31 May 2010

Transparency is in WikiLeaks' DNA

It is somewhat ironic that the man behind WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is not a fan of being in the spotlight; and therefore perhaps poetic justice that he is increasingly the focus of in-depth profiles. The best one so far has just appeared in The New Yorker, and includes this memorable description:

WikiLeaks receives about thirty submissions a day, and typically posts the ones it deems credible in their raw, unedited state, with commentary alongside. Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.” Because Assange publishes his source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative.

I'm sure Sir John Sulston had no idea how far his idea of openness would be taken when he drew up the Bermuda Principles....

Urgent: Contact MEPs on the EU's Unbalanced Copyright Report

You would have thought that what with local initiatives like the Digital Economy Act and global ones like ACTA, the copyright maximalists would be satisfied with the range and number of attacks on the Internet and people's free use of it; but apparently not. For here comes the Gallo Report, an attempt to commit the European Union to criminalisation of copyright infringement and a generally more repressive approach to online activities.

A key vote on the Gallo Report takes place tomorrow, so we need to act today and (early) tomorrow if we want to stand a chance of making it more fair and balanced. The best site for information about this is La Quadrature du Net, which summarises the Gallo Report as follows:

On Open Enterprise blog.

27 May 2010

Let's Make the Visually Impaired Full Digital Citizens

As I wrote recently in my Open... blog, copyright is about making a fair deal: in return for a government-supported, time-limited monopoly, creators agree to place their works in the public domain after that period has expired. But that monopoly also allows exceptions, granted for various purposes like the ability to quote limited extracts, or the ability to make parodies (details depend on jurisdiction.)

On Open Enterprise blog.

26 May 2010

Dual-Screen Tablets: the Next Hot Form-Factor?

As new technologies arrive, and the cost of hardware components fall, innovative designs become possible Here's one that looks promising: a dual-screen Android tablet.

The two screens of the enTourage eDGe interact so that users can open hyperlinks that are included in an e-book text and view the content on the LCD screen, or ‘attach’ Web pages to passages in an e-book to be referenced at a later point. Additionally, as the enTourage eDGe uses E-Ink technology for easy digital reading, images will appear in gray-scale on the e-paper side of the device; however, users can load these in color on the LCD side, ideal for viewing colored charts and graphs from course materials.

Is this really useful, or am I just easily impressed by shiny?

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How They Stole the Public Domain

Part of the quid pro quo of copyright is that works are supposed to enter the public domain after a limited period of monopoly protection. Trouble is, the copyright maximalists and their friends in power have managed to keep jacking up that period, meaning that more and more of our cultural heritage is locked away for decades, released only long after the death of the author.

Rufus Pollock has now quantified how much we are losing:

if copyright had stayed at its Statute of Anne level, 52% of the books available today would in the public domain compared to an actual level of 19%. That’s around 600,000 additional items that would be in the public domain including works like Virginia Woolf’s (d. 1941) the Waves, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (pub. 1951) and Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (pub. 1981).

For comparison, in 1795 78% of all extant works were in the public domain. A figure which we’d be close to having if copyright was a simple 15 years (in that case the public domain would be a substantial 75%).

Imagine what today's artists could have done with free access to all those works: it's not just the past's creativity that's been stolen, but the present's too.

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25 May 2010

Goodbye Becta – and Good Riddance

Not quite on the scale of cancelling the ID cards project, the news that Becta would be shut down was nonetheless further evidence of the coalition government's new broom whooshing into action. Although there seems to be a wide range of views on whether this is a good or bad thing – see this post and its comments for a representative selection – for me Becta was pretty much an unmitigated disaster for free software in this country, and I'm glad to see it go.

On Open Enterprise blog.

24 May 2010

Hacking through the Software Patent Thickets

Most people in the hacking community are well aware that patents represent one of the most serious threats to free software. But the situation is actually even worse than it seems, thanks to the proliferation of what are called patent thickets. To understand why these are so bad, and why they represent a particular problem for software, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of patent law.

On The H Open.

Spreading the Word about Open Government Data

One of the most amazing - and heartening - developments in the world of openness recently has been the emergence of the open government movement. Although still in its early stages, this will potentially have important ramifications for business, since one of the ideas at its heart is the opening up of government datasets for anyone to use and build on - including for commercial purposes (depending on the particular licences). The UK and US are leading the way in this sphere, and an important question is to what extent the experiences of these two countries can be generalised.

