29 June 2010

Botching Bilski

So, the long-awaited US Supreme Court ruling on Bilski vs. Kappos has appeared – and it's a mess. Where many hoped fervently for some clarity to be brought to the ill-defined rules for patenting business methods and software in the US, the court instead was timid in the extreme. It confirmed the lower court's decision that the original Bilski business method was not patentable, but did little to limit business patents in general. And that, by implication, meant that there was no major implication for software patents in the US.

On Open Enterprise blog.

28 June 2010

Has Oracle Been a Disaster for Sun's Open Source?

Companies based around open source are still comparatively young. So it remains an open question what happens to them in the long term. As open source becomes more widely accepted, an obvious growth path for them is to be bought by a bigger, traditional software company. The concern then becomes: how does the underlying open source code fare in those circumstances?

On The H Open.

Microsoft Attacks, By and With the Numbers

There's a nice piece of work by Charles Arthur in The Guardian today that puts a fascinating post from one of Microsoft's top PR people under the microscope. It's all well worth reading, but naturally the following numbers from the memo and Arthur's analysis were of particular interest:

On Open Enterprise blog.

25 June 2010

Let's Make "The Open University" Truly Open


The Open University (OU) is now a certified Microsoft IT Academy adding to its fast-growing suite of IT vendor certifications.

The first course in the OU's Microsoft IT Academy programme TM128 Microsoft server technologies launches in October 2010. The course, purpose-designed by the OU, covers both the fundamentals of computer networks and the specifics of how Windows server technologies can be used practically. Registration is now open for the 30-credit Level 1 module.

Microsoft server technologies will form part of the requirement for both Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified System Administrator (MCSA) programmes, and forms part of the pathway to MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) certification. The course can also be counted towards an Open University modular degree.

Naturally, offering such courses about closed-source software is an important part of providing a wide range information and training. And I'm sure there will be similarly courses and qualifications for open source programs.

After all, free software not only already totally dominates areas like supercomputers, the Internet and embedded systems, but is also rapidly gaining market share in key sectors like mobile, so it would obviously make sense to offer plenty of opportunities for students to study and work with the operating system of the future, as well as that of the past.

That's true for all academic establishments offering courses in computing, but in the case of the Open University, even-handedness assumes a particular importance because of the context:

The Open University has appointed a Microsoft boss to be its fifth vice-chancellor.

Martin Bean is currently general manager of product management, marketing and business development for Microsoft's worldwide education products group.

I look forward to hearing about all the exciting new courses and certifications - Red Hat and Ubuntu, maybe? (Via @deburca.)

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Say "No" to Net Neutrality Nuttiness

I'll admit it: watching the debates about net neutrality in the US, I've always felt rather smug. Not for us sensible UK chappies, I thought, the destruction of what is one of the key properties of the Internet. No daft suggestions that big sites like Google should pay ISPs *again* for the traffic that they send out – that is, in addition to the money they and we fork over for the Internet connections we use. And now we have this:

On Open Enterprise blog.

Those that Live by the DMCA....

This was a pleasant surprise, a *summary* judgment against Viacom in favour of Google:

Today, the court granted our motion for summary judgment in Viacom’s lawsuit with YouTube. This means that the court has decided that YouTube is protected by the safe harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) against claims of copyright infringement. The decision follows established judicial consensus that online services like YouTube are protected when they work cooperatively with copyright holders to help them manage their rights online.

On Open Enterprise blog.

24 June 2010

The Copyright Debate's Missing Element

There is certainly no lack of debate about copyright, and whether it promotes or hinders creativity. But in one important respect, that debate has been badly skewed, since it has largely discussed creativity in terms of pre-digital technologies. And even when digital methods are mentioned, there is precious little independent research to draw upon.

That makes the following particularly significant:

Doctoral research into media education and media literacy at the University of Leicester has highlighted how increased legislative control on use of digital content could stifle future creativity.

The Digital Economy Act 2010 alongside further domestic and global legislation, not least the ongoing ‘Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)’, combines to constitute a very hard line against any form of perceived copyright infringement.

Research implies that these pieces of legislation could stifle the creative opportunities for youngsters with tough regulation on digital media restricting young peoples’ ability to transform copyrighted material for their own personal and, more importantly, educational uses.

The key phrase here is "young people", because they are using content, including copyrighted materials, in quite different ways from traditional creators. As the researcher commented:

“There is a growing risk that creativity in the form of mash-ups, remixes and parodies will be stifled by content producers. With no clear ‘fair use’ policy, even when it comes to educational media production we are in danger of tainting many young people’s initial encounters with the law."

