Monday, May 30, 2005

BitTorrent goes search

Bram Cohen, the maker of BitTorrent, must be a brave man. He has created a torrent search site in the main page of, probably setting himself as the next target for overzealous copyright bozos. The website does not filter materials subject to copyright protection, I just searched for "Episode III" and found various copies of the infringing file (forgive me George for I have sinned).

So, the legal argument about P2P search sites will have to take place, and will eventually have larger implications for the internet. The new BitTorrent search does not share infringing content itself, if you search it will simply point to you to a site that does not host the content either, it only hosts a file that tells you where the seeds are, and the seeds are not the file itself, the file is being shared by various users online. The legal question for me is this: does a link to a site that tells you where the infringing material can be found is in itself infringing? Before you answer, use Google and search "episode iii bittorrent" or "episode iii torrent". I found at least 5 sites with the file through that. If the MPIAA sues BitTorrent, a suit against Google should follow shortly.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Google Print beta site live

So, Goggle continues its unstoppable take-over of the world (thanks to Mike Collins for the link). Google Print is the service by Google that allows users to search full text books, and also get information about books and authors, and eventually would allow you to read the entire work online. Google is undertaking a massive project scanning books, which would mean that the real life libraries of the world will be available digitally. This is useful to look for references and research, but I cannot see people leaving printed books yet.

One thing worries me, and it is that at the moment there seems to be a preponderance of English titles. I searched "Don Quixote"and found the book in English, but then I searched for "Don Quijote" and did not find it in its original Spanish. I searched the immortal opening words: "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme", and it failed as well, but I found some interesting books on quotations. If one of the greatest works in literature is not scanned in its original language, I am afraid that it demonstrates that the online tyranny of English will continue.

On a minor note, the English translation of the opening line of Don Quixote entirely changes the meaning of the phrase, and misses the beauty of the original.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Technological solutions vs Law

Countries around the world are scrambling to regulate new types of technologies and perceived threats. New legislations are being passed to attempt to curb phishing, spamming, denial of service attacks, defacement and all other sorts of dangerous and annoying practices. But with these efforts, one has to ask the question, are these legislations useful? Has any anti-spam law stopped one single spam coming through my inbox? I seriously doubt it. What is really working against spam is the use of technological filters.

The same may be true for phishing. There is a new toolbar by Netcraft that blocks known phishing sites. This seems the way to go, instead of wasting valuable legislative time on things that can be solved with filters and blockers.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

BitTorrent servers seized by the FBI

The FBI, U.S. Customs and the Department of Homeland Security (talk about overkill) have raided a BitTorrent network called EliteTorrents, and seized servers and computers, and arrested a group of "copyright thieves". Now, if somebody goes to the EliteTorrent site, they will find a warning from the FBI. The FBI agent informs us that "When thieves steal this data, they are taking jobs away from hard workers in industry, which adversely impacts the U.S. economy." I really want to see the evidence for this argument. Has there ever been a single job lost due to P2P and downloads? I really want to know. Unsurprisingly, the report is peppered with similar rhetoric. And guess who makes an appearance?

"The content selection available on the Elite Torrents network was virtually unlimited and often included illegal copies of copyrighted works before they were available in retail stores or movie theatres. For example, the final entry in the Star Wars series, "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," was available for downloading on the network more than six hours before it was first shown in theatres. In the next 24 hours, it was downloaded more than 10,000 times. "
Yes, and we already know that Episode III has done terrible business, right? Anyway, I was looking at the U.S. Department of Justice website, and I found it incredibly Orwellian. It has a terrorist attack threat meter, which informs us that the threat of a terrorist attack has been increased (yellow at the moment). It also has a section called "Life and Liberty", which was "launched to educate Americans about how we are preserving life and liberty by using the USA PATRIOT Act." I have a shiver coming down my spine.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Save George, boycott BitTorrent

Poor movie producers. Poor George Lucas. BitTorrent threatens the very existence of filmmakers when evil internet pirates download their movie. Yeah, right.

Star Wars Episode III has come out (I loved it by the way), and it has made an astounding $158.4M in 4 days! This is now the weekend record, shattering Spiderman 2's opening weekend. Yet, we are asked by movie executives to feel bad, feels sorry, there's a disturbance in The Force. Some people have released pirated versions of the movie online, and they are being sold everywhere! Adequately, some people are asking themselves so what? Star Wars will still make gazillions and George Lucas will not have to beg on the streets. I mean, the MPIAA and their ilk really must think that we are stupid. "Beware!" they tell us. "Here is the largest blockbuster movie of all time, it will make everyone involved very rich, but there's a 17 year-old downloading the movie somewhere, this is theft and it must be stopped at all cost!"


