31 January 2009

I'm Sorry, Joi, I Can't Do That

Is Joi Ito barking?

In the future according to Ito: "Every object on the Internet will have a licence and copyright information and the author and the owner attached to the object, and if it's a derivative work, where it's a derivative work of." The licence Ito has in mind will be a Creative Commons one, but there seems no reason why other classes of licence couldn't use similar mechanisms.

And, "what will happen is, once we start building it into all the tools, into your camera, into Adobe Acrobat, into Google, you don't need DRM and watermarks. As long as it's built into the HTML, most of the people who matter will follow it."

In what way will they do this? "You downloaded some music, and say, 'I want to use this in my YouTube video,' it [the software] will say, 'Bap-bap! You can't do that because the copyright says you can't.'" Which does kind of look and feel like DRM, but as Ito says, it's not, it's a way to get away from DRM.

Great: we do away with DRM and end up with an even more intrusive and repressive system of total digital control for everything on- and off-line. That's what the Creative Commons is working towards? Where's Larry Lessig when you need him?

Update: Confused of Calcutta takes these ideas further in his great post "A simple desultory philippic about copyright".

Flatworld: Open Textbooks

Flatworld, a open textbook publishing company, has finally come out of private beta. Here's what makes it different:

We preserve the best of the old - books by leading experts, rigorously reviewed and developed to the highest standards. Then we flip it all on its head.

Our books are free online. We offer convenient, low-cost choices for students – softcovers for under $30, audio books and chapters, self-print options, and more. Our books are open for instructors to modify and make their own (for their own course - not for anybody else's). Our books are the hub of a social learning network where students learn from the book and each other.

Flat World Knowledge. Because great minds are evenly distributed. Great textbooks are not. Until Now.

This isn't entirely new - for example, Rice University is doing something similar with its opencourseware - but it's probably the first time it's been made the basis of a startup.

Of course, the approach is eminently sensible: you give away what's abundant, and sell what's scarce. You create communities around learning, including teachers and students. And, crucially, you let people build on the work of others to improve existing texts - all of which are/seem to be under a Creative Commons licence:

Is the book close to what you need, but not perfect? Now you can make it perfect for you. You can customize your book before you adopt it, or anytime afterward. Think of it as your book – you’re in control and you can modify what you want, when you want.

You will find “Customize This Book” links on the catalog page and on every book page. Click and we load the book you are looking at into our “Build-a-Book” platform (you’ll need to register to do this – we need to save your work somewhere). You can click and drag chapters and sections into a better order that's right for you. Change the order of chapters or sections - or delete them altogether. Beginning Summer 09, you can add large chunks of information like a case study or an exercise set. You can search our database for material and add that. You can click the pencil icon and load that section of the book into our online editor, and actually make changes at the sentence level. Do you now have the perfect text? Great. Click “Save” and we’ll give you a unique URL, and put it in your “My(flat)World” page.

It's too early to tell how this particular implementation will do, but I am absolutely convinced this open textbook approach will do to academic publishing what open source has done to software.

30 January 2009

Open Source Mathematics

Maths is a famously lonely discipline - I should know, having spent three years of my life grappling with a single equation (the equation won). Mathematicians meet, and collaborate, it's true; but what would a truly open source approach to the process of solving mathematical problems look like? Maybe something like this:

Suppose one had a forum (in the non-technical sense, but quite possibly in the technical sense as well) for the online discussion of a particular problem. The idea would be that anybody who had anything whatsoever to say about the problem could chip in. And the ethos of the forum — in whatever form it took — would be that comments would mostly be kept short. In other words, what you would not tend to do, at least if you wanted to keep within the spirit of things, is spend a month thinking hard about the problem and then come back and write ten pages about it. Rather, you would contribute ideas even if they were undeveloped and/or likely to be wrong.

Do read the rest of the post if you can: (a) because it's thought provoking and (b) it's written by the Trinity man and Fields medallist Timothy Gowers.

Defining the Limits of Digital Britain

“Digital Britain” sounds like one of those embarrassingly feeble attempts to make dull things trendy, like “Cool Britannia” a few years ago. Alas, that impression is not dispelled by the contents of the interim report of the same name, released yesterday. It's got lots of the right words, but doesn't really seem to have grasped what they really mean to a digital native.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Why Adware Authors Love IE and Windows

An adware author explains:

Most adware targets Internet Explorer (IE) users because obviously they’re the biggest share of the market. In addition, they tend to be the less-savvy chunk of the market. If you’re using IE, then either you don’t care or you don’t know about all the vulnerabilities that IE has.

IE has a mechanism called a Browser Helper Object (BHO) which is basically a gob of executable code that gets informed of web requests as they’re going. It runs in the actual browser process, which means it can do anything the browser can do– which means basically anything. We would have a Browser Helper Object that actually served the ads, and then we made it so that you had to kill all the instances of the browser to be able to delete the thing. That’s a little bit of persistence right there.

If you also have an installer, a little executable, you can make a Registry entry and every time this thing reboots, the installer will check to make sure the BHO is there. If it is, great. If it isn’t, then it will install it.

(Via Bruce Schneier.)

29 January 2009

Open Access Astro-Observatory Runs GNU/Linux

Montegancedo Observatory is the first free open access astronomical observatory in the world. It is located in Building 6 of the School of Computing. The dome is equipped with a computer-automated, robotized 10” telescope, and several computers operating as a web applications server. The observatory also links and broadcasts images and videos captured by the webcams arranged around the dome... All servers run on GNU/Linux systems.

Providing open access to facilities, mediated by the Internet; providing (presumably) open access to the results in real-time; using free software to run the whole thing: this is the future of science. (Via Open Access News.)

The Naming of Parts/Property/Privilege

Words matter, which is why one of the shrewdest moves was the labelling of copyright infringement - an act that, when carried out by individuals (not criminal gangs), is so innocuous that it's almost boring - as "piracy". This elevates that trival velleity to blood and guts on the high seas, typhoons ripping the mainsail, the rigging cracking, and - well, you get the (exaggerated) picure.

But another of the more subtle acts of subversion was pushing the warm and fuzzy label "intellectual property" to describe the utterly boring legal concepts of copyright, patents and trademarks. As readers of this blog know well, it's not a term I'm prepared to accept, for many reasons. And I was pleased that another defender of software freedom, Sun's Simon Phipps, also has problems with "intellectual property":

The term is used widely in the business and legal communities, and it becomes second nature to speak of patents, copyright, trademarks and trade secrets collectively in this way. The problem with doing so is that the expression is factually wrong, and a legion of open source developers (you know, the ones working on free software) take the use of the phrase "intellectual property" as a genetic marker for "clueless PHB-type" at best and "evil oppressor of geeks" at worst.

Why is it wrong? Well, none of those things is really "property". In particular, copyright and patents are temporary privileges granted to creative people to encourage them to make their work openly available to society. The "social contract" behind them is "we'll grant you a temporary monopoly on your work so you can profit from it; in return you'll turn it over to the commons at the end of a reasonable period so our know-how and culture can grow."

Using the term "intellectual property" is definitely a problem. It encourages a mindset that treats these temporary privileges as an absolute right. This leads to two harmful behaviours:

* First, people get addicted to them as "property". They build business models that forget the privilege is temporary. They then press for longer and longer terms for the privilege without agreeing in return to any benefit for the commons and society.

* Second, they forget that one day they'll need to turn the material over to the commons. Software patents in particular contain little, if anything, that will be of value to the commons - no code, no algorithms, really just a list of ways to detect infringement.

Spot on, Simon. He then goes on to ask what we might use instead:

Various suggestions have been made, but each of them seems to me to be so slanted to the opposite agenda that there's little chance of practitioners using them.

However, the term "intellectual privilege" seems to work. It's got the right initial letters, which is a huge win! But it also correctly describes the actual nature of the temporary rights we're considering.

Hmm, I'm not so sure that backward compatibility with "IP" is such a virtue here. Indeed, choosing the same initial letters might actually make it harder to get the important point that Simon is making across.

I also think calling it "intellectual privilege" is confusing in another sense. He's correct that it *is* a privilege, but it's easy to imagine the forces that rebranded copyright infringement as "piracy" would have a field day spinning this new "IP" to mean that it's a privilege for *us* consumers to have access to this wonderful stuff.

