Book Review: “13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle” by Stuart P Green

September 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

13 ways

I let out an audible gasp when I opened up my parcel and saw a copy of 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age by US law professor Stuart P Green. I like to receive free books to review for this trade publication and all, but a near-400-page book on the history of theft law was the last thing I wanted to read.

But since I had to read it, I did, and you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be (partly because it was really only around 280 pages as the rest of it were notes and the index.) Label me surprised because I never thought that theft law could be interesting. Kinda.

The title of the book is metaphorical (because according to Green, you can steal someone’s bicycle in precisely 13 ways, such as larceny, robbery, embezzlement, fraud, extortion — just to name a few). As the first chapter of the book explains, theft as a crime under the common law developed almost by accident, as more and more causes of action with specific elements were created throughout the years. This formed a messy and complex system with loopholes that could be exploited by perpetrators, such as claiming that they had committed a different crime to the one that they had been charged with.

Then came the Model Penal Code in the US and the English Theft Act 1968, which attempted to consolidate the plethora of actions, but in doing so, Green believes, lawmakers ended up “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” and went too far, leading to confusing and unjust results. This flawed system has essentially been untouched for 50 years.

The next two chapters of the book deal with the philosophical underpinnings of theft, including why it ought to be punished as a crime as opposed merely a civil wrong, and the concept of “wrongfulness.” Green draws upon the results of a survey in which he asks students which form of theft they consider more culpable. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, most people thought generally along the same lines. For example, most people believed it was more “wrong” to steal a CD from a record store than to download it online. Almost everyone believed armed robbery was more serious than taking something by stealth, which was in turn more serious than failing to return goods mistakenly delivered to you. Why is that the case? And why do we regard certain types of theft as “permissible,” such as taking stationery from work (guilty) or using work hours to do non-work related things (guilty right now)?

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, then you might find this discussion highly interesting, though I admit there were times when I thought the analysis got bogged down by too many background explanations which required further background explanations which required even more background explanations.

The subtitle of the book, Theft in the Information Age, is somewhat misleading because we don’t actually discuss the topic until the fourth and final chapter of the book, which is a more general discussion on what types of intangibles can be subject to theft. Having finally gotten through all that muddled legal history and philosophy, this was the most interesting part of the book because Green examines plenty of real life cases.

Examples include Mark Zuckerberg’s “theft” of the idea for Facebook from the Winklevii, and the Apple scandal when a company employee left a prototype of the new iPhone in a bar and it was picked up and sold to tech website Gizmodo. One particular case that surprised me was when an American man kept parking his car outside a coffee shop to take advantage of its free Wi-Fi, and he was arrested and successfully prosecuted for stealing it! There are plenty of other interesting concepts and examples, including the theft of glory (such as pretending to own a Medal of Honor, or plagiarism), identity theft, and even stealing electricity or sex.

IP lawyers should find the intangibles section quite illuminating as it goes into whether intellectual property infringement ought to really categorised as theft. For instance, what does LV really lose when someone buys a cheap Chinese knock-off bag? Would that person have purchased a genuine LV bag if a cheap knock-off wasn’t available? Probably not. So what, if anything, does LV lose? Perhaps a bit of shine off its reputation because people might associate their brand with knock-offs? Food for thought.

It’s genuinely thought-provoking stuff, though the only problem is that you also have to sift through a lot of the deep legal analyses, stuff I’ve been desperately trying to get away from for the last couple of years.

Full credit to Green for tackling such an ambitious project though. It was good to see that he doesn’t just criticise the law — in the book’s conclusion, he puts his money where his mouth is and comes up with a set of brief guidelines (which some might consider too vague) on how the theft system should be overhauled. That said, I found some of his ideas challenging because he takes quite a liberal approach in deciding what types of conduct should be excluded from legal punishment, such as plagiarism and virtual theft (eg, of items in video games such as World of Warcraft), which he believes should be dealt with internally by their respective “narrow” communities. It feels intuitively wrong to let such things go, but hey, he’s the expert.

Anyway, regardless of how I found it (and for the record, I liked it about as much as I can possibly like a “law book”), 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle is a truly groundbreaking effort — arguably because I doubt anyone else has ever had the patience or audacity to write a book like this. It’s insightful and informative and often interesting, though you would have to be a complete law geek to fully appreciate all of it.

