We covered a ton of legal cases in 2016.
The entire Apple encryption saga probably grabbed the gold medal in terms of importance. However, our coverage of a California fisherman who took a government science buoy hostage was definitely our favorite. The case was dropped in May 2016 after the fisherman gave the buoy back.
Among others, we had plenty of laser strike cases to cover. There were guilty verdicts and sentencing in the red-light camera scandal that consumed Chicago. The Federal Trade Commission settled its lawsuit with Butterfly Labs, a failed startup that mined Bitcoins. A man in Sacramento, California, pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful manufacture of a firearm and one count of dealing firearms—he was using a CNC mill to help people make anonymous, untraceable AR-15s.
While we do our best to cover a wide variety of civil and criminal cases, there are five that stand out to us in 2017. These cases range from privacy and encryption, to government-sanctioned hacking, to the future of drone law in America.
Drone’s up, don’t shoot
After neighbor shot down his drone, Kentucky man files federal lawsuit
In 2016, we reported on another drone shooting incident (seriously folks, don’t do it!) in Virginia. A 65-year-old named Jennifer Youngman used her 20-gauge shotgun to take out what many locals believe was a drone flying over her neighbor, Robert Duvall’s, adjacent property. Yes, that Robert Duvall.
“The man is a national treasure and they should leave him the fuck alone,” she told Ars.
Youngman touched on a concept that many Americans likely feel in their gut but has not been borne out in the legal system: property owners should be able to use force to keep unwanted drones out of their airspace. But here’s the thing: for now, American law does not recognize the concept of aerial trespass.
At this rate, that recognition will likely take years. Meanwhile, drones get more and more sophisticated and less expensive, and they have even spawned an entire anti-drone industry.
Legal scholars have increasingly wondered about the drone situation. After all, banning all aircraft would be impractical. So what is the appropriate limit? The best case law on the issue dates back to 1946, long before inexpensive consumer drones were feasible. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in a case known as United States v. Causby that Americans could assert property rights up to 83 feet in the air.
In that case, US military aircraft were flying above a North Carolina farm, which disturbed the farmer’s sleep and upset his chickens. As such, the court found that Farmer Causby was owed compensation. However, the same decision also specifically mentioned a “minimum safe altitude of flight” at 500 feet—leaving the zone between 83 and 500 feet as a legal gray area.
“The landowner owns at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land,” the court concluded.
In 2015, a Kentucky man shot down a drone that he believed was flying above his property. The shooter in that case, William Merideth, was cleared of local charges, including wanton endangerment.
Man who built gun drone, flamethrower drone argues FAA can’t regulate him
By January 2016, the Kentucky drone’s pilot, David Boggs, filed a lawsuit asking a federal court in Louisville to make a legal determination as to whether his drone’s flight constituted trespassing. Boggs asked the court to rule that there was no trespass and that he is therefore entitled to damages of $1,500 for his destroyed drone.
Although the two sides have traded court filings for months, the docket has not been updated since June 2016, when Boggs’ attorneys pointed to a recent case out of Connecticut that found in favor of the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation of drones.
As Boggs’ legal team wrote:
The Haughwout pleadings are directly relevant to the subject matter jurisdiction issue currently before the court. The current dispute turns on whether a controversy has arisen that cannot be resolved without the Court addressing a critical federal question—the balance between the protection of private property rights versus the safe navigation of federal airspace. The Haughwout dispute places this critical question in the context of an administrative investigation. It highlights, as argued by Mr. Boggs—and now the FAA—that questions involving the regulation of the flight of unmanned aircraft should be resolved by Federal courts.
US District Judge David J. Hale has yet to schedule any hearings on the matter.
KickassTorrents lawyer: “torrent sites do not violate criminal copyright laws”
In July 2016, federal authorities arrested the alleged founder of KickassTorrents (KAT). The arrest was part of what is probably the largest federal criminal complaint in an intellectual property case since Megaupload, which was shuttered in early 2012. (That site’s founder, Kim Dotcom, has successfully beat back efforts to extradite him from New Zealand to the United States. He was ordered extradited a year ago, but that court decision is now on appeal.)
In the case of KAT, Ukranian Artem Vaulin, 30, was formally charged with one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, and two counts of criminal copyright infringement. Vaulin was arrested in Poland, where he remains in custody pending a possible extradition to the United States.
Like The Pirate Bay, KAT does not host individual infringing files but rather provides torrent and magnet links so that users can download unauthorized copies of TV shows, movies, and more from various BitTorrent users.
According to the 50-page affidavit, Vaulin and KAT’s claims that they respected the Digital Millennium Copyright Act were hogwash. The affidavit was authored by Jared Der-Yeghiayan, who is a special agent with Homeland Securities Investigations and was also a key witness in the trial of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht.
Vaulin has since retained Dotcom’s lawyer, Ira Rothken, who has made similar arguments in court filings on behalf of his more famous client. Namely, that there is no such thing as secondary criminal copyright infringement, and while some files uploaded to KAT may have violated copyright, that does not make Vaulin a criminal.
Rothken has not yet been able to directly correspond with or even meet his Ukrainian client (and has to do so only through Polish counsel). Nevertheless, he filed a motion to dismiss in October 2016. The government responded weeks later, and Rothken filed another response on November 18.
Prosecutors, for their part, said that the Rothken-Vaulin theory was ludicrous: “For the defendant to claim immunity from prosecution because he earned money by directing users to download infringing content from other users is much like a drug broker claiming immunity because he never touched the drugs.”
The two sides met before US District Judge John Z. Lee for a status conference on December 20, 2016. Judge Lee has not yet ruled on the motion to dismiss.