The current approach, embodied in the Digital Economy Act and elsewhere, risks not only stifling the younger generation's creativity, but alienating them completely from any legislation that touches on it. (Via @Coadec.)

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Can the CodePlex Foundation Free itself from Microsoft?

One of the most fascinating strands in the free software story has been Microsoft's interactions with it. To begin with, the company simply tried to dismiss it, but when it became clear that free software was not going away, and that more companies were switching to it, Microsoft was forced to take it more seriously.

On Open Enterprise blog.

21 June 2010

Copyright Ratchet, Copyright Racket

I can't believe this.

A few days ago I wrote about the extraordinary extra monopolies the German newspaper industry wanted - including an exemption from anti-cartel laws. I also noted:

And make no mistake: if Germany adopts this approach, there will be squeals from publishers around the world demanding "parity", just as there have been with the term of copyright. And so the ratchet will be turned once more.

And what do we find? Why, exactly the same proposals *already* in an FTC "Staff Discussion Draft" [.pdf], which is trying to come up with ways to solve the newspaper industry's "problem" without actually addressing the key issue, which is that people are accessing information online in new ways these days. The document looks at some of the proposed "solutions", which come from the industry, which wants - of course - more monopoly powers:

Internet search engines and online news aggregators often use content from news organizations without paying for that use. Some news organizations have argued that existing intellectual property (IP) law does not sufficiently protect their news stories from free riding by news aggregators. They have suggested that expanded IP rights for news stories would better enable news organizations to obtain revenue from aggregators and search engines.


Advocates argue “the copyright act allows parasitic aggregators to ‘free ride’ on others’ substantial journalistic investments,” by protecting only expression and not the underlying facts, which are often gathered at great expense.


They suggest that federal hot news legislation could help address revenue problems facing newspapers by preventing this free-riding.

Moreover, like the German publishers, they also want a Get Out of Jail Free card as far as anti-trust is concerned:

Some in the news industry have suggested that an antitrust exemption is necessary to the survival of news organizations and point to the NPA as precedent for Congress to enact additional protections from the antitrust laws for newspapers. For example, one public comment recommended “the passage of a temporary antitrust exemption to permit media companies to collaborate in the public interest”

Got that? An anti-trust exemption that would allow newspaper to operate as a cartel *in the public interest*. George Orwell would have loved it.

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Globish, Glanglish and Google Translate

There's a new book out about the rise and use of a globalised English, dubbed "Globish":

Globish is a privatised lingua franca, a commercially driven “world language” unencumbered by the utopian programme of Esperanto. As taught by Nerrière’s enterprise, it combines the coarseness of a distended phrase book and the formulaic optimism of self-help texts – themselves a genre characterised by linguistic paucity, catchphrases and religiose simplicity.

I won't be buying it, mostly because I wrote about the rise and use of a globalised English, dubbed "Glanglish", over 20 years ago. It formed the title essay of a book called, with stunning originality, "Glanglish." This is what I wrote:

English has never existed as a unitary language. For the Angles and the Saxons it was a family of siblings; today it is a vast clan in diaspora. At the head of that clan is the grand old matriarch, British English. Rather quaint now, like all aristocrats left behind by a confusing modern world, she nonetheless has many points of historical interest. Indeed, thousands come to Britain to admire her venerable and famous monuments, preserved in the verbal museums of language schools. Unlike other parts of our national heritage, British English is a treasure we may sell again and again; already the invisible earnings from this industry are substantial, and they are likely to grow as more and more foreigners wish at least to brush their lips across the Grande Dame's ring.

One group unlikely to do so are the natural speakers of the tongue from other continents. Led by the Americans, and followed by the Australians, the New Zealanders and the rest, these republicans are quite content to speak English - provided it is their English. In fact it is likely to be the American's English, since this particular branch of the family tree is proving to be the most feisty in its extension and transformation of the language. Even British English is falling in behind - belatedly, and with a rueful air; but compared to its own slim list of neologisms - mostly upper-class twittish words like 'yomping' - Americanese has proved so fecund in devising new concepts, that its sway over English-thinking minds is assured.

An interesting sub-species of non-English English is provided by one of the dialects of modern India. Indian English is not a truly native tongue, if only for historical reasons; and yet it is no makeshift second language. Reading the 'Hindu Times', it is hard to pin down the provenance of the style: with its orotundities and its 'chaps' it is part London 'Times' circa 1930; with its 'lakhs' it is part pure India.

