Wednesday, January 31, 2007

USPTO to examine Blackboard patent

Excellent news coming from the Software Patent Law Center (SFLC). The USPTO has granted ex parte re-examination of US Patent 6,988,138, which protects "Internet-based education support system and methods". As previously reported, this patent led to its owners, e-learning software firm Blackboard, to sue Desire2Learn, which also manufactures educational software.

The SPLC initiated the re-examination procedure on behalf of several open source software projects. According to their press release:

"A re-examination of this type usually takes one or two years to complete. Roughly 70% of re-examinations are successful in having a patent narrowed or completely revoked."
It will take some time to learn the outcome, but at least it has been challenged. Well done!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

HD-DVD DRM cracked

(Via SCRIPT News) The copy-protection system shipped with every HD-DVD has been cracked, according to the firm in charge of licensing, Advanced Access Content System (AACS).

As with DVDs before, licensed players come with a built-in encryption key (device key) which can unlock the content within High Definition discs, protected with another set of keys (volume keys). In DVDs, the protection was broken when a digital player forgot to encrypt their keys. In this case, the culprit was a self-proclaimed upset customer that goes by the nick muslix64. In an interview with Slyck News, he tells how he was looking at the transaction between the device and volume keys, and how he realised that the volume keys were not protected in the player's memory. Mr muslix64 decrypted the keys and created a command-line open source program called BackupHDDDVD, which obtains the volume keys. Once this has been achieved, the disc is left wide open. Just to be fair, he also cracked Blu-Ray's protection.

AACS has accepted the crack, and has stated that it will employ "both technical and legal measures to deal with attacks such as this one". The technical actions may include desperate measures such as deactivating the affected players (which would create a lot of anger amongst consumers), or to update players by sending software updates to users. Yeah, right! The users are going to update the software all by themselves. You cannot fault these people's optimism.

Whatever happens, it is clear that muslix64 will be on the industries sights. After all, he's wilfully circumventing effective protection measures.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

TV industry to enforce BitTorrent?

I've just read a rather naive article in the BBC Technology website on the rise of BitTorrent TV-show sharing. According to the report this is the next stage in the fight against piracy, as the top shared material online now is made up of TV shows.

I'm sure that TV industries must be concerned. Shows are now offered with the commercials removed, ready for download though the many torrent sites available. Downloading also affects viewing figures and it makes it more difficult to measure a show's popularity.

I admit that I have become fond of downloading shows from BitTorrent, particularly Battlestar Galactica. Over my holidays I also downloaded Terry Pratchett's Hogfather and Torchwood. Is this infringing? Certainly, but then I have purchased Galactica DVD's after viewing, so not watching the show "live" is offset by the income gained through a DVD.

Honestly, I cannot see how the industry can try to stop BitTorrent sharing. Its nature is different to traditional client-based P2P sharing such as Limewire, there is no central network to attack, only individual users. You could also try attacking the torrent search engines, but as the content is not hosted by them, the legal case against them would be less straight-forward.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Latest FACT video against copyright

(via Ashley Theunissen) I recommend that you watch this video from the UK's Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT). Apparently it is being distributed in rental DVDs instead of the annoying Piracy Crime video, but I don't know if it is new. I initially thought it was a spoof, but apparently it's quite real. I loved the over-the-top pirate branding things with an X, while the voice-over tells us useful facts like "The pirates are out to get you"; "Piracy funds terrorism" and "Don't let the pirates burn a hole in your pocket".

And remember, "Cool is Copyright!" (who wrote that? Yoda?)

Friday, January 26, 2007

PR firm attacks open access

(via Open Access News) Journal publishers represented by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) have hired a PR firm in order to raise morale and attack open access publishing, according to a report in the journal Nature. "We're like any firm under siege, it's common to hire a PR firm when you're under siege." said the president of the AAP. According to the article:

"The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and "paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles"."
The twisted logic required to come up with the phrase "Public access equals government censorship" leaves me in uncomfortable awe. In some people's mind one can imagine that providing wider participation and access is wrong, but I truly cannot fathom the mental process which produces such line of thought. I am similarly amazed by the false dichotomy deployed by implying that open access equals the demise of peer-review.

