The downside of the Internet: some cases in point andrew.ratner@baltsun.com

ON BLOGGING

September 16, 2008|By ANDREW RATNER

News item: A music blogger was arrested for posting several not-yet-released songs by the rock band Guns N' Roses. Prosecutors argued the leak could cause a financial loss for the band.

News item: A federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the creator of a Harry Potter fan Web site cannot publish a guidebook to the fictional series because it would infringe on J.K. Rowling's novels and a similar "lexicon" she plans herself.

News item: United Airlines shares plummet after a six-year-old story about a 2002 bankruptcy filing wrongly got posted to a news site, triggering a stock sell-off.

Welcome to the Internet age: Never before has so much been appropriated by so many.

Long before bloggers, the tape recorder or the mimeograph machine, the authors of the U.S. Constitution understood the importance of giving protection to the works of individuals.

"To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries," was among the responsibilities the forefathers laid out for the new Congress, just after the power to establish post offices and before the power to declare war.

Revisions were relatively few and far between before the recording and copying machines came along in the last half of the last century. But those devices paled next to the Internet's reach.

"It's easy with the Internet to spread things and it's hard to keep it contained," said Ned T. Himmelreich, a Baltimore attorney who specializes in intellectual property cases. "There are different categories of people who spread this stuff: People who don't know, people who don't care or people who purposely spit in the face of the owners."

The Guns N' Roses case appears to fall squarely in the latter category.

A 27-year-old blogger named Kevin Cogill was arrested by the FBI last month, appeared in court and was released on bail for a hearing later this week. He is suspected of streaming songs from a not-yet-released album that Guns N' Roses has had in the works for more than a decade.

His Web site seemed to revel in the breach, tweaking the band's leader Axl Rose and producer Geffen Records.

"Well, to say that I'm living up to my reputation today is an understatement. I'd like to share with you 9 tracks from the new Guns N' Roses," read a post on his antiquiet.com. "I always said that the more that Axl and Geffen jerked around trying to figure out how to release this finally finished album that we've all been waiting over 13 years for, the greater the chances would be that it would slip out of a pressing plant or office somewhere and wind up in the hands of some [one] with a blog. So ... Hey, I told you so."

The Harry Potter case presented a more old-fashioned dispute, with some new media mixed in.

Steven Jan Vander Ark's Web site about the adventures of the boy wizard - hp-lexicon.info - is one of the best-known of its kind. Its admirers have included the author J.K. Rowling herself. But when Vander Ark sought to write an ink-on-paper guidebook to the Harry Potter series, Rowling and the moviemaker Warner Brothers Entertainment sued to block it.

A federal judge in Manhattan, Robert P. Patterson Jr., ruled Sept. 8 that the Potter blogger lifted too much straight from Rowling's books and ordered the payment of $6,750 in damages.

Far from thumbing his nose at the author, Vander Ark seemed pained over the ordeal. He wept during the trial last spring as he termed Rowling "a genius." Rowling said in a statement last week that she "took no pleasure" in filing suit but did so "to uphold the right of authors everywhere to protect their own original work."

That same day, in an unrelated incident, United Airlines' stock plummeted in a stark example of how rapidly the Internet can alter value by mere accident.

A six-year-old news story about United's bankruptcy filing in 2002 apparently got retrieved from a Web site early on Sept. 7, enough so that the story got ranked among the "most viewed" on the Web site of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, owned by Tribune Co., also the parent of The Baltimore Sun.

The outdated - and undated - story began to grow like a virus until Monday morning when a business news service researcher discovered it and had it posted to the Bloomberg financial wire. Investors began picking up on the story, thought it was fresh and began dumping the airline's stock.

Like science-fiction movies warned long ago, the computers then took over, propelling the story ever higher in "search engines," which in turn triggered other programs that Wall Street uses to automatically sell off a stock that's plunging. By midday Sept. 8, United's shares tumbled to $3 a share from about $12.

After trading was halted and the mistake recognized, the stock climbed up again. But people wondered afterward whether someone could intentionally trigger a similar sell-off and make a ton of money in a short period.

Himmelreich, the attorney, points out that the piracy of music online and the hoarding of dot.com "domain names," two early trading excesses of the Internet, were checked somewhat by industry crackdowns and legal victories. Changes in law would eventually address more recent challenges presented by new media - and those not yet envisioned.

"For every security," he reminded, "there's a 12-year-old who can break it."

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