30 September 2009

What Light on Yonder gov.uk Site Breaks?

The first glint of hope for openness in the UK government begins to sparkle:

From today we are inviting developers to show government how to get the future public data site right - how to find and use public sector information.

The developer community through initiatives such as Show Us a Better Way, the Power of Information Taskforce, MySociety and Rewired State have consistently demonstrated their eagerness and abilities to "Code a Better Country". You have given us evidence and examples to help drive this forward within government.

We have an early preview of what the site could look like; we are now inviting interaction and comment from the developer community. With over 1000 existing data sets, from 7 departments (brought together in re-useable form for the first time) and community resources, we want developers to work with us to use the data to create great applications; give us feedback on the early operational community; and tell us how to develop what we have into a single point of access for government-held public data.

We know it is still work in progress, and there’s still a lot to do. That’s why we need you to help us get this right. Let us know what features or changes would make the site better for your and what other data sources you would like to see here.

Now there's an offer you can't refuse...get stuck in, people. (Via Glyn Wintle.)

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29 September 2009

Thanks for Keeping us in the Picture

Although e-petitions don't often accomplish much (the apology for Alan Turing being a notable exception), they do have the virtue of forcing the UK government to say something. In response to this:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to remove new restrictions on photography in public places.”

we got this:

It is a statutory defence for a person to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for eliciting, publishing or communicating the relevant information. Legitimate journalistic activity (such as covering a demonstration for a newspaper) is likely to constitute such an excuse. Similarly, an innocent tourist or other sight-seer taking a photograph of a police officer is likely to have a reasonable excuse.

Since most people can't *prove* they had reasonable excuse for taking a photo - is "because it was a nice shot" *reasonable*? And how do you *prove* it was reasonable at the time? - this very high legal bar obviously implies that non-journalistic Brits had better not take any snaps of Plod because, otherwise, you're nicked.

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26 September 2009

Freedom is Slavery, Slavery is Freedom

The Competitive Enterprise Institute is always good for a laugh thanks to its transparent agenda (the use of the weasel word "competitive" gives it away), and it doesn't disappoint in the following, which is about the evils of net neutrality and openness:

Consider the Apple iPhone. The remarkably successful smartphone has arguably been a game-changer in the wireless world, having sold tens of millions of handsets since its 2007 launch and spurring dozens of would-be “iPhone killers” in the process. If you listen to net neutrality advocates’ mantra, you would assume the iPhone must be a wide open device with next to no restrictions. You would be mistaken. In fact, the iPhone is a prototypical “walled garden.” Apple vets every single iPhone app, and Apple reserves the right to reject iPhone apps if they “duplicate [iPhone] functionality” or “create significant network congestion.”

Why, then, has the iPhone enjoyed such popularity? It’s because consumer preferences are diverse and constantly evolving. Most users, it seems, do not place openness on the same pedestal that net neutrality advocates do. Proprietary platforms like the iPhone have advantages of their own– a cohesive, centrally-managed user experience, for one– but have disadvantages as well.

Which is fair enough. But it then goes on to say:

But under the FCC’s proposed neutrality rules, the iPhone and similar devices that place limits on the content and applications that users can access would likely be against the law.

Net neutrality has nothing to do with the edges - which is where the iPhone resides - and everything about the wiring that connects the edges. It is about preventing those who control the networks from blocking innovative services - like the iPhone - being offered across them. It would only apply if Apple owned the network and refused to allow third parties to offer rival services to its iPhone - clearly not the case. It does not forbid Apple from choosing which apps to run on the iPhone, any more than it forces Microsoft to go open source.

Painting the freedom of net neutrality as a kind of slavery in this way is really a tour-de-force of topsy-turvism, even by the high standards of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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25 September 2009

Won't Someone Please Think of the, er, Plants?

I've tweeted this, but it's so good, I just have to blog it too:

CO2 is not a pollutant. CO2 makes Earth green because it supports all plant life. It is Earth's greatest airborne fertilizer. Even man-made CO2 contributes to plant growth that in turn sustains humanity and ecosystems.

CO2 Is Green is working to insure that all federal laws or regulations are founded upon science and not politics or scientific myths. No one wants the plant and animal kingdoms, including humanity, to be harmed if atmospheric CO2 is reduced. The current dialog in Washington needs to reflect these inalterable facts of nature. We cannot afford to make mistakes that would actually harm both the plant and animal kingdoms.

Oh lordy, those poor little plants and animals - deprived of the life-giving CO2. How could mankind be so cruel and insensate? How could we have overlooked such an obvious thing until now?

Update: Don't miss Adam Pope's super-sleuthing in the comments that suggests this site just might have something to do with the gas and oil industries...

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24 September 2009

More Evil from the Intellectual Monopolies Mob

One of the best windows into the otherwise dark and murky world of backroom deals among proponents of intellectual monopolies can be found in the reports on the U.S.-EU IPR Enforcement Working Group (doesn't that word "enforcement" really say it all?). Here are a couple of the highlights of the latest one:

The U.S. and EU both expressed a desire to engage labor movements in delivering a “positive and constructive message” about IPR protection and enforcement. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and IIPA (International Intellectual Property Association) were both very enthusiastic about this proposal.

Basically, the IM mob are desperately trying to con unions into doing their dirty work by pushing out propaganda on intellectual monopolies. I just love the line "The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and IIPA (International Intellectual Property Association) were both very enthusiastic about this proposal": you bet they are. Their own ham-fisted efforts have backfired so spectacularly that they are desperate for someone else not tainted by their inept approach of punishing consumers to try.

The following is also significant:

The discussion on future work mostly focus on climate change. General Electric and Microsoft were particularly outspoken in highlighting their fear that some current negotiations over green technology and IPR would weaken IPR. They also denounced the inclusion of proposals that limit patentable subject matter and recommend compulsory licenses or licenses of rights.