This is what happens when you bring mindless PR firms into intellectual debates.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Enforcing Creative Commons

Licence geeks may have noticed the following information in the right-hand column of this blog:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 UK: Scotland License.

The terms of the licence are simple. I will allow people to reuse and republish my posts as long as they provide attribution to the original posts, are not reproduced for commercial purposes, and the person making the reproduction shares any modifications from the original content with a licence containing the same terms and conditions.

Thanks to the magic of the link-back function in Blogger, I have discovered that there is an outfit copying my messages through the Atom feed and placing them in pages filled with Google Ads. The pages have content from other blogs from all over the place, which makes me believe that this is almost certainly a Google Ad link farm. The domain is, with the www replaced by random numbers preceded by a g. Examples of this are yesterday's post, as well as:

Using the excellent Network Tools utility I found that the domain is owned by a person in Thailand. I emailed the registered owner to complain, but unsurprisingly I have not received an answer. I then used a traceroute to find who is hosting the content, and found that it is being served from in the United States. I then emailed the site's support to explain the situation, and I have been prompted to file a DMCA complain to remove the material.

Why enforce the licence terms? I write this blog without expecting to get money in return, and the thought of somebody profiting from them makes me very angry indeed. This is also a great chance to text Creative Commons in real life.

Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Vista's legal woes

(via Colin Miller. This post is best enjoyed while listening to either Iron Maiden's "The Number of The Beast", or R.E.M.'s "The End of The World As We Know It") .

Windows Vista is nearly upon us. Woe unto us, et cetera, et cetera. The Internet is abuzz with stories of people waiting for Vista with either nervous anticipation or disgruntled disgust. There are those who do not care, but their opinions rarely count, do they? Anyway, whether you're in the camp of those who will be queuing for a copy of the software, or you will be protesting with placards outside of your local PC World store, you will be aware of some of the issues debated.

The first concern with Vista is the re-vamped technological protection measures designed to seek and destroy objectionable materials in the computer, and which will even disable high-quality payback for unlicensed materials. The less publicised problem is that present in Microsoft's new EULA. I have finally managed to read it, and what a read it has proved to be!

There are two particular parts that I find troubling and highly problematic. The first relates to the removal of unwanted software:

"If turned on, Windows Defender will search your computer for “spyware,” “adware” and other potentially unwanted software. If it finds potentially unwanted software, the software will ask you if you want to ignore, disable (quarantine) or remove it. Any potentially unwanted software rated “high” or “severe,” will automatically be removed after scanning unless you change the default setting. Removing or disabling potentially unwanted software may result in
· other software on your computer ceasing to work, or
· your breaching a license to use other software on your computer.
By using this software, it is possible that you will also remove or disable software that is not potentially unwanted software."
This is problematic because it does not define spyware, and because apparently it allows Microsoft to define that which it considers to be at high and severe risk. While it does state what are the potential results of this system, it does not excuse it. It is the equivalent of me stating in a licence "this may result in the removal of your arm."

The second worrying section relates to hardware upgrade. This reads:
"You may uninstall the software and install it on another device for your use. You may not do so to share this license between devices.
(...)The first user of the software may reassign the license to another device one time, but only if the license terms of the software you upgraded from allows reassignment."
Some people have commented that this could very well mean that the possibilities for installing hardware upgrades would be seriously limited, particularly because another section in the licence states how many devices can "access the software installed on the licensed device to use File Services, Print Services, Internet Information Services and Internet Connection Sharing and Telephony Services". This allows 5 devices in Vista Home Basic, and 10 devices in Vista Home Premium and Vista Ultimate. The practicalities of this is that you will be able to make from five to ten changes in your computer, and after those changes, the licence will be deactivated. If you think that ten devices are a lot, this would in theory include USB drives, iPods, PnP wireless devices, routers, cameras, etc. If Microsoft follows the letter of the licence, the computer will easily become a dud.

Microsoft have stated that this is unlikely, and that the software will not act in the way the licence implies and it will allow minor hardware modifications. On the other hand, some fear that this is a slippery slope, and nothing stops Microsoft from changing their mind.