Monday, May 23, 2005

Software patent debate

This is a lengthy and amazingly well-informed debate about software patents in Europe from Lessig's blog. Seeing who the participants are, this should come as no surprise. It is nice to see some of the best proponents of software patents (I refuse to use the euphemism in vogue) argue their case against some well-informed opponents. One of the main criticisms that I have against the critics of software patents is that often they use over-simplifications of the arguments. I understand that it is difficult to convey the nuances of the EPO's board of appeal rulings to the masses, but using downright fabrications is not the solution.

To me, the case is still an economic one. What is the economic case for software patents? Is there a real need for software patents in Europe? I maintain that the answer is negative.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Piracy still a problem according to BSA

So, the new report from the BSA is out with its dire warnings about how piracy is threatening the very fabric of civilisation, supports terrorism, creates unemployment and recession, and steals one sock from your sock drawer. This would be amusing if it wasn't for the fact that the software industry has failed to collapse despite the horrendously pessimistic report issued year after year, and that Mr. Gates still gets a very hefty sum at the end of the year.

The problem with these reports is that they rest on two failed assumptions to calculate "losses". First, they use a fictional price of software, failing to understand that comparative prices of software around the world vary wildly. The second major flaw is that the study assumes that every infringing copy represents a lost sale. This is evidently absurd, and it's surprising that they still use it. People who copy Adobe Photoshop from the internet will almost certainly not buy it. People who buy MS Office from a market stall in Peru are not likely to buy the full copy. In fact, software giants like Microsoft have relied heavily on piracy to make sure that people are using their software at home and at work, creating a Microsoft client culture where there are no alternatives.

As long as the industry keeps assuming that we can't think and see beyond their bogus figures, they will not make any advances.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

More on Google's dominance

Two days ago I commented on the worrying developments regarding Google's Web Accelerator. This could have serious consequences, see for example this spoof site about Google's Content Blocker (thanks for Anne-Kathrin for the link). I recommend reading their privacy policy, where it states that "Google is committed to collecting every bit of data that it possibly can, and storing it forever." I am coming back to this because I'm reading an excellent book called Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life by Albert-Lászlo Barabási. This is a brilliant book about the science of networks, and it explains the reasons behind phenomena like six degrees of separation and Pareto's 80-20 rule.

In short, Barabási's argument is that networks respond to certain rules that apply almost universally to things like quantum physics, the internet and celebrity links. Networks are not random, they grow at a specific rate, in which the older hubs have the advantage because they can develop the largest collection of links, but also there are hubs that acquire links at a faster rate, and can overcome older ones (fitness of hubs). Because society is a network where each one of us is a link, there are people who collect links faster, and this serves to prove the observation that the rich get richer. If we think about this in internet terms, Google was not the first search engine, but it obliterated its competition because it had better fitness. Why is Linked important for Google? The thing is that Barabási's mathematical proofs can have a strange effect, and it is that in some instances, it can lead to a collapse of competition, and the winner takes all.

According to Barabási, this occurs in physics with the application of Einstein-Bose equations about gases, and his claim is that this applies as well to other networks. If this is true, then what we are seeing with Google is not only predictable, it may be inevitable.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

It's Star Wars, man!

The circle is now complete. For those of us in Generation Jedi, the next few days will see the end of a story that has provided the cultural background to some of the most important events in our lives. We are a generation of thirty-somethings whose first great experience was to see Star Wars (sorry, Episode IV: A New Hope) with our dads. Then came the toys, the watches, the duvets and the life-long practice of giving our money to George. Empire Strikes Back gave us the greatest shock of our early lives, it was darker and smarter than the first movie, and had the most amazing plot twist in pre-internet days ("Luke, I'm your father"). We all shouted with Luke "NO!", and our innocence was lost. With Return of the Jedi we were old enough not to be too impressed with the Ewoks, we realised that George was fallible, and then there was the golden bikini, puberty had arrived. The following years were largely Star Wars free, but we still remembered and looked for the same thrills elsewhere.

Then the internet changed everything, we found out that there were millions of us out there, working in technology companies and fuelling the bubble. The internet came with fandom, screen savers, ASCII reproductions and computer backgrounds (mine used to be mostly Star Wars oriented). Then George realised that there was more money to be made, and he gave us the Special Editions, and started work on the Prequels. Episodes I and II came, Generation Jedi was not amused, Jar-Jar and silly love dialogue just didn't do it for us. Could it be that *GASP* we had finally grown? Were our childhood memories, well, childhood memories? Were we giving Star Wars more credit than it deserved? We doubted, George had joined the Dark Side.