As well as Microsoft's usual bleating about not being allowed to patent software in some jurisdictions, it's interesting to note that both it and General Electric seem to rate the preservation of intellectual monopolies rather higher than the preservation of our planet. Pure evil. (Via Ray Corrigan.)

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Cracks in the ACTA Wall of Secrecy

I've lamented many times the totally unjustified secrecy of the ACTA negotiations: these affect billions of people who have a right to know what their elected representatives are up to before this stuff is simply imposed on us. Hitherto, there's been no suggestion of any dissension within the ACTA ranks; so this comment in a blog post from Jamie Love about a lunch meeting of civil society NGOs held by the UK's Intellectual Property Office during the WIPO meeting is intriguing:

The UK IP office said it had complained frequently of the secrecy of the ACTA negotiations.

Perhaps if we can get a few more of the insiders moaning about this unnecessary lack of transparency, things will finally start moving.

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23 September 2009

Big Win for GNU GPL in France

One of the fallback positions for purveyors of FUD is that the GNU GPL may not be valid, because it hasn't been properly tested in court. That's getting increasingly implausible as a stance. After being upheld in Germany a few times, here's a big decision in its favour in France:

In a landmark ruling that will set legal precedent, the Paris Court of Appeals decided last week that the company Edu4 violated the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) when it distributed binary copies of the remote desktop access software VNC but denied users access to its corresponding source code. The suit was filed by Association pour la formation professionnelle des adultes (AFPA), a French education organization.


The events of the case go back to early 2000, when Edu4 was hired to provide new computer equipment in AFPA's classrooms. Shortly thereafter, AFPA discovered that VNC was distributed with this equipment. Despite repeated requests, with mediation from the Free Software Foundation France, Edu4 refused to provide AFPA with the source code to this version of VNC. Furthermore, FSF France later discovered that Edu4 had removed copyright and license notices in the software. All of these activities violate the terms of the GNU GPL. AFPA filed suit in 2002 to protect its rights and obtain the source code.

There are a couple of important points about this decision. The first is noted in the post quoted above:

"what makes this ruling unique is the fact that the suit was filed by a user of the software, instead of a copyright holder. It's a commonly held belief that only the copyright holder of a work can enforce the license's terms - but that's not true in France. People who received software under the GNU GPL can also request compliance, since the license grants them rights from the authors."

The other point flows from this. The French legal system has many novel aspects, so it's important that the GNU GPL was upheld here, just as it was in Germany. It means that not only is the approach that the GPL takes being upheld by courts, it is being upheld in courts that look at things from different legal perspectives. That augurs well for future rulings in other jurisdictions.

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21 September 2009

Microsoft, Monsanto and Intellectual Monopolies

Here's a brilliant, must-read feature exposing some of the hidden agendas of the Green Revolution and the dark side of the Gates Foundation's work in Africa. In particular, it makes explicit the symmetry of Microsoft and Monsanto in their use of intellectual monopolies to make their users increasingly powerless:

The preference for private sector contributions to agriculture shapes the Gates Foundation's funding priorities. In a number of grants, for instance, one corporation appears repeatedly--Monsanto. To some extent, this simply reflects Monsanto's domination of industrial agricultural research. There are, however, notable synergies between Gates and Monsanto: both are corporate titans that have made millions through technology, in particular through the aggressive defense of proprietary intellectual property. Both organizations are suffused by a culture of expertise, and there's some overlap between them. Robert Horsch, a former senior vice president at Monsanto, is, for instance, now interim director of Gates's agricultural development program and head of the science and technology team. Travis English and Paige Miller, researchers with the Seattle-based Community Alliance for Global Justice, have uncovered some striking trends in Gates Foundation funding. By following the money, English told us that "AGRA used funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to write twenty-three grants for projects in Kenya. Twelve of those recipients are involved in research in genetically modified agriculture, development or advocacy. About 79 percent of funding in Kenya involves biotech in one way or another." And, English says, "so far, we have found over $100 million in grants to organizations connected to Monsanto."

This isn't surprising in light of the fact that Monsanto and Gates both embrace a model of agriculture that sees farmers suffering a deficit of knowledge--in which seeds, like little tiny beads of software, can be programmed to transmit that knowledge for commercial purposes. This assumes that Green Revolution technologies--including those that substitute for farmers' knowledge--are not only desirable but neutral. Knowledge is never neutral, however: it inevitably carries and influences relations of power.

I fear that with hindsight we will see that contrary to the almost universal view that Gates is redeeming his bad boy years at Microsoft with the good boy promises of his Foundation, Gates will actually do even more damage in the realm of agriculture than he has in the world of computing. (Via Roy Schestowitz.)

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On the Road to Mendeley

Vic Keegan had an interesting article in the Guardian last week about a new site mendeley.com:

The music radio site Last.fm is one of the great ideas from the UK during the first dotcom boom. Users can listen to their own songs and other tracks recommended by Last.fm's algorithms based on their tastes, including iTunes, and those of friends. It could easily have been a one-trick pony. But now a few academics have applied its serendipity to scientific research. Why can't researchers, instead of waiting anywhere up to three years for their papers to jump all the hurdles, be part of a real-time market place – a fusion of iTunes and Last.fm for science? They pitched the idea, among others, to two of Last.fm's investors: Spencer Hyman and Stefan Glaenzer, newly enriched by the sale of Last.fm to CBS. They bought into the idea of using the site's principles to aggregate users' data (anonymously) while building up a databank of articles. Now the show is on the road and expanding fast. It is free, but a premium version will be added soon.

What's particularly fascinating is to see the cross-over of ideas from arts to science, and that both are driven by the insight that sharing with others brings huge benefits to them and to you.