Whatever it is, it is not to be compared with the halting attempts at English made by millions - perhaps billions soon - whose main interest is communication. Although a disheartening experience to hear for the true-blue Britisher, this mangled, garbled and bungled English is perhaps the most exciting. For from its bleeding hunks and quivering gobbets will be constructed the first and probably last world language. Chinese may have more natural speakers, and Spanish may be gaining both stature and influence, but neither will supersede this mighty mongrel in the making.

English is so universally used as the medium of international linguistic exchange, so embedded in supranational activities like travel - all pilots use English - and, even more crucially, so integral to the world of business, science and technology - money may talk, but it does so in English, and all computer programs are written in that language - that no amount of political or economic change or pressure will prise it loose. Perhaps not even nuclear Armageddon: Latin survived the barbarians. So important is this latest scion of the English stock, that it deserves its own name; and if the bastard brew of Anglicised French is Franglais, what better word to celebrate the marriage of all humanity and English to produce tomorrow's global language than the rich mouthful of 'Glanglish'?

Twenty years on, I now think that the reign of Glanglish/Globish will soon draw to a close, but not because something else will take its place.

The obvious candidate, Chinese, suffers from a huge problem: linguistic degeneracy. By which I mean that a single word - "shi", say - corresponds to over 70 different concepts if you ignore the tones. Even if you can distinguish clearly between the four tones - which few beginners can manage with much consistency - saying the word "shi" will still be much harder to interpret than a similarly-mangled English word, especially for non-native speakers. This makes it pretty useless as a lingua franca, which needs to be both easy to acquire, and easy to understand even by novices.

But something is happening that I hadn't allowed for two decades ago: machine translation. Just look at Google Translate, which I use quite a lot to provide rough translations of interesting stuff that I find on non-English language sites. It's pretty good, getting better - and free. I'm sure that Google is working on producing something similar for spoken language: imagine what a winner Google Voice Translate for Android would be.

So instead of Globish or Glanglish, I think that increasingly people will simply speak their own language, and let Google et al. handle the rest. In a way, that's great, because it will allow people to communicate directly with more or less anyone anywhere. But paradoxically it will probably also lead to people becoming more parochial and less aware of cultural differences around the globe, since few will feel the need to undergo that mind-expanding yet humbling experience of trying to learn a foreign language - not even Glanglish.

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Something in the Air: the Open Source Way

One of the most vexed questions in climate science is modelling. Much of the time the crucial thing is trying to predict what will happen based on what has happened. But that clearly depends critically on your model. Improving the robustness of that model is an important aspect, and the coding practices employed obviously feed into that.

Here's a slightly old but useful paper [.pdf] that deals with just this topic:

In this paper, we report on a detailed case study of the Climate scientists build large, complex simulations with little or no software engineering training, and do not readily adopt the latest software engineering tools and tech-niques. In this paper, we describe an ethnographic study of the culture and practices of climate scientists at the Met Office Hadley Centre. The study examined how the scientists think about software correctness, how they prioritize requirements, and how they develop a shared understanding of their models. The findings show that climate scientists have developed customized techniques for verification and validation that are tightly integrated into their approach to scientific research. Their software practices share many features of both agile and open source projects, in that they rely on self-organisation of the teams, extensive use of informal communication channels, and developers who are also users and domain experts. These comparisons offer insights into why such practices work.

It would be interesting to know whether the adoption of elements of the open source approach was a conscious decision, or just evolved.

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20 June 2010

Should Retractions be Behind a Paywall?

"UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim", so proclaimed an article in The Times earlier this year. It began [.pdf]:

A STARTLING report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.

Well, not so unsubstantiated, it turns out: The Times has just issued a pretty complete retraction - you can read the whole thing here. But what interests me in this particular case is not the science, but the journalistic aspect.

Because if you went to The Times site to read that retraction, you would, of course, be met by the stony stare of the latter's paywall (assuming you haven't subscribed). Which means that I - and I imagine many people who read the first, inaccurate Times story - can't read the retraction there. Had it not been for the fact that among the many climate change sites (on both sides) that I read, there was this one with a copy, I might never have known.

So here's the thing: if a story has appeared on the open Web, and needs to be retracted, do newspapers like The Times have a duty to post that retraction in the open, or is acceptable to leave behind the paywall?

Answers on the back of yesterday's newspaper...

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Open Source Scientific Publishing

Since one of the key ideas behind this blog is to explore the application of the open source approach to other fields, I was naturally rather pleased to come across the following:

As a software engineer who works on open source scientific applications and frameworks, when I look at this, I scratch my head and wonder "why don't they just do the equivalent of a code review"? And that's really, where the germ of the idea behind this blog posting started. What if the scientific publishing process were more like an open source project? How would the need for peer-review be balanced with the need to publish? Who should bear the costs? Can a publishing model be created that minimizes bias and allows good ideas to emerge in the face of scientific groupthink?

