict with manufacturers of unlicensed devices (think Wi-Fi routers), over a proposed change for service rules in the band that would allow unlicensed users to share spectrum with licensed users subject to an “automated frequency coordination” scheme designed to prevent interference. This “AFC” technology would be required to be installed on any unlicensed device that operates within the 6 GHz band, and would prevent these devices from broadcasting signals if it might cause interference with a licensed user broadcasting nearby. Unlicensed users argue that as American’s appetite for data increases, more spectrum will need to be allocated for unlicensed use to provide more room for WiFi services. While WiFi devices are predominantly low power and used indoors, mobile carriers argue that AFC rules should be applied to all unlicensed devices operating in the band. AT&T argues that without AFC rules applied to all unlicensed devices, interference with mobile operations will be inevitable. In these arguments the carriers stress that while expanded spectrum for WiFi may be critical, 5G should also be considered a possible solution to America’s expanding appetite for data. 

Dynamic Efficiency: Critics Claim a Flawed Premise for the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

In their filings and messaging around the proposed merger, T-Mobile/Sprint argue that as a combined firm they will be able to provide better 5G service than any existing carrier will be able to do alone. This assertion is justified in part by the complementary spectrum assignments each company holds (see the figure below.) Together, these assignments will give the ‘New T-Mobile’ access to more spectrum than any other carrier, enabling them to deliver better service. Essentially, a dynamic efficiency gain that outweighs the potential danger of static efficiency losses. 

However, the Department of Justice placed conditions on the merger that require Sprint to sell some of their spectrum to DISH, a company that has a history of hoarding spectrum. According to critics, this idea is unnecessarily complicated as there are currently four carriers, and DISH won’t be a viable option for quite some time. Additionally, the spectrum divestiture somewhat undermines the initial premise of the merger – the combined spectrum portfolios would empower the ‘New T-Mobile’ to provide better service than anyone else.

A false premise of the race to 5G?

Ultimately, the narrative of a race to 5G may turn out more beneficial to carriers than to consumers. Critics of the 5G race argue that there is likely no harm to consumers, and possibly even US carriers, if China succeeds in deploying 5G before the United States – because the Chinese government controls spectrum allocations, major carriers, and device manufacturers, it is significantly easier for China to rapidly deploy 5G. In effect, China can ignore all dissent and centrally manage their economy. In this way, a race analogy benefits US carriers because it motivates the FCC to take a light tough regulatory approach, effectively coordinating or allowing carriers to coordinate in a way that could mirror a centrally managed economy. This may reflect the White House’s focus on delivering “wins” for America, even if those wins come at a heavy cost or start to ape a communist approach to the economy.

Join the CTLJ Content Team at the Silicon Flatirons Saving Our Spectrum Conference on October 10, 2019 at CU Law. Luminaries in the field of spectrum governance and radio propagation will examine these issues, in particular the security vulnerabilities emerging with the next generation of connected devices.

A Day in Your Data

Artwork by Oxyman.

Digital privacy rights remain a fleeting uneasy feeling to most people, mildly relevant during Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal or data breaches from companies like Equifax and Capital One. Yet, Consumer data is continuously harvested and utilized in a never-ending effort to turn ‘cookies into cash’. Your information, or rather information about you, is big business, more lucrative and exponentially expanding than oil.

This pervasive, essentially unavoidable, collection and commercialization of data creates extensive social costs (legalese for knock-on effects in the economy that hurt people – like pollution). While some social costs are moderate, who might see a job notice for example, some social costs are extreme. As conversations inappropriately recorded and retained by ‘smart’ home assistants like Amazon’s Alexa are used in court, and automated systems without transparency, or indeed even accuracy or accountability, are used to determine sentences, calculate recidivism risks, or award bail, the social costs created from data utilization may eclipse their benefits in certain contexts.

The data economy is full of risks and benefits. In the U.S., consumers are largely responsible for navigating these issues, and are typically bound to whatever decisions they make. Those decisions are of limited value however, as companies routinely disregard their own policies or violate expressed consumer choices; Google retained and utilized the location data of consumers despite those consumers turning off location services in their settings, just as Apple violated its own commitments not to share consumer listening data with third parties. When evaluating a data decision, consumers must evaluate not only the decision, but also the risk that they are engaging with a bad actor.

To help illustrate our contemporary data reality, the CTLJ Digital Content Team crafted a brief hypothetical timeline of the average day of a CTLJ member, given the nom de plume “Bob” to protect their privacy, that catalogs how data about us is implicated in every facet of daily life.

5:30AM – Rise ‘n Shine

On weekdays Bob wakes up at 5:30AM. He uses a Google Assistant “routine” to reads the forecast for the day, based on his current location. It also plays the most recent episode of the WSJ Tech News Briefing.

Bob is receiving some real benefits here, and without spending any money. Benefits include the alarm itself, the forecast, and the podcast. These are real benefits, and most would agree that they are a good result for Bob.