Even though it's not open source, it's good to see that from the start there's a GNU/Linux version of the Mendeley client. Since the power of the site comes from the network effects of sharing, not the secret sauce hidden in the code, there doesn't seem to be any reason why that code shouldn't be opened up, and plenty of benefits in doing so. Now that Mendeley has started on its journey of sharing, let's hope they go the whole way.

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17 September 2009

Analogue or Digital? - Both, Please

Recently, I bought the complete works of Brahms. Of course, I was faced with the by-now common problem of whether to buy nostalgic CDs, or evanescent MP3s. The price was about the same, so there was no guidance there. Of course, ecologically, I should have gone for the downloads, but in the end I choose the CDs - partly for the liner stuff you never get with an MP3, and partly because I have the option of degrading the CD bits to lossy MP3, which doesn't work so well the other way.

So imagine my surprise - and delight - when I discovered after paying for said CDs that the company - Deutsche Grammophon - had also given me access to most of the CDs as streams from its Web site, for no extra cost (I imagine the same would have been true of the MP3s). This was a shrewd move because (a) it made me feel good about the company, even though it cost them very little, and (b) I'm now telling people about this fact, which is great publicity for them.

But maybe my delight is actually a symptom of something deeper: that having access to both analogue and digital instantiations of information is getting the best of both worlds.

This struck me when I read the following story:

Google will make some 2 million out-of-copyright books that it has digitally scanned available for on-demand printing in a deal announced Thursday. The deal with On Demand Books, a private New York-based company, lets consumers print a book in about 10 minutes, and any title will cost around $8.

The books are part of a 10 million title corpus of texts that Google ( GOOG - news - people ) has scanned from libraries in the U.S. and Europe. The books were published before 1923, and therefore do not fall under the copyright dispute that pits Google against interests in technology, publishing and the public sector that oppose the company's plans to allow access to the full corpus.

That in itself, is intriguing: Google getting into analogue goods? But the real importance of this move is hinted at in the following:

On Demand already has 1.6 million titles available for print, but the Google books are likely to be more popular, as they can be searched for and examined through Google's popular engine.

That's true, but not really the key point, which is that as well as being able to search *for* books, you can search *through* them. That is, Google is giving you an online search capability for the physical books you buy from them.

This is a huge breakthrough. At the moment, you have to choose between the pleasure of reading an analogue artefact, and the convenience of its digital equivalent. With this new scheme, Google will let you find a particular phrase - or even word - in the book you have in your hands, because the latter is a physical embodiment of the one you use on the screen to search through its text.

The trouble is, of course, that this amazing facility is only available for those books out of copyright that Google has scanned. Which gives us yet another reason for repealing the extraordinarily stupid copyright laws that stop this kind of powerful service being offered for *all* text.

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16 September 2009

From the GNU GPL to GISAID's EpiFlu

A few months ago, I wrote about GISAID, which takes a rather interesting and - to readers of this blog, at least - familiar approach to sharing genomic data:

Registered users can upload data relating to sequences, clinical manifestations in humans, epidemiology, observations in poultry and other animals, etc. These data will be accessible to all other registered users, but not to others unless they have agreed to the same terms of use. This maintains confidentiality of the data.

This is, of course, the same as the GNU GPL: do as you would be done by - if you want to use the GPL'd code, you can, but you must share with everyone the results of your work if you decide to share it with anyone.

The GNU GPL was radical in its time, and the GISAID approach with its EpiFlu database, containing flu virus sequences, is also challenging - and meeting its own obstacles:

Today, the GISAID database (which is called EpiFlu) features both genomic and epidemiological data on tens of thousands of virus samples. At least until recently, the project seemed to be working. During the H1N1 outbreak, so many sequences were being submitted so quickly that researchers were literally watching clusters of outbreaks in real time.

Then, in July of 2009, the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) in Geneva, which has managed the database since 2006, removed EpiFlu from the GISAID Web site, making it available only to users redirected to SIB's Web site. SIB claims that GISAID had breached contract by failing to pay its bills on time, thereby relinquishing its rights to the database.

Let's hope that the SIB comes to its senses before it loses more of its credibility as a modern scientific organisation. Its high-handed claiming of "rights" to a commons created by others is simply not acceptable in the 21st century - which, if it has a future, will be one based around precisely the kind of sharing practised by GISAID.

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15 September 2009

Nonplussed by Non-Commercial

One of the vexed issues in the world of Creative Commons licensing is what, exactly, is meant by "non-commercial" use. In an attempt to clarify things, the Creative Commons people have commissioned a study, which has now appeared. Here are some of the highlights according to the press release:

Creative Commons noncommercial licenses preclude use of a work “in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.” The majority of respondents (87% of creators, 85% of users) replied that the definition was “essentially the same as” (43% of creators, 42% of users) or “different from but still compatible with” (44% of creators, 43% of users) theirs. Only 7% of creators and 11% of users replied that the term was “different from and incompatible with” their definition.

Other highlights from the study include the rating by content creators and users of different uses of online content as either “commercial” or “noncommercial” on a scale of 1-100, where 1 is “definitely noncommercial” and 100 is “definitely commercial.” On this scale, creators and users (84.6 and 82.6, respectively) both rate uses in connection with online advertising generally as “commercial.” However, more specific use cases revealed that many interpretations are fact-specific. For example, creators and users gave the specific use case “not-for-profit organization uses work on its site, organization makes enough money from ads to cover hosting costs” ratings of 59.2 and 71.7, respectively.

On the same scale, creators and users (89.4 and 91.7, respectively) both rate uses in which money is made as being commercial, yet again those ratings are lower in use cases specifying cost recovery or use by not-for-profits. Finally, both groups rate “personal or private” use as noncommercial, though creators did so less strongly than users (24.3 and 16.0, respectively, on the same scale).