It's a great question, and the post goes some way to sketching out how that might work in practice. It also dovetails nicely with my earlier post about whether we need traditional peer review anymore. Well worth reading.

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19 June 2010

Open Source: A Question of Evolution

I met Matt Ridley once, when he was at The Economist, and I wrote a piece for him (I didn't repeat the experience because their fees at the time were extraordinarily ungenerous). He was certainly a pleasant chap in person, but I have rather mixed feelings about his work.

His early book "Genome" is brilliant - a clever promenade through our chromosomes, using the DNA and its features as a framework on which to hang various fascinating facts and figures. His latest work, alas, seems to have gone completely off the rails, as this take-down by George Monbiot indicates.

Despite that, Ridley is still capable of some valuable insights. Here's a section from a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, called "Humans: Why They Triumphed":

the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange. As Brian Arthur argues in his book "The Nature of Technology," nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts.

This is, of course, a perfect description of the open source methodology: re-using and building on what has gone before, combining the collective intelligence of thousands of hackers around the world through a culture of sharing. Ridley's comment is another indication of why anything else just hasn't made the evolutionary jump.

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18 June 2010

German Publishers Want More Monopoly Rights

Here's an almost unbelievable piece about what's happening in Germany right now:

It looks as if publishers might really be lobbying for obtaining a new exclusive right conferring the power to monopolise speech e.g. by assigning a right to re-use a particular wording in the headline of a news article anywhere else without the permission of the rights holder. According to the drafts circulating in the internet, permission shall be obtainable exclusively by closing an agreement with a new collecting society which will be founded after the drafts have matured into law. Depending on the particulars, new levies might come up for each and every user of a PC, at least if the computer is used in a company for commercial purposes.

Well, obtaining monopoly protection for sentences and even parts of sentences in a natural language appears to be some kind of very strong meat. This would mean that publishers can control the wording of news messages. This comes crucially close to private control on the dissemination of facts.

But guess what? Someone thinks that German publishers aren't asking for *enough*, as the same article explains:

Mr Castendyk concludes that even if the envisaged auxiliary copyright protection for newspaper language enters into law, the resulting additional revenue streams probably would be insufficient to rescue the publishing companies. He then goes a step further and postulates that publishing companies enjoy a quasi-constitutional guarantee due to their role in the society insofar the state has the obligation to maintain the conditions for their existence forever.


Utilising the leveraging effect of this postulated quasi-constitutional guarantee, Castendyk demands to amend cartel law in order to enable a global 'pooling' of all exclusive rights of all newspaper publishers in Germany in order to block any attempt to defect from the paywall cartell by single competitor as discussed above.

This is a beautiful demonstration of a flaw at the heart of copyright: whenever an existing business model based around a monopoly starts to fail, the reflexive approach is to demand yet more monopolies in an attempt to shore it up. And the faster people point out why that won't solve the problem, the faster the demands come for even more oppressive and unreasonable legislation to try to head off those issues.

And make no mistake: if Germany adopts this approach, there will be squeals from publishers around the world demanding "parity", just as there have been with the term of copyright. And so the ratchet will be turned once more.

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EU's Standard Failure on Standards

Let's be frank: standards are pretty dull; but they are also important as technological gatekeepers. As the shameful OOXML saga showed, gaining the stamp of approval can be so important that some are prepared to adopt practically any means to achieve it; similarly, permitting the use of technologies that companies claim are patented in supposedly open standards can shut out open source implementations completely.

Against that background, the new EU report “Standardization for a competitive and innovative Europe: a vision for 2020” [.pdf] is a real disappointment. For something that purports to be looking forward a decade not even to mention “open source” (as far as I can tell) is an indication of just how old-fashioned and reactionary it is. Of course that omission is all of a piece with this attitude to intellectual monopolies:

The objective is to ensure licences for any essential IPRs contained in standards are provided on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory conditions (FRAND). In practice, in the large majority of cases, patented technology has been successfully integrated into standards under this approach. On this basis, standards bodies are encouraged to strive for improvements to the FRAND system taking into consideration issues that occur over time. Some fora and consortia, for instance in the area of internet, web, and business process standards development have implemented royalty-free policies (but permitting other FRAND terms) agreed by all members of the respective organisation in order to promote the broad implementation of the standards.

This is clearly heavily biased towards FRAND, and clearly hints that royalty-free regimes are only used by those long-haired, sandal-wearing hippies out on the Well-Weird Web.