Far better, in my view, to tell it as it is, and to pick up on Simon's description that this is nothing less than "a temporary monopoly", granted by the state in return for the eventual release of this stuff to the public domain. Calling it an intellectual monopoly also has the advantage that it includes the "intellectual" part of "intellectual property", so it's clear what we're talking about - not anything remotely *physical*.

Moreover, bringing people face to face with the reality that these things are monopolies, generally recognised as bad things, is one of the fastest ways to convince the general public and politicians that we need to shorten their terms, not lengthen them, as has been happening time and again over the last century. After all, who wants longer monopolies - apart from monopolists?

More Evidence that File Downloaders Buy *More*

One of the central fallacies in the argument that sharing is bad for business is the idea that every file downloaded is a sale lost. In fact, there is growing evidence that the contrary is the case - that people who share stuff, buy *more* stuff. Here's some more:

The Institute for Information Law in the Netherlands reports that the average downloader buys more DVDs, music, and games than people who never download. Illegal downloaders represent 45 percent of consumers who purchase content legally, the institute recently reported.

The Institute estimates some 4.7 million Dutch Internet users 15 years and older downloaded hacked and pirated DVDs, games, and music in the last 12 months. This would imply a staggering 25 percent of the Dutch population (from the 2008 figure of 16.5 million) who view illegal downloading and sharing as socially acceptable, even as they're also legally acquiring content in parallel.

So that seems to say that 25 per cent of the Dutch population share stuff, but that they represent 45 per cent of the sales. In other words, they are buying quite a lot more than people who don't.

Perhaps one day the content industries will realise that they should be *encouraging* sharing, becuase it boost their sales: it's called marketing.

28 January 2009

The Net Net of Netbooks

Netbooks have been one of the surprise successes over the last year. They have also been one of the most contentious areas of computing. There are conflicting reports on most aspects of the sector – in terms of market share, rate of returns etc. - and it is easy to assume that it's all fad and fashion. Against that background, it's good to have some figures – any figures – that might throw a little light on this promising sector.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Academic Earth's Global Academy

One of the interesting applications of openness has been to education. The potential is plain: why re-invent the wheel when it comes to creating educational materials? It's not as if the facts change much from year to year. Moreover, when there are acknowledged experts within a field, it makes sense to draw on their work so that as many students as possible have access to top-flight teaching.

This has led to opencourseware, most famously at MIT, but increasingly, elsewhere. It takes two main forms: the texts of lectures, and recordings of the same. There's now a good body of such videos, enough to allow for the creation of a site dedicated entirely to them: Academic Earth.

Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education.

As more and more high quality educational content becomes available online for free, we ask ourselves, what are the real barriers to achieving a world class education? At Academic Earth, we are working to identify these barriers and find innovative ways to use technology to increase the ease of learning.

We are building a user-friendly educational ecosystem that will give internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment that in which that content is remarkably easy to use and in which user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.

Most of the videos are issued under a Creative Commons licence, with varying options in terms of what you can do with them.

Interestingly, Academic Earth is not, despite its name, an academic institution, but a start-up. As its founder, Richard Ludlow, told me:

I was originally starting this as a non-profit project (I previously started a non-profit public health organization and magazine), but switched to for-profit when I decided I would have an easier time raising the initial funds and recruiting people as a for-profit. In addition to the non-commercial content, we plan to host some videos we will commercialize, though the hope is to always keep everything free.

Certainly, an idea to, er, watch.

Take this Survey: It's the Law

As I've noted before, free software stands in an odd relationship with the law that governs it. On the one hand, free software could not exist sustainably without copyright - the GNU GPL depends on it for its power. On the other, copyright - and, even more, patents - are intellectual monopolies that represent the antithesis of everything that free software stands for.

Given that tension, it's clearly a good idea to understand how that works out on the ground, among the people who have to negotiate the legal minefields hemming in the act of coding. Sadly, there's not much research in this area, an omission that Thomas Otter hopes to remedy:

I’m labouring away at what must be one of the longest part-time PhDs ever. My research is looking at how software code and law work or don’t work together. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In order to add a bit of empirical juice to will be a rather dry theoretical legal tome, I’ve decided to do a survey.

He's particularly keen to get people from the world of free software participating in order to complement those from more traditional areas. You can find the survey here: it's not very onerous, and doesn't delve too deeply into anything heavy (I've filled it in and lived to tell the tale). And if you're looking for an incentive to do so beyond adding to the cairn of knowledge, both the raw results of the survey and Otter's analysis will be freely available later this year.

27 January 2009

The Water Commons

One of the most valuable functions of the concept of "the commons" is that it reframes the terms in which we think of resources. For example, think of water as a commons, and you begin to realise why it really must be shared, and never owned:

One clear lesson emerges from the struggles of the world’s water warriors — water management remains a leaky endeavor unless it adheres to the principles of the commons — the gifts of society and nature that are shared by all, for generations to come. Effective water management must be based on such water commons principles as community control, democratic participation, ensuring the earth’s right to water, public water delivery and accessibility for all.

This comes from the new site Our Water Commons. There's also a freely downloadable report on water commons principles: “Our Water Commons, Towards a New Freshwater Narrative” by Maude Barlow.

It's both fascinating and thorough; drink it up.

Tories Back Open Source Software...They Say

Evidence that open source and the more general concept of openness is becoming trendy: the politicians are bandying them around again. There was a flurry of this stuff last year, and here is the latest effort from the Tories....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Wanted: the First GNU/Linux Distro for the Cloud

As this amazing chart shows, there are basically three great families of GNU/Linux distros: those based on Red Hat, Slackware and Debian. The last of these was created as a reaction to an even earlier distro, SLS, as Debian's creator Ian Murdock (the “Ian” in “Debian” - Deb is his wife) told me a few years ago....

On Open Enterprise blog.

26 January 2009

Of Blogs and Microblogging

The eagle-eyed among you (everyone, surely), will have noticed the sudden excrudescence of a widget to the right. Since this represents the rude irruption of that upstart Twitter among the peaceful glades of Blogger, I feel some explanation is in order.

I've only been using Twitter for about a month, but I've found a what seems to me a fairly natural use for it alongside Open... and my Open Enterprise blog: posting stuff that doesn't really merit a full-on blog post, but is worthy of a quick mention.

So the idea of including a few tweets on this blog is to offer a few quick links or ideas that might be of interest to readers of this blog, without them needing to subscribe to Twitter or even leave this page.

It's meant to add, not take away, and nothing else will be changing in terms of what I blog about (except that I probably won't be posting anything really short, since that is likely to end up on Twitter.)

I intend running this page in its present form for a while to see how people like it. Please feel free to let me know whether you love or loathe it. I may also tweak some of its parameters - number of tweets etc. - so thoughts on that, too, would be welcome.

EU JURI Committee Go Mad on Copyright

Oh no: the European Parliament's JURI committee has collectively lost its marbles and produced an incredibly one-side report on copyright. Here are its highlights:

* graduated response: The report recommends "three strikes" schemes against unauthorised file sharing for all Europe, including cooperation with ISP based on denunciations by the entertainment industries (points 31, 37)

* Internet content filtering: The recommendations ask for the deployment of technologies for filtering content "for identification and recognition, [...] with a view to distinguishing more easily between legal and pirated products" that totally contradicts the very nature of Internet. (point 35)

* Internet access providers liability: the report "Invites reflection on the responsibility of internet access providers in the fight against piracy;" including the objective of making service providers liable for content published by their users. (points 32, 36, 37)

* Denial of copyright exceptions: its conclusions on copyright exceptions are anticipating the result of the public consultation launched by the European Commission on "Copyright in the knowledge economy" by stating that any reform of the 2001 copyright Directive is undesirable, that the existing regime for copyright exceptions is undesirable, and that there is no need for new exceptions. This archaic position undermines creativity, interoperability, and innovation. (points 3, 20, 23, 25)

This is massively retrogressive, and takes no account of everything that has happened online for the last ten years.

Please write to your MEPs now, asking them to reject the Medina report when it comes up for a vote. I know from personal experience how effective this is.

What Mr. Lammy *Still* Does Not Get

Surpising - but good - news if true:

Internet service providers will not be forced to disconnect users who repeatedly flout the law by illegally sharing music and video files, The Times has learnt.

Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, said last year that the Government had “serious legislative intent” to compel internet companies to cut off customers who ignore warnings not to pirate material.

However, in an interview with The Times, David Lammy, the Intellectual Property Minister, said that the Government had ruled out legislating to force ISPs to disconnect such users.