In open access polls, CC’s global network of “friends and family” rate some uses differently from the U.S. online population—although direct empirical comparisons may not be drawn from these data. For example, creators and users in these polls rate uses by not-for-profit organizations with advertisements as a means of cost recovery at 35.7 and 40.3, respectively—somewhat more noncommercial. They also rate “personal or private” use as strongly noncommercial—8.2 and 7.8, respectively—again on a scale of 1-100 where 1 is “definitely noncommercial” and 100 is “definitely commercial.”

I hope you got all that, for I certainly didn't. All that comes across to me from these figures is that "non-commercial" is so fluid a concept as to be useless.

The Creative Commons people rather created a rod for their own backs when they allowed this particular licence, which was bound to problematic. Indeed, it's striking that the GNU GPL, which doesn't allow this restriction, avoids all these issues entirely. Probably too late now to do anything about it...other than commissioning surveys, of course.

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14 September 2009

Wikipedia + Flickr = Fotopedia

I am a huge fan of Wikipedia, one of the greatest achievements of sharing; I also enjoy wandering around Flickr, although its lack of over-arching organisation makes that hard to do. Maybe this is perfect solution: Fotopedia, "the first collaborative photo encyclopedia", which uses text from Wikipedia, but only to provide what amount to extended captions for the pix, which are generally very attractive.

It's not the first to do this - VisWiki has been around for some time - but Fotopedia seems to take a much more visual approach, which I find very pleasing, because it creates more than just a highly-illustrated version of Wikipedia. Articles and their pix are a little thin on the ground at the moment, but with any luck, that won't be the case for long once word gets out - and pictures start pouring in.

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MakeHuman Makes Open Source More Human

One of the canards about open source is that it only produces hardcore hacker programs - dev tools, infrastructural stuff etc. - that have little to offer the general, non-technical, *normal* user. While that may have been true ten years ago, things have moved on.

For example, here's MakeHuman, an amazing program that lets you create photorealistic 3D humanoid characters:

MakeHuman is an open source (so it's completely free), innovative and professional software for the modelling of 3-Dimensional humanoid characters. Features that make this software unique include a new, highly intuitive GUI and a high quality mesh, optimized to work in subdivision surface mode (for example, Zbrush). Using MakeHuman, a photorealistic character can be modeled in less than 2 minutes; MakeHuman is released under an Open Source Licence (GPL3.0) , and is available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

The MakeHuman 0.9.1 Release Candidate was published in December 2007, prompting considerable community feedback.

Development effort is currently focused on the 1.0 Release, based on a new GUI and a 4th generation mesh. This release also incorporates considerable changes to the code base which now uses a small, efficient core application written in C, with most of the user functionality being implemented in Python. Because Python is an interpreted scripting language, this means that a wide range of scripts, plugins and utilities can be added without needing to rebuild the application.

Even the alpha version is incredibly impressive - real drag and drop 3D humanoid manipulation (*very* eerie), with a simple-to-use interface. If you think that free software is only about important but boring stuff, try out MakeHuman, and be amazed.

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Checks Are Indeed Needed - on Reality

Here's an unbelievably shameless attempt by Sir Roger Singleton to shout down the justified concern in the face of the insane UK government vetting scheme, which he heads. Let's consider some of his comments.

It is not about interfering with the sensible arrangements which parents make with each other to take their children to schools and clubs.

Well, except for the fact that if I regularly take other people's children to a club, I have to register. So Sir Roger seems to be re-defining "sensible" to exclude this hitherto mundane activity.

It is not about subjecting a quarter of the population to intensive scrutiny of their personal lives

No, it's worse: it's allowing a quarter of the population to be at the mercy of *unsubstantiated* rumours, without any controls on calumnies, however misinformed, that may be circulating about them.

it is not about creating mistrust between adults and children

Er, apart from the fact that the line now being pushed by proponents of the scheme is that if you don't register you clearly have something to hide, and cannot therefore be trusted with children. Which means that children are now expected to distrust everyone who has not been vetted - a mere three-quarters of the population.

it is not about ... discouraging volunteering

Well, Sir Roger, I agree it's not *about* discouraging volunteering - this is about instilling yet more fear to make people more sheep-like and compliant - but it will certainly be the inevitable knock-on consequence. I, for one, will not be volunteering for anything in future, because I refuse to allow a faceless and largely unaccountable bureaucracy - one that has time and again proven itself to be utterly incompetent with sensitive, personal information - to make judgments about my trustworthiness.

So, all-in-all, your statements are a total disgrace, because you simply dismiss all the deeply-felt concerns of parents up and down the country without addressing them in the slightest. You have simply re-stated your own indifference to what the public thinks - a public you are supposed to serve.

If you had any decency, you would resign; but then, if you had any decency you wouldn't be running this divisive, authoritarian scheme that will continue to blight families, education and British society in general until such time as it is consigned to the political dustbin, which can't be soon enough.

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12 September 2009

On Opening Up with PHP

PHP is one of the big success stories of open source, so it's great to read this interview with its creator, Rasmus Lerdorf. I was especially struck by these words of wisdom:

in 1997, it basically came to the point where I was going to kill the project, because it was growing so fast and my mailbox was filling up with suggestions, complaints, patches, all these things. Up until then, I had been doing everything myself. Someone would make a suggestion, send me a patch and I'd rewrite the patch the way I thought it should be done.

I would disagree with people, I'd argue back and forth, and I just couldn't keep up any more. I was getting frustrated and sick of it all, [thinking]: "Why are all these people expecting me to fix their code? They're not paying me. What the hell am I doing working my ass off for these folks? I don't even know them – what the hell is going on here?"

So that was the time when I said: "This has to change. Give the guys who have been complaining over the last few years access to the code. The guy who has been complaining about the Oracle extension, he's been a pain in my ass for years, so it's yours now buddy. Any further issues or complaints about Oracle go directly to you." And that really empowered people.

