Norton for Toasters
A recent court decision could soon create a whole new set of copyright infringement claims. Circuit Judge Wollman quoted Steve Wozniak (a.k.a. co-founder of Apple, or more jovially, the Wonderful Wizard of Woz) who said “[e]verything has a computer in it nowadays.” Neither were kidding.
The court had to decide whether to impose an additional penalty upon a sex offender because he enticed his victim through text messages. When sex offenders use a computer to commit their crimes, additional penalties are placed upon the convicted offender. In this case, the offender was sentenced to additional months in jail because his cell phone was determined by the court to be a computer.
Let’s get out the way the fact that this is a terrible crime and whatever penalty the sex offender got, he probably deserved more. What concerns me is that the court defined “computer” so broadly that my toaster fits under its definition.
In agreeing with the Woz, the court used the following definition of computer:
[t]he term “computer” means an electronic, magnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other high speed data processing device performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions, and includes any data storage facility or communications facility directly related to or operating in conjunction with such device, but such term does not include an automated typewriter or typesetter, a portable hand held calculator, or other similar device.
The statute in which this definition is found concerns itself with the prohibition of hacking, computer viruses, identify theft, fraud, and extortion. Such a broad definition of computer works in this statute because if it cannot hack, then it necessarily cannot find application in the statute. If something can be used to hack another’s computer, then it syncs up with our natural understanding of what a computer is. So although the definition of computer was broad, the statutory context served as its limitation.
When you take this definition of computer outside its statutory context, things get weird. By removing the limitation supplied by the context of the statute, everything really is a computer. Now, almost everything I own is a computer: my toaster that tells me the time, my childhood LA Gears that lit up when I walked, and my colour-changing Christmas lights.
So why am I so concerned? Broadening the definition of a computer could mean a lot more copyright litigation. According the US Copyright Office, a computer program is “a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result.” If courts start using the same definition of computer used by the 8th Circuit, there will be some seriously absurd results. Software companies would be able to claim copyright infringement on a host of new “computer programs” because there are a lot of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in this brand new set of computers. Not even my toaster is safe.