3.5/5

Book Review: ‘Cybercrime in the Greater China Region’ by Lennon Yao-chung Chang

July 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

cybercrime

Hey look, this is not the type of book I would usually read out of interest, but since I reviewed it for a trade publication a couple of months ago and found it pretty interesting I thought I would share my thoughts.

The full title of this 2012 book is Cybercrime in the Greater China Region: Regulatory Responses and Crime Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait. It is the PhD thesis of Taiwan-born Lennon Yao-chung Chang at Australia National University. It might sound kinda boring — and there are stretches that remind you very clearly that this is an academic paper — but there are plenty of interesting ideas here because of the fascinating political dynamics at work between Taiwan and China, both of which rank near or at the top in terms of malicious internet activity (in terms of perpetrators and victims).

As this is a relatively untapped area of research, the paper does suffer from limited access to data, especially in China, where every question from a Taiwanese academic would naturally be met with scepticism. The majority of information is therefore accumulated through empirical data and interviews with internet professionals in the private and public sectors and law enforcement on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Taiwan-China relations, cybercrime laws or internet terminology, because those are the things Chang addresses first in the book. He combs through the political situation between the two countries and the official lines of “reunification” and “independence”, and how this would pose difficulties in co-operative cybercrime investigation, prosecution, enforcement, and the concept of dual criminality. He also discusses at some length the legislative provisions from both countries — some of which, particularly in Taiwan, were not developed until only a few years ago (to my surprise, given Taiwan’s reputation as a technology leader).

Chang also explains what are malware, torjans, viruses and bots, which can turn computers effectively into “zombies” that can then be controlled to attack others. The problem with these cybercrime tools is that they adhere well to criminal theory — low cost, low risk and high reward, lots of opportunities and targets, and the lack of a proper reporting system.

The leading legal document tackling international cybercrime is the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, but it happens to be relatively useless to both China and Taiwan. The problem with China is that they are just not that interested in the convention because its laws are too different, and more importantly, the Chinese government wants (or arguable needs) to maintain more control over its internet channels at the expense of the privacy and free speech of its citizens. On the other hand, Taiwan would love to be involved, but it’s not recognised as a country by signatories and is not part of the United Nations.

While the China and Taiwan have in place a number of cooperation agreements between non-governmental organizations that could potentially cover cybercrime, laws still cannot be enforced without government assistance. There are, of course, no official bilateral agreements between the two countries on cybercrime.

The discussions about these diplomatic difficulties and contradictions are where the book gets most interesting. China is really only willing to co-operate with Taiwan if it is also a victim of the same crime, and even then, there are the complexities of the Chinese concepts of guan-xi (personal relationships) and ren-qing (favours) which could prove to be huge stumbling blocks in any joint effort. Even the latest debacle involving Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on US internet and phone surveillance, shows just how hard it is to get anything done when Beijing is involved.

The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the painfully hilarious interviews with Taiwanese experts and officials on cybercrime issues. The problem with Taiwan’s cybercrime enforcement can be summed up as follows: the people who understand the law don’t understand the technology; the people who understand the technology don’t understand the law; the people who want to change the law don’t have the power; and the people who have the power don’t want to change the law. On top of that, all cybercrime investigation teams in the country are pitifully small and often can’t be bothered chasing cybercriminals because of the low success rate.

My favourite quote from the whole book comes from a Taiwanese cybercrime professional. The quote, sadly, would be less funny if it weren’t so true:

Even if the laws are adequate, our…judges and prosecutors are all IDIOTS in the area of technology. This is what I feel ashamed of…We have advanced laws, retarded law enforcement officers, and an insufficient law enforcement system…Almost all the law enforcement officers, around 99% of them are idiots, what can we do? That is nothing to do with laws. Brains need to be changed. What I am always emphasizing is that courts need to be professional. If judges are not professional, then how can we persuade others that our courts are professional?

So how does Chang suggest we can change the situation? Well, the last portion of the book is dedicated to his recommendation, which is to develop a “wiki” approach to cybercrime that embraces an information-sharing platform with a gatekeeper and very specific protocols. The voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System is noted as a possible blueprint.

Chang also calls on the media, especially in Taiwan, to not sensationalise cybercrime and to change the “image” of the victims, who often do not report out of fears of losing face and being audited. He compared the victims of cybercrime to the victims of sexual assault and infectious diseases in the sense that there is a stigma attached to them — this has to be changed in order for cybercrime enforcement to take the next step, he says.