When they felt that they now owned a slice of PHP, they started getting defensive. Instead of complaining to me about things – once they got ownership, and power, the whole atmosphere changed. And it got a lot more fun as well, because I didn't feel like it was just me against the world any more; now it was a real team effort.

That, in essence, is the secret of free software. Putting it into practice is slightly harder...

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Time for MPs to Face the Music on Sharing

Another ill-informed opinion piece from a politician about file-sharing:

Platinum selling artists Radiohead and Pink Floyd have said they are happy to see their music used as a sort of digital loss leader to sell other products, but these groups are the exception rather than the rule. The average musician earns less than £15,000 a year and losing royalties makes the day-to-day struggle even harder for them.

Those average musicians - just like average authors - will tell you the biggest problem they face is getting known, not getting paid. What musicians, and authors like me, struggle with is to get the word out about our stuff amongst the million other offerings out there. Believe it or not, simply having a distributor does not solve that problem: in my experience they pretty much expect *you* to do the marketing.

Paradoxical as it may seem, giving your stuff away is one of the best ways to make money. Not necessarily from the content - although that is possible, too, for example by selling physical CDs/books to people who have digital versions - but from ancillary revenue. This is not to be sneezed at: *all* the top pop musicians make much more from their live appearances than they do from their CDs (which is why an artist like Prince *gives away* CDs to people who attend his concerts).

As the quotation above concedes, giving away stuff isn't a difficulty for the top artists, and as I've indicated, giving it away is precisely the best way for less well-known musicians to break out of their low-income ghetto.

So, really, the only people who lose out from the sharing of music online are the record companies, who find themselves without a role. But the idea that civil liberties should be curtailed simply to keep afloat a dying - and widely-hated, both by artists and consumers - industry, should be self-evidently absurd.

It's worrying that the author of this latest simplistic attack on file-sharing, apparently "a former member of Runrig", is unable to see this. He and other demagogues that attack sharing for whatever reason would do well to look at the facts, and not glibly regurgitate the propaganda of the industry and its lobbyists.

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Russia's New Holiday: Programmer's Day

Russia's President Medvedev has decreed a new holiday for the country:

Президент России Дмитрий Медведев своим указом установил профессиональный праздник - День программиста, который отмечается 13 сентября, если год високосный - 12 сентября, сообщает пресс-служба главы государства.

Неофициально День программиста отмечается в мире уже много лет на 256-й день каждого года. Число 256 выбрано потому, что это количество целых чисел, которое можно выразить с помощью одного восьмиразрядного байта и также это максимальная степень числа 2, которая меньше 365.

13 сентября уже давно стало неофициальной праздничной датой для программистов, напомнили в министерстве. Указ об официальном утверждении праздника был подготовлен Минкомсвязи после консультаций с профсоюзами и отраслевыми ассоциациями и внесен в правительство в июле 2009 года.

[Via Google Translate: Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree established a professional holiday - Day of the programmer, which is celebrated on Sept. 13 if a leap year - September 12, the press office of head of state.

Unofficially Programmer's Day celebrated in the world for many years at the 256 th day of each year. The number 256 is chosen because it is the number of integers that can be expressed using a single eight-byte, and also is the maximum degree of 2, which is less than 365.

September 13 has long been an informal celebratory date for programmers, recalled in the ministry. Ordinance approval Minkomsvyazi feast was prepared after consultation with trade unions and industry associations and submitted to the Government in July 2009.]

Russia leads the way again....

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11 September 2009

Governments Have Political Agendas? Surely Not

This interview about the EU's intervention on the Oracle-Sun deal made me chortle:

Q: What is the motivation for the EC itself?

Weiss: We have a pretty common position in Gartner that there is either a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge on the part of the EC where it feels open source can be used as a competitive threat in the market. ... That commission is there to protect the European vendors and opportunities for European common market members. There are vendors with databases that would find Oracle an intimidating presence and may be competing with Oracle not only on the database level but also on the applications level.

Feinberg: It's a political agenda. And although it's pretty strong, for a lack of better term it is the re-emergence of protectionism by a governing body of some organization. The EU is looking for how it can protect the companies in Europe.

I see, so what they're saying is that the EU has a political agenda, and is trying to protect companies in Europe. And this would be different from what the US does, or Japan, or China, exactly *how*....?

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Why Gordon Brown is Not Turing Complete

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him.

Kudos to Gordon Brown for at last apologising to the memory of this poor man. Or at least partial kudos, since he doesn't quite seem to have taken those words fully to heart.

If we wish to render some justice to Turing, there would be no better way than to ensure the preservation of Bletchley Park, perhaps the central theatre of his work, as a monument to him, and to the thousands of others involved in the early years of code-breaking and computing in this country. If Gordon Brown is sincere in his apology, and these are to be more than a politician's easy words, he should make that happen now.

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10 September 2009

Marriage Made in Hell: FOI+DRM

This is not as it's supposed to be:

Secretive management at Southampton University are undermining the spirit of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, if not necessarily contravening the letter.

Reg reader and founder of website publicwhip, Francis Irving, draws our attention to a fairly innocuous request to the University requesting details of the "total amount received by the purchase of printer credit at the University of Southampton for the academic years 2006/7, 2007/08 and 2008/09".

Hardly earth-shattering information. The author of the request, Adam Richardson, was therefore very surprised to receive back from the University – about a month later than the law suggests – a copy-protected PDF document, which requires the recipient to swear that they are indeed the person who made the FOI request before viewing the rest of the document.


In addition to these technological barriers, the University also adds an "Intellectual Property Rights Notice" which would appear to be a direct contravention of the law in this area. They claim to "reserve all intellectual property rights" in respect of material provided under the FOI request. The material may not be further used without the "written permission of the University".

They're claiming what? - intellectual monopolies on the facts? Talk about being true to the spirit of the law....

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BBC Worldwide Merging with Microsoft?

