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Posted Jan. 20, 2010

J-Term Courses Hit Full Stride

Donal O'Donnell

More than 300 students are taking January Term courses at the Law School this week, studying subjects ranging from professional baseball to the emerging world of search engine law.

The one-credit courses began Monday and run through Friday, and offer an opportunity for students to intensively examine a subject, according to Professor John Setear, who is teaching a short course on the laws and rules governing professional baseball.

“It’s pretty intense for them to meet for three hours a day,” Setear said. “It’s a lot of work, but it means they are able to focus on one particular thing.”

In his baseball course, students take a look baseball’s collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the team owners, read a book about the first player to legally challenge Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, and talk about the quasi-legal aspects of baseball such as revenue sharing, the playoff structure and the allocation of teams to different divisions.

The January Term course grew out of a semester-long class Setear taught called “Ballots, Baseballs and Bombers,” which looked at the interaction between legal and nonlegal rules in presidential elections, Major League Baseball and strategic bombing during World War II.

This week, students in the January Term class are reading a book about Curt Flood, a St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who in the 1970s sued the league to challenge its reserve clause, which allowed teams to retain ownership rights to a player even after that player’s contract had expired.

Flood had been traded to the then-woeful Philadelphia Phillies, and did not want to go.

“He claimed the reserve clause was an antitrust violation,” Setear said. “The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, though Flood lost. It’s a case that stands for the often-stated proposition that baseball is exempt from the antitrust regulation.”

Students also read the infamous 1975 Pennsylvania Law Review article “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule,” and discuss the respective roles of judges and umpires.

“I think the January Term is nice because they are one credit courses, and sometimes you want to teach something that is probably not broad enough to make into a semester-long course but is still an interesting topic,” Setear said.

Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, is teaching a January Term class on search engine law, which he described as an emerging and constantly changing field.

“The course is a quick introduction to the legal analysis of a number of hot issues involving search engines,” Vaidhyanathan said.

The legal analysis of search engines primarily involves privacy, antitrust and copyright issues, but the course ends with a general consideration of the possible need for regulation of the search engine industry, he said.

“Should there be public standards for search engines?” Vaidhyanathan said. “Should there be stricter limits on their ability to harvest data from people? Should there be more transparency in the industry? Should there be a better competitive environment in the industry?”

Vaidhyanathan is currently working on a book about Google, which he said has cornered more than 70 percent of the U.S. search engine market and more than 90 percent of the market in Western Europe. Some regulators are now looking at the company, but the underlying issues matter regardless of who is winning the search engine race, he said.

“Search engines have become the lens through which we discover the world, and Google itself has proliferated its activities into all sorts of areas: geographic information, e-mail hosting, Web applications and voice communication. Every move that Google makes, it raises hot issues that the legal community is fascinated by.”

Vaidhyanathan said he hopes to introduce students to the boundaries of the legal arguments involving search engine law, with the goal that they will take out of the experience a “kernel of a critical position that might someday flower into a publishable article.”

“As I looked at what one could accomplish within a week I thought two things: You could have some fabulous intensive discussions over the course of a week, as if you are at a long and heavy conference on a subject. And then you could hope to spur them to ask questions and sort of outline a research project. I would not be surprised if some of the students who are also involved in my spring class on the theory and history of intellectual property run with these issues.”