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The Art, the Deal, and the Drama

by Paul Rapp on December 14, 2011

There’s a fascinating drama playing out right now in Albany County Supreme Court. The Daughters of Mary, a group of nuns associated with the St. Joseph’s Church and Convent in Roundtop, have sued Albany art dealer Mark LaSalle in connection with the 2006 sale of a painting by late-1800s French master William Adolphe Bouguereau. It’s alleged that LaSalle advised the Daughters that $450,000 was a fair price for the painting, then unscrupulously arranged the sale to another art dealer who then flipped the painting for more than $2 million.

The Daughters and St. Joseph’s have been occasional clients of mine for a couple of years; I’ve given them intellectual-property advice mainly regarding various items they sell in their gift shop. I was called to testify briefly at the trial on Tuesday, just to say that I had nothing to do with the sale of the painting, which happened several years prior to the Daughters hiring me. The trial has been going on for three weeks, and while it’s apparently been moving at a snail’s pace, there has also been lots of drama, strange characters, bizarre accusations and theories (even murder plots), and of course, nuns.

There is some incredible reporting of the trial happening over at newyorkcitizenone.com, which picked up the story on Tuesday (Dec. 6) and has been posting smart, insightful and funny articles ever since. This is citizen journalism at its finest: a thoroughly intriguing story that is way beneath the radar of traditional news outlets, brought to light with style and attitude to spare. Check it out.

It seems like only yesterday, but it was almost six years ago that the Google Books lawsuit started. In a nutshell, the Authors Guild and a bunch of publishers decided to sue the bejesus out of Google for having the temerity to want to digitize all the books in the world. Keep in mind that Google wasn’t going to give away any books (except those in the public domain) but rather create a massive database where we could do keyword searches and find out what books used what words. The Authors Guild ran around screaming “infringement” and “theft” when the only infringement that was happening was the fairly benign process of scanning the books into a hard drive. Each book. Once.

As many of us pointed out at the time, this was an absurd lawsuit, totally at odds with the Authors Guild’s members’ self-interest. Google wasn’t stealing any books! It was simply making all books, even books out of print and long forgotten, easier to find and easier to use. All books, like, ever.

After a couple years of posturing and legal hoo-hah, the parties announced a settlement that, strangely, gave Google more rights and revenue opportunities than it had wanted originally. The settlement was presented to the court; in March 2011 the court rejected the settlement for a variety of reasons, including that the settlement gave Google almost unlimited market power that was not likely ever to be challenged by any other market player. Market power that it hadn’t originally sought, but that it got in the settlement.

This week, the Authors Guild filed a request for the court to certify every author in the United States as a “class,” a first step in the commencement of a class-action lawsuit. The Guild is starting over, right back to where it was in 2005, trying to bring a new asinine legal proceeding to stop what would be one of the greatest advances in scholarship and distribution of knowledge the world has ever seen. While the vast majority of Google’s digitization effort sits on servers somewhere, unused. Urgh.

OK, what else? Oh yeah, this: From time to time we talk about how your smartphone might be spying on you, to the point of ratting you out. I don’t do it often because a lot if it is way to tech-y for my Luddite brain. But recently some folks discovered that a lot of smartphones, particularly phones sold by Spring and Verizon, have this sketchy and deliberately hidden software called Carrier IQ, that can track and report a ton of information about the phone user, including location, keystrokes, and browsing behavior.

Techdirt reports that the company responsible for Carrier IQ, after first threatening to sue the researcher who “discovered” it, claimed that the software was used only for diagnostic purposes, to report dropped calls, to track network issues and the like. The company said that it would never use the software to breach anybody’s privacy. Maybe that’s so, but it looks like somebody else is. Another researcher decided to FOIA the FBI, seeking documents showing whether and how the FBI was using Carrier IQ-derived data. Rather shockingly, the FBI relayed this week that it had such documents, but refused to turn them over because doing so “might interfere with ongoing investigtions.”

Uh-oh. We’re all screwed.