Google also collected useful information about Bob that they can sell, in some form or another, to generate revenue. They track what time he typically gets up in the morning, and potentially how often he snoozes his alarm, which will be integrated into an advertising profile, and possibly a psychographic profile, similar to those created by Cambridge Analytica. They also track his current location and interests based on the “routine”, which could also be used to tailor advertisements, alter the offering of services, influence prices for certain goods for Bob, and may ultimately impact which job or housing postings he has access to.

5:45AM – Struggling to Get Out of Bed

While Bob does occasionally hop straight out of bed in the morning, all too often he spends about 15 minutes lingering under the sheets scrolling through Twitter or Reddit, or watching videos on YouTube. Sometimes Bob stays in bed under the covers all day.

For every YouTube article or Reddit link Bob clicks, more information is added to his various profiles, updating targeting algorithms to serve him ads that he is more likely to find relevant. Most large data collection firms like Facebook have their proprietary profiles, even if you don’t use their service, while data brokers and other ill-defined entities create and trade their own.

7:30AM – Hitting the Gym

If everything is going well for Bob so far this morning, he’s hopefully getting to the gym around 7:30AM. He uses a Garmin Fenix watch which tracks his location and heart rate. Garmin also has an app where Bob can enter details on his height, weight, and age. Their app also contains “badges” that incentivize Bob to do things like record “activities” for 7 days in a row, climb a certain number of floors in a day, or run a certain number of miles in a week. These “badges” show up on a public profile where Bob can compete with locals or people around the globe at a similar level. 

While Bob enjoys these training metrics, and derives motivation from the gamification of workouts, Garmin likely collects a swath of information about Bob. This data may be used in ads, it may also be eventually used to determine his health insurance coverage and premiums or even his ability to get or keep a job. Health trackers in particular have also been implicated in national security issues, revealing not only the location of security installations but also potentially patrol routes and patterns of activity within these installations.

8:45AM – Morning Coffee

On his way home from the gym, Bob might stop to grab a cup of coffee from his local coffee shop. This purchase will be tracked in a number of ways. If location services are enabled on Bob’s phone, and likely even if they’re turned off, Google tracks that he visited the Brewing Market on Baseline, and may prompt him to write a review, in addition to storing that information in his profile and likely sharing it with third parties. If Bob uses his credit card, Wells Fargo tracks when, where, and how much money Bob just spent. If Bob forgot his wallet at home and uses Google Pay, his transaction information is also shared with Google. Additionally, the WiFi router in Brewing Market likely logs when Bob enters and leaves the area and shares it with third parties, even if Bob’s phone is in ‘airplane mode’.

12:00PM – Lunch

On most days Bob packs a lunch, but occasionally he has a lazy morning and resigns himself to eating out for lunch. Because Bob is perpetually indecisive, he usually spends a fair amount of time searching around for a new place to eat before eventually giving up and heading to Qdoba. As he tools around on Google Maps mulling over the menu choices at the newest food truck or fast casual restaurant, every single click is recorded and analyzed. 

Because Bob has location services enabled on his phone, after he leaves wherever he went for lunch that day, he us immediately prompted with a notification asking him how his experience was and prompting him to write a review. Both Bob’s visit itself, as well as any potential review he posts, will be used to improve his search experience next time, as well as to determine if Bob is a good prospect for a job, a service, or advertisements. These profiles can become so accurate at predicting and interpreting human behavior that some people are convinced that their phones are being used to surreptitiously record them. That is possible, but highly unlikely – several studies have debunked this claim. The reality is these algorithms and profiles are finely tuned with access to nearly limitless data about you, so they are simply that good.

1:30PM – Return to Work

Whether Bob is trying to catch up on readings or email, the first thing he does after booting up his computer is fire up a music app. Bob’s usual choice when he’s trying to be productive is the YouTube channel “lofi hip hop radio” (seriously, check it out). As Bob has been going about his day, algorithms have been hard at work updating his profile with all the data they’ve collected. Perhaps he liked a post by one of the outdoor gear companies he follows on Instagram, so he might receive an ad for a new piece of gear, or maybe Google allowed a third party to analyze his emails and found that Bob has an ailing relative, and he might mysteriously receive an ad for a new breakthrough drug for the disease they were just diagnosed with.

5:30PM – Grocery Shopping

Before Bob heads home he takes care of errands, which usually entails a stop for groceries. Most of the time Bob heads for Whole Foods, tempted by the “Prime Deals” available to Amazon Prime members. Bob is incentivized to use his Prime account every time he shops to receive savings, but at the same time he’s providing Amazon with information including what he likes to eat, how often he buys certain items, and when during the day he likes to shop. All this information can be useful to target advertisements for Bob down the road, as well as evaluate his health, future earning potential, or likelihood for certain personality traits.