The reasoning is notable:

Speaking ahead of the publication of a report on the future of Britain's digital industries, Mr Lammy said that there were very complex legal issues wrapped up in enforced disconnection. He added: “I'm not sure it's actually going to be possible.”

Spot on. I hope this also means that the UK will be voting against any attempts to bring this in at a European level.

Given this understanding, I was disappointed with the following from Mr Lammy:

Mr Lammy, who has begun a big consultation entitled Developing a Copyright Agenda for the 21st Century, said that there was a big difference between organised counterfeiting gangs and “younger people not quite buying into the system”. He said: “We can't have a system where we're talking about arresting teenagers in their bedrooms. People can rent a room in an hotel and leave with a bar of soap - there's a big difference between leaving with a bar of soap and leaving with the television.”

I quite agree about the difference (and support legal action against criminal counterfeiting gangs), but it's got nothing to do with bars of soap. This metaphor perpetuates the erroneous idea that infringing on copyright is simply stealing - albeit stealing bars of soap. It is not only legally totally different, it is conceptually totally different in the case of digital files, as in the present situation.

If I steal a bar of soap from a hotel (heaven forfend), the hotel no longer has the soap; it incurs a real loss from something being taken away. If I make a digital copy of a file, nobody loses that file; nothing has been "taken".

The correct - and important - question is whether the copyright holder loses at at any point. That comes down to the simple arithmetic of whether people making unauthorised copies of music increase or decrease the number of copies that are later sold.

The evidence seems to be the former - the idea being that unauthorised copies function as marketing for the "real" thing. This means that the music industry should actually encourage such copies, since ultimately they will reap the benefits - just as the Monty Python crew have done:

when Monty Python launched their channel in November, not only did their YouTube videos shoot to the top of the most viewed lists, but their DVDs also quickly climbed to No. 2 on Amazon's Movies & TV bestsellers list, with increased sales of 23,000 per cent.

As has been said before, the greatest loss to artists comes not from unauthorised copying, but from not reaching as much of your potential audience as possible, as easily as possible.

It's great to see Mr Lammy taking a reasonable line here, but it would be even better if he understood the profound difference between analogue and digital, and between rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods, that lies at the heart of this whole discussion.

Microsoft's Future: as a Games Company

News that for probably the first time Microsoft would be making significant numbers of its workforce redundant has inevitably been picked up and chewed over widely. In truth, the net numbers of job losses are low – a couple of thousand, allowing for new intakes. What's really noteworthy is the underlying reason for those losses: that the cracks in the Microsoft empire are finally becoming evident to even the most myopic of observers.

On Open Enterprise blog.

25 January 2009

UK Government *Is* Experian

William Heath on the Experian scandal:

Experian has a “Mosaic” view of the world which involves grabbing as much data as possible and then crudely lumping people into blocks, rather like a fly looking at the world through compound eyes. The danger is they flog this to Whitehall departments and local authorities which rely on this computerised kaleidoscope to make decisions that affect people’s lives.

It's actually worse than that. The "mosaic" view is already deeply embedded within the UK government's mindset: that's why they keep on setting up these huge, unworkable database projects, and then propose linking them together.

It's not a matter of Labour peers allegedly being corrupted by Experian; the problem is that the UK government has gradually *become* Experian.

24 January 2009

Seven things people didn't know about me...

...And probably didn't want to. Thanks to that nice Mr Mark Surman, I have been not only tagged but also subjected to fiendishly-clever emotional blackmail in the accompanying email:

I realize this is corny. But corny can be fun. This kind of fun is something I dare you to have.

The rules are:

Link to your original tagger(s) and list these rules in your post.

Share seven facts about yourself in the post.

Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.

Let them know they’ve been tagged.

Sigh. So, here goes:

1. As I child, I kept frog spawn (still abundant in those far-off days), fascinated by the extraordinary metamorphosis it underwent. Once, among the many froglets that emerged, one had six legs, and two had five (all extra forelimbs.)

2. At primary school, I was one of the ugly sisters in “Cinderella”. I still remember the rather fetching pink and lime-green dress that I wore.

3. I spent most of my free time at secondary school playing bridge. Unfortunately, I used the Blue Club system, which, according to Wikipedia, is no longer popular, making it even more of an utter waste of time.

4. I was Senior Wrangler in the 1977 Tripos. Barely anyone knows what that means; even fewer care. 100 years ago, it would have guaranteed me a pampered college fellowship for life. I regard it as lucky escape.

5. My first post-university job was as a maths supply teacher for 30+ 15-year-olds in Catford, South London, most of whom were larger than me, but rather less interested in mathematics than I was. I lasted two months before being escaping to publishing.

6. I was taken off a train at near-gunpoint in Belarus for travelling without a transit visa. At 5 o'clock in the morning. I then had to rush to the immigration office attached to the Grodno border station and get a visa before the waiting train left for Vilnius with all my luggage on board.

7. I am powerless in the presence of honey-roasted cashews. An interesting case of where traditional mathematics breaks down, and 1+1=3.

The rules say I must now pass on this poisoned chalice to others, but unlike Mark I won't add any pressure: please feel free to ignore if you wish, or have already been tagged – I did search, but happily Google is not yet omniscient.

The names below are all key people in the UK world of openness in various ways, and I think it would be interesting to find out more about them. They are (in alphabetical order):

OpenStreetMap's Steve Coast

Open data defender Peter Murray-Rust

Alfresco's John Newton

Sun's Simon Phipps

BT's JP Rangaswami

Boycott Novell's Roy Schestowitz

Open government enthusiast Tom Steinberg

23 January 2009

The UK Government is at it Again

You would have thought the smack across the knuckles delivered by the public over their attempt to hide MP's expenses from scrutiny would be enough for the UK government's ministers, but oh no, they're up to their old tricks:

Hidden in the new Coroners and Justice Bill [2] is one clause (cl.152) amending the Data Protection Act. It would allow ministers to make 'Information Sharing Orders', that can alter any Act of Parliament and cancel all rules of confidentiality in order to use information obtained for one purpose to be used for another....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Change in How Change Happens

Another cracking post from Kevin Kelly:

Of all the tricks that evolution came up for increasing its evolvability none compare to minds. Minds – and not just human minds – bestow on life a greatly accelerated way to learn and adapt. This should not be surprising because minds are built to find answers, and one of the key things to answer might be how to learn better, quicker. If what minds are good for is learning and adaptation, then learning how to learn will accelerate your learning. Even though most of the learning a mind does is not transferred directly into biological evolution, there are several ways in which minds accelerate evolution (see the Baldwin Effect), even in the lower animal kingdom. So the presence of minds in life has increased its evolvability; the discovery of mindness has driven evolution in many new directions while also creating a new territory to explore – the territory of possible minds.

The most recent extension of this expansion is technology. Technology is how human minds explore the space of possibilities. We power our minds via science and technology to make possible things real. More so technology is how our society learns and introduces change. It is almost a cliché to point out that technology has brought as much change on this planet in the last 100 years as life has in the last billion years.

Ray Kurzweil can provide you with dozens of graphs charting the accelerating change brought about by technology in the last 100 years or so. From the speed of computers, the bandwidth of communications, the power of engines, the yield of crops – all are accelerating in performance. Change is this century's middle name.

But meta-change is not about acceleration itself; it is not about faster change. Rather, the acceleration of evolution or increased evolvability is about the change in the nature of change. The basic mechanism by which our collective minds – as expressed by technology – adapt and produce change is undergoing a shift. In fact the most important change at work in our world right now is "the change in how change happens."

"Change in how change happens": that's a pretty good description of what openness is doing. It has changed *how* we change. It's also what we need to achieve on a *planetary* scale if was are going to save much of the world as we know it. It doesn't get much more profound than that.

Release of Eclipse Grid/Cloud Computing Tool g-Eclipse

As you may have noticed, one of the hottest buzzwords currently is cloud computing. Eclipse, on the other hand, is *still* one of open source's greatest secrets – hugely ambitious and gaining ever-wider support. Put the two together, and you get g-Eclipse, whose first major release has just appeared....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Intellectual Monopolists on the Back Foot

Given the constant cacophonous blaring of propaganda from the intellectual monopoly lobby, it's sometimes hard to tell whether we're making any progress in opening people's eyes to the evils of this approach. But here's heartening evidence from those same monopolists that we're having a big effect:

In October, US Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue announced that the GIPC, which had previously been focused on counterfeiters, would rise to the challenge of what the chamber characterised as a “second threat [from] a growing movement of anti-IP activists drawn from universities, foundations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), ideologically driven interest groups, and even governments.”

