Monthly Archives: October 2016

Patenting the Social: A Non-Economic Take on Alice

Laura R. Ford, Patenting the Social: Alice, Abstraction, & Functionalism in Software Patent Claims, 14 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol’y & Ethics J. 259 (2016).

“Where does technology stop and humanity begin?” This is the weighty opening question in Laura Ford’s recent article Patenting the Social. Ford, a sociologist and lawyer, offers a novel contribution to the debates raging in the courts and law reviews after the Supreme Court opinion in Alice v. CLS Bank about what constitutes a patent-ineligible abstract idea and, relatedly, why abstract ideas should be patent-ineligible. She proposes that claims describing novel computer-mediated social relationships and interactions (“the social”) are core examples of claims to abstract ideas, but that claims to novel means of achieving those social ends are not. Ford then draws on sociological concerns and moral theory to defend her interpretation of Alice. She argues that patents that privatize social progress, as opposed to the technological progress, are bad policy based on concerns about human flourishing, politics, and culture—i.e., reasons other than the conventional, economically oriented reasons for limits on patentability that focus on innovation incentives.

I found Patenting the Social to be both interesting and timely for two reasons. First, I believe that defining the abstract with reference to the social offers a plausible story for explaining, at least in part, why the Supreme Court reached the conclusion that it did in its Alice opinion and, perhaps more importantly, its earlier opinion in Bilski v. Kappos, on which Alice relies. The Court’s choice not to even attempt to define an abstract idea in these opinions is by now infamous. Whether you personally agree with it as a policy matter or not, this hypothesis that the Court’s discomfort with the privatization of new patterns of contractual commitments—which are nothing but legally enforceable patterns of social obligations—is grounded in part in non-economic reasoning should not be lightly dismissed. Patenting the Social gives voice to this hypothesis more thoroughly than other academics have to date managed to do. Second, I find the notion that privatization of the social is problematic to be an interesting counterpoint to the message of the Supreme Court’s other opinions on patent-ineligibility in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics and Mayo v. Prometheus. In these biomedical cases, the Court focused on the privatization of the natural as the crux of the problem that limits on patent-eligibility can solve. Under Ford’s interpretation, Bilski and Alice provide an intriguing bookend to Myriad and Mayo: both the social and the natural are off limits. Continue reading "Patenting the Social: A Non-Economic Take on Alice"

A Definitive Primer and Prescription on Social Determinants of Health

Wendy K. Mariner, Beyond Lifestyle: Governing the Social Determinants of Health, 42 Am. J.L. & Med. 284 (2016).

I recently received a call from my university’s general counsel’s office, looking for health law advice about patient no-shows at a campus community health clinic. We discussed tort theories, including establishment of the physician-patient relationship and patient abandonment, as well as privacy issues with respect to contacting patients via email, phone, or a friend or relative. I then offered that the clinic might consider looking more deeply at the reasons for the patients’ lack of follow-through with appointments and treatment, including various social, economic, transportation, childcare, and other lifestyle barriers. I roughly described the concept of “social determinants of health,” which captures the problems to which I was referring. I explained how our law students working with medical-legal partnership clinics face similar challenges: clients may initially present with significant legal needs, which they are highly motivated to address, but then fail to keep follow-up appointments. The attorney was intrigued and asked me to forward some relevant literature on the various issues that I had identified.

It was easy enough to find cites for the torts and privacy topics, but surprisingly more difficult to identify a clear, definitive article describing the essential concept of social determinants of health. Given the increasing prevalence of the term within not only public health but also health law circles, I was surprised at my difficulty finding literature that explained this now-essential concept in a way that the uninitiated could understand. Thus, I was delighted last week to come across Wendy K. Mariner’s Beyond Lifestyle: Governing the Social Determinants of Health. Continue reading "A Definitive Primer and Prescription on Social Determinants of Health"

Where the “Normal” Is Gendered and Unjust

Do you want that with fries, salad, or a side order of sexual harassment? Kaitlyn Matulewicz’s paper on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry prodded me to look differently at interactions with servers and to reflect more broadly on the burdens placed on those who experience harassment. Her starting point is the legal standard by which, to qualify as sexual harassment, workplace conduct must be objectively “unwelcome” and outside the “normal.” Drawing on interviews with women full-service restaurant workers, Matulewicz argues that the organization of restaurant work makes women vulnerable to enduring sexual harassment. Structuring elements of restaurant work – hiring and dressing practices, the focus on customer service, and the legally approved wage-tip relation – normalize women workers’ subjection to unwanted sexualized experiences.