Data utilization is a mixed bag. There are risks and real benefits to utilizing behavioral data. Perhaps Bob found the more tailored advertising content more relevant than the generic ads for pharmaceuticals that plague network television. Bob likely derived real benefits from the recommendation received from Google on a new taco truck that he should try in the area. Platforms can also use this data to better understand consumer preferences to deliver higher quality content. Netflix uses behavioral data to decide which shows to greenlight, make decisions about the creative team and casting for origional content, and better source recommendations for existing content to users. According to a recent survey, 39% of consumers thought that Netflix had the best original content (vs. 14% for HBO, and 5% for Amazon Prime Video).  These are real, tangible benefits that cannot be discounted when examining data governance

There are also real costs caused by these data mining operations, that aren’t often visible on the surface. For example, when asked about the profiling tool Cambridge Analytica built to study Facebook users, former employee Brittany Kaiser called it “weapons grade” technology. When behavioral data is used to sell us more widgets or promote new content, there is likely a net benefits to society. When data about us is used to influence electoral outcomes, restrict personal and professional opportunities, or expose our deepest secrets, the costs loom.

Join the CTLJ Content Team at the Silicon Flatiorns Near Future of U.S. Privacy Law Conference on September 6, 2019 at CU Law. Luminaries in the field of data governance and privacy will examine these issues, in particular the possibility of a new Federal Law on data privacy rights.

Releasing Rapunzel(s) from the Trademark Tower: A Consumer’s Real Interest in Trademark Registration

by Rebecca Curtin

The TTAB recently reaffirmed that a consumer can establish standing to oppose a trademark registration because “consumers, like competitors, may have a real interest in keeping merely descriptive or generic words in the public domain, ‘(1) to prevent the owner of a mark from inhibiting competition in the sale of particular goods; and (2) to maintain freedom of the public to use the language involved, thus avoiding the possibility of harassing infringement suits by the registrant against others who use the mark when advertising or describing their own products’” (citation omitted; emphasis is the Board’s). 

In the interest of full disclosure: I am the petitioner in that case, opposing the registration of a word mark, RAPUNZEL for dolls and toy figures that, according to the specimen of use, depict the famous fairy tale character.  I am being represented by the Suffolk Law IP and Entrepreneurship Clinic with pro bono assistance from Workman Nydegger.

At this point, the TTAB has only denied the applicant’s motion to dismiss and allowed the opposition to continue based on adequately plead claims that the word mark RAPUNZEL: 1) fails to function as a trademark and 2) is merely descriptive for dolls and toys. 

Nonetheless, the TTAB’s opinion thus far is heartening. It recognizes that an entity using its trademark power to gain exclusive rights to a descriptive or generic word mark can harm consumers and contribute to market overreach.  This is because, when an entity establishes trademark rights in a word, the word’s use is restricted in the marketplace in relation to the goods that it describes. If the registered mark is descriptive or generic, then consumers of those goods will experience deleterious effects and hindered competition. 

A trademark registration is a powerful tool in the hands of a registrant.  Take a look at these benefits, as articulated by scholar Rebecca Tushnet:

Rather than having to establish in each individual legal proceeding that its mark is in fact valid, a registrant is accorded a presumption of validity, and under certain circumstances that presumption is irrebuttable.  Other benefits to the trademark owner are nationwide priority over other users even without nationwide use, eligibility for assistance from the Customs Service in avoiding infringing imports, the ability to use the U.S. registration as the basis for extending protection in other countries, and preemption of certain state laws (876).

Trademark holders can also use their trademark registration to more effectively police and enforce their exclusive rights. Even if trademark holders never ultimately pursue an action in court to enforce their mark, registrants may make persuasive reference to a trademark registration in their cease-and-desist letters, which they send when they wish to warn a potential competitor off using a mark that they think will confuse consumers as to the source of the products or services being offered.

In the ordinary course, where the purported mark really is functioning to indicate a product’s source, the benefits of registration can ultimately flow to consumers. Marks can protect consumers from confusion as to which entity is producing, sponsoring, or endorsing the products they buy.  This has been recognized by the Supreme Court as the “general concern” of unfair competition law, with the Court elaborating that “while that concern may result in the creation of ‘quasi property rights’ in communicative symbols, the focus is on protection of consumers, not the protection of producers as an incentive to product innovation.”

In that light, consider the harms that may result from granting trademark registration to a descriptive or generic word.  In other words, if the registration is for a word that describes the qualities or function of the product, or is the generic name for the product, then the trademark registration will make it harder for competing producers to communicate with consumers. In this sense, registration of generic and descriptive marks can cause a different kind of consumer confusion.  The Rapunzel name is a helpful one for thinking about what the stakes in such communication really are.

Rapunzel is the name of a fairy tale character, perhaps best known in the versions first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, but with roots in tales much older than that, all sharing an archetype identified by folklorists Aarne and Thompson as the “maiden in the tower.”  For centuries, the character has remained a powerful and poignant touchstone for artists with strikingly different takes on the character, from Anne Sexton’s poetic lesbian re-telling of the tale to Dina Goldstein’s photographic series of Fallen Princesses to Carl Payne’s bronze Rapunzel

Naturally, this proliferation of different versions of the character has been accompanied by a broad range of dolls and toy figures, from producers large and small, which are, to my experience as a mother of a young girl, cultural artifacts just as important as the higher art.  Accordingly, when consumers hear the word, “Rapunzel,” they think of the well-known fairy tale character, not any one producer of dolls or toys.  These dolls tell us what “Rapunzel” looks like; they tell us (and our children) what “Rapunzel” means.  Having the ability to choose from various interpretations of “Rapunzel” dolls, and being able to find such a doll from more than one producer is important to consumers—it is important to me as a frequent buyer of fairy-tale-based dolls and toys. 