These anti-IP activists, the chamber said, were annually spending tens of millions of dollars on an agenda to minimise intellectual property rights.

This is extraordinary. It equates those who wish - legitimately - to minimise intellectual monopolies as the moral equivalents of counterfeiters. In other words, the intellectual monoplists seem to regard *any* threat to their fat-cat lifestyle as illegal, almost by definition.

The good news is that by identifying those against intellectual monopolies as this "second threat" on a par with counterfeiting is proof of just how successful we are becoming.

We are winning, people: spread the word - and up the pressure. (Via Techdirt.)

BlackBerry to Support OpenDocument Format

One of the biggest barriers to introducing new, open formats like ODF is the lock-in of platforms to Microsoft's dominant Office formats. This makes winning support for as many different environments as possible critically important, because it removes what might be an insuperable obstacle to rolling out ODF within a company.

Against that background, this apparently minor announcement could be quite significant for the uptake of ODF in enterprises....

On Open Enterprise blog.

22 January 2009

As I Was Saying...

I just knew this was coming:

Labour and the Tories left the door open today for a future move to exempt the full details of MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

They just cannot contemplate letting us see what they do.

Against Monopoly: Microsoft's Decline

I'm a big fan of the Against Monopoly site authors; here's a bold prediction from one of them:

Always in the past when software with substantial installed base has finally been supplanted the fall has not been gradual: Lotus and Wordperfect went from world-beaters to also rans in just a few years. I think Microsoft may surprise us by falling equally fast. There may not be much left in two years time.

Mobilising Open Source

I've been wittering on about open source mobiles for ages, but here's someone who actually knows what he's talking about:

Whether it be the proliferation of phone development activity around Google’s Android stack, the phenomenal operator gravitation toward the LiMo Foundation, or Symbian’s intriguing announcement to open source its end-of-life cycle stack, the mobile industry is breaking out of the traditional controlled development environment to favor collaboration that accelerates innovation. The use of open source software in mobile is exploding from the operating system all the way up to the user experience, and Linux-based open source stacks are moving well beyond alpha stage with backing by industry heavy weights.

This post is in the context of the Mobile World Congress being held in Barcelona in February:

26 years after GSM was created to design a pan-European mobile technology, Mobile World Congress number 13 is set to take place in Barcelona in February. This time around, as they did when GSM World Congress was first held in Madrid in 1995, mobile network operators will dominate the scene.

Next month, however, the topic of discussion will not be new network deployments, or the latest traunch of jazzy new devices, or the next best application. Rather, Open Source will be topic Number 1 on the operator agenda in 2009.

Good to hear it.

Memo to Gordon Brown...from Barack Obama

In the light of Gordon's recent wobbly over our Freedom of Information Act, lets hope he reads carefully the following memo from his new mate Obama:

A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of
the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

"In the face of doubt, openness prevails": couldn't have put it better myself. (Via EFF.)

DRM's Deathmarch

Nice post from Ed Felten summarising the slow but unstoppable death of DRM. Telling tidbit:

it's interesting to see traditional DRM supporters back away from it. RIAA chief Mitch Bainwol now says that the RIAA is agnostic on DRM. And DRM cheerleader Bill Rosenblatt has relaunched his "DRM Watch" blog under the new title "Copyright and Technology". The new blog's first entry: iTunes going DRM-free.

If your best friends don't even want to know you, you know you're in trouble....

21 January 2009

Why Google Open Sources its Gadgets

From the horse's mouth:

# Source code can be a valuable learning tool. The gadgets not only show you how to develop Desktop gadgets, integrate with Google APIs, but also provide other tidbits of knowledge such as how to calculate phases of the moon or StarDates.

# The images and graphics are also Open Sourced. Being an engineer, I know how frustrating it is to work hard on an application only to have it dismissed because of hand-drawn stick figures and shapes. We hope people can take advantage of our graphic designers' talents. If you're a fan of clocks, I have something right up your alley.

# We get warm fuzzy feelings by simply supporting the cause. It fosters a spirit of openness and collaboration between the team and developer community.

They even conclude:

To summarize, I'd encourage community members to consider opening your projects, even smaller ones. These fancy search engines nowadays are quite good about picking up code, and your algorithms and graphics can help someone in need.

After the U-turn...

MySociety founder Tom Steinberg is optimistic in the wake of the UK government's U-turn on MPs' expenses (assuming it lasts):

This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others. This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness.

Well, here's hoping.

There are Many Ways to Skin a... Netbook

Good point here:

Even if manufacturers may be getting smaller margins on netbooks, I suspect they will add skins, cool designs and other less technical features to help sweeten their profits.

This, together with the addition of 3G plans, means that netbooks are becoming more like mobiles.

Microsoft's Cunning Plan: DRM Costs More

You've got to give it to Microsoft: they really think outside the box. After all, who else would have come up with the brilliant wheeze of justifying prices that were over the odds for mobile downloads by adding that super-useful, super-popular feature of DRM?

The paid-for MSN Mobile Music service, launched in partnership with London-based VidZone Digital Media, offers tracks for £1.50, ringtones for £3 and videos for £2 from http://www.msn.co.uk


The prices seem steep in comparison with other paid download sites around: market leader iTunes, which will soon allow 3G iPhone users to buy songs, commonly offers single tracks for £0.79, while Amazon.co.uk goes as low as £0.59 for recently released singles. And Musically.com points out that unlike those download services, MSN Mobile tracks are not DRM-free. A message on the help section of the site reads: "When you purchase the music, you get unlimited plays for the content whilst it remains on the device. At this stage, you cannot transfer your music to another device or PC."

Sounds like a winner to me.

MPs' Expenses Not Secret - Yet...

Looks like a reprieve more than a pardon:

Gordon Brown today retreated from plans to exempt MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

The surprise announcement made during prime ministers questions follows the collapse overnight of a bipartisan agreement between Brown and David Cameron, the Tory leader.


Brown told MPs: "We thought we had agreement from the parties and we will continue to have discussions with all parties until we have agreement."

Still, maybe shows that writing to MPs has *some* effect.

Scott McNealy Writing Gov Paper on Open Source

Hmm, not sure whether this is totally good news:

The secret to a more secure and cost effective government is through open source technologies and products.

The claim comes from one of Silicon Valley's most respected business leaders Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

He revealed he has been asked to prepare a paper on the subject for the new administration.

"It's intuitively obvious open source is more cost effective and productive than proprietary software," he said.

"Open source does not require you to pay a penny to Microsoft or IBM or Oracle or any proprietary vendor any money."

Well, that's all true, but is McNealy really the person to give this message? He was always very ambivalent about open source during his time as boss of Sun. I'd rather Jonathan Schwartz were writing that report....

Is the Open Standards Alliance Betraying Open Source?

Interoperability has always been at the heart of the Open Solutions Alliance. Here's what it's first president, Dominic Sartorio, told me just over a year ago...

On Open Enterprise blog.

20 January 2009

Someone *Did* Tell Them About CC Licences

Last month I was whingeing about the inability to share pix from the wonderful "Someone Once Told Me" site. Good news, now you can:

All Images subject to Creative Commons

Thanks, chaps, I'm sure it will prove a good move.

The Convention on Modern Liberty - in Pictures

Those nice people from the Convention on Modern Liberty have pointed out that they have a selection of tasteful gifs for use on Web sites.

EU vs. MS: Same as it Ever Was?

You've got to admire the European Commission for its tenacity:

The European Commission can confirm that it has sent a Statement of Objections (SO) to Microsoft on 15th January 2009. The SO outlines the Commission’s preliminary view that Microsoft’s tying of its web browser Internet Explorer to its dominant client PC operating system Windows infringes the EC Treaty rules on abuse of a dominant position (Article 82)....

On Open Enterprise blog.

19 January 2009

Wouldn't It Be Wonderful to Have....ODS?

The Guardian continues to do its bit for open data:

The Guardian has pulled together a collection of datasets drawn from the US

Rather cleverly, it is using Spreadly, aka Google Spreadsheets to offer various formats:

Simon Rogers gathered this information and shared the raw data via Google Spreadsheets for anyone to use. This means that people can grab the data in whatever format is most desirable including text, .csv, .xls, and .pdf.

That's great, but why is .odf - also available from Spreadly - omitted? Anything personal? Lack of space? Not enough electrons...?