I tend to be less worried about the letter of the EULA than other people, mostly because in Europe the licence must be read in conjunction with consumer protection for non-individually drafted contracts. If a consumer is party to a form contract with a large retailer or service provider, the clauses contained must provide an adequate balance between the parties. If one clause is deemed abusive by skewing the balance, then the clause can be struck down from the agreement.

However, if you are outside of the European Economic Area, you're on your own. May we suggest Linux?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

New blog

Abbe Brown, Jordan Hatcher and yours truly have started a new blog as part of a research project on the practicalities of free trade agreements in the signatory countries.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Independent Republic of Sealand

In a move that reminds me of the plot in Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon, the popular torrent search engine The PirateBay has started asking for donations to purchase the independent micro-nation of Sealand. The people behind PirateBay have created a website to ask for donations to amass the £65 million pounds required to purchase this principality, which looks remarkably like a platform in the middle of the sea (pictured). Sealand is an abandoned concrete platform 10 kilometres off the coast of Suffolk. It was taken over in the 60’s by Paddy Roy Bates, a retired British Major, who declared the platform an independent state and himself a prince (which explains the principality moniker).

The legality of such claim seems doubtful. I've been doing some research on the topic, and there is surprising number of articles on the subject of the legality of the Principality of Sealand. There has been a court case in Germany denying one of its citizens the loss of his German nationality in favour of the principality. Apparently, In Re Duchy of Sealand is an often cited case in International Law in order to establish the requirements of statehood. Sealand is also famous because it has established a number of servers for providing data-haven services, and therefore international interest has re-surged, as it is used also as a tax-haven.

What is required for statehood? The Arbitration Commission of the European Conference on Yugoslavia describes a State as "a community which consists of a territory and a population subject to an organised political authority." It is doubtful that the platform consists of a state. It is also clear that no country has recognised Sealand. Nevertheless, the platform still exists, and the UK doesn't seem willing to exercise sovereignty.

The best analysis on the subject comes from Goldsmith and Wu in their excellent book Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World. Sealand is used here as an example of unregulated borders, much like the Barlowian view of Cyberspace. Their argument is that it doesn't matter if a micro-state attempts to extricate itself from the rule of law, as the citizens of that country would still have to operate in real countries, in the real world if you may. I tend to agree with this view. The UK doesn't need to exercise its jurisdiction over Sealand, the inhabitants of the platform must go into Ipswich for food and supplies from time to time. The servers must connect to the rest of the Internet somewhere. Regulate the choke-points and you have regulated the platform.

As of today, PirateBay has received $18 thousand USD in donations, which must prove something profound about the nature of the Internet which I cannot fathom this morning. However, something must be said about the state of mind of some of the donating parties. How is it that someone who will not fork out twenty quid for a boxed-set DVD willingly gives money to a dodgy outfit so that they can buy a doubtful country?

Nevertheless, I'm half tempted to join them and donate something. Apparently, all of those who donate money will be sure to gain citizenship. The possibilities are intriguing.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Political activism in Second Life

Second Life is back in the news. This time, reporters are describing virtual protests and guerrilla warfare against Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, which has opened virtual headquarters in Porcupine, an otherwise quiet region of the Second Life universe. Apparently protesters, not happy with placards, are using all sorts of violent animations in order to disrupt Le Pen's domain. Reports reckon exploding pigs have been used.

Perhaps this is just a cute story, but it hides a more serious issue. UKIP, the UK Independence Party, has announced that it may follow suit and set-up headquarters in the virtual environment. Should these action be regulated at all? Europe and the United States have completely different views on freedom of speech. What will happen if racists and xenophobes take over Second Life?

Ready your exploding pigs, the revolution is coming...

Friday, January 19, 2007

EU report favours open source

(via Ashley Theunissen) The European Commission has released a report on the impact of open source software for the ICT sector in Europe. The report has been authored by a group of top researchers in the field, including Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, Paul David, and Philippe Aigrain.