Unlike other marks, the word mark RAPUNZEL for dolls and toys has no substitute. In this way, trademark rights in “Rapunzel” for dolls and toy figures are importantly different from a trademark like, say, “Cinderella Eyebrows Spa” for various health spa services.  There, we can see that the reference to Cinderella playfully suggests all kinds of things about the services—that the technicians will work as cheerfully as Cinderella at her chores, perhaps, or that the results will be so striking that no one will recognize the beautiful new you at the ball—but none of these suggestions will prevent other health spas from getting into the market and telling consumers the same things about their excellent services using other marks.  By contrast, if the maker of a doll that depicts Rapunzel can’t market the doll using that name, consumers will be deprived of important information that can’t be communicated with other words.  Rapunzel dolls are Rapunzels.

Exclusive trademark rights to market dolls and toy figures under the Rapunzel name could chill new entrants to the market through fear of infringement liability.  Even factoring in defenses like the descriptive fair use doctrine, trademark rights in the Rapunzel name for dolls would raise barriers, both to dollmakers offering “Rapunzels” in the marketplace and to consumers finding “Rapunzels,” where only the trademark holder feels free to use that name in big letters across the front of the box.

As the TTAB acknowledged in its opinion allowing the opposition to go forward, it has already “noted that ‘other doll makers interested in marketing a doll that would depict the character [LITTLE MERMAID] have a competitive need to use that name to describe their products.’”

Thus we are fighting for the consumer interest in Rapunzels that look like this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.  We want a marketplace that welcomes a diverse array of producers who engage with the cultural legacy of this ancient fairy tale, from the latest interpretation by a giant corporate content provider to antique dealers who need the name Rapunzel to describe rare French bisque toys like this one, from more than a hundred years ago.   We are fighting for access to artisans like this one, who customize their Rapunzel’s skin tone, hair, and dress color to whatever their customer asks.  We are fighting for creative cos-play dads and crafty-do-it-yourselfers, who have long been inspired by the rich market for dolls and toys that express the Rapunzel character in different ways.  No one needs a trademark on the Rapunzel name to join in this market for dolls and toys that depict the character. Giving one to a single company will only chill the use of that name by others to tell us about the unique dolls and toys they make.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

Professor Curtin is a graduate of Princeton University, where she received her A.B. in English, summa cum laude, and of the University of Virginia School of Law, where she served on the editorial board of the Virginia Law Review. Prior to attending law school, she completed her Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and held teaching positions at Harvard University and Brandeis University.

Before joining the faculty at Suffolk Law, Professor Curtin worked as an associate in the IP Transactional practice group at Ropes & Gray LLP, where her practice focused on licensing, collaboration and other commercial agreements involving intellectual property. Professor Curtin teaches courses in Property and Copyright. Her research interests currently include the evolution of intellectual property regimes under the influence of new technologies and licensing transactions.

YouTube Demonetization

by Matthew Martinez

YouTube has recently changed its guidelines for ad revenue and video monetization, which is having a significant impact on content creators. Specifically, content creators are finding that their uploaded videos are flagged for inappropriate content and suffering from demonetization. This is part of a new policy created by YouTube to make the community brand-friendly and attract more advertisers to the platform.

An algorithm was designed to identify the following factors in videos and flag them for demonetization:

  • sexually suggestive content, including partial nudity and sexual humor;
  • violence, including display of serious injury and events related to violent extremism;
  • inappropriate language, including harassment, swearing and vulgar language;
  • promotion of drugs and regulated substances, including selling, use and abuse of such items; and
  • controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown.

These categories have drawn criticism for being overly broad and vague. Combine this with the inaccuracy of bots learning how to enforce the guidelines and the result is unfair demonetization. Many of the demonetized videos are those dealing with subject matter YouTube has marked “not suitable for advertisers.” However, many of these videos are in fact appropriate and not deserving of demonetization. Casey Neistat, a popular YouTuber, after the mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert created a video aimed at raising money for the victims of the tragedy stating that all proceeds from ads would be donated to the victims and their families. A few days after the video was uploaded, the video was demonetized.

YouTube’s algorithm has recently been more widespread and aggressive at removing ads on videos that could have the slightest possibility of being controversial. Because the algorithm is fairly new, the result is that it is over-inclusive and impacting videos that should be deserving of ad profits. As a result, certain YouTubers are unable to sustain a career from making videos, and are being forced to stop uploading content. Even though YouTube is a private company not subject to the usual First Amendment constraints as other public forums of communication, removing ads is still a form of censorship. By flagging videos for demonetization, YouTube is rewarding a very specific kind of content, while forcing controversial, suggestive, or tangentially related content off of the platform. This significantly impacts LGBTQIA content creators because most of their videos deal with sexuality, the coming out process, and other related content that has been flagged for being “sexually suggestive.”