But as readers of this blog well know, FRAND is simply incompatible with free software; and any standard that adopts FRAND locks out open source implementations. That this is contemplated in the report is bad enough; that it is not even acknowledged as potential problem is disgrace. (Via No OOXML.)

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Can You Make Money from Free Stuff?

Well, of course you can – free software is the primary demonstration of that. But that doesn't mean it's trivial to turn free into fee. Here's an interesting move that demonstrates that quite nicely.

On Open Enterprise blog.

17 June 2010

Red Letter Day for ACTA in EU: Let's Use It

This week is one of the magic "plenary" ones in the European Parliament:

Only during the plenary weeks of June 14-17 and July 5-8 the MEPs will have an occasion to pass by the written declarations table, on their way to the plenary, to sign WD12 (at 12:00 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are the vote sessions, where every MEP should be present). It is therefore crucial that they are properly informed about the importance of signing it, right before moving to the plenary.

That WD12, to remind you:

Written declaration on the lack of a transparent process for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and potentially objectionable content

The European Parliament,

– having regard to Rule 123 of its Rules of Procedure,

A. whereas negotiations concerning the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) are ongoing,

B. whereas Parliament’s co-decision role in commercial matters and its access to negotiation documents are guaranteed by the Lisbon Treaty,

1. Takes the view that the proposed agreement should not indirectly impose harmonisation of EU copyright, patent or trademark law, and that the principle of subsidiarity should be respected;

2. Declares that the Commission should immediately make all documents related to the ongoing negotiations publicly available;

3. Takes the view that the proposed agreement should not force limitations upon judicial due process or weaken fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy;

4. Stresses that economic and innovation risks must be evaluated prior to introducing criminal sanctions where civil measures are already in place;

5. Takes the view that internet service providers should not bear liability for the data they transmit or host through their services to an extent that would necessitate prior surveillance or filtering of such data;

6. Points out that any measure aimed at strengthening powers of cross-border inspection and seizure of goods should not harm global access to legal, affordable and safe medicines;

7. Instructs its President to forward this declaration, together with the names of the signatories, to the Commission, the Council and the parliaments of the Member States.

So now would be a good time to contact your MEPs. If you want to find out who is still sitting on the naughty step as far as WD12 and ACTA is concerned, there's a good list from La Quadrature, complete with email and telephone numbers.

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15 June 2010

Are Software Patents Patently Dangerous Enough?

Earlier this week I wrote about a useful study of the economics of copyright, pointing out that we need more such analyses in order to adopt a more rational, evidence-based approach to drafting laws in this area. Of course, precisely the same can be said of patents, and software patents in particular, so it's always good to come across work such as this newly-published doctoral dissertation [.pdf]: “The effects of software patent policy on the motivation and innovation of free and open source developers.”

On Open Enterprise blog.

14 June 2010

Shame on Ofcom, Double Shame on the BBC

Readers with good memories may recall a little kerfuffle over an Ofcom consultation to slap DRM on the BBC's HD service:

if this scheme is adopted it is highly unlikely free software projects will be able to obtain the appropriate keys, for the simple reason that they are not structured in a way that allows them to enter into the appropriate legal agreements (not least because they couldn't keep them). Of course, it will probably be pretty trivial for people to crack the encryption scheme, thus ensuring that the law-abiding free software users are penalised, while those prepared to break the law are hardly bothered at all.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Abundance Obsoletes Peer Review, so Drop It

Recently, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Cameron Neylon, probably the leading - and certainly most articulate - exponent of open science. Talking with him about the formal peer review process typically employed by academic journals helped crystallise something that I have been trying to articulate: why peer review should go.

A recent blog post has drawn some attention to the cost - to academics - of running the peer review process:

So that's over £200million a year that academics are donating of their time to the peer review process. This isn't a large sum when set against things like the budget deficit, but it's not inconsiderable. And it's fine if one views it as generating public good - this is what researchers need to do in order to conduct proper research. But an alternative view is that academics (and ultimately taxpayers) are subsidising the academic publishing to the tune of £200 million a year. That's a lot of unpaid labour.

Indeed, an earlier estimate put the figure even higher:

a new report has attempted to quantify in cash terms exactly what peer reviewers are missing out on. It puts the worldwide unpaid cost of peer review at £1.9 billion a year, and estimates that the UK is among the most altruistic of nations, racking up the equivalent in unpaid time of £165 million a year.

Whatever the figure, it is significant, which brings us on to the inevitable questions: why are researchers making this donation to publishers, and do they need to?

