Research and Advances

Digital media and the law

Over the past two years, I have written seven “Legally Speaking” columns and one feature article for Communications about legal issues affecting computing professionals. These writings have covered an array of legal topics including: criminal and civil liability for hackers who breach computer security systems; first amendment issues arising in computing or electronic publishing markets; intellectual property issues, such as patent protection for computer program algorithms; copyright protection for look and feel of user interfaces; what the user interface design field thinks about such protection, and various theories by which a firm might claim to own interface specification information for software systems.

Legally speaking: First Amendment rights for information providers?

Applying the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to computerized communication of information is raising many interesting questions. While the general principle of this amendment can be simply stated—it forbids the government from interfering with freedom of speech—the specifies of its application over two centuries of American history have yielded a complex matrix of principles whose application depends on a variety of factors. Where computerized communication of information fits into this schema has yet to be definitely determined. The last “Legally Speaking” column (Mar. 1991) discussed some First Amendment issues raised by treating computerized information as private property, theft of which might be criminally prosecutable. This column will discuss quite a different First Amendment issue. But these two columns can only begin to introduce a few of the challenging First Amendment issues presented by the “Electronic Frontier.”

Legally speaking: is information property?

This column will discuss why the law has traditionally resisted characterizing information as the sort of thing that can be private property, and will speculate about why judges may be more receptive nowadays to assertions that information should be treated as property. This new attitude is illustrated by a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision which upheld criminal convictions based solely on the misappropriation of information which the Court found to be the property of one of the defendants' employers.

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