Top 5 Cyberlaw Developments of 2010, Plus a 2010 Year-in-Review

By Eric Goldman

Earlier this Fall, I posted my top 8 trends in Internet law, and that’s a good place to start if you want to see how I think things are developing. Because of that post, this year I’m shaking up the format of my year-end recap post a little bit. We’ll start with the top 5 Cyberlaw events of 2010, but then we’ll move to other topics. (This is a variation of my post to InformIT on Tuesday).

Top 5 Legal Developments

#5: Google pulls out of China. China’s native search engines rejoice, but is this really a win for China’s long term prospects? Meanwhile, I keep hoping Google will do the same in the EU too given how much the EU regulators hate Google.

#4: COICA and the pre-enactment COICA workaround, ICE’s lawless seizure of 82 supposedly pirate-oriented domain names. Showing once again that domain name censorship is irresistible to government regulators.

#3: Righthaven goes on a litigation frenzy on behalf of newspapers. Which do you think will happen first–bloggers stop discussing newspaper articles for fear of being sued, or newspapers go out of business? What’s amazing is that newspapers don’t realize that the first will accelerate the second.

#2: Oracle gets $1.4B+ from SAP for competitive scraping. Oracle hit a grand slam with the damages in this case, ranking highly on several all-time-largest-awards charts.

And the top cyberlaw story of the year goes to…

#1: Wikileaks. Wikileaks finally forces us to confront many of the cyberspace governance issues we were debating in 1996. I’m sad to say that our government, and many private businesses, failed the test.

Other Key Developments

* Tiffany v. eBay. The Second Circuit thumps Tiffany’s pathetic arguments and gives eBay a clean bill of trademark health. However, this ruling just preserved the status quo, so for my money, the much more important secondary trademark rulings involved providing other services to alleged counterfeiters. See Gucci v. Frontline, potentially exposing credit cards and other payment service providers to secondary liability for providing payment services to alleged counterfeiters, and Roger Cleveland Golf v. Price, potentially exposing SEOs/web designers to secondary liability as well.

* Viacom v. YouTube and Arista v. Limewire. These companion cases told us what we already knew: YouTube + 512(c) defense = good, P2P file sharing software vendor – DMCA safe harbor = bad.

* Sony v. Tenenbaum. I’m still waiting to see if this case is a blip or a watershed. It has the potential to make every copyright statutory damages case into a constitutional due process inquiry.

* Legally, it was a good year for Google. Google got a favorable trademark ruling in the ECJ. Google got a decisive win in its Rosetta Stone AdWords trademark case (and, as mentioned before, the YouTube case as well). Most of the other trademark plaintiffs lost or simply gave up.

* Legally, it was a lousy year for Google. Everyone in the world seems to be considering if they can run Google’s algorithms better than it can: EU antitrust regulators, French antitrust regulators, the Texas AG, private plaintiffs, the New York Times and so many more. Google got trapped in a dangerous antitrust litigation in the unfavorable venue of Ohio state court. Google Street View has been a legal train wreck world-wide. The DOJ busted up a possible hiring cartel among Silicon Valley companies, and Google almost immediately handed out 10% pay raises for everyone. Buzz was a lousy product with a horrible launch, and it led to a multi-million dollar litigation kicker.

* It was a quiet year for 47 USC 230 litigation. From my perspective, quiet is good! The biggest defense win of the year: Milgram v. Orbitz. The biggest plaintiff win of the year: Swift v. Zynga.

* Perfect 10 v. Google. Google gets yet another win in this case, this time on 512(d)–one of the few cases interpreting the 512(d) safe harbor for linking to infringing content.

Notice I didn’t put *any* of the Ninth Circuit Internet law jurisprudence on the list. There were plenty of interesting rulings this year: Krottner v. Starbucks, MDY v. Blizzard, Vernor v. Autodesk, DSPT v. Nahum, the Freecycle naked licensing case, v. AOL, Toyota v. Tabari, Visa v. JSL, CRS Recovery v. Laxton, Office Depot v. Zuccarini. However, I have lost all faith that 3 judge panel decisions by the Ninth Circuit have any binding precedential on other panels, so every case is effectively a one-off.

Less-Heralded But Nevertheless Interesting Disputes of the Year

Some under-the-radar legal disputes that I thought were more interesting than the overhyped stories:

* Barclays v. theflyonthewall. A brokerage house gets an injunction against the republication of its stock recommendations based on a hot news doctrine. The case is now on appeal to the Second Circuit. The case exposes the precarious business model of brokerage houses: they are content publishers trying to monetize via a commodity service, and brokerage house stock recommendations were exactly the kind of information John Perry Barlow explored in his 1994 Economy of Ideas article. Will the hot news doctrine prop up a doomed business model?