Word on the internet is that George has redeemed himself with Revenge of the Sith. We can only hope.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

This is the end of the Web as we know it...

and I feel fine. I am not truly sure what to make of this, but it sounds Important. It seems like Google has created an application called Google Web Accelerator. This is a small application that is supposed to allow people to load pages faster. How does it do it? It acts as a proxy client, where popular pages are stored in Google machines and other clients serving files. According to Google, this is done by:

  • Sending your page requests through Google machines dedicated to handling Google Web Accelerator traffic.
  • Storing copies of frequently looked at pages to make them quickly accessible.
  • Downloading only the updates if a web page has changed slightly since you last viewed it.
  • Prefetching certain pages onto your computer in advance.
  • Managing your Internet connection to reduce delays.
  • Compressing data before sending it to your computer.
This is good, right? Hmmm... perhaps not (some are already boycotting Google). One possible result would be that Google would have unlimited control over what you see, and the web would become the World Wide Google. Well, it already is in many ways, but such control makes me feel a bit uneasy, sort of what I would feel if I was a citizen of the Republic and was reading news that Chancellor Palpatine was gaining more control over the government.

Developments such as this prompts me to ask about the accountability that such huge power entails. Legislators do not have any idea of how the internet works, and they generally respond with silly, misguided or inefficient regulation that does nothing to solve any problems whatsoever. Has anybody stopped receiving less spam as a result of the many new and shiny laws that forbid it? No, the solution so far has been technical, not legal. The web is about to change, and a few companies are about to obtain ultimate power. Trust regulators to miss this development and pass new anti-piracy legislation, because the only real danger online is a 15 year-old downloading a song.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Thought Thieves

Just when you thought that the Microsoft Corporation did not have a sense of humour, you read this, and it brings a smile to your face. Check out the Thought Thieves competition, where you can win £2,000 worth of film and video equipment vouchers (Vouchers? What's up with Bill Gates? I want hard cash!). The competition says:

Thought Thieves is about people stealing and profiting from your creation or innovation. Think about it: how would you feel if you saw your hard work being passed off as the property of someone else? What would you do?
Funny, I thought that was the entire basis behind the GPL and Free Software.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Collecting societies against Creative Commons

This is a very worrying development for Creative Commons. CISAC, the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (which brings together 207 authors' societies from 109 countries); has published an article heavily criticising Creative Commons. They are quoting Emma Pike's article against CC, and pretty much using the same FUD that has been already used against the movement, you know, we are all a bunch of hobbyists and bored academics; and "real" creators who want to profit from their work should not use any sort of CC licences.

I still don't know for sure where the animosity from these people really comes from, but I have my suspicions. It seems evident that the most vocal attackers of the Creative Commons model (and of open licences in general) are the intermediaries, such as the collecting agencies. These societies rest on the assumption that they are the only representatives of creators, and their profits rely on this idea being maintained. But what happens if creators take a more involved approach about their copyright? Then the middle-men lose their role. If we all become publishers, then the reliance on collecting societies vanishes. Am I being naive? Probably, I'm just an academic, so my opinion doesn't really count in the real world, according to these people.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

BBC opens RSS content

(thanks to Lilian Edwards for the link). The BBC is now opening its RSS content for syndication. Web designers can now syndicate BBC content on their own websites with much less restrictions than before. If you wanted to add one of the many BBC feeds to your blog or website, you had to contact the BBC and obtain permission to do so. Now, feeds are being published with a new open licence that allows users to include the feeds without prior permission, as long as the website fulfills the following conditions:
- the site is not blacklisted by the BBC (porn, racism, terrorism);
- displays prominently that the content comes from the BBC;
- the content is not offered for a fee;
- provides a working link to the news item.

This is a novel open licence. Somehow akin to a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commerical licence, but with the added elements of linking and not allowing use in restricted sites. This serves as further evidence that the BBC is now one of the major players in the open licensing movement.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Social roles of virtual communities

Browsing randomly on Google Scholar (as one does) I found an excellent article about social roles in electronic communities. It describes several types of personalities that can be found in online fora:

Celebrities - Prolific posters who spend a good deal of time contributing to the community. Celebrities define what the community is.

Ranters - Prolific posters that have only one or two issues.

Lurkers - Readers who rarely participate (if at all). Apparently, lurkers are the silent majority, happy to read but not to write. Some celebrities may turn lurkers after a while.

Trolls - Trolls write inflammatory messages to elicit a response and create problems for the community. They tend to have various sock-puppets.

Flamers - Aggressive posters.

Newbies - The interesting thing about newbies is not the newbie himself/herself, but the way in which the community reacts to newbies. Some communities accept newbies, while others are suspicious of them.

Speech Communities - Groups that share the understanding of specific terms.

Linkers - People who provide no text, only links.