The thought I had listening to Neylon talk about peer review is that it is yet another case of a system that was originally founded to cope with scarcity - in this case of outlets for academic papers. Peer review was worth the cost of people's time because opportunities to publish were rare and valuable and needed husbanding carefully.

Today, of course, that's not the case. There is little danger that important papers won't see the light of day: the nearly costless publishing medium of the Internet has seen to that. Now the problem is dealing with the fruits of that publishing abundance - making such that people can find the really important and interesting results among the many out there.

But that doesn't require peer review of the kind currently employed: there are all kinds of systems that allow any scientist - or even the general public - to rate content and to vote it up towards a wider audience. It's not perfect, but by and large it works - and spreads the cost widely to the point of being negligible for individual contributors.

For me what's particularly interesting is the fact that peer review is unnecessary for the same reason that copyright and patents are unnecessary nowadays: because the Internet liberates creativity massively and provides a means for bringing that flood to a wider audience without the need for official gatekeepers to bless and control it.

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The Economics of Copyright

One of the problems with the debate around copyright is that it is often fuelled more by feelings than facts. What is sorely lacking is a hard-nosed look at key areas like the economics of copyright. Enter "The Economics of Copyright and Digitisation: A Report on the Literature and the Need for Further Research” [.pdf].

On Open Enterprise blog.

11 June 2010

Why GNU/Linux is Unmatched – and Unmatchable

Users of free software are nothing if not passionate. Most of them care deeply about the code they use, and will happily plunge into the flamewars that flare up regularly across the Web. The core focus of those arguments is well established by now: against Mac fans, it's about the virtues of true openness and freedom; against Windows fans (do they still exist?) it's about those, as well as security, speed, stability, etc. But there's another aspect that rarely gets discussed, and yet it represents one of GNU/Linux's greatest strengths: the breadth of hardware platforms supported.

On The H Open.

Why No Billion-Dollar Open Source Companies?

Last week, I met up with Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat's CEO. He gave a very fluent presentation to a group of journalists that ran through Red Hat's business model, and explained why – unsurprisingly – he was optimistic about his company's future growth.

On Open Enterprise blog.

07 June 2010

Why the iPhone Cannot Keep up with Android

Although I have never owned an iPhone, nor even desired one, I do recognise that it has redefined the world of smartphones. In that sense, it is the leader, and will always be historically important. However, as my title suggests, I don't think that's enough to keep it ahead of Android, however great you may judge the feature gap to be currently. Here's a good explanation of why that is:

Through a bevy of handset makers, Android can offer a variety of phones that will make it difficult for Apple to beat with just one hardware release a year. While it is hard to ever go wrong with an iPhone, Android offers a ton of alternative form factors, price points and carriers: Sprint (NYSE: S) has released the first 4G phone on Android; T-Mobile has a new competitive Android phone with a slide-out keyboard; the HTC Incredible sold by Verizon has been flying off store shelves; and even Google’s Nexus One still boasts some of the latest hardware. Not to mention new Android phones from Samsung and LG (SEO: 066570) coming later this summer.

The thing is, no matter how amazing any given feature of the iPhone, in any iteration, sooner or later (and probably sooner) there will be an Android smartphone that matches it. And alongisde that handset will be dozens of others offering other features that the iPhone hasn't yet implemented - and may never do.

It's an unfair race: iPhone iterations, even blessed by Steve Jobs' magic pixie dust, can only occur so fast; Android innovations, by contrast, are limited only by the number of players in the market. Want a new Android handset ever week? Easy, just wait until the ecosystem grows a little more.

And don't even get me started on the fact that the Android code is already starting to appear in totally new segments, bringing yet more innovation, yet more players....

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Grokking Green IT - and why Open Source Helps

One of the pardoxes at the heart of computing is that for all its power to improve the world, in one respect it is doing the opposite, thanks to its apparently insatiable appetite for electricity. As we are becoming increasingly aware, most electricity produced today has serious negative consequences for the environment, and so the more we use and depend on computers for our daily lives, the more we damage our planet.

On Open Enterprise blog.

06 June 2010

Why Sharing Will Be Big Business

As you may have noticed, one of the central themes of this blog is the power of sharing. Mostly, I talk about non-rivalrous goods like software or music: here, sharing is a no-brainer, because copies can be made for almost zero cost, allowing everyone to share a digital resource. But what about the world of analogue *rivalrous* goods - the traditional kind of stuff we are most used to in everyday life?