Against this background:

BBC Worldwide’s digital sales and business development head Peter Mercier is leaving to be Microsoft’s content acquisitions and strategy senior director - the latest in the revolving HR door between the two companies.


BBCWW hired Mercier from MobiTV as head of mobile in 2007 before he got a wider digital role in ‘08. Ashley Highfield left as CEO of BBCWW’s Kangaroo JV last year. Microsoft’s UK online services group VP Chris Dobson went the other way to be BBCWW’s WVP and GM of global ad sales, leading BBC.com ad sales in particular; he later took two BBCWWers with him.

Rather than try to cover up the symbiotic relationship between the two organisations, wouldn't it just be simpler if they merged them together now? At least then there wouldn't be any pretensions of independence by the BBC Worldwide...

08 September 2009

The Open Dinosaur Project

Now this is what I call open science:

Hello, and thanks for dropping by at the Open Dinosaur Project. This blog is part of a wider project, in which we hope — with your help — to make some science. We want to put together a paper on the multiple independent transitions from bipedality to quadrupedality in ornithischians, and we want to involve everyone who’s interested in helping out. We’ll get to the details later, but the basic idea is to amass a huge database of measurements of the limb bones of ornithischian dinosaurs, to which we can apply various statistical techniques. Hopefully we’ll figure out how these transitions happened — for example, whether ceratopsians, thyreophorans and ornithopods all made it in the same way or differently.

Who are “we”, I hear you ask. The core ODP team is Andy Farke (curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, California), Matt Wedel (Western University of Health Sciences, Pomona, California) and Mike Taylor (University College London). We’re all researching and publishing scientists, specialising in dinosaurs — although up until now Matt and Mike have concentrated on sauropods.

As for who you are: if you care about dinosaurs, and want to make some science, then you can be involved. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a seasoned professional palaeontologist, a high-school kid or a retired used-car salesman: so long as you can conduct yourself like a professional, you’re welcome here.

And beyond this great idea, there's lots of practical stuff on the site about how it will done: this will clearly carry over to other projects, which makes it well worth studying for those contemplating similar collaborative open science projects. (Via @BoraZ.)

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Intellectual (Monopolies) Ventures

I've been avoiding this story about nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures using patent trolls as proxies because it's just beyond even the deepest irony, and thus immune to my pen. But then I came across this post that puts it so well, and I felt had to pass it on:

Until recently, one of the few points Myhrvold could make in his own favor is that he hadn’t started suing firms that declined to license his patent portfolio. I say “until recently” because we’re now learning that the lawsuits have started. IV has begun selling off chunks of its patent portfolio to people like Raymond Niro with well-deserved reputations for being “patent trolls.” Threatening to sell patents to a third party who will sue you is more subtle than threatening to sue you directly, but the threat is just as potent. Myhrvold’s “sales pitch” to prospective licensees just got a lot more convincing.

The fundamental question we should be asking about this business strategy is how it benefits anyone other than Myhrvold and the patent bar. Remember that the standard policy argument for patents is that they incentivize beneficial research and development. Yet IV’s business model is based on the opposite premise: produce no innovative products, spend minimal amounts on research and development, and make a profit by compelling firms that are producing products and investing in R&D to pay up. Not only does this enrich Myhrvold at everyone else’s expense, but it also reduces the incentive to innovate, because anyone who produces an innovative product is forced to share his profits with Intellectual Ventures. Patents are supposed to make innovation more profitable. Myhrvold is using the patent system in a way that does just the opposite. In thinking about how to reform the patent system, a good yardstick would be to look for policy changes that would tend to put Myhrvold and his firm out of business.

That last line is an absolute killer.

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Someone Has a Man with a Red Flag Moment

This is so misguided:

Digital personal property (DPP) is an attempt to make consumers treat digital media like physical objects. For instance, you might loan your car to a friend, a family member, or a neighbor. You might do so on many different occasions and for different lengths of time. But you are unlikely to leave the car out front of your house with the keys in it and a sign on it saying, "Take me!" If you did, you might never see the vehicle again.

But that's the whole point about digital content: you *can* leave it out in front of your virtual house, and allow people to take it, because you *still* have a copy. It's non-rivalrous - that's it's amazing, wonderful, nature. Trying to make it rivalrous is like putting a mad with a red flag in front of a motor car because it goes too fast: it's *meant* to go fast.

And to those who riposte: What about the creators?, it's the usual answer. Being able to give away copies of your work freely is an opportunity, not a threat: it's called marketing, and it's cost has just gone down to nothing.

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07 September 2009

In Praise of the Book Sprint

One of the things that I find fascinating about open source is the way it generates epiphenomena - things that don't really happen with conventional computing. Here's another one: the book sprint.

The event is another in the growing body of FLOSS Manuals Book Sprints, kicked off by our first meeting to write a manual for Inkscape. The aim of these sprints is to write a book in 5 days. Actually, we have done it it in shorter time – in February of this year we wrote a 260 page manual introducing newbies to the Command Line in 2 days. Though created quickly, these books are extremely well written texts: comprehensive, readable, and complete.

Needless to say, as well as being about free software, these creations are imbued with its spirit:

A 220 page manual in 5 days - not bad. And it's all free, libre and gratis. Some of the material is also now being translated by the FLOSS Manuals Finnish community, and we hope more translations will follow.

Present at the sprint was myself (Adam Hyde, founder of FLOSS Manuals), Jan Gerber (ffmpeg2theora developer), Jörn Seger (Ogg Tools developer), Holmes Wilson (FSF Campaigns manager) and Theora geeks Susanne Lang and David Kühling. A few popped in remotely to help out, for which we are always grateful – notably Silvia Pfeiffer and Ogg K.

In the end we have free documentation that you can read online, download as a PDF, or log in and improve. It's also available in dead tree format for those who'd like it on their shelf.