The study analysed six small and medium organisations in Europe (mostly from the public sector), in order to ascertain the migration costs from proprietary to non-proprietary software. The report concludes that:

"Our findings show that, in almost all the cases, a transition toward open source reports of savings on the long term – costs of ownership of the software products.
Costs to migrate to an open solution are relevant and an organization needs to consider an extra effort for this. However these costs are temporary and manly are budgeted in less than one year. The major factor of cost of the new solution – even in the case that the open solution is mixed with closed software – is costs for peer or ad hoc training. These are the best example of intangible costs that often are not foreseen in a transition. On the other hand not providing a specific training may cause and adverse attitude toward the new technology. Fortunately those costs are limited in time and are not strictly linked to the nature of the new software adopted."
A very interesting report, although as a warning it should be said that it seems to be very favourable to OSS by default. I'm sure that the forces of FUD will be out in force soon to attack this as more Euro-pinko propaganda.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Is Second Life Open Source?

I've finally got around reading the nitty-gritty of the much publicised move by Linden Labs to release an open source version of Second Life. In case you have been living in a cave without a broadband connection, Second Life is a virtual world, more like a giant chat room than a game. It is a place where people go to pretend to be something they're not (much like a busy pub on a Friday night for non-geeks). Second Life has the doubtful honour of having achieved mainstream name-recognition. I believe this is what people who want to sound sophisticated talk about, even though they have never used it. The good thing about Second Life is that they are considered one of the good guys. For example, other games require users to assign the copyright over in-game creations, while in Second Life the user retains ownership over their works, and they can even release them under Creative Commons licences.

Anyway, the big news is that Second Life is now offering the source code for a client to connect to the game. At first glance, this is great news, but I wish that those reporting it would be specific. This does not mean that Second Life is now open source, it just means that one client to connect to the game is open source, there is a big difference in both statements. The source code for the client (called Second Life Viewer) has been released under a modified version of the General Public License. The source code is available for download under the terms of the GPL, with the added exception from the Linden Research, Inc. ("Linden Lab") Viewer FLOSS License Exception v0.5. Linden Labs claims that "those people wanting the freedom to modify and redistribute the Second Life Viewer as open source/free software may do so under the GNU GPL, with a special exception to allow for use with open source licenses that might otherwise be incompatible with the GPL." This sort of language hides the fact that this is a very big modification to the conditions within the GPL.

Those familiar with the terms and conditions of the GPL will know that one of the most important clauses is that further distributions of the software must be released under the GPL, this is known as copyleft. One big problem with the GPL has been to try to determine exactly what constitutes a derivative from the licensed source code, and whether a larger program that contains some GPL'd code has to be released under the GPL. This clause seems to try to get around that question by allowing the code to be modified and distributed under another Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) licence. What the exception does is to allow interoperability, in its own words:

"You are free to distribute a work based on the Program that is formed entirely from the Viewer Software (and any modifications thereof) and one or more works that are independent and separate works not derived from the Viewer Software, and are licensed under one or more of the licenses listed below in section 1 (each, a "FLOSS Work") , as long as:
1. You obey the GPL in all respects for the Viewer Software and any work based on the Program, except for the FLOSS Works, for which you must comply with B below,
2. all FLOSS Works,
1. are distributed subject to one of the FLOSS licenses listed below, and
2. the object code or executable form of the FLOSS Works are accompanied by the complete corresponding machine-readable source code for those FLOSS Works on the same medium and under the same FLOSS license as the corresponding object code or executable forms thereof, and
3. any works that are aggregated with the Viewer Software or a work based on the Program on a volume of a storage or distribution medium in accordance with the GPL, and are not licensed under the FLOSS licenses listed below, are independent and separate works in themselves which are not derivatives of either the Viewer Software, a work based on the Program or a FLOSS Work."
This is a pretty big modification, and I wonder what will the people at the FSF think about it. My view is that this makes the software incompatible with other GPL software, but I would like to see what other people think. I wonder as well why they didn't use another open source licence, or draft their own version. I think that even the LGPL might have achieved similar results.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Legal movie downloading just around the corner?

(via Techdirt) USA Today reports that online movie rental service Netflix is ready to begin offering a truly Internet rental service to its subscribers. Perhaps downloading is not the precise word, as the movies will be streamed into the computer, and therefore "in theory" will not be subject to being saved.

