A summary: “driverless cars are ‘probably’ legal”

An economist takes a look at existing law and argues driverless cars are probably legal:

Over at the blog Marginal Revolution, economist Tyler Cowen points to a recent research paper by Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at Stanford Law School, who has made the legality of driverless cars his bailiwick. In offering “the most comprehensive discussion to date of  whether so-called automated, autonomous, self-driving, or driverless vehicles can be  lawfully sold and used on public roads in the United States,” Smith argues that driverless cars are “probably legal.” He concludes [PDF]:

Current law probably does not prohibit  automated vehicles — but may nonetheless discourage their introduction or complicate their operation.

Unlike many journalists and policy-makers, Smith begins his analysis with a presumption of legality instead of illegality. “Until legislators, regulators, or judges definitively clarify the legal status of automated vehicles, any answer is necessarily a guess,” he writes. Smith’s own guess turns on three “key legal regimes”: the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations, and vehicle codes in the 50 U.S. states.

Smith doesn’t think that any of these regimes expressly prohibits driverless cars. The Geneva Convention says a driver must be able to control a vehicle at all times, but that stipulation is probably satisfied if a human can override the automatic operation. N.H.T.S.A. rules don’t explicitly rule out driverless cars either — though an odd rule saying hazard lights must be “driver controlled” might be a sticking point.

States codes, meanwhile, “probably do not prohibit” driverless cars in Smith’s mind, but they do complicate the situation. Right now these codes all naturally presume the presence of a human driver; in New York, for instance, there’s a rule that drivers must keep one hand on the wheel at all times (who knew?) that could become a problem in an automated-vehicle world. Additionally, laws dictating a certain following distance might interfere with algorithms that keep driverless cars close together on the road.

Sounds like an interesting loophole – why worry about whether it is legal when you can instead ask whether it is illegal? I still think a lot of the issue with driverless cars comes down to people, both “drivers” (now people who can override the car’s autopilot when they want) and other people on the road around the driverless cars, adjusting to the change. If it is like other modern technologies, like smartphones, and drivers realize they might be able to do other things while driving, perhaps the switch may be quick.

Another thought: could driverless cars and electric cars end up prolonging and even extending urban sprawl? If commuting is easier and consumes fewer resources (still debatable considering what it takes to produce batteries), why not continue it?

A downtown law firm no more

A law firm in Austin, TX is leaving its downtown location for the suburbs:

Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.

The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.

The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.

Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.

Leader in Texas adverse possession movement hasn’t been successful yet

The adverse possession advice being peddled through a Texas man’s website and e-book hasn’t exactly worked out yet:

If you direct your browser to 16dollarhouse.com and plunk down $9.97 for an e-book, you can still learn from Ken Robinson ( “poised, measured, insightful and wise” and an AMERICAN, all caps, as the site informs you) how to use adverse possession, a once obscure Texas law, to get a house on the cheap.

Be forewarned that Robinson’s legal theories haven’t worked out so well in practice. Earlier this year, he was evicted from his $350,000 Flower Mound McMansion after a judge decided that his claim to the house was bullshit. His disciples have fared little better.

Following news of Robinson’s scheme, officials in Tarrant County made the rounds evicting squatters who moved into homes after filing adverse possession claims. Eight of them were charged with theft or burglary.

David Cooper was the first to go to trial, which wrapped up today…

But Texas law also says you can’t steal people’s stuff and, in Cooper’s case, the house actually wasn’t abandoned. It belonged to a couple who were spending a lot of time in Houston, where the wife was undergoing cancer treatment. When it became clear that the home wasn’t abandoned, Cooper was arrested and charged with burglary and theft.

See more about the ruling on Robinson’s Flower Mound case here.

This would be an interesting protest movement that someone like Occupy Wall Street might want to take up: identify and then occupy Texas houses.