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Lies, Damned Lies and Media Industry Numbers

A few months back, I wrote about how some figures quoted in the "Copycats" report produced by University College London's CIBER for the UK governmnent's Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy were based on nothing more than wishful thinking by the media industries. You would have thought that having been caught red-handed once, they might have stuck to the truth. It seems not:

The British Government's official figures on the level of illegal file sharing in the UK come from questionable research commissioned by the music industry, the BBC has revealed.

Specifically, we're talking about that emotive "7 million people" that are engaged in allegedly illegal file sharing:

As if the Government taking official statistics directly from partisan sources wasn't bad enough, the BBC reporter Oliver Hawkins also found that the figures were based on some highly questionable assumptions.

The 7m figure had actually been rounded up from an actual figure of 6.7m. That 6.7m was gleaned from a 2008 survey of 1,176 net-connected households, 11.6% of which admitted to having used file-sharing software - in other words, only 136 people.

It gets worse. That 11.6% of respondents who admitted to file sharing was adjusted upwards to 16.3% "to reflect the assumption that fewer people admit to file sharing than actually do it." The report's author told the BBC that the adjustment "wasn't just pulled out of thin air" but based on unspecified evidence.

The 6.7m figure was then calculated based on the estimated number of people with internet access in the UK. However, Jupiter research was working on the assumption that there were 40m people online in the UK in 2008, whereas the Government's own Office of National Statistics claimed there were only 33.9m people online during that year.

If the BPI-commissioned Jupiter research had used the Government's online population figures, the total number of file sharers would be 5.6m. If the researchers hadn't adjusted their figures upwards, the total number of file sharers would be only 3.9m - or just over half the figure being bandied about by the Government.

I don't want to focus on the way the government supinely relies on the media industry for its "data", or the fact that the media industry continues to resort to these fabricated figures to justify its insane actions. Instead, I'd like to look at two other aspects.

First, let's give some kudos to the BBC for deciding to investigate these figures. At a time when the BBC is under attack (a) from interested parties like James Murdoch for daring to exist, and from (b) trouble-makers like me over its weak coverage of the computing sector, it's great to see some great reporting from it.

But what I really want to underline here is the own goal scored by the content industries. The more plausible 3.9 million figure mentioned above would have served their purposes admirably: it's quite big, and so is "shocking" enough. By foolishly going for the 7 million figure, the media moguls have dug their own grave.

By quoting that number, they are effectively saying a vast swathe of the UK population is engaged in that activity. And as history teaches us, when such a vast proportion of a nation is doing something that is technically breaking the law, this shows not that these people are bad, but that such a law is self-evidently unjust to that nation.

So, whether we believe it or not, we should use this 7 million figure, and throw it back in the face of the media industries as proof that they are totally alienated from their customers. And based on that, we should invite them either to show that they do indeed care about such people by changing their approach radically, or at least frankly to admit what seems obvious to any dispassionate observer: that they actually hate their customers for revealing them to be liars, bullies, cheats and fools.

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05 September 2009

Needlessly Needling Neelie

Predictably, the EU's announcement that it would be conducting an "in-depth investigation into proposed takeover of Sun Microsystems by Oracle" has led to a certain amount of mouth-frothing from the free-market side. I don't want to comment on that aspect, since it's as much about political viewpoints as economic analysis, and talking about politics always ends in tears. But I'd just like to point out one interesting detail of Neelie Kroes's statement:

“The Commission has to examine very carefully the effects on competition in Europe when the world's leading proprietary database company proposes to take over the world's leading open source database company."

What's interesting here is that Kroes is juxtaposing proprietary and open source. Now, for you and me, this is reflexive, but for the EU's Competition Commissioner to be framing an extremely contentious intervention in these terms seems pretty stunning to me. It implies that the difference between those two worlds has been interiorised by at least some senior politicians to such an extent that they are using it as a central part of their analysis in major decisions, *without* feeling the need to justify that approach. Whatever your views on other aspects of the decision, I think Kroes deserves some credit for getting to that point.

More importantly, it basically means we're winning, people.

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04 September 2009

Good Thoughts on Naughty Lord Mandelson

One of the heartening things about the disheartening three-strikes saga currently playing out in the UK is the quality of the opposition that has provoked. I've already tweeted today about Cameron Neylon's splendid polemic - written with a rigour that only a scientist can provide - which I strongly urge you to read.

Meanwhile, here's an important point made by Monica Horten:

What he [Lord M.] doesn't get is that the Internet is not an entertainment system. It is a public communications network. The powers that he could acquire have serious implications for civil liberties, in particular for freedom of speech. Under the UK's own Human Rights Act, freedom of speech may only be restricted where there is a genuine public interest objective, and any measures must be specific and limited.

I think this goes to the heart of the problem with Lord Mandelson's intervention: he thinks the Internet is like radio or television, and does not appreciate how much bigger it is than that. As Horten points out, the UK's Human Rights Act may well provide the coup de grâce to his plans.

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Microsoft Teaches Pupils About Lock-in

I'm amazed Microsoft hasn't done this before:

Microsoft's Education Labs launched a new project this afternoon and it's better on trees and the environment. The group just announced a new Math Worksheet Generator where teachers can generate math problems and email them in paperless Word format to their students. In addition to Math Worksheet Generator, the group also announced plans for two additional projects to be released in the Fall.

Hard-pressed teachers will love this - and won't even notice that they are being turned into a vector for lock-in to Word (not that they aren't already). I predict we'll be seeing much more of this content-driven approach, whereby Microsoft makes people offers they can't refuse...provide they take King Billy's shilling.

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03 September 2009

UK: Bye-Bye Biometrics

I missed this during the summer lull, but that handy invention, Twitter (in the form of Oliver Morton), has alerted me to this stunning take-down of the UK's Identity & Passport Service's plans to place biometric systems at the heart of its service:

Here at the end of the review, the adventitious question arises of why do politicians and civil servants all over the world continue to advocate the use of biometrics when the evidence simply doesn’t support them? There is no answer. Their behaviour is inexplicable.