I find this relevant to the law because I am interested in how virtual communities organise themselves. The article says that there is some correlation between what the elite thinks (the celebrities) and what is going to be considered accepted behaviour by the community as a whole. This would suggest a type of online aristocracy in which the rules are set by the ruling and visible elite, while the silent majority complies.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Patenting Lives call for papers

I have attended another meeting of the Patenting Lives project, some interesting discussion took place (will be writing about some of it later on). During the meeting we discussed the Patenting Lives Conference. Here is the call for papers:

The Conference of the Patenting Lives Project will be held in London, 1-2 December 2005. Further details will be available on this site soon, as well as a formal call for contributions including:

- poster presentations
- papers
- panels and roundtables
- artistic contributions

Please check this site again, or to express your interest and receive the call for contributions, please contact:

Dr Johanna Gibson
Project Manager

Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute
University of London
John Vane Science Building
Charterhouse Square
London EC1M 6BQ
United Kingdom

Saturday, May 07, 2005

U.S. Congress looking at possible patent reform

This article in the Washington Post tells us about the plans to reform the U.S. patent system, because it is now felt that the system is suffering from too many patents awarded, and too few are not being awarded.

There are those who want Europe to go the way of the United States in software patents, for example, an online patent commentator recently expressed that Europe should adopt American -style software patents because "software patents help small companies, and better quality software patents sends the innovation information signals needed to improve industry economics and progress." However, anybody who looks at the American system in an unbiased manner, will have to admit that the system is broken (I recommend again the excellent book "Innovation and it's discontents"). But don't take my word for it, look at these patent beauties: IBM's patent 6,585,776 for "displaying hypertext documents with internal hypertext link definitions", which in my view, is a patent on styling HTML HREF tags; or Google's patent 6,839,702, a patent that protects a system which "highlights search terms in documents distributed over a network", in other words, a patent for putting search results in bold. Or as the article in the Washington Post points out:

"Even Bruce R. Chizen, chief executive of Adobe Systems Inc. and chairman of the Business Software Alliance, which is leading the charge for the technology industry, acknowledges that allowing software patents in the 1980s was a bad idea. But Chizen argues that it's too late to turn back now."
Interestingly, Europe may actually be listening. I have finally managed to read the document by MEP Michel Rocard presented to the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), entitled "Working Document on the patentability of computer-generated inventions". It is an excellently argued document, measured and intelligent. It actually does away with the patentability of software per se, and offers a very strict definition of what can be patentable and what is meant as "technical effect". We will see if this view prevails when the vote finally takes place.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Open Access 1, Celera Genomics 0

In an article in Nature (Marris E, "Free genome databases finally defeat Celera", Nature 435, 6 available only under subscription), it is reported that Celera is finally giving up some of its proprietary database practices, and will make available all of its genetic data through the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information databases. This is an incredible result for the open access movment, and for all of those who are offering genetic data online free of charge. Celera has been deemed as one of the "bad guys" in IP, with their doubtful behaviour in the race for the human genome, and their filing of excessive number of biotechnology-related patents. It would be fair to assume that the free and open access databases have had and effect on this part of Celera's businness, and has prompted them to clean up their act and finally offer some data online for free. Celera going open access? What is the world coming to?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

P2P: Still going strong

Data still seems to indicate that P2P networks are gathering more and more people. For example, has been monitoring P2P network since 2003 and the chart shows a steady increase in numbers (the data does not include torrent statistics):

At least the music industry has stopped claiming that P2P networks are diminishing in numbers, which they tried earlier in the year, and were shut down. This report by the IFPI claims that litigation against users is working because:
"...there can be no doubt the campaign is having an impact. File-sharing is being contained: traffic on P2P networks which would have spiralled out of control a year ago has, in fact, began to slow down. Meanwhile legal ways of enjoying music online have taken off. People have begun to explore and enjoy the legal online music market in earnest."
That page also gives us a profile of the average downloader. The average P2P user is aged 25 to 35; is a teacher, public sector worker, IT or a student; and lives in large towns or cities. Rats, I've been found!

Monday, May 02, 2005

May the Commons Be With You!

Star Wars fandom has always been sophisticated. Does anybody remember Troops? Then there are other great ones, such as Jedi Hunter (Crikey!) and many, many others. Now there is a new and sophisticated kid on the block, Star Wars Revelations, a fan movie produced with $20,000 telling the story of surviving Jedi between episodes 3 and 4.

The interesting part about fandom is that strictly speaking, it is copyright infringement, but the copyright industry has learnt not to enforce it, afraid that if they clamp down on it, they will alienate their fans, who are the ones buying their products anyway. This has prompted Clive Thompson from Slate to argue that Star wars should go Creative Commons. It's an interesting idea, as this is actually what is taking place at the moment. Or there is another option, we could draft a a "fandom" licence.