The underlying impetus for the increased policing of videos and the over-inclusive demonetization of videos was a response to right-wing political groups uploading and posting content that verged on extremism and hate speech. After brands found their ads being paired with videos on channels like InfoWars, along with other conservative content creators, they threatened to remove all support from YouTube. While YouTube’s intentions seem well placed, its execution has been isolating for all political groups.

As YouTube attempts to make the platform brand-friendly and palatable, it is acting like a gatekeeper and actively censoring content it deems inappropriate. Through the use of the current demonetization algorithm, YouTube is favoring certain speech over others and unnecessarily harming deserving creators and minority groups. The appeal of the platform is waning, and other services like Patreon and are appearing on the horizon as a better market place alternative.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

Copyright: (Get It) Out of Fashion

by Caitlin Stover

By interpreting copyright law to provide protection to fashion, has the Supreme Court inadvertently exposed the fashion industry to harm?

At issue in Star Athletica v. Varsity Brands was whether the arrangements of lines, chevrons, and colorful shapes appearing on the surface of Varsity Brands’ cheerleading uniforms were eligible for copyright protection as separable features of the design. Answering this question in the affirmative—after applying the relevant test for “separability” in a markedly different manner than courts have traditionally applied the doctrine—the Supreme Court broadly and categorically changed the game of copyright protection. Now, if a court determines that a design (1) has graphic or pictorial qualities, and (2) could be applied on a painter’s canvas, the test for copyright protection is met.

While perhaps providing some measure of clarity for circuits that are split on the issue, the Court’s opinion generates far more questions than answers.

Are baseball uniforms slim-fit leggings and a buttoned up top—or are they more? For example, let’s say a baseball uniform designer claims, as “copyrighted works,” rights to the pinstripes or the piping along the seams of jerseys. Under the precedent established by Star Athletica, who would prevail in litigation—the claimant, or the alleged copyright infringer? And if the claimant prevails, what does this mean for baseball uniform vendors? And how will this affect end consumers of baseball uniforms?

Copyright, as applied to many industries, operates on an incentive-based theory: copyright protection exists to encourage the creation and dissemination of creative expression. In practice, this protection serves as a vehicle for the commodification of creations.  When rights to a particular expression become a commodity, the scope of affected interests expands; in a capitalistic society, the protection and enforcement of commodity-based rights inevitably impacts the end consumer. After all, consumers create the market for the products (or euphemistically, “expressions”) that copyright owners want to protect their rights to.

Tempted by the potential for securing a monopoly in one of the most lucrative clothing industries in the country, brands that are in the position to assert copyrights over the original designs of sports uniforms may soon flood the courts. And allegedly infringing brands, beware: copyright infringement liability carries with it a truly staggering range of potential damages. Pursuant to § 512 of the Copyright Act of 1976, an infringer may be on the hook for a minimum of $350 and a maximum of $75,000 penalty—for each individual finding of copyright infringement. Where infringement is found to be willful, that $75,000 maximum doubles to $150,000 (again, because this bears repeating) per infringement.

Sure, money talks—but money can also silence. If companies are suddenly left exposed to unanticipated liability, scrambling to develop an adequately non-infringing alternative to their previously unchallenged iterations of Varsity Brands’ designs, there may not be a market for consumers to choose from.  A market contender toeing the new, Court-drawn line of infringement is not likely to gamble in the face of potentially ruinous pecuniary liability.

Threats of litigation, and risks of huge penalties if unable to settle litigation before trial, will likely be an effective deterrent for many potential market contenders lacking the deep pockets to carry on in the face of uncertain liability. For the Little League baseball teams, the AAU basketball teams, and more, this may translate into a sharp decline in the generic alternatives to the name-brand jersey supplier.

This brings us to yet another question: do the justifications advanced in Star Athletica for increasing copyright protections afforded to the fashion industry actually outweigh the increased costs to consumers?  If not, then perhaps copyright protection should not extend to fashion. After all, this was the conclusion previously reached by legal scholars, suggested by the text of the Copyright Act, asserted by the Copyright Register’s Office, held by a majority of federal circuit courts, and advanced by critics of Star Athletica’s holding.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

2018—First Potentially Unauthorized Satellites Launched into Space

by Gabrielle Daley

There have been a lot of significant firsts in the history of space exploration: 1957—first artificial satellite, 1961—first man in orbit, 1969—first man on the moon. But now one company may have earned a first that is not so prestigious. On March 7, 2018, the FCC accused a Silicon Valley start-up company named Swarm Technologies (Swarm) of launching unauthorized satellites into orbit. If the allegations are correct, Swarm would be the first company to put unauthorized commercial satellites in orbit.


Space exploration and communications have been undergoing a revolution in technology over the past 20 years. New commercial players like SpaceX have taken aim at the stars and pioneered developments, like compact satellites, reusable launch vehicles, and small launch vehicles, that promise to make it easier to access space by lowering costs.