On Open Enterprise blog.

21 May 2010

Are Trade Secrets and Trademarks the Future?

Last week I wrote a piece about analogue copying. Specifically, it centred on the 3D scanning and copying of an Aston Martin – because that was how somebody framed the question to me. This provoked plenty of thoughtful comment, which I encouraged people to post over on my other blog, since a slightly longer format was needed than this blog could accommodate. However, because the original piece was posted here, I've decided to reply to them here (sorry if this bloggy to-ing and fro-ing causes digital travel sickness.)

On Open Enterprise blog.

19 May 2010

Should *Mozilla* Fork Firefox?

Apparently, there's an interesting thread over on a site called Quora about the future of Firefox. I say apparently, since I can't seem to join the site (“we'll e-mail when we're ready for you to try out the service” - thanks a bunch: obviously it's only for the Chosen Few). Anyway, according to TechCrunch, the meat of the argument is this:

On Open Enterprise blog.

18 May 2010

Spot(ify) the Trend

One of the reasons that digital music will be free - whether the recording companies want it or not - is basic economics: the marginal cost is practically zero, which means that the price will tend to that point, too. And now we have this:

Spotify is slashing the cost of its advert-free music streaming in the UK and Europe, in a bid to win more paying customers besides just mobile users. It comes in two new tariffs Spotify’s introducing…

—Spotify Unlimited: £4.99pm/ for no-ads music, but no mobile access, no offline or MP3 play and no higher-bitrate quality.

—Spotify Open: Free, with ads, no invite required, but no mobile, no offline or MP3 play, no higher-quality and limited to 20 hours a month.

What's interesting here is that Spotify has already been accused of not paying artists much for each play: this new pricing scheme is likely to mean their fees won't be going up anytime soon. The sooner artists use free digital music to enable them to make money from analogue scarcity, the better.

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17 May 2010

Diaspora: The Future of Free Software Funding?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Diaspora, a free software project to create a distributed version of Facebook that gives control back to users. Since then, of course, Facebook-bashing and Diaspora-boosting have become somewhat trendy. Indeed, Diaspora has now soared past its initial $10,000 fund-raising target: at the time of writing, it has raised over $170,000, with 15 days to go. That's amazing, but what's more interesting is the way in which Diaspora has done it.

On Open Enterprise blog.

16 May 2010

Collateral Murder, Collateral Damage

If you haven't seen the shocking but important video "Collateral Murder", which shows the callous gunning-down of Iraqi citizens (and the subsequent rocket attack on a civilian van with children inside), don't miss it on Wikileaks, its original source. Unfortunately, you may not find it on YouTube or other obvious video sites, since they have been taken down (although YouTube is back now, apparently).

A clear example of censorship, you might think, but in some respects its even worse:

Collateral Murder, with over 6M views, removed from YouTube after unknown US copyright claim http://bit.ly/aS3bMk

That's right, it was taken down on the basis of alleged copyright infringement, not because somebody thought it too shocking to be displayed. The idea that such an action would be taken because of an alleged infringement on somebody's monopoly, while the underlying cold-blooded massacre of Iraqi civilians is swept under the carpet, is of course, repulsive. But it's just another effect of the outdated law that is copyright - collateral damage, so to speak.

After all, copyright grew up in England for the purpose of controlling the flow of information, by allowing people to become itss "owners" - and hence a convenient throttle point:

The first copyright law was a censorship law. It had nothing to do with protecting the rights of authors, or encouraging them to produce new works. Authors' rights were in no danger in sixteenth-century England, and the recent arrival of the printing press (the world's first copying machine) was if anything energizing to writers. So energizing, in fact, that the English government grew concerned about too many works being produced, not too few. The new technology was making seditious reading material widely available for the first time, and the government urgently needed to control the flood of printed matter, censorship being as legitimate an administrative function then as building roads.

It should come as no surprise that copyright is still being used for the purposes of censorship - although often dressed up as if it were somehow "merely" a commercial issue (how that can be the case when we're talking about battleground footage is hard to see.)