Giving this kind of book a rating is difficult because as an academic paper it lacks of proper narrative thread and has many dry patches that could put anyone not using the book for research (and probably them too) to sleep. The fact that English is not Chang’s first language often sticks out like a sore thumb, notwithstanding the best efforts of his editors. The lack of data and cooperation from China was also frustrating at times. But I suppose for an academic paper it does have some very interesting sections and even a few that I found quite funny. Given the dearth of information available about this topic for now, the book is also possibly the most authoritative piece of research on it, so extra brownie points for that.

But let’s not pretend anyone would read it unless they had to.

3/5

Moving forward without regrets

September 23, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, On Writing

I had a great catch up with one of my former bosses this week.  He’s undoubtedly the best supervising partner I’ve ever had (where I worked that didn’t mean much), though he didn’t really supervise me much as I was often pulled away by other partners for long-term deals and projects.  However, I always appreciated his sharp wit and I was extremely grateful for his help and support when I told him I had decided to make a switch (and he wasn’t even my supervisor then).  Interestingly, both of us have left our old firm and are starting something new.  I’m heading into the uncharted waters of writing while he has abandoned his million-dollar income for a fresh life as a barrister.

[For those who aren’t familiar, we used to work in a commercial law firm where we represented and advised corporate clients.  We could attend court on our clients’ behalf but that’s not our specialty — for contentious points of law or full blown trials and hearings we usually brief barristers (the guys that wear cloaks and wigs) to get their expert opinion or to get them to represent the client on our behalf.  In some ways, barristers are like freelance writers who have to manage their own business and clients.  Good ones earn big bucks.  Bad ones struggle to make ends meet.  In Australia, you only need to take the bar exam to become a barrister — in America you need to pass it just to practice as an ordinary lawyer.]

For both of us, the decision to leave was not all that hard.  Obviously it was easier for me because I had only been a lawyer for about four years and I had lost all passion for the work I was doing.  Well, it’s questionable whether I ever had the ‘passion’ to begin with.  Enthusiasm, maybe, but I wouldn’t go much further than that.  On top of that there was the constant stress, anxiety and long hours that had morphed my once youthful appearance into something more commensurate to my real age, or perhaps even beyond.  I just wanted to get out, and the earlier I did it the better.

For him, it must have been a titanic struggle.  He had been a partner for almost a decade, meaning he was probably taking home around $1.5m a year.  Most barristers apparently make a loss in their first year or two while they build their profile and business.  With a family and several young children to support, the financial comfort could have been reason enough to tough it out.  But he admitted that he had had enough of the place and that he simply wasn’t enjoying it any more.  Partners were dropping like flies in the prolonged aftermath of the 2008 GFC and there must have been ridiculous pressure to keep his practice afloat.

I’d be lying if I said I never wondered what it would be like had I not quit the law and just stuck with it.  On good days I would think about the positives of working there, such as the pay, friends and the perks that come with working in a big firm with loads of money to throw around.  If I had stayed, I would have been earning well in excess of a 6-figure salary by now, and considering how tough it’s been financially the last year or so (thank goodness the wife still earns something), that money surely would have been nice to have.

I have a few friends who started around the same time as me that are earning big bucks now, and a few aren’t all that far away from partnership (in that I mean 3 or 4 years…if they’re lucky).  I had another friend who left the law to become a journalist tell me the other day that a former colleague of ours (whom a new recruit once thought was my gay lover — we arrived late together to an after-work function) is now a partner at a rival law firm.  He had just been made senior associate when I was around and must have taken the fast track to partnership.  I couldn’t picture the campy person that I knew, with his arms flailing all over the place every time he spoke, being a partner of a big law firm.  And yet he was.

My ex-supervisor had told me before, and he told me again when we caught up, that I’d most probably make partner if I stayed.  For a moment my ego inflated and I fantasised the prestige and income that came with it.  But just as quickly I tore it down.  There wasn’t any part of me that wanted that life any more, and certainly no part of me was willing to endure the torture to get there.

He then said something that made a lot of sense, and applied to both of us.  He said that he could have, if he really wanted to, toughed it out — but then he would have always regretted not giving his new career a try.  He had always wanted to be a barrister but, like many others before him, got caught up in the partnership ladder and never got to live his dream.  If things don’t work out as a barrister, then fine, he would seek something else, but at least he knew in his heart that he gave it a try.