However, given the complex legal and regulatory environment of space, it’s not as simple as brewing up a batch of homemade rocket fuel and shooting for the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 placed responsibility for launched objects on their country of origin. Therefore, when U.S citizens or entities want to put something into orbit, they first have to ask permission from the United States authorities that govern space access. Those authorities are the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) —for launch—and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—for communications technologies.

As innovators have persevered they have begun to critique the complex layers of regulatory permissions necessary to launch something into space and called for streamlining the process. In October of 2017, President Trump reconvened the National Space Council, and in February of 2018, the National Space Council approved several recommendations to modernize the licensing process for launches.

Swarm Technologies

Swarm Technologies is a start-up company  founded in 2015 by ex-Google engineer Sara Spangelo and Benjamin Longmier, an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan and entrepreneur who has helped build several space technology companies.  In April of 2017 Swarm applied for an FCC license  to launch four small satellites, about the size of hardback books, into orbit, apparently as a proof of concept of their proposed internet network  that would provide connectivity for internet of things (IoT) devices.  Swarm technologies contracted with Spaceflight Industries, which coordinates and manages space launch and ridesharing for payloads. Spaceflight found a place for the tiny satellites on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which launched 31 satellites into orbit on January 12, 2018. However, on December 12, 2017, the FCC’s experimental licensing branch denied Swarm’s application on the grounds that the satellites posed too great a risk to other spacecraft, because they were too tiny to accurately and reliably track.

If confirmed that Swarm’s technology launched without the proper regulatory clearance, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites. While some disruptive start-ups have notoriously disregarded laws and regulations as part of their business models, these kind of actions have increasingly been critiqued. In the space sector, where national security is paramount, this strategy does not seem likely to be tolerated.


In the aftermath of the allegations of unauthorized launch of these satellites, the FCC has denied Swarm technologies permission for subsequent launches and operation of ground stations. But the exact long-term consequences of this incident both for Swarm Technologies and the space industry more broadly are uncertain.

The question remains, how did a launch take place with a payload that lacked regulatory clearance? Spaceflight’s official response to the story of the alleged unauthorized launch has been that “Spaceflight has never knowingly launched a customer who has been denied an FCC license. It is the responsibility of our customers to secure all FCC licenses.” However, it’s unclear the extent to which the launch provider was concerned with ensuring that all the satellites launched had obtained such clearances.

As policymakers study this incident and look to prevent such events from occurring in the future, parties are sure to ask what lessons we can take away from this new space ‘first’. Regulators may consider placing greater responsibility on launch providers to ensure that the proper authorities have approved the payload before launch. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, may point to this launch as an example of the need for greater regulatory coordination to ensure clarity for businesses trying to be good corporate citizens.

While Swarm may become merely a cautionary tale for launch providers and startups alike, this episode may also be the catalyst for regulatory change.

Watch this space . . . .

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

It’s Official: The End of Net Neutrality

by Cierra White

On February 22, 2018, the final rule rolling back net neutrality was published by the Federal Communications Commission in the Federal Register. This rule makes official the reversal of an Obama-era rule requiring that broadband access be classified as an information service rather than a telecommunications service under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. What this essentially means is that internet service providers could slow down, speed up, or block delivery of certain content to consumers.

Those in favor of the roll back of net neutrality believe that the new rules will improve the overall internet user experience by allowing internet service providers to prioritize quality sites and activities that require faster access, thus encouraging innovation. While some say that with the rollback should come with guidelines for how content can be prioritized or restricted, others believe that competition between service providers will be sufficient to regulate how those providers manage content.

Those in favor of net neutrality argue that this rollback will have dire consequences for consumers, businesses, and the internet as we know it. The American Civil Liberties Union fears that internet service providers will prioritize bigger companies who can afford to pay more for faster service while restricting smaller sites or possibly blocking disfavored content. If companies pay more to acquire faster delivery of their content, this added cost would likely be passed on to consumers in the form of increased subscription prices. In addition, in most places in the United States, consumers have access to only one or two broadband internet service providers in their area. Service providers’ management of content cannot be regulated by competition if there is no competition.

The day the final rule rolling back net neutrality was published, a coalition of 23 Attorneys General filed a petition for review asking the court to block the rule from going into effect. Led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the Attorneys General argue that the rule is illegal. The petition claims that the rule is arbitrary, capricious, and unconstitutional. Attorney General Schneiderman argues that the rule fails to justify the FCC’s long-standing policy and practice of defending net neutrality, and that the rule wrongly reclassifies broadband internet as an information service rather than a telecommunications service.

Back in 2015, the FCC effectuated net neutrality when it reclassified broadband internet as a telecommunications service rather than an information service. The classification meant that internet service providers could not favor certain content over other content. In other words, the providers must remain neutral. But this too was a reclassification, just as the new rule is a reclassification.

In 2005, the Supreme Court in the Brand X decision confirmed the FCC’s authority to interpret the classifications from the Telecommunications Act that are at issue now. That case stemmed from an FCC rule classifying broadband internet as an internet service provider, just as it has done again.