This kind of abuse is one more reason why we need to abolish copyright completely: it is not only irrelevant to true creativity (artists don't need an "incentive" to create - they *have* to because of an inner compulsion), it is increasingly a threat to liberty in the online world.

Anyone who doubts that should look at the kind of clauses included in anti-piracy legislation like the Digital Economy Act, which allows websites to be blocked if they are alleged to hold material that infringes on someone's copyright. That will effectively allow the UK government to take down any leak of its documents, since there is no public interest defence in the Act. Had this been introduced as a law explicitly to block such leaks, there would have been an uproar over the censorship it implied; disguised as something to "protect" the poor creative artists, it passes with only protests from the usual troublemakers (like me). The stronger the copyright enforcement, the greater the scope for censorship: it's as simple as that.

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14 May 2010

Digital Economy Act: Some Unfinished Business

Remember the Digital Economy Act? Yes, I thought you might. It's still there, hanging like a proverbial sword of Damocles over our digital heads. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, er, Houses of Parliament: that nice Mr Clegg found himself catapulted to a position of some power. Now, what was it he said a month ago?

On Open Enterpries blog.

Should We Allow Copies of Analogue Objects?

I write a lot about copyright, and the right to share stuff. In particular, I think that for digital artefacts – text, music, video etc. - free software has shown us that there is no contradiction between allowing these to be copied freely and creating profitable businesses that are powered by that abundance. What has to change, though, is the nature of the business models that underlie them.

The parallel between digital content and software is obvious enough, which makes it relatively easy to see how media companies might function against a background of unrestricted sharing. But we are fast approaching the point where it is possible to make copies of *analogue* objects, using 3D printers like the open source RepRap system. This raises some interesting questions about what might be permitted in that situation if businesses are still to thrive.

On Open Enterprise blog.

13 May 2010

How to Become Linus Torvalds

Most people in the free software world know about the famous “LINUX is obsolete” thread that began on the comp.os.minix newsgroups in January 1992, where Andrew Tanenbaum, creator of the MINIX system that Linus used to learn about operating system design, posted the following rather incendiary comment:

On The H Open.

European Commission Betrays Open Standards

Just over a month ago I wrote about a leaked version of the imminent Digital Agenda for Europe. I noted that the text had some eminently sensible recommendations about implementing open standards, but that probably for precisely that reason, was under attack by enemies of openness, who wanted the references to open standards watered down or removed. Judging by the latest leak [.pdf] obtained by the French site PC Inpact, those forces have prevailed: what seems to be the final version of the Digital Agenda for Europe is an utter travesty of the original intent.

On Open Enterprise blog.

10 May 2010

Read What Simon Says

It's a red letter day here on Computerworld UK, for the open source section just gained an important new strand in the form of Simon Says, a blog from Simon Phipps:

On Open Enterprise blog.

British Sense of Humour? Not So Much

What a sad, sad day for this country:

A trainee accountant who posted a message on Twitter threatening to blow an airport "sky high" has been found guilty of sending a menacing electronic communication.

Now, the judge may not know this, but there's a technical term for this kind of tweet: it's what we Internet johnnies call a "joke"...

The truly sickening part of this judgement is the following:

a district judge at Doncaster Magistrates Court ruled that the Tweet was "of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live".

In other words, our society has become so corrupted by the cynical abuse of the idea of "terror" that we have lost all sense of proportion, not to mention humour. Tragic - and dangerous, since it is bound to have a chilling effect on Twitter in this country.

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06 May 2010

Copyright: a Conditional Intellectual Monopoly

Here's a nice move from the Internet Archive:

More than doubling the number of books available to print disabled people of all ages, today the Internet Archive launched a new service that brings free access to more than 1 million books — from classic 19th century fiction and current novels to technical guides and research materials — now available in the specially designed format to support those who are blind, dyslexic or are otherwise visually impaired.

And here's a nice analysis of that move:

The new service demonstrates the principle behind the Chafee Amendment: that copyright is a conditional monopoly, not a property right, and that when we decide the monopoly is hampering an important public purpose, we can change it. The Chafee Amendment is an open acknowledgement that monopoly-based distribution was not serving the needs of the blind, the visually impaired, or or dyslexic people very well, and that fixing that situation is simply a policy decision. It reminds us that copyright itself is a policy decision, and that if it is not serving the public well, we can change the policy.