I feel the same.  You won’t believe how many people think I’m crazy for switching to writing — most just give a friendly warning about how hard it is but you can tell from their eyes that they think you’re crazier than a bald-headed Britney.  But if my ex-supervisor — someone that had already done the hard yards and was earning millions could walk away and start over — and can bear the condescension and doubting voices of his family, friends and peers, then surely it can’t be that hard for someone like me.  I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have the ability and opportunity to make a change.  If I don’t take advantage of it and put in 100% then I am a fool.

The fear and doubt is still there but at least I am moving forward with no regrets.

Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

April 6, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Initially, I thought the prospect of watching a movie involving the law and Matthew McConaughey’s acting would be too much for me to swallow.  But somehow, I found myself in the cinema checking out The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s bestselling book of the same name.

And I was surprised.  Pleasantly surprised.  The Lincoln Lawyer‘s protagonist Mickey Haller seems to have been tailor made for McConaughey (in what must be the performance of his life), and as legal thrillers go, this one is pretty darn compelling.

McConaughey is Haller, a criminal defense attorney who has no qualms representing and freeing shady characters.  He is driven around in a Lincoln Town car (and hence the lame name) and has an ex-wife (who turns out to be a prosecutor) played by Marisa Tomei.  One day he’s called to represent Louis Roulet, an iffy playboy played by Ryan Phillippe, who has been charged with attempted rape and murder.

That’s all I’ll go into, but The Lincoln Lawyer‘s plot is much more complex than that.  There are the usual twists and turns, the dangerous confrontations and the exciting courtroom drama scenes.  It’s one of those films where all the threads are eventually tied together, so you should pay close attention to or you may risk missing a connection.

Truth be told, this is a formulaic legal thriller.  What makes The Lincoln Lawyer better than most other films of this kind is the strong story and, it pains me to say this, McConaughey’s charming performance.  I’m used to him being a smug douche, but here he exhibits genuine range and carries the film on his back from start to finish.

Marisa Tomei is also excellent, bringing a presence to character who would have otherwise been rather forgettable, as were Ryan Phillippe and one of my favourites, William H Macy, as Haller’s best friend and investigator.

One major complaint I have was the first few scenes of the film, which were inexplicably shot with an extremely shaky handy cam that loved weird close ups.  I started out thinking, if the rest of the film was going to be like this, it’s going to be very difficult to sit through.  Fortunately, director Brad Furman’s style quickly settled down and prevented a disaster.

The Lincoln Lawyer is far from perfect, but it certainly exceeded my expectations.  Genuinely good legal thrillers capable of capturing an audience’s attention for two fours are hard to come by these days, so I’d definitely recommend giving it a go.

4 stars out of 5

The Trouble With Being An Ex-Lawyer

April 26, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study

You don't need double talk, you need Bob Loblaw!

I thought I had left my legal career behind for good, but apparently not so.

The trouble with people knowing that you once practised law is that they think you love giving legal advice and drafting legal documents for free in your spare time.  Not that I mind helping people — it’s just that I don’t feel like doing anything related to law anymore…why else would I have retreated from the profession like a frightened turtle?

But alas, I am still technically qualified to dish out legal advice until the end of this financial year.  Accordingly, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reviewing contracts and drafting letters as favours for friends and family friends.  And the thing is, some people tend to think that if you are a lawyer, you know everything about the law.  Not the case.  Even when I was practising I seldom had any idea what I was doing right off the bat.  There’s almost always a lot of research and reading involved, and when all else fails, ask the firm expert, of which there is always one (why do you think lawyers cost so damn much to hire?)

There are also a couple of other complications.  First, when you do stuff for a friend (and especially a family friend), the stakes are a lot higher.  You can’t afford to stuff up, and the consequences of stuffing up are far worse (from a mental and emotional standpoint) than when they happen at work.  You can always look for a new job, but how can you look your parents in the eyes when you have fucked up the lives of their friends?  Second (and this is related), you don’t have a boss/supervisor to review your work and fix it up.  Whatever you do, that’s it.

So it’s strange but it’s true — I am far more careful and meticulous when doing legal stuff for people who don’t pay me.  And I take a hell of a lot longer.

I really should be working on my numerous assessments, and if not, my other writing projects (ie two novels).  And if not that, I should be doing other things to get my writing out there, such as entering competitions and sending works to publications to get credits under my belt.  But unfortunately, I’m still haunted by the career I tried to leave behind.

As Jack Bauer would say, “Dammit!”