Here, sharing is harder to arrange, since you need someone to lend something to another party, which requires organisation in the physical world. And where there is friction, there is a business opportunity in terms of making reducing that friction. Here's a perfect example of that:

Chegg may very well be the fastest-growing, most successful, second-generation e-commerce startup that you hardly ever hear about,except maybe for the fact that it’s raised more than $140 million. Chegg is the “Netflix for textbooks.” It lets students across 6,400 college campuses rent from a virtual bookstore containing 4.2 million books. Based on my analysis (which I get into more detail below), the company is on track to generate $130 million in revenues in 2010, up from $25 million in 2009, and $10 million in 2008. During the January, 2010 semester, I estimate the company made close to $1 million in revenue a day, up fivefold from $200,000/day the previous January, and it should double that this coming September. My analysis suggests Chegg will do close to $50 million in revenue this September alone. It is underappreciated, to say the least.

The article goes on to point out the larger implications of Chegg's success:

Chegg is disintermediating the $5B+ college textbook market by providing a low-cost, short-term, nationwide rental alternative to the high-priced university bookstore. This disruptive model will likely shrink industry revenues by half in the coming years, with Chegg in a leadership position to command 80%+ market share. The key questions, of course, are: 1) Is this a winner-take-all market, 2) What can Chegg do to fend off the likes of the major bookstore owners, Barnes & Noble and Follet, as well as Amazon and Apple, and 3) Is Chegg a harbinger of a new age of startup rental services?

In answer to that last question, no and yes: I don't think we should regard this as old-style rental over the Internet, but a new kind of sharing where people spread the cost of rivalrous goods. However you look at it, though, it is going to be big.

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05 June 2010

What's the Point of Hacktivism?

Thanks to the Internet, it's easy to engage in big issues - environmental crises, oppression, injustice. Too easy: all it takes is a click and that email is winging its way to who knows where, or that tasteful twibbon has been added to your avatar. If you still think this helps much, try reading Evgeny Morozov's blog Net Effect, and you will soon be disabused (actually, read it anyway - it's very well written).

So what's the point? Well, there are various things that such hacktivism can achieve, nicely laid out in this piece by Ethan Zuckerman called "Overcoming apathy through participation? – (not) my talk at Personal Democracy Forum". But there was one idea that I particularly liked - not least because I hadn't come across it before:

If we assume that activism, as with almost everything else online, has a Pareto distribution, we might assume that for every 1000 relatively passive supporters, we might find 10 deeply engaged activists and one emerging movement leader. And if the contention that participation begets passion, this particular long tail might be a slippery slope upwards, yielding more leaders than the average movement.

Astute readers will have noted that this is one of the reasons why the open source methodology is so successful: it allows natural leaders to emerge from participants. We've seen how amazingly powerful that is, not least in empowering people who in the past would never have been given opportunities to show what they can do. And that, for me, is reason enough to carry on with this hacktivism lark, in the hope that something similar can happen in other spheres.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

04 June 2010

Please Help Fight EU Search Engine Surveillance

Just the other day I wrote about the foolishness that was the Gallo Report – which, alas, seems to have gone through with all its excesses. And as if that weren't enough, here's yet another problem that we need to address:

On Open Enterprise blog.

Does the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Get the Web?

Bill Gates's decision to move away from day-to-day running of Microsoft was doubly shrewd. First, because it allowed him to leave when his company was at its apogee, and to avoid association with its current - inevitable - decline (notice how the meme that Microsoft is irrelevant is becoming widespread?) And secondly, it enabled him to help Microsoft extend its reach - especially in developing countries - by other means, while earning plaudits for his charitable work.

Unpicking the complex weft and weave of philanthropy and self-interest at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would require an entire book (and no, don't worry, I won't be writing it). Rather than plunging into that maelstrom, I wanted to pick up an extraordinary aspect of the Foundation's site, spotted by Thierry Stoehr.

It's rather telling that the Terms of Use for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation run to no less than *seven* pages when printed out (who knew that using the Web was such a complicated and risky operation?). But even more extraordinary is the following clause:

Our Links to Other Sites: Our Site may contain links to Web sites of third parties. We provide these links as a convenience, but do not endorse the linked site or anything on it. While their information, products, services and information may be helpful to you, they are independent entities and we do not control or endorse them. You agree that any visits to linked sites are at your own risk and governed by their privacy policies (if any).

Your Links to Our Site: You are not permitted to link or shortcut to our Site from your Web site, blog or similar application, without obtaining prior written permission from us.

Which is worse: the hypocrisy or the cluelessness? It's a tough call....

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03 June 2010

Why Patents are Like Black Holes

When a big enough star dies, it generally implodes, and forms a voracious black hole capable of swallowing anything that comes too close. When a big enough company dies, all that remains is a bunch of patents that can have a similarly negative effect on companies whose business models are too close.