Matulewicz gives plenty of space to the women interviewed, allowing us to hear their voices. I appreciated her methodological decision not to ask the participants outright whether they had experienced sexual harassment. Instead, she asked them to talk about their work and to describe their interactions with customers, co-workers, and management. That decision was crucial to the project because her participants “often struggled in defining sexual harassment and thinking about their own experiences in relation to it.” (P. 135.) One reason for this struggle is that sexualized conduct is so “normal” in their workplaces – and that the workers need to please their customers. Continue reading "Where the “Normal” Is Gendered and Unjust"

What is the Path to Freedom Online? It’s Complicated

Yochai Benkler, Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power, Daedelus (2016).

In recent years, the internet has strengthened the ability of state and corporate actors to control the behavior of end users and developers. How can freedom be preserved in this new era? Yochai Benkler’s recent piece, Degrees of Freedom, Dimensions of Power, is a sharp analysis of the processes that led to this development, which offers guidelines for what can be done to preserve the democratic and creative promise of the internet.

For over two decades the internet was synonymous with freedom, promising a democratic alternative to dysfunctional governments and unjust markets. As a “disruptive technology,” it was believed to be capable of dismantling existing powers, displacing established hierarchies, and shifting power from governments and corporations to end users. These high hopes for participatory democracy and new economic structures have been largely displaced by concerns over the rise of online titans (Facebook, Google, Amazon), mass surveillance and power misuse. The power to control distribution and access no longer resides at the end-nodes. Instead it is increasingly held by a small number of state and corporate players. Governments and businesses harvest personal data from social media, search engines and cloud services, and use it as a powerful tool to enhance their capacities. They also use social media to shape public discourse and govern online crowds. The most vivid illustration of this trend was provided during the recent coup attempt in Turkey, when President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan used social media to mobilize the people of Turkey to take to the streets and fight against the plotters. Continue reading "What is the Path to Freedom Online? It’s Complicated"

Racketeers, Mobsters, & Plaintiffs’ Mass-Action Attorneys

Briana Rosenbaum, The RICO Trend in Class Action Warfare, 102 Iowa L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

A racketeer, a mobster, and a plaintiffs’ mass-action attorney walk into a bar. What might be a decent setup for a joke is actually dead serious. Like members of organized crime, plaintiffs’ mass-action attorneys are being sued under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statutes. Briana Rosenbaum’s The RICO Trend in Class Action Warfare carefully considers existing remedies for frivolous litigation and critiques what she sees as the inefficacy of “the RICO reprisal.”

Rosenbaum readily admits that some mass-action attorneys include frivolous claims among meritorious ones in an attempt to obtain a larger settlement, otherwise known as “specious claiming.” But Rosenbaum argues that remedies for abusive litigation already exist. There are tort remedies such as malicious prosecution and abuse of process, and procedural remedies such as Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 and 28 U.S.C. § 1927. Rosenbaum posits that this existing remedial structure for vexatious litigants, while imperfect, was at least created with important countervailing policy considerations in mind, such as access to justice and administrative efficiency. Continue reading "Racketeers, Mobsters, & Plaintiffs’ Mass-Action Attorneys"

The LGBT Piece of the Underenforcement- Overenforcement Puzzle

Jordan Blair Woods, LGBT Identity and Crime, 105 Calif. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2017), available at SSRN.

I have always been fascinated by the underenforcement-overenforcement puzzle. I was thus immediately drawn to Jordan Blair Woods’s fantastic article, which analyzes this complex problem through the lens of LGBT identity. Let me explain the underenforcement-overenforcement issue: Individuals who belong to marginalized groups, such as racial and sexual minorities, disproportionately bear the brunt of crime and law enforcement. When minorities are victims of violence, especially violence motivated by bigotry, liberal advocates tend to support policies and practices that are tough on such crime. When minorities suffer police harassment, revolving door criminal justice, and mandatory sentences, liberal advocates call for police restraint, decarceration, and discretionary leniency. Is this just abject inconsistency? Not necessarily. Let’s say on block A, a white man beats up a black man, while on block B, a black man beats up a white man. The prosecutor charges the white defendant with a misdemeanor and releases him with time served, but charges the black defendant with aggravated assault, resulting in a mandatory ten-year sentence. Everyone should rightly scream foul because similar actors were treated differently on account of race, the racially privileged person received leniency, and the minority was treated harshly.

Difficulties arise when such notions of formal equality and substantive fairness translate into a legal reform agenda. One of the clear drivers of inequity in the above scenario is prosecutorial discretion, so one might propose that prosecutors always bring the most serious charge supported by the evidence. This would surely address the underpunishment of whites, but it might compound the problems of African American overpolicing. Indeed, in response to evidence showing that prosecutors disproportionately seek the death penalty in white-victim cases, race scholar Randall Kennedy once suggested that prosecutors be required to pursue capital punishment in black-victim cases, recognizing the “cost” of executing more black defendants. In my hypo, the crimes are interracial, but most violence is intraracial. Alternatively, we might be concerned with the mandatory ten-year sentence and believe that judicial discretion in sentencing would have produced justice for the black defendant. But such discretion risks disproportionately benefitting whites who harm blacks. Continue reading "The LGBT Piece of the Underenforcement- Overenforcement Puzzle"

What Does “Buy Now” Really Mean?