Judge rules against man who wanted to claim Texas McMansion through adverse possession

Last July, I wrote about a Texas man who claimed he could occupy an abandoned McMansion and then claim possession of the home after a certain amount of time. His “adverse possession” case has moved forward as a judge ruled that the bank can indeed remove him from the home:

Anyone who was rooting for the man who used Texas’ adverse possession law to snag a McMansion for only $16 will be bummed to hear that he’ll be forced to leave the home after Bank of America claimed ownership of it. Drat!

Kenneth made waves in Flower Mound, Texas in July when he claimed the right to take over a $340,000 home in suburban Dallas, after filing a simple document and paying $16 to the city. He cited a law which said he could legally take possession of the house after living there for three years. His neighbors grumbled while he watered the lawn and paid utility bills, and now a judge says he has to move by Valentine’s Day.

The Associated Press says Bank of America can boot Kenneth, as they hold the lien on the house. Foreclosure was completed last month, says BOA, and now it’s time for Kenneth to vacate the premises…

“I’m just thankful for Flower Mound and Denton County for following the proper lawful procedures,” [Kenneth] said. “I went in doing this strictly by following a lawful process.” And now that the process has played itself out, he says, “I’m neither happy nor disappointed.”

I would venture to guess that Bank of America and some other people paid special attention to this case in order to forestall efforts by others who might be interested in using adverse possession to claim homes.

It would be helpful to have more information here:

1. Are the neighbors now happy that the home has officially gone through foreclosure? Did Kenneth make peace with any of the neighbors?

2. Does Bank of America have a quick timetable for moving this house to the market and selling it or will it be another home that languishes while the bank decides whether to accept offers?

3. Has Flower Mound changed its rules yet, like perhaps upped the $16 application fee, in order to avoid cases and attention like this in the future?

4. Where will Kenneth live next?

A growing interest in acquiring property through “adverse possession”?

I highlighted a story last week about a Texas man who hoped to become the owner of a $350,000 McMansion through “adverse possession.” One writer suggests there is a growing interest in this method of acquiring land:

People have been making adverse possession claims for decades. The most famous cases happened on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1980s and ’90s, when artists, punks and homeless people squatted in vacant buildings and brownstones.

Under the law at the time in New York State, people could take possession of a property if they lived there for ten years and made efforts to “cultivate and improve” the property, says Kathy Zalantis, a real estate lawyer with Silverberg Zalantis in White Plains, NY. That’s why you saw people who did this during the 1980s and ’90s mowing the grass, planting trees and gardens, and making structural improvements to the buildings themselves, Zalantis says.

Now, interest in adverse possession is growing again. Across America, hundreds of thousands of homes are sitting empty. If you live in New York or have visited since 2008, you’ve probably noticed all those big empty buildings that were constructed during the housing boom but never quite finished, and are now sitting empty. Zalantis says she’s receiving a big surge in phone calls from people who have taken up residence in empty spaces (yes, squatting), including one just this Wednesday.

Most of the calls are from people taking advantage of the foreclosure crisis by moving into vacant houses, apartments and condominiums where the foreclosure process has stalled in the courts, Zalantis says. Now they’re living rent-free. And they’re checking to see if they can take permanent ownership of the place.

It seems like two things are key then to acquiring property by this method: being in the building for a certain amount of time (which appears to vary by state) and doing something to maintain/improve the property. I assume, however, that the rightful owners can come back to the property and kick out the squatters. Therefore, shouldn’t someone who pursues this be pretty sure that the current owners have such little interest in the property that they are willing to lose ownership?

In the case of a lot of single-family foreclosures, I can’t imagine banks would be willing to simply write off their losses and lose these properties. However, if housing prices continue to drop, perhaps some institutions will be willing to lose properties rather than devote resources to trying to squeeze some money out of these homes.

A unique way to acquire a McMansion: “adverse posession”

Amidst many foreclosures across the country, one Texas man believes he has found a way to acquire a suburban McMansion for $16. The move involves invoking “adverse possession” to take possession of the $300,000 home:

“This is not a normal process, but it is not a process that is not known,” he said. “It’s just not known to everybody.”