The Empire (No Longer) Strikes Back

One of the most worrying moments in recent open source history was when it became clear that Microsoft was determined to wrench away Apache's crown as top Web server. This began in early 2006, and was soon showing dramatic results, as the April 2006 Netcraft survey commented:

This month's survey brings one of the largest one-month swings in the history of the web server market, as Microsoft gains 4.7 percent share while Apache loses 5.9 percent. The shift is driven by changes at domain registrar Go Daddy, which has just migrated more than 3.5 million hostnames from Linux to Windows. Go Daddy, which had been the world's largest Linux host, is now the world's largest Windows Server 2003 host, as measured by hostnames. The company said it will shift a total of 4.4 million hostnames to Windows Server 2003.

This was a staggering shift, and I feared it might presage a real effort by Microsoft to achieve a major PR win. Things reached their nadir in September 2007:

Apache gains over 3 million hostnames, and around 0.9 million active sites this month. But this is not enough to prevent its market share declining closer to the 50% mark, as Microsoft also gained over 3 million hostnames (a large part of which come from MySpace and Live Spaces, both of which use its Internet Information Server.

At that time, the gap between Apache and Microsoft's IIS was just 15%, down, from 50% just a couple of years earlier.

But since then, Apache has gradually pulled ahead; today the gap is around 18% - still far smaller than it once was, but increasing. I feel that the danger has passed, not least because Microsoft has realised that it was fighting yesterday's battles.

Tomorrow's fight will be about owning the cloud, and the main threat there is not so much Apache, as customised versions of open source software, of the kind employed by Google for its vast server farms: in the latest Netscape survey, Google has around 5% of the Web server market. It's still open vs. closed, but not as we know it.

The crucial point is that Microsoft failed to displace Apache, despite its almost limitless resources. This is the crucial lesson for the future, more important than any particular percentage market share: that Microsoft's attacks can - and have been - beaten off.

Openness is Good for Everyone – Even MPs

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I believe that openness is a pretty good thing, pretty much everywhere. Strangely, the UK Government doesn't agree with me: it seems to think telling members of the public how MPs spend the public's money is a Really Bad Thing. As mySociety explains:

Ministers are about to conceal MPs’ expenses, even though the public has just paid £1m to get them all ready for publication, and even though the tax man expects citizens to do what MPs don’t have to. They buried the news on the day of the Heathrow runway announcement. This is heading in the diametric wrong direction from government openness.

Yes indeedy. MySociety also has some helpful suggestions on what you might want to do about it:

1. Please write to your MP about this www.WriteToThem.com - ask them to lobby against this concealment, and tell them that TheyWorkForYou will be permanently and prominently noting those MPs who took the opportunity to fight against this regressive move. The millions of constituents who will check this site before the next election will doutbtless be interested.

2. Join this facebook group and invite all your least political friends (plus your most political too). Send them personal mails, phone or text them. Encourage them to write to their politicians too.

3.Write to your local paper to tell them you’re angry, and ask them to ask their readers to do the above. mySociety’s never-finished site http://news.mysociety.org might be able to help you here.

I've already done the first two (not quite sure about the third), and I urge you to do the same. Remember: it's not about the money, it's about the openness.

For those who are interested, here's my letter:

I am writing to you to express my profound disquiet that the Government is about the go back on its decision to make detailed information about MPs expenses available to the public.

As the Government likes to remind us, those who have nothing to fear have nothing to hide, and the request that the British electorate – the people that ultimately foot the bill of MPs' expenses – should be allowed to see the costs claimed by MPs is simply a question of justice.

It is also a question of fairness: at a time when ordinary citizens are being asked to give up more and more information about themselves to the Government, it is only right that politicians should do the same if they are not to be branded as hypocrites.

Moreover, it is a question of good sense: much time and money has already been spent preparing this information. To throw it away now, at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet, would be a real slap in the face for the general public, and a clear sign that the Government is contemptuous of their everyday problems.

I know you as an MP who has always conducted a laudably frank and open dialogue with your constituents, and so I hope that you will agree that making politics as transparent as possible can only strengthen our democracy, while creating exceptions for MPs will only increase the public's cynicism and lead to an ever-great alienation from the political system.

For these reasons, I urge you to vote against this measure to conceal MPs' expenses.

Open Source Microblogging and the Enterprise

One of the easy predictions for 2009 is that it will be the year that Twitter breaks through into the mainstream (for some suitable definition of mainstream.) The good news is that Twitter uses lots of open source and plans to use even more....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Adieu, Michel Rocard - et Merci

Free software loses a good friend in the European Parliament: Michel Rocard, fierce opponent of software patents, is resigning. Sad day, but thanks, mon vieux.

18 January 2009

The Digital Preservation Coalition

New one to me:

The Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) is a not-for profit membership organisation whose primary objective is to raise awareness of the importance of the preservation of digital material and the attendant strategic, cultural and technological issues. It acts as an enabling and agenda-setting body within the digital preservation world and works to meet this objective through a number of high level goals. Its vision is to make our digital memory accessible tomorrow.

These sound promising:

Principles of the Coalition

The activities and members of the Coalition will operate by the following principles:

Openness: The Coalition and its members commit to promoting and disseminating information and sharing outcomes so that we can all learn and benefit as quickly as possible from transferable lessons and experience (both positive and negative).

Collaboration: Digital preservation has become so significant a phenomenon (in scope, complexity, and investment), that no single organisation can address all the challenges alone.

The Coalition provides a forum for members to identify relevant issues and support to pursue collaboration across organisations and sectors to mutual benefit.

Collective benefit: Core Coalition activities supported by resources from its membership must be of common interest and benefit to them. Projects or the activities of individual members may have narrower collective benefit and can contribute to the wider goals of the Coalition but are separately funded.

Vendor neutrality: The goals of the Coalition are generic and will be vendor neutral. It will support the development of standards and generic approaches to digital preservation, which can be implemented by a range of hardware, software, and service vendors.

Well, that's got open source, open access and open data written right through it, hasn't it?

16 January 2009

Why Open Source is Eclipsing Everything Else

A name that I don't know as well as I should is Grady Booch:

chief scientist at IBM's Rational Software unit and an IBM fellow who also holds the title "free radical." His software development approach and the Unified Modeling Language, which he helped create, have been used to build the software that runs pacemakers, avionics in certain large airliners, antilock brake systems, and financial trading systems in the U.S., Europe and Asia....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Open Solaris is Big...in Afghanistan

Interesting post about Open Solaris and its user group in Afghanistan - and why GNU/Linux hasn't made much impact:

I'd like to propose an OSUG for Kabul, Afghanistan. It could be called "Kabul OpenSolaris User Group" or "Afghanistan OpenSolaris User Group". We don't want to lay claim to the whole country, but I'm pretty sure there's no-one apart from us who does UNIX here.

The initial participants of the OSUG are Abdullah Ghaznawi, Said Adil Hashemi and myself, Said Hakim Hamdani. We all work at the same place (http://www.medical-kabul.com/) and since I brought OpenSolaris with me to Afghanistan, I was able to get both of them interested enough that they are going to make their systems dual-boot with OpenSolaris and WinXP


We are located in Kabul, Afghanistan and as far as I know we're the only Solaris users around. The computing infrastructure in Afghanistan is still pretty much in its infancy and I am doing what I can to get people to try out UNIX (best of Solaris of course) and use it for their daily computing tasks. There's some Linux around here, but I'm not too fond of that and having seen a single (!) copy of Solaris 10 in the software market the other day, I sat down with Abdullah and Adil and we decided to try and get people more interested in OpenSolaris.

I'd be surprised if Open Solaris managed to remain more popular than GNU/Linux, given the latter's momentum; but it may be that the situation in Afghanistan is so exceptional that personal recommendation of the kind mentioned above is more important. An interesting space to watch.

Last Chance to See: Modern Liberty...

The Convention on Modern Liberty was launched last night. I may be foolishly optimistic, but I do feel that this is our best hope of stopping the techno-surveillance state that is being created today in the UK.

The speech made by co-director Anthony Barnett has just been published, and it's a good summary of the perils facing liberty, and the questions that need to be addressed before we can come up with a way to halt this madness:

something does seem to be going on behind the theatre of parliament and government. Both Henry and Helena have referred to the constant stream of measures, violations, outrages even, which have little popular support. There is a connection between the spread of uncontrolled surveillance, detention without trial, the right of bailiffs to enter homes and seize property without a warrant, the ongoing, across the board destruction of our liberties.