Aaron Perzanowski & Chris Jay Hoofnagle, What We Buy When We Buy Now, 165 U. Pa. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2017), available at SSRN.

In their forthcoming article, What We Buy When We Buy Now, Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle richly capture today’s digital media marketplace and rightly raise concerns about consumers’ understanding of their legal rights upon licensing a book, movie, or song. They focus upon vendors’ use of the language “buy now” on their websites and test consumer comprehension of this language empirically. The results, showing, for example, that 83 percent of respondents believed they “owned” their media, certainly raise alarms. The article proposes a sensible and inexpensive solution, supported by the authors’ empirical evidence, that would help clear up the “buy now” confusion, namely “adding a short notice to a digital product page that outlines consumer rights.” I enthusiastically recommend this article for anyone interested in twenty-first century digital commerce.

As with any excellent article, perplexing issues remain. For example, is “buy now” less misleading than the article suggests? As mentioned, 83 percent of respondents believed they “owned” their media, but as the authors concede, the concept of ownership is inherently ambiguous, and perhaps doesn’t preclude in consumers’ minds the limitations that licensing entails. In addition, although more than 80 percent of respondents believed they could use their digital media on any of their devices, the reality is not so starkly different according to the authors, with some vendors allowing such usage and others not. Fewer than 50 percent of respondents thought incorrectly that they held the right in turn to lend, gift, resell, or copy their product, or leave their product in a will. In fact, fewer than 25 percent thought mistakenly that they had the right to resell or copy their media. On the other hand, 86 percent of respondents thought they could keep their digital product indefinitely, and Perzanowski and Hoofnagle set forth several counterexamples demonstrating that this misperception may be a real problem. In addition, the authors note that the FTC labels an advertising practice as deceptive even if only 10 or 15 percent of people are misled by the practice. Continue reading "What Does “Buy Now” Really Mean?"

New Jotwell Section: Contracts

Today we inaugurate a new Jotwell section on Contracts, edited by Professor David A. Hoffman and Professor Nancy S. Kim. Together they have recruited a stellar team of Contributing Editors.

The first posting in the Contracts section is What Does “Buy Now” Really Mean? by Robert A. Hillman.

Please look at our Call For Papers, and get in touch if you have suggestions for a new section, or if you have a review you would like to contribute to any existing section of Jotwell.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Trade on Inside Information

Sarah Baumgartel, Privileging Professional Insider Trading, Ga. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016), available at SSRN.

Just when you thought it was safe to avoid yet another article on insider trading comes Sarah Baumgartel’s imaginative and insightful paper. Baumgartel’s point of entry is several recent and pending cases that in some ways extend, and in other ways limit, the peculiar misappropriation theory, a judicial development that continues to prove not only that bad cases make bad law but that they also can make for good scholarship.

Before I get into a few of the details, here’s the bottom line: The misappropriation theory, and especially the Commission’s redaction of “confidential relationship” in Rule 10b5-2, are yet another example of facilitating the economic inequality that has achieved such prominence in contemporary discourse. Baumgartel doesn’t quite put it this way, but she does argue that the manner in which the misappropriation theory has come to impose liability on traders who received their information in the context of personal and often intimate relationships while providing exculpation for professionals and managers who trade on that information satisfies neither the information-protective function of modern insider trading law nor the market fairness rationale that often is invoked. Instead, it sends your golf buddy or your sister to jail while allowing business professionals to reap harvests from fields that ordinary people can’t even locate. Continue reading "Friends Don’t Let Friends Trade on Inside Information"

Recovering Forgotten Struggles Over the Constitutional Meaning of Equality

Katie Eyer, Ideological Drift and the Forgotten History of Intent, 51 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 1 (2016), available at SSRN.

Legal history can help us overcome the distortions of time and distance that too often obscure our understanding of struggles both past and present. Katie Eyer’s Ideological Drift and the Forgotten History of Intent exemplifies this kind of legal history. Through painstaking analysis of a century of equal protection decisions by the Supreme Court, she seeks to explain a “perplexing feature of the Court’s early 1970s jurisprudence: the Court’s race liberals’ failure to pursue effects-based approaches to Equal Protection liability at a time when such approaches were gaining credence elsewhere.”

In Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976), for example, the Court held that the Constitution does not forbid the government’s facially neutral actions that create racial disparities, even if such disparities have the effect of reinforcing traditional racial hierarchies. Rejecting a challenge to the District of Columbia’s examination for police officers that had the effect of disproportionately excluding African-American applicants, the Court held that the equal protection clause addresses only intentionally discriminatory government actions. No member of the Court—including Justices Brennan and Marshall—dissented from this constitutional holding. Continue reading "Recovering Forgotten Struggles Over the Constitutional Meaning of Equality"