Civil liberties and consumer groups, some internet companies, and nearly half of the country’s attorneys general have come out in opposition to the FCC’s new rule. They argue that the people have a right to a free and open and neutral internet. A free and open internet is ideal for many. And it is quite possible that the rollback of net neutrality will be detrimental to consumers and the internet once the new rule goes into effect. It is also true that only a handful internet service providers control broadband access in America and most areas have access to only one or two provider options, so depending on competition to keep the system in check may not be prudent.

However, as a legal matter, the opponents of the FCC’s new rule may not succeed on their petitions to block the rule. As the Supreme Court has held, the FCC has the authority to determine this classification. And agencies are permitted to change their minds. Perhaps the continuing evolution of the internet since Brand X, and especially since the passage of the Telecommunications Act, will lead Congress to revisit this type of classification and settle this issue.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

Reconciling DRM in Video Games

by Jordan Demo

Like many young kids who grew up playing video games, I can recall the excitement of going to the store to wait in line for hours just to buy a new game that was set to be released at midnight. It’s amazing how things have changed in the last ten years. Long gone are the midnight waits for games at the store. Now, computer games have primarily become digitized, which means you can create an account on a platform, such as Steam, Uplay, or Origin; purchase a digital copy of the game; and download it directly onto your computer the second it is released. The digitization of video games has created an ease of access for consumers. However, it has also sparked an ongoing debate about how the intellectual properties of digital games are protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM).

DRM is an approach taken by the gaming industry to protect its digital media. This protection occurs at the coding level, where code is embedded to limit copying of the game, the number of computers the game can be installed on, or the number of accounts that can be associated with the game. The basic rationale behind gaming companies using DRM in their games is to combat and prevent piracy.

As it pertains to the legality of DRM, the anti-circumvention provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides protection for developers who incorporate DRM into their games and outlines some of the technological barriers for those wishing to copy different forms of intellectual property. One clause within this provision pertains to the circumvention of access controls. In essence, this means that, if some form of technology is in place to restrict or control access to the work, then it would be illegal for an individual to circumvent or bypass the technology. If a user were to be caught violating the DMCA by circumventing DRM, they could face harsh penalties.

The widespread incorporation of DRM into computer games has been met with continuous criticism. Recently there have been complaints of the overuse of DRM in particular games where developers are using new forms of DRM, such as Denuvo. Gamers are complaining that this DRM is hampering the performance of games. Moreover, some DRMs require gamers to be continuously online for “check-ins,” and other developers are getting creative in using malware as a form of DRM, where only genuine copies of the game would remove the malware during installation. While studies on DRM affecting performance are thus far inconclusive, the question still remains as to whether this is a necessary practice. In other words, is the overly stringent use of DRM really that effective against piracy, or is it actually encouraging it? From a traditional gaming perspective, the DMCA anti-circumvention provision limits certain aspects of digital gaming, such as sharing games with your friends, reselling old games on the secondary market, and requiring that a user always be connected to the internet in order to play even a single player game. Any attempt to circumvent the DRM to do any of these things places you in violation of the DMCA.

While there are genuine concerns about using DRM, developers argue that there is a justification for doing so. As previously mentioned, piracy is of grave concern, as many take the attitude of “well, these big companies already make a lot of money, so I will just illegally download a cracked DRM version of the game.” However, in computer gaming there are many indie or small game developers who can be negatively impacted by piracy, thus there seems to be a logical reason for these types of developers to use DRM. The problem seems to lie in the fact that digital forms of intellectual property are easier to duplicate and distribute than physical copies of games. Moreover, there are software tools being developed to circumvent the DRM in games, and which violate the anti-circumvention provision. But many of these individuals developing the software or distributing the games freely online are outside the jurisdiction or resources of gaming companies and law enforcement officials. Therefore, this creates a desire for developers to use more sophisticated DRM protection, such as Denuvo.

Overall, it is likely that a practicable solution lies in a balance between using some type of DRM protection, but not so much protection that it places an ease-of-access burden on gamers. It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out in the near future, as DRM is getting more sophisticated and there is more pushback from the gaming community.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

Skating on the Edge of Copyright

by Sophie Galleher

First, think figure skating. Then, watch this. At minute 2:45 Jimmy Ma brings it, unzipping his jacket and giving a tongue wag à la Michael Jordan circa 1998 as his music breaks into a hip hop-electronic dance mix of “Turn Down For What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon. Surprised? Welcome to figure skating in 2018, where Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” are things of the past.

Ma’s routine epitomizes the impact of a 2014 rule change where the International Skating Union, attempting to inject life into a sport with waning popularity, repealed a rule that prevented figure skaters from using music with lyrics in their routines. And the move has proven to be a success. In the past week, the PyeongChang Olympics—the first since the rule change—has seen media outlets light up with commentary, as the event has featured artists such as Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran and songs such as Despacito. In 2017 a French pair team’s bone-chilling performance set to Disturbed’s heavy metal rendition of “Sound of Silence” went viral, generating millions of views.