We don’t have a name for it yet. NO2ID – and big thanks to Phil Booth its National Coordinator especially for his work on the Convention - have developed the term I use and find helpful, ‘The Database State’. This may describe it. But where is the motivation? What’s the driver pushing it onwards?

Is it a governing class who, since it supported the Iraq War, knows that the people are wiser than they are (a crucial moment this) and, in its bad faith, wants to secure its control by whatever means it can?

Is it a hardened grouping in the Home Office whose attitude is that if you stand upright and call yourself a “citizen” you immediately become a suspect - to be pre-emptively invigilated and controlled?

Is it corporate lobbying eager for the juicy deals – after all, if you have the contract on a whole country to make its ID cards or support their software and technology just think of the cashflow.

Or is part of what is happening simply a permission from a public that has not woken up to what is going on?

How these questions are answered is just as important as the answers. The answers need not be spoken in fearful whispers and anxiety. They need to be rooted in confident public debate. This is what this Convention on Modern Liberty is all about.

The Convention itself takes place on 29 28 February; you can buy a ticket here.

I shall be going, and I urge everyone else who cares about liberty and who can make to come too. We need to support this as fully as we can; if we don't, I fear it may be our last chance for a very long time.

Google Chrome to Support ActiveX

I've written before about the parlous state of online computing in South Korea, where practically everyone uses Microsoft's ActiveX technology. As this post explains:

Despite security short-comings, ActiveX had been welcomed into the community and flourished. Surprisingly, more so in banks where security is a top priority. Believe it or not, ActiveX is so widely used that the South Korean government decides to make it compulsory for all banks to have it.

That's bad enough, but the post goes on:

Other major browsers have resisted supporting ActiveX. Until now. Google Chrome has now decided to support ActiveX, but only in South Korea.

OK, so Google wants to increase its market share, but it might do that more usefully by sponsoring a few studies into the poor security that using ActiveX implies. Following sheep-like is not the solution.

Talking of Rights and Wrongs...

...one of the bigger wrongs in the field of copyright is the proposed extension for sound recordings. I've written extensively about why this is nuts, but have pretty much given up hope that we'll see any rational decisions here.

Fortunately, the indispensable and irrepressible Open Rights Group (fighting the Closed Wrongs Group, presumably), has not, and has not issued the following call to arms:

How you can help the campaign:

1) Come to an event on 27 January in the European Parliament in Brussels to hear academics, musicians and activists discuss the Directive with a roundtable of MEPs.

2) Invite your MEP to attend the 27 January event on your behalf (you can get their contact details here: UK residents; Other EU residents)

3) Invite your MEP to sign the Sound Copyright petition

4) Ask your MEP to watch the Open Rights Group’s cartoon “How copyright term extension in Sound Recordings actually works”

See the original post for full details and links.

No, It's a *Wrongs* Agency

From The Reg:

Following its failure to foster voluntary solution between ISPs and rights holders, the government will create a new agency and regulations to clamp down on copyright infringement via peer-to-peer networks, it's reported today.

A proposal for a body called the Rights Agency will be at the centre of anti-internet piracy measures, according to the Financial Times, which cited sources who had read a draft of Lord Carter's report on Digital Britain. The Rights Agency will be introduced alongside a new code of practice for ISPs and rights holders, to be overseen by Ofcom, according to the leaked draft. The final report is due out by the end of this month.

So, tell me, what about *our* rights - of fair dealing/fair use, of the ability to create mashups and remixes? Funny that the UK government is only interested in preserving the 18th century rights of business, rather than the 21st rights of its citizens. Every time they come up with daftness such as this, they show just how out of touch with the modern world they are.

Russia to create "National OS" Based on GNU/Linux?

Here's an interesting idea: for Russia to fund the creation of a "national operating system" to replace Windows, based on GNU/Linux:

Отечественное ИТ-сообщество просит президента поддержать идею национальной операционной системы.

Будущие разработчики российской «национальной операционной системы» могут получить поддержку в виде федеральной целевой программы. Во всяком случае, на это рассчитывают авторы письма президенту Дмитрию Медведеву, которое сейчас готовится в Госдуме.

[Via Google Translate: Domestic IT community has asked the president to support the idea of the operating system. Future developers Russian «national operating system» can get support in the form of federal target programs. In any case, the authors expect this letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now preparing for the State Duma.]

Details are still unclear, but the ideas seems to be to build on top of GNU/Linux - described as "open code" here:

Кроме просьбы инициировать подготовку федеральной целевой программы в нем будет обоснована польза от создания «национальной ОС». Хотя подразумевается, что основой для нее станут уже существующие системы с открытым кодом, вопрос о степени ее свободности в письме «останется открытым, чтобы не загружать президента техническими подробностями».

[In addition to the request to initiate the preparation of the federal program, it would be justified benefit from the establishment of «national OS». While it is understood that the basis for the existing system will be open source, the extent of its free, in a letter «remain open so as not to load the president technical details».]

As is often the case, the key advantage that would flow from the creation of such a "national OS" is the control that it would give the Russian government - something it doesn't have with Windows, say, or even generalised free software produced elsewhere:

Смысл создания в России «национальной ОС» для силовых структур и госучреждений прокомментировал гендиректор ALT Linux Алексей Смирнов: «Национальной можно назвать ОС, если государство имеет право ее распространять и изменять, и, как заказчик, влияет на ее разработку. Систем, удовлетворяющих таким требованиям, сейчас не существует ни среди свободного, ни среди проприетарного ПО». Смирнов полагает, что проект «национальной ОС» на первом этапе будет базовым: «Без нее, например, речи быть не может о разработке в свое время “национального железа”». Не надо забывать, напоминает Смирнов, что, если для системы будет принята «свободная» модель, то, «чем больше Россия будет вкладывать в мировое движение СПО, тем больше она на него станет влиять».

[The sense of creation in Russia «national OS» for uniformed services and government commented director, ALT Linux Alexei Smirnov: «National include operating systems, if a state has the right to distribute and modify, and, as a customer, influence its development. Systems that meet these requirements, now there is no freedom of, or in proprietary software ». Smirnov believes that the project «National OS» in the first phase will be basic: «Without it, for example, the speech can not be on the development of its time," National Iron "». We should not forget, Smirnov recalled that when the system will be adopted «free» model, then, «the more Russia will invest in the global movement of the ACT, the more it will have an impact on him».]

Although the proposal is still in its early stages, the attractiveness of the proposal to a government keen to assert its independence at all levels is obvious. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

15 January 2009

IBM the Schizophrenic

Bad IBM:

IBM today announced that it earned 4,186 U.S. patents in 2008, becoming the first company ever to earn more than 4,000 U.S. patents in a single year. IBM's 2008 patent issuances are nearly triple Hewlett-Packard's and exceed the issuances of Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Apple, EMC, Accenture and Google -- combined.

Good IBM:

IBM used the occasion to announce plans to help stimulate innovation and economic growth. The company plans to increase by 50% -- to more than 3,000 -- the number of technical inventions it publishes annually instead of seeking patent protection. This will make these inventions freely available to others.

Er, could we perhaps make up our minds about intellectual monopolies? Either you're in favour - and want more or them - or against - and want less. You know, the old binary thing. Is it that hard?

Er, Yes, But What Do You *Do*?

More fascinating info on what exactly the increasingly-important foundations do - or, rather, what their directors do:

I get asked a lot what I do, exactly, as executive director of the GNOME Foundation.

First off, I want to say I'm really glad I work for an organization where people feel comfortable asking "what do you do?" It shows they care about the organization and are not afraid to ask tough questions. Have you ever asked your boss what they did, exactly?

Secondly, I have to admit that when I first got asked, that first day on the job at GUADEC, I wanted to go "I don't know!! What do you think I should be doing?" (I did ask the "What do you think I should be doing part" of a few people and I'm always interested in hearing anyone's answer to that question.)

Ok, so to the point, what do I do? I'm going to answer in three parts.

Ah, like Gaul.

Out of Africa Something New - and Bad

Despite the fact that South Africa is at the forefront of open source usage, it seems to be taking a very bad turn as far as open knowledge is concerned:

The Intellectual Property from Publicly Financed Research Bill was signed into law yesterday.

This stems from a mistaken belief that:

the best way to get research re-used for the benefit of the economy is to lock it down, and award a monopoly to one person, rather than opening it to everyone.

This could set South African research back seriously.


As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, I've given up on One Laptop Per Child. Happily, I've now come across something to fill the meme-sized hole that leaves:

Gdium.Com is launching the One Laptop Per Hacker program.