A double win, then: for the visually impaired, and in terms of reminding us about the true nature of copyright as a conditional intellectual monopoly.

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Diaspora: Freedom in the Cloud?

One of the key thinkers in the free software world is Eben Moglen. He's been the legal brains behind the most recent iterations of the GNU GPL, but more than that, he's somebody who has consistently been able to pinpoint and articulate the key issues facing free software for two decades. Recently, he did it again, noting that cloud computing is a huge threat to freedom.

On Open Enterprise blog.

05 May 2010

The GNU/Linux Code of Life

After I published Rebel Code in 2001, there was a natural instinct to think about writing another book (a natural masochistic instinct, I suppose, given the work involved.) I decided to write about bioinformatics – the use of computers to store, search through, and analyse the billions of DNA letters that started pouring out of the genomics projects of the 1990s, culminating in the sequencing of the human genome in 2001.

One reason I chose this area was the amazing congruence between the battle between free and closed-source software and the fight to place genomic data in the public domain, for all to use, rather than having it locked up in proprietary databases and enclosed by gene patents. As I like to say, Digital Code of Life is really the same story as Rebel Code, with just a few words changed.

Another reason for the similarity between the stories is the fact that genomes can be considered as a kind of program – the “digital code” of my title. As I wrote in the book:

In 1953, computers were so new that the idea of DNA as not just a huge digital store but a fully-fledged digital program of instructions was not immediately obvious. But this was one of the many profound implications of Watson and Crick's work. For if DNA was a digital store of genetic information that guided the construction of an entire organism from the fertilised egg, then it followed that it did indeed contain a preprogrammed sequence of events that created that organism – a program that ran in the fertilised cell, albeit one that might be affected by external signals. Moreover, since a copy of DNA existed within practically every cell in the body, this meant that the program was not only running in the original cell but in all cells, determining their unique characteristics.

That characterisation of the genome is something of a cliché these days, but back in 2003, when I wrote Digital Code of Life, it was less common. Of course, the interesting question is: to what extent is the genome *really* like an operating system? What are the similarities and differences? That's what a bunch of researchers wanted to find out by comparing the Linux kernel's control structure to that of the bacterium Escherichia coli:

The genome has often been called the operating system (OS) for a living organism. A computer OS is described by a regulatory control network termed the call graph, which is analogous to the transcriptional regulatory network in a cell. To apply our firsthand knowledge of the architecture of software systems to understand cellular design principles, we present a comparison between the transcriptional regulatory network of a well-studied bacterium (Escherichia coli) and the call graph of a canonical OS (Linux) in terms of topology and evolution.

We show that both networks have a fundamentally hierarchical layout, but there is a key difference: The transcriptional regulatory network possesses a few global regulators at the top and many targets at the bottom; conversely, the call graph has many regulators controlling a small set of generic functions. This top-heavy organization leads to highly overlapping functional modules in the call graph, in contrast to the relatively independent modules in the regulatory network.

We further develop a way to measure evolutionary rates comparably between the two networks and explain this difference in terms of network evolution. The process of biological evolution via random mutation and subsequent selection tightly constrains the evolution of regulatory network hubs. The call graph, however, exhibits rapid evolution of its highly connected generic components, made possible by designers' continual fine-tuning. These findings stem from the design principles of the two systems: robustness for biological systems and cost effectiveness (reuse) for software system.

The paper's well-worth reading, but if you find it heavy going (it's really designed for bioinformaticians and their ilk), there's an excellent, easy-to-read summary and analysis by Carl Zimmer in Discover magazine. Alternatively, you could just buy a copy of Digital Code of Life...

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How Do You Make a Pentaho?

Where do open source companies come from? That's not a trivial question, for free software startups can arise in all sorts of ways. You might create a company around someone else's software (as Red Hat, say, did); build one on software you've written yourself (like Jboss); pay people to write something from scratch (Alfresco); hire the creator of a program and use their software (Jaspersoft); or put together pre-existing projects to create something new.

On Open Enterprise blog.

04 May 2010

Patents, Patents, Everywhere...

...nor any stop to think.

Software patents are an issue that crops up fairly often on this blog, since they represent one of the principal threats to free software. But recently something seems to have got into the water, for the entire world, apparently, has gone software patent mad.

On Open Enterprise blog.