He says an online form he printed out and filed at the Denton County courthouse for $16 gave him rights to the house. The paper says the house was abandoned and he’s claiming ownership…

But, Robinson said just by setting up camp in the living room, Texas law gives him exclusive negotiating rights with the original owner. If the owner wants him out, he would have to pay off his massive mortgage debt and the bank would have to file a complicated lawsuit.

Robinson believes because of the cost, neither is likely. The law says if he stays in the house, after three years he can ask the court for the title.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as it would require someone, the true owner, the bank holding the mortgage, or the government, to move this guy out. It is funny that the neighbors seem to be the ones leading the charge against this guy: are they simply jealous that he was able to acquire a home for this little money?

But perhaps this story hints at a positive side effect of the foreclosure crisis: states and other governmental bodies get a chance to review all sorts of laws regarding mortgages, foreclosures, and housing possession.

Righthaven class action?

Ars Technica is reporting that one Righthaven defendant is “launching a class-action counterclaim against Righthaven”:

BuzzFeed…quickly moves from a defense of its own conduct to an attack on the conduct of Righthaven, and it asks the judge to put every Colorado defendant into a class which can pursue Righthaven for extortion-style behavior.

I’m not sure that Righthaven’s behavior should be turned into some sort of perverse-reverse legal payday for defendants, but I suppose this was an inevitable development.

The land of 100,000 lawsuits

Some enterprising anonymous researcher has determined that almost 100,000 copyright infringement lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. in the past year:

In the United States the judicial system is currently being overloaded with new cases, but the scope of the issue was never really clear until now. An anonymous TorrentFreak reader has spent months compiling a complete overview of all the mass P2P lawsuits that have been filed in the US since the beginning of 2010, listing all the relevant case documents and people involved in a giant spreadsheet.

The research shows that between 8th January 2010 and 21st January 2011, a total of 99,924 individuals have been sued. The vast majority of the defendants have allegedly used BitTorrent to share copyrighted works but a few hundred ed2k users are also included.

Of the 80 cases that were filed originally, 68 are still active, with 70,914 defendants still in jeopardy.

The raw data is available is spreadsheet form over on Google Docs.

As the disparity between 80 and 70,914 indicates, these types of lawsuits completely overwhelm the courts.  The U.S. justice system is simply not set up to handle this kind of volume, especially for suits as notoriously tricky to argue as copyright infringement.

See no evil

The Wall Street Journal is reporting a summary judgment ruling in the Viacom vs. YouTube copyright infringment case (link to the opinion here).

For those of you not familiar with the case, Viacom, which owns a host of media outlets, is suing on the theory that YouTube/Google is legally responsible for Viacom clips that YouTube users post.  As Judge Louis Stanton puts it, “the critical question” from a legal perspective is whether the law punishes an online service provider that has “a general awareness that there are infringements” taking place (i.e., the fact that everyone knows there are infringing videos up on YouTube) or whether YouTube is only responsible if it has “actual or constructive knowledge of specific and identifiable infringements of individual items.”  Closely reading the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [text] and its legislative history, Judge Stanton concludes that “[m]ere knowledge of prevalence of [infringing] activity is not enough….To let knowledge of a generalized practice of infringement in the industry, or of a proclivity of users to post infringing materials, impose responsibility on service providers to discover which of their users’ posting infringe a copyright would contravene the structure and operation of the DMCA.”

This one’s virtually certain to be appealed.  Stay tuned…

Chunga – 6/23/10 8:24 PM – The onus now seems to be on the content providers, like Viacom, to monitor which of their products are uploaded and then ask for their removal (which Google appears quite willing to do). If Viacom does not explicitly ask for a removal, YouTube/Google can keep all sorts of of copyrighted material online?

Sagescape – 6/23/10 9:34 PM – Generally speaking, that’s correct.  There’s a very helpful FAQ maintained by ChillingEffects.org that describes the DMCA’s “notice and takedown” process in some detail.