Here is your opportunity to contribute to the Gdium revolution.

The Gdium Team is opening a site and a program centralizing all the developer centric resources for the Gdium.

The OLPH program is supporting developers, contributors, creative artists, and other innovators who wish to:

* Optimize, improve the OS, Human Interface and/or Application stack of an “education centric” netbook.
* Experiment with the look and feel
* Provide and disseminate their new application stacks
* Redesign the artwork
* modify the hardware or integrate some nifty gadgets.
* Experiment with the Gdium to support new vertical markets.

For a limited set of selected contributors the Gdium Team provides a set of materials and services, enabling them to get an early start on this machine.

Gdium, in case you were wondering (as I was), are creating the groovy Gdium Liberty, which rather idiosyncratically uses Mandriva (remember that?).

Trading Up to Open Source

One of the signs that the open source ecosystem is thriving is the appearance of solution serving vertical markets. Here's another one....

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Burney Collection: But, But, But...

The largest single online collection of English news media from the 17th and 18th centuries, the Burney Collection, is now available free of charge for the first time to Higher and Further Education institutions and Research Councils across the UK.

The Burney Collection offers unique insights into two centuries of history through access to over 1,270 newsbooks, newspapers, pamphlets and a variety of other news materials published in England, Ireland and Scotland, plus papers from British colonies in Asia and the Americas.

Digitised through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the British Library then developed and hosted online by Gale/Cengage Learning4, the digital version of the Burney Collection has been purchased in perpetuity by JISC Collections on behalf of the UK academic and research community at a national level, following an open and transparent procurement process.

Well, that's jolly great...but: given that these are *public* collections, and have been digitised with *public* money, is it really too much to ask if hoi polloi like me might be granted a little bit of access to this great stuff?

14 January 2009

UK Outsources Education IT to Microsoft - Again

Oh look, the UK government has effectively outsourced IT in education to Microsoft - again:

Schools minister Jim Knight, who was speaking at the opening of this year's Bett event at Olympia in London, said today that Microsoft has created something he described as a “re-investment fund”. The software maker will “commit to fund a foundation in support of the Home Access programme,” he said.


The Microsoft-funded foundation will develop and implement a programme of training and support for teachers, parents, as well as to help create "awareness" for the Home Office programme, said Knight.

Now, let me see: Microsoft is going to give money to raise awareness of free software, yes? Maybe not; which means, inevitably, that it will give money to raise awareness of its own products. Which means that open source will remains shut out of schools yet again.

Whatever it is paying into this "re-investment fund", it was certainly a good investment for Microsoft.

Al Jazeera Gets It, Most Media Companies Don't

Welcome the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository

On this site you will find select broadcast quality footage that Al Jazeera has released under various Creative Commons licenses. Through Creative Commons licensing, you are able to legally share and reuse our footage.

What Al Jazeera understands is that you *want* people to copy and share your stuff: that's how you build influence. Locking content away is a sure method to *diminish* your role in the conversation. That's why most Western media companies are doomed to become irrelevant if they don't follow Al Jazeera's lead.

Craig Murray on the Death of Libel in the UK

Craig is in a triumphalist mood:

We have comprehensively blown wide apart the UK's infamously repressive libel laws. Up until now, these have routinely been used not to prevent untruth, but to hide truth on behalf of the ultra-rich. In so doing they have spawned a whole universe of massively wealthy lawyers devoid of any moral values, dedicated only to the service and pursuit of money.


But we are living now, so we put it free online, and published some copies privately. After just two days, a Google search on the precise phrase "The Catholic Orangemen of Togo" brings up 1,810 hits. A great many of these lead to a free download of the book. 23,000 copies of Murder in Samarkand have been sold so far, and most of those have been read by more than one person. But readership of The Catholic Orangemen looks likely to overtake in two weeks the readership that Murder in Samarkand achieved in two years.

If "The Catholic Orangemen of Togo" is anywhere near as good as the excellent "Murder in Samarkand" it certainly deserves that success.

As for "busting" the UK libel laws, I think it may be a little premature to declare victory; but actions like Craig's certainly help to undermine these anachronistic and deeply amoral laws. I wish him luck with his book - and his busting.

A Three-Dimensional Win for Free Software

Free software continues to fill in the missing bits:

A few months ago, SGI released a new version of the SGI Free License B. With that change, a lot of code used to provide 3D graphics on GNU/Linux systems was now free software. To make sure that all the code was free software, however, a few developers who worked on code released under a related license, the GLX Public License, needed to grant us permission to release their work under the new terms.

Earlier today I got great news from the X.Org project that they've obtained that permission from all the necessary developers. With that done, all of the code for 3D graphics originally released under one of SGI's licenses is now free software.

(Via Peter Rock.)

Qt Goes LGLP: the Trolltech Saga Attains Closure

There are few commercial programs whose history is more intertwined with the rise of free software than Nokia's Qt toolkit, originally created by the Norwegian company Trolltech. As one of the company's founders, Haarvard Nord, told me nearly ten years ago, when I was writing Rebel Code, Qt began life as a purely proprietary product, but with a free version specifically aimed at free software programmers...

On Open Enterprise blog.

Censorship = Destroying the Past

This is what censorship is about: destroying our memories.

According to multiple customers of Demon Internet - now owned by Brit telecom Thus - the London-based ISP is blocking access to all sites stored in the archive. When they query the Wayback Machine, hoping to retrieve archived pages, customers are met with generic "not found" error pages. But judging from their urls, these pages are generated by a web filter based on the blacklist compiled by the Internet Watch Foundation, a government-backed organization charged with policing online pornography.

Economising with Open Source

Here's an interesting sign of the times. High-profile economist Dean Baker calls for "Funding for the Development of Open Software" as part of a stimulus package:

the government can spend $2 billion a year to develop open source software. This money can be used to further develop and simplify open source operating systems such as Linux, as well other forms of free software. The payoffs from this spending would be enormous. Imagine that every computer buyer in the world would be able to get a computer for which the operating system was free, as was almost all the software that they would ever use.

This would surely save consumers an average of at least $200 per computer. With sales at close to 20 million a year, the savings in the United States alone could easily exceed the cost of supporting software development. Adding in the benefits (and presumably some contributions) from the rest of the world, we will be way ahead by going the route of publicly funded open software open software. The cost would be $2 billion a year.

The message is spreading.... (Via Slashdot.)

13 January 2009

IT Lessons from the Thylacine's Genome

The thylacine is a near-mythic animal. A marsupial related to the kangaroo, it was wiped out early in the last century, surviving just long enough for a few specimens to be pickled in jars. As usual, mankind was responsible, hunting the animal to extinction. But not entirely:

Scientists have detailed a significant proportion of the genes found in the extinct Tasmanian "tiger".

The international team extracted the hereditary information from the hair of preserved animal remains held in Swedish and US museums.

The information has allowed scientists to confirm the tiger's evolutionary relationship to other marsupials.

The study, reported in the journal Genome Research, may also give pointers as to why some animals die out.

The two tigers examined had near-identical DNA, suggesting there was very little genetic diversity in the species when it went over the edge.

Although it was hunting that finally drove the Australian animal out of existence, its longevity as a species may already have been fatally compromised, the researchers believe.

So if *you* want to avoid the tragic fate of the thylacine, remember: avoid those Microsoft monocultures, wallow in the genetic diversity of the free software ecosystem.

Linus Gets Misty-Eyed Over the Sinclair QL

Apparently the Sinclair QL (remember the microdrives?) turned 25 yesterday (or thereabouts). One rather famous former owner was Linus; to begin with, he seems unimpressed by this historic moment:

when somebody sends me an email saying that the Sinclair QL turned 25 years old yesterday, and that I should mention it on my blog, I just went "hmm". Because while I had one and loved it, I have to say that I was so much happier with the PC I ended up replacing it with, and decided that I'll never use an odd-ball machine ever again.

But once you've leapt the Quantum Leap, you're never the same again, as Linus finally admits:

the email from Urs König (aka cowo) did end up festering in my mind and brought back fond memories. So here we are, twenty five years and one day later, and I'm writing a shout-out to the QL anyway. It was odd, and it was flaky to the point of being the only machine I had to do hardware surgery on to make stable and useful, but I guess I was at an impressionable age. And while I don't think there were many QL's that ever made it outside Britain, it was an interesting machine for its time.

I'm sure that made Sir Clive's day.