But while figure skating is enjoying its revival, a host of copyright issues are simmering. The pieces of classical music that skaters historically performed to—the Boléros, the Carmens, and the Swan Lakes—generally fell within the public domain. More recent performances, on the other hand, are often set to songs by artists who are alive and keen to enforce their copyrights. The result: figure skaters may unwittingly be violating copyright law.

As a threshold matter, ice arenas likely qualify as public or semi-public places, which are subject to the Copyright Act. To mitigate liability under copyright law, ice arenas and other public venues often enter into a blanket licensing agreement with performance rights organizations (PROs), such as BMI or ASCAP. However, these licensing agreements are designed for venues where the owners, not the skaters, control the music played.

As a result, these agreements are limited.

First, some of these licenses don’t authorize dramatic performances. This is problematic because, as ASCAP states, “Copyright law does not define the terms “dramatic” or “nondramatic” . . . . [T]he line between “dramatic” and “nondramatic” performances . . . is often unclear and depends on the facts pertaining to a particular performance.” Against that backdrop, it is unclear whether skating routines would qualify as a “dramatic performance” under copyright law.

Second, the license does “not convey the right to publicly perform . . . musical works . . . to persons outside of the Licensed Premise.”  As such, the reproduction of skating routines performed in ice arenas, whether on the television or through YouTube likely implicates the Copyright Act. To that end, from selecting music to performing routines, copyright law is potentially implicated at several junctions in the figure skating “chain of production.”

The next issue is whether skaters and coaches implicate copyright law when they first select the songs for their routines. Generally, the coach or the skater will download songs from iTunes or a similar platform and edit them, often merging two or more songs together, onto a single CD. The skaters and coaches then make multiple copies of this CD to use at practice and competitions. In some cases, the coaches charge the skaters for the copies. This process of downloading of music and creating new CDs may implicate copyright law.

The final issue is who should be responsible for obtaining copyright permission: the skater who performs the routine, the arena that plays the music, or the broadcasters who distribute the performance to a mass audience.

Notwithstanding these copyright issues, the dearth of copyright infringement actions against figure skaters has led some to consider whether figure skaters have carved out a new exception in the fair use doctrine. The more likely scenario, however, is that figure skating has yet to encounter serious copyright enforcement issues.  But the buzz about figure skating routines at the PyeongChang Olympic Games could raise copyright questions that have ramifications that extend well beyond the figureskating world.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.

The Driverless Future May Solve the Truck Driver Shortage

by Gina Sbarbaro

With the successful test drive of a self-driving semi from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, the trucking industry is going to see some major changes. This technology has the potential to make a major impact, since the trucking industry brings in annual revenue of over 7 billion dollars and makes up over 81% of the entire revenue of the commercial transportation industry. Compared to train, plane, and boat transportation, the trucking industry made up sixty-five percent of all freight transportation in North America in 2016.

San Francisco start-up Embark Trucks announced that the 2,400 mile coast-to-coast trip was completed in five days for “hours at a time with no disengagements.” The autonomous technology located inside the truck relies on cameras and sensors to avoid obstacles, collect data, and map its surroundings. On this trip, a driver did sit behind the wheel of the truck in case any issues arose. Embark’s long-term goal is to create an autonomous truck that is self-driving on freeways, but needs manual guidance to travel through small towns or cities and to get on and off exits. While this technology would help the trucks cover more distance in a shorter time, the limits on the technology would also allow truck drivers to keep their jobs.

But it’s hard to imagine with this growing technology that all 7.3 million trucking related jobs in the U.S. are really safe. While Embark currently promises job security by ensuring the trucks need human drivers for specific tasks, as the technology continues to develop in both trucks and cars, it is not a stretch to say the roads may soon be occupied with self-driving vehicles that do not require human assistance. Perhaps the majority of the 7.3 million jobs will be safe, since there remains a need for unloaders, warehouse staff, and administration. However, the 3.5 million jobs currently occupied by the truck drivers themselves are in danger.

The median annual salary for truck drivers is $40,000, while truckers that work for private companies can make over $70,000 a year. Eliminating these jobs could save companies millions of dollars while simultaneously creating safer roads, saving on fuel, and increasing speed of delivery. However, as advancements continue to take place, keeping drivers employed becomes challenging.

Nevertheless, a compelling reason to implement the technology is the driver shortage. With more than 70% of goods consumed in the US moved by truck, it appears that the industry is full of available jobs.  In fact, as recently as January 2018, there was a need for almost 900,000 more drivers. This shortage is not a new problem and has been an issue for the past 15 years. In addition to the many safety and efficiency benefits that self-driving semis offer—and Embark’s plan to keep truckers employed—the combined circumstances suggest it is just a matter of time until the benefits favor advancing the technology to create fully-independent self-driving semis.

As for Embark Trucks, the company will continue developing its autonomous technology and plans to install the technology in 40 more trucks by the end of 2018.

*Disclaimer: The Colorado Technology Law Journal Blog contains the personal opinions of its authors and hosts, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of CTLJ.