One thing is clear, though, and that is that biometrics cannot deliver. Identification is not feasible. Verification is laughably unreliable. And the flat earther David Blunkett is wrong. So is Tony Blair when he says that “biometrics give us the chance to have secure identity”. And so is Gordon Brown when he says that biometrics “will make it possible to securely link an individual to a unique identity”.

The scale of the institutional fantasy which constitutes the NIS is grotesque. Biometrics cannot underpin the NIS and so, by IPS’s logic, the NIS cannot underpin the “interactions and transactions between individuals, public services and businesses”. Safeguarding Identity is a false prospectus – no properly managed stock exchange would allow its shares to be listed. The NIS is guaranteed to fail.

Assuming the many figures quoted in this detailed analysis are correct - and I have no reason to doubt that they are - I feel positively cheerful at the prospect of the total and utter collapse of this ill-advised and ill-thought-out scheme. It seems that the awesome laws of physics, if nothing else, will protect us against the awful laws of this demented and delusional government.

02 September 2009

Is This a Wind-up?

A major British inventor is calling for a change in the law to strengthen protection against those who try to steal ideas.

Trevor Baylis, who invented the wind-up radio, has written to the business secretary urging him to criminalise the theft of intellectual property.

The move would involve a fundamental change to the law on patents.

Currently, inventors have to sue those they believe have stolen their idea through the civil courts.

For an apparently intelligent inventor, this is a rather foolish thing to suggest.

It's foolish on a theoretical level, as this quotation proves:

"If I was to nick your car, which is worth £10,000, say, I could go to jail," Trevor Baylis told the BBC.

"But if I were to nick your patent, which is worth a million pounds, you'd have to sue me.

Which is the old confusion between theft and infringement. Indeed, it's probably impossible to nick a patent, since it's a government-granted monopoly, and they're pretty hard to steal.

And it's foolish on a practical level: imagine the current insanity of patent law cases turned into even higher-stake criminal cases, and the burden they would imposed on an already stretched legal system.

So, Trevor, do stick to inventing clever things, and leave stupid intellectual monopolies alone.

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Microsoft Wants Patent Harmonisation...

...guess what kind:

Big challenges certainly confront the global patent system: Escalating patent application backlogs; lengthening pendency periods; increasing costs of patent prosecution; dubious patent quality due to the global explosion of prior art and the time allowed to examine applications; and examination inefficiency due to duplication of work by multiple offices.

But these challenges also present unprecedented opportunity. One of the biggest is the opportunity to advance patent harmonization.


The logical next step is to accelerate the work underway to align patent approval procedures and application formats, including a common digital application, and to collaboratively set standards for patentable subject matter, adequacy of disclosure and enablement requirements, and the completeness of the examination record. Bold action is needed.

Riiight: "bold" as in "infect the rest of the world with the insanity that is the US patent system" bold, I imagine - not forgetting software as "patentable subject matter" while we're at it.

Danke, aber nein, danke, Horacio.

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Copyright Reform Made Easy

As readers of this blog will have noticed, I'm not a big fan of intellectual monopolies like copyright or patents. For the former, I'd prefer a return to the original term of 14 years, or even less. But even I recognise that this is not going to be easy to achieve in the short term, so until there's an outbreak of mass sanity, we need a stopgap solution.

I was reminded of what that might be by the following post on Techdirt about orphan works:

the real shame is that the whole reason we need an orphan works bill in the first place is due to how screwed up copyright law has become since switching from a "formalities" approach to one where everything is automatically covered by copyright. Under the old system (pre-1976 Act in the US), in order to get a copyright, you had to register, and then at certain points, re-register it, to have and keep it covered by copyright. Thus, any such "orphan" works fell into the public domain after a short period of time -- and it worked fine. There was no "orphan works" problem, because those works that no longer that weren't being used for commercial purposes went into the public domain in a relatively short period of time. The most amazing thing, though, is that very few of those supporting orphan works legislation seem to recognize that the whole "problem" is one they made themselves by extending insanely long copyrights to pretty much everything.

At the time, I imagine one of the arguments against the system of re-registration was that it was cumbersome. But thanks to the wonders of the Web, such a system would be trivial to use: works could be registered online, and re-registered just as simply. It would take less than a minute. And to those who argued that even that was too much trouble, I'd suggest that the copyright clearly isn't really worth having.

In a way, it's self-selecting: if the copyright is still valuable, then copyright owners won't mind spending a minute renewing it every few years (I'd suggest every 14). If it isn't worth renewing, it will fall into the public domain. Those worried about "losing" their valuable copyright won't - because if it's so valuable they will renew it. So the only works that enter the public domain are the ones that no one cares enough about.

Of course, this is only a sticking-plaster solution, rather than a real fix, but it would avoid the absurd situation we have today of millions of works that are "protected" - that is, blocked - by copyright, with no one taking an active interest in them. And it would start to get away from the pernicious notion that everything comes with copyright by default: monopolies should be the exception, not the rule.

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01 September 2009

Microsoft Impresses Itself Upon the Press

Roy Schestowitz has some astonishing documents up on his site that detail Microsoft's attempts to bend the press to its will:

Stephanie/Kate/Chuck, please find attached the PR response plan for the anticipated OSDL announcement. As discussed in our PR meeting this morning. David & I have spoken with Maureen O’Gara (based on go ahead from BrianV) and planted the story. She has agreed to not attribute the story to us. WaggEd actions include reviewing the positioning, review the proposed buddy mail, review Q&As, etc.

As well as the details of this "planting", there's also a fascinating list of journos and whether they are "negative" or "neutral" towards Microsoft. I'm not included in the list, so it looks like I'll never know what Microsoft think of my writing....