Tidbit creators in legal battle for innovation rights

To protect the innovative rights of students, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation are resisting a subpoena issued to MIT undergraduates who invented a unique Bitcoin-harvesting method. 

Jeremy Rubin, one of four undergraduates at MIT who was involved in the idea, was subpoenaed by the acting state Attorney General of New Jersey John Hoffman because of legal complications concerning an invention that mines Bitcoins as an alternative to website advertising. This happened after their invention, Tidbit, won the “most innovative” award at a hackathon, a collaboration event between software developers.

The students are receiving legal counsel pro bono from EFF, whose mission is to provide protection to clients when free speech, privacy and innovation come under attack in the digital world. Hanni Fakhoury, one of the attorneys on this case, said students’ right to innovate need to be guaranteed all across the country.

“We’ve now moved to quash that subpoena in New Jersey state court,” he said. “EFF has long had an interest in protecting technology innovators from government overreach, particularly when it comes to student innovators. We’ve previously represented MIT students before, and this situation seemed like a situation where our expertise and interest was needed.”

Fakhoury said he hopes this will not make students apprehensive to invent things. He also emphasized that the state of New Jersey should not be attacking Massachusetts students.

“Legal threats like this pose a significant chilling effect on student innovators who now have to worry about the government aggressively investigating their behavior,” he said. “If the court quashes the subpoena, and we’re hopeful it will, that would hopefully send a message to state Attorney Generals throughout the country about the need to investigate cautiously and within their jurisdictional boundaries.”

After a petition from the faculty, MIT President Rafael Reif, announced the Institute’s support for the students and their rights to share creative ideas publicly. He distributed an email to the entire community of MIT expressing how this case endangered the creative rights of all students.

“[This] concerns all of us, because it highlights issues central to sustaining the creative culture of MIT,” he wrote in the email. “I want to make it clear that the students who created Tidbit have the full and enthusiastic support of MIT. We will remain in close coordination with the students and the EFF to offer assistance in the legal proceedings.”

Reif also mentioned a plan to provide resources to students who encounter similar problems with inventions and start-ups in the future.

“Beyond this specific case, I believe we should provide our student inventors and entrepreneurs with a resource for independent legal advice, singularly devoted to their interests and rights,” he wrote. “I have asked the Provost, Chancellor and General Counsel to develop and submit to me a specific proposal for creating such a resource, which will add an essential new strength to MIT’s innovation ecosystem.”

Some residents said they are glad MIT decided to support their students, and it is their responsibility since what the students do at school and after graduation is what makes the university valid.

“If it was done on MIT property, with their materials, their labs and their professor helping the students, then MIT should definitely be involved in the legal battle,” said Larry Valles, 58, of Boston. “Their innovative students are the reason they’re seen as a quality university.”

Angela Lewis, 44, of East Boston, said since the invention was not officially published she does not see what ground the Hoffman has to stand on.

“Asking for all their documents and ideas and such, what reason does he have to do that,” she said. “It’s definitely a freedom of speech issue.”

Tim Wilde, 31, of the South End, said this case is special in that it lies in a legal gray area.

“I know a little bit about this and I think there’s a bit of a gray line there, where they may not have had as much consent as they should have had in using other peoples computing resources,” he said. “I think they were operating in a bit of a gray area, and it shouldn’t deter others from being innovative.”

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