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Revenge porn, patent trolls targets of tech-minded law prof

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This law professor has created a one-stop online shop for putting a stop to revenge porn.

A legal hack-athon hosted by Brooklyn Law School professor Jonathan Askin last year as part of his Incubator Project resulted in a website that generates cease-and-desist letters for people to send to companies hosting explicit photos of them without their permission. Law students and web developers made the “Take My Photo Down” site because they had the know-how to offer a simple remedy to the cruel practice.

“They wanted to offer a free service to get those photos taken down,” Askin said.

The fact that many of the nude photos and videos floating around on the internet were taken by the people who appear in them means that they are easier to get removed, because the victim is the copyright holder, the website explains.

The privacy-themed hack-athon that gave rise to the letter generator was just one of many initiatives that have come out of Askin’s project, the day-to-day operation of which is focused on giving new tech companies free legal advice and providing hands-on experience for law students. Askin booted up the clinic in 2008 and, as the years go by, its clients are increasingly coming from this side of the East River, he said.

“When we first started we were seeing a lot of companies based in Silcon Alley,” Askin said. “But it’s all migrating. We’re finding ourselves more and more focused on Brooklyn tech startups.”

The clinic, which Askin says has helped more than 700 clients, now has outposts in Dumbo and in Downtown’s MetroTech Center.

“We really wanted to embed ourselves in the Brooklyn tech community,” he said.

Askin and his students help budding companies fight patent trolls, draw up terms of services agreements, and deal with getting sued. Their focus is startups that do not yet have the money to cover lawyers. One such client is Push for Pizza, the ultra-simple pizza-ordering app recently featured in this column.

Askin’s group helped the Park Slope teens who built the app to craft the privacy policy that applies to the relationship between the company and the app’s users. Cyrus Summerlin, one of the pizza pushers, said his young company would be in trouble without the clinic.

“It’s an invaluable resource,” he said. “It’s really good for startups like us. And its also really good for the law students.”

The clinic also works on broader legal issues that are emerging as technology changes. This includes helping companies that are trying to create a mechanism for crowd-sourcing investment in start-ups. Such a system would work like Kickstarter, only backers would get some kind of stake in the company rather than just a nominal gift.

Patent trolls, who file patents for products they never intend to make, then sue new companies for infringement, also keep the tech-minded legal scholars busy, Askin said.

“If not for free legal services, these small startups would cave to the trolls immediately,” he said.

The spirit of collaboration driving the legal hack-athons and pro bono work comes out of hacker culture, which lawyers could learn a lot from, according to the prof.

“We want to bring that coder or hacker ethos to the legal profession,” Askin said. “If lawyers could start collaborating more it would be beneficial for everyone.”

• • •

Makerbot co-founder Bre Petis is diving into a new initiative called Bold Machines: The Innovation Workshop at Stratasys. Working with Makerbot’s parent company Stratasys, which purchased the three-dimensional-printer manufacturer in 2013, Petis want to push the boundaries of the technology he helped make mainstream. Bold Machines’ first project, called “Margo,” is supposed to reverse-engineer the movie-making process. Petis is pitching it as a complete story line that anyone can act out with model characters that are printable using designs at www.thingiverse.com, the online design repository also run by Stratasys.

• • •

596 Acres, the advocacy group whose website helps gardeners and park lovers gain access to fallow land in the city, is holding a fund-raiser next month. Money raised at the Oct. 2 event, sponsored in part by mapping company CartoDB and craft giant Etsy, is supposed to go toward developing new mapping tools and teaching community organizations how to use them.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Posted 12:00 am, September 25, 2014
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