He's Mike Masnick's commentary on the area:

It looks like just about all that's left of former telco equipment giant Nortel is a whole bunch of patents, that are now expected to sell for somewhere in the range of $1.1 billion. The big question, of course, is who ends up with those patents, and what they do with them. Generally speaking, you don't see companies spend $1.1 billion on a bunch of patents, unless they're planning something big. It's entirely possible someone will buy them for defensive purposes, but equally likely that they're used to sue lots of other companies (or, perhaps by the likes of Intellectual Ventures, to scare people into paying up to avoid the possibility of being sued).

And of course, in the field of open source, the really worrying dying star is Novell, as Matt Asay points out:

As reported, as many as 20 organizations have registered bids for Novell, most (or all) of them private equity firms. While an Oracle or a Cisco might acquire Novell for its maintenance streams and product portfolio, it's unclear that private equity firms will have the same motivation. For at least some of these, there will be serious pressure to sell Novell's assets to the highest bidder, regardless of the consequences to Novell's existing customers or to the wider industry.

This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that Novell has a treasure trove of patents, with at least 450 patents related to networking, office productivity applications, identity management, and more.

Worth noting is that among those patents are some relating to Unix...

These cases show yet again why patents just don't do what they are supposed to - encourage innovation - but act as very serious threats to other companies that *are* innovating. As more and more of these software stars die, so the number of patent black holes will increase, and with them the unworkability of the patent system. Time to reboot that particular universe...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

Why "Naked Transparency" Has No Clothes

Although I have a great deal of time (and respect) for Lawrence Lessig, I think his article "Against Transparency" is fundamentally misguided. And for the same reason I think these concerns are overblown, too:

The coming wave of transparency could transform this in a hugely positive way, using open data on costs, opportunities and performance to become a much more creative, cost-effective and agile institution, mindful of the money it spends and the results it achieves, and ensuring individuals are accountable for their work.

But it might make things worse, frightening senior managers into becoming more guarded, taking fewer ‘risks’ with even small amounts of money, and focusing on the process to the detriment of the outcome. It may also make public service less attractive not only for those with something to hide, but for effective people who don’t want to spend their time fending off misinterpretations of their decisions and personal value for money in the media. And to mirror Lessig’s point, it may push confidence in public administration over a cliff, in revealing evidence of wrongdoing which in fact is nothing of the sort.

First of all, I think we already have a data point on such radical transparency. Open source is conducted totally in the open, with all decisions being subject to challenge and justification. That manifestly works, for all its "naked transparency".

Now, politics is plainly different in certain key respects, not least because hackers are different from politicians, and there has been a culture of *anti*-openness among the latter. But I think that is already changing, as David Cameron's latest billet doux to opening up indicates:

the release of the datasets specified in the Coalition Programme is just the beginning of the transparency process. In advance of introducing any necessary legislation to effect our Right to Data proposals, public requests to departments for the release of government datasets should be handled in line with the principles underpinning those proposals: a presumption in favour of transparency, with all published data licensed for free reuse.

Now, I am not so naive as to believe that all will be sweetness and light when it comes to opening up government; nor do I think that open goverment is "done": this is the beginning or the journey, not the end. But it is undeniable that a sea change has occurred: openness is (almost) the presumption. And the closer we move to that state, the more readily politicians will work within that context, and more natural transparency - even of the naked kind - will become.

Moreover, shying away from such full-throated openness because of concerns that it might frighten the horses is a sure way to ensure that we *don't* complete this journey. Which is why I think concerns about "naked transparency" are not just wrong, but dangerous, since they threaten to scupper the whole project by starting to carve out dangerous exceptions right at its heart.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

02 June 2010

Open Sourcing Politics

“Linux is subversive”: so begins “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” Eric Raymond's analysis of the open source way. The subversion there was mainly applied to the world of software, but how much more subversive are the ideas that lie behind open source when applied to politics.

On Open Enterprise blog.

01 June 2010

GNU/Linux *Does* Scale – and How

As everyone knows, GNU/Linux grew up as a project to create a completely free alternative to Unix. Key parts were written by Richard Stallman while living the archetypal hacker's life at and around MIT, and by Linus Torvalds – in his bedroom. Against that background, it's no wonder that one of Microsoft's approaches to attacking GNU/Linux has been to dismiss it on technical grounds: after all, such a rag-bag of code written by long-haired hippies and near-teenagers could hardly be compared with the product of decades of serious, top-down planning by some of best coding professionals money can buy, could it?

On Open Enterprise blog.