* Anderson v. Bell. Electronic signatures count towards the requirements for an election petition. This could launch a new era of citizen petitioning of the government.

* Snap-on v. O’Neil. A company can’t scrape its own data from its outsourced vendor, seemingly authorizing the vendor to play hold-up games for companies that don’t handle the contract correctly. The Eventbrite v. Cvent case provided some interesting contrast.

* Goforit v. Digimedia. A court upholds domain name wildcarding and says the TM owner/plainitff pursuing those wildcarded domain names may have engaged in reverse domain name hijacking.

* Lara Jade Coton v. TVX. The blog post title said it all: “Tip for Clean Living: Don’t Use a 14 Year Old’s Self-Portrait in Advertising for Porn.”

Most Overhyped Stories

This year, for the first time, I’m separately breaking out a category for most overhyped stories of the year.

* Craigslist shuts down its adult services category. A toxic mix: Craigslist took a legally defensible but nevertheless obstinate position, and state AGs love to show their constituents how much they hate the Internet. When Craigslist finally gave in and shut down its adult services category (with a whining F-U), people went crazy.

* Borings get $1 for their trespassing claim. Google’s Street View contractors made a mistake, drove up a private driveway, and captured what they saw. Google posted the photos until it got a complaint, then the homeowners with the odd surname (“Boring”) went on a litigation frenzy. Their payoff for several years of litigation? $1. Not even enough for extra foam on a Starbucks mochachino.

* The Supreme Court’s tech docket. Several fizzled out non-decisions from SCOTUS this year: Bilski, Quon, Costco. The Supreme Court is taking a steady diet of tech-related cases, but they are gun-shy about actually resolving them.

* Mark Hurd. Mark Hurd, Hewlett Packard’s CEO, had an inappropriate relationship with an HP contractor/former B-list softcore porn actress and maybe fudged his expense reports. When he tried to take a job at HP’s frenemy Oracle, HP got litigious, but it turns out their fur can be smoothed for a few million.

* Lost iPhone Prototype. Stop me if you’ve heard this joke before: an engineer walks in a bar and…loses a super-stealthy prototype of one of the most important new consumer technology launches ever…? I realize it’s an uber-cool phone, but still, IT’S A PHONE, PEOPLE!

Our Snarkiest Company-Specific Posts

Occasionally, we get snarky about specific companies’ practices. It’s not our norm, but these posts sure do boost traffic. Companies in our crosshairs this year:

* The Problems With Google House Ads. Google’s response to this post was pathetic and embarrassing.

* Scribd Puts My Old Uploads Behind a Paywall and Goes Onto My Shitlist. I still use Scribd, but I have zero loyalty.

* Hypocrisy Alert?! Expedia, a “FairSearch” Member, Marginalizes American Airlines in Its Search Results. If you’re going to wave the “Search Neutrality” flag, please keep it hypocrisy-free.

* Facebook pulls a rare hat trick of snark this year: Q2 2010 Quick Links Part 3 (Special Facebook Edition), Facebook’s Anti-Spam Filter Blocks Legitimate Conversations about, Distrust in the Cloud Part #2: Facebook Blocks Links and Takes Down Lots of Status Updates in the Process. I’m officially no longer in love with Facebook. I post the exact same content to Twitter and Facebook, so please follow me at Twitter instead.

* My RapLeaf Profile is Amusingly Mistaken. This is What the Fuss is All About?. In response to an article in the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know”/privacy plaintiffs lawyers full-employment series of articles.

Most Popular Blog Posts of the Year

1) Scribd Puts My Old Uploads Behind a Paywall and Goes Onto My Shitlist. Nearly 2X the traffic of #2. Putting profanity in the post title still works as a traffic booster.

2) Deleted Facebook and MySpace Posts Are Discoverable–Romano v. Steelcase (Topsy 100). I still can’t figure out why this post was so popular; it just reminded us of something we already knew. See also the related but overreaching Millen v. Hummingbird Speedway.

3 & 5) #3: Twitter Clarifies Usage Rules, but AFP Still Claims Unbridled Right to Use Content Posted to “Twitter/TwitPic”. Venkat also had an end-of-the-year hit with the #5 post, “Court Rejects Agence France-Presse’s Attempt to Claim License to Haiti Earthquake Photos Through Twitter/Twitpic Terms of Service — AFP v. Morel.” Both posts were Topsy 100.

4) Viacom v. YouTube Summary Judgment Motions Highlights. Not surprisingly, the gossip about the lawsuit is way more popular than the blog post on the actual ruling.

One other post reached Topsy 100: “Ripoff Report Defeats Extortion Claim, But Plaintiffs Keep Trying–AEI v. Xcentric.

Lists of Yore

Previous top 10 lists from 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006. Before that, John Ottaviani and I put together a list of top Internet IP cases for 2005, 2004 and 2003.