How Open Source Will Save Education

One of my favourite writers is John Robb; his book Brave New War is all about "open source warfare" - how the ideas behind open source software can, unfortunately, be applied with huge effectiveness to wreaking destruction.

Here's a good post about another little problem we have: the unsustainability of today's educational system. The solution? You guessed it: open source and open courseware, among other things:

The shift towards online education as the norm and in-person as the exception will arrive, however, the path is unclear. It is currently blocked by guilds/unions, inertia, credentialism, and romantic notions. Here's what could happen:

* Local governments cut costs. Nearly or officially bankrupt local governments, out of desperation, opt to reduce costs through online education (the single biggest line item in most local budgets). Drawing from online home schooling systems, the market for these systems explodes (growing at several thousand percent a year).

* Entrepreneurial innovation. As student populations at the collegiate level dwindle due to cost pressures, a major University (with a brand as good as MITs or Harvard), opts to offer full credentials to online student (at a tiny fraction of the cost of being in attendance). Ten million students enroll in the first year to attend Harvard's virtual world.

* Open source alternatives. Unable to afford in-person education, the lack of a major brand in the marketplace, and a job market in free fall stunts the growth of online education. As a result, a massive open source effort develops to develop virtual worlds and other online courseware that rivals the best Universities. The government is forced, over the objections of established institutions, to confer credentials to graduates that pass standardized tests (in fact, comparisons quickly show that these graduates are the equal and/or better than traditionally educated competitors). The business world embraces them.

Warning: only read the other posts on his blog if you are feeling strong. His analyses of the coming problems are frighteningly convincing. Let's hope he has a few more solutions too....

Free Software or Open Source? You Choose

“Free software” or “open source”? It's a perennial question that has provoked a thousand flame wars. Normally, the factions supporting each label and its assocated theoretical baggage manage to work alongside each other for the collective good with only a minimal amount of friction. But occasionally, the sparks begin to fly, and tempers rise. I think we're in for another bout of this particular fever.

On Open Enterprise blog.

SAP True to its Name

What is going through the mind of SAP? These people are *promoting* your products:

Business Objects claims that no one can use a Crystal Reports screenshot in a book without their approval. They sent letters to courseware vendors (including me) telling use that we need to get permission to use screenshots in our books. Most vendors ignored those letters and nothing more was said in the three years since. Now it appears that more letters are going out from SAP (who now owns Business Objects). I read one of the letters this past week and it talks about screenshots and adds a new warning about using SAP trademarks like the term “Crystal Reports”. The letter was very impressive, with majestic references to various sections of US copyright and trademark law. Sprinkled throughout the letter was the Latin incantation “inter alia” to make it seem almost pontifical. It sounded so ominous that it brought to mind the blustering Wizard of Oz (”ignore the little man behind the curtain”).

As I explained in 2005, using screenshots of a software product in a book is a “fair use” of a copyrighted work (see Sony vs Bleem). And there are also several clear cases to show that “nominal” use of a trademark word or phrase is fine for any purpose at all, so long as you are not claiming to be affiliated with or authorized by the trademark holder (see Volkswagen vs Church).

(Via Techdirt.)

Humanitarian FOSS Project

Here's an interesting group I'd not come across before:

The Humanitarian FOSS Project is a collaborative, community-building project that was started by a group of computing faculty and open source proponents at Trinity College, Wesleyan University, and Connecticut College. Our goal is to build a community of academic computing departments, IT corporations, and local and global humanitarian and community organizations dedicated to building and using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to benefit humanity.


Our project is part of the growing Humanitarian FOSS Community, a community that was inspired by the Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System, an IT system that was built to aid in the recovery effort following the December 2004 Asian Tsunami. During the past two years, with the help of IT professionals in Sri Lanka and at Accenture Corporation, our students have actively contributed to the Sahana project.

Our approach is not unlike the Habitat for Humanity project: Instead of helping communities build houses, our students help build free software systems that benefit communities. The NSF grant enables us to explore whether engaging students in the Humanitarian-FOSS enterprise will help undergraduates see that designing and building software is an exciting, creative, and (often) a socially beneficial activity.

(Via storming.)

Snowl 0.2 Takes Flight

As you may have noticed, messaging is pretty popular these days. An obvious place to read and send messages is the browser, the obvious way to do that is with a Firefox extension. Enter Snowl....

On Open Enterprise blog.

12 January 2009

Is Google Running Short of Hackers?

How hard can it be porting Chrome to GNU/Linux? Hard, apparently:

The 2.0 version of the browser was released to developers and includes a number of new features including the begins of an extension strategy for the browser.

Senior Google staffers said, however, that Linux and Mac versions of the browser would only be made available later this year. CNet quotes Brian Rakowski, Chrome’s product manager, who said that the Mac and Linux versions of the browser were now at the “test shell” stage which meant that they could show web pages but are still in a very raw format.

Rakowski said that versions of Chrome for Linux and Mac would likely be made available by the middle of 2009.

Things getting a bit tough in the Googleplex, chaps?

Corporate IT Skills in an Open Source World

It's a given on this blog that open source is changing the world of computing. But what about the IT skills required to flourish in that world? Here's a thought-provoking blog post by Ian Smith, from the open source company Nuxeo, on what has changed since he first learned to program....

On Open Enterprise blog.

Keeping the Czechs in Check

Hm, looks like bad news from the Czech Republic:

Die tschechische EU-Ratspräsidentschaft hat sich für die kommenden sechs Monate auch auf den Gebieten der IKT und Bürgerrechte viel vorgenommen. Beim Schutz des "geistigen Eigentums" und der Neuordnung des EU-Telekommunikationsmarkts wollen die Tschechen auf der Vorarbeit der Franzosen aufbauen.

Die EU hat 2009 zum Europäischen Jahr der Kreativität ausgerufen. Dass es dabei auch um den Schutz des "geistigen Eigentums" geht, versteht sich von selbst.

So hat die tschechische EU-Ratspräsidentschaft in ihre Prioritätenliste für die kommenden sechs Monate unter dem Punkt "Entfernung von Handelsbarrieren" auch das umstrittene Anti-Piratierie-Abkommen ACTA aufgenommen, das derzeit hinter verschlossenen Türen von EU-Kommission, US-Unterhändlern und Vertretern weiterer wichtiger Industriestaaten ausgehandelt wird.

[Via Google Translate: The Czech EU presidency has opted for the next six months also in the areas of ICT and Citizens' lot. As regards the protection of "intellectual property" and the reorganization of the EU telecommunications market to the Czechs on the preparatory work of the French build.

The EU has 2009 at the European Year of Creativity exclaimed. That it will also ensure the protection of "intellectual property" goes, goes without saying

Thus, the Czech EU presidency in their list of priorities for the coming six months, under the item "Removal of trade barriers", the controversial anti-Piratierie ACTA agreement, which is currently behind closed doors of the EU Commission, U.S. negotiators and representatives of other major industrialized countries will be negotiated.]

And as if intellectual monopolies and ACTA weren't enough:

"Die tschechische Ratspräsidentschaft wird auf ihrer aktiven Kooperation mit der französischen Ratspräsidentschaft aufbauen", heißt es dazu im Arbeitsprogramm aus Prag. Man werde sich um einen Kompromiss zwischen den Positionen des Rats und des Parlaments bemühen. Nur Österreich und Dänemark hatten sich auf der Ratssitzung im November dafür ausgesprochen, Zusatz 138 in der Universaldienstrichtlinie zu behalten. Der französische Vorsitz sorgte dafür, dass der Zusatz in der endgültigen Fassung entfernt wurde.

["The Czech presidency is at its active cooperation with the French Presidency Building," puts it in the work program from Prague. It will be a compromise between the positions of the Council and Parliament endeavor. Only Austria and Denmark had to the Council meeting in November, called for additional 138 in the Universal Service Directive to keep. The French Presidency has ensured that the addition in the final version has been removed.]

And to round things off:

Weit oben auf der Agenda der tschechischen Ratspräsidentschaft steht auch das Thema Kinderschutz und Internet. Zu diesem Thema soll es informelle Ministertreffen in Prag geben; auch hier wollen sich die Tschechen eng an die Vorarbeit der französischen Regierung halten.

[High on the agenda of the Czech presidency is also the issue of child protection and the Internet. On this issue, should it informal ministerial meeting in Prague type; also want the Czechs closely the preparatory work of the French government hold.]

This could be bad, people: start preparing the pushback.