It seems like the industry is covering its collective behind by only allowing Netflix to stream unpopular B films and some few classics such as Amadeus and Bridge on the River Kwai. The streaming apparently is protected by Microsoft's DRM, which in theory does not allow the stream to be saved into a file.

I think that the film industry will eventually have to give in and allow "legal" downloads. The technology already exists to allow people to buy and download movies to their video iPods (I'm still trying to fill-up mine), but the industry is still uneasy, and only a few flicks are sold on iTunes. A lot of hit TV shows are sold on the iTunes store (at least in the USA, in the UK we still can't), so my opinion is that there is definitely a movie download market out there.

Nevertheless, you can download Mean Girls in the USA. We're not missing much.

Monday, January 15, 2007

More details on Sony case

Cedric Manara has helpfully sent some more information about the French Sony case. Sony France and Sony UK have been reprimanded by a French court because they do not warn consumers that the music they sell can only be played with Sony players. Sony UK offers music through a service called Connect, while Sony France offers something called Net Walkman, but nowhere in those two services it is stated that music is offered with ATRAC-3 proprietary DRM, which only plays in Sony players. Sony UK's practice was particularly thought to be tying (forcing them to buy Sony players if they buy from Connect).

Interestingly though, the court refused to enforce interoperability. After the implementation of DADVSI, French law allows courts to ask manufacturers to make adjustments to technical devices to allow for interoperability. While the ruling will allow consumers more information by forcing Sony to place a sticker on devices and better information on its websites, courts will not force interoperability. Some commentators believe that the courts will wait until the new interoperability ombudsman enacted by DADVSI comes into play.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Sony fined by French court for DRM music

(via Cedric Manara) A French court has ruled against Sony UK and Sony France over the use of DRM. Manara writes in the Cyberlaw mailing list:

A French court ruled against Sony France and Sony UK, in a case brought by a consumer group. Sony UK operates the website CONNECT Store, where French consumers can download music files in ATRAC 3 format. ATRAC 3 is a proprietary format, that can only be played on SONY players. To the Court, Sony UK did not clearly inform the consumers that these files cannot be played on other players. The Court also found that Sony France did not provide clear information to the consumers when selling its players without disclosing they are not compatible with other files. The Court also ruled that Sony UK's "tying practice" was contrary to the French Consumer code, article L. 122-1. Pursuant to this article, it is illegal to make the purchase of a service subject to the purchase of another product. To the court, the consumers who download a file from Connect are compelled to buy a Sony player if they want to play it.
I have not found this reported yet elsewhere, as the techie press seems to be covering exclusively the anti-trust case against Apple. I will be looking for more information when I come back from holidays.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Five things you didn't know about me

I've been tagged with the latest memetag to take over the blogosphere. Pedro Canut from Blogospierre has tagged me, prompting me to list five things that you don't know about me. I don't like talking about personal things (other than travel), but here is a list with mildly amusing factoids about me:

  1. I used to DJ professionally in Belfast (yes, I actually got paid to do it). One night I met and played for Antonio Fargas, the original Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch.
  2. I am ophidiophobic.
  3. I was once held hostage at gunpoint during an assault in my family home in Costa Rica. My brother shot one of the gunmen and we escaped unharmed.
  4. I'm writing a novel called "El Ataque de las Chicas Kamikaze".
  5. I once tried online dating, but found the episode frustrating, infuriating and downright scary.
Now I tag the IPKats I know (Jeremy, Ilanah and Jo), The House of Commons staff (Abi, Ben, and Catherine), David Sasaki, Luke Razzell, and Becky Hogge.

Because I cannot just leave this meme alone, I've done some research to find out where it started. At first I thought that it would be difficult (if not impossible) to backtrack it, but after spending one hour following old posts, I managed to find the original (by the way, the blogosphere is a very large place, filled with rather weird people). Perhaps I should add to my list that I get very proud when I do geeky stuff, but everybody knows that.

Anyway, the original post comes from a blog called "Dipping Into The Water Butt" by a woman in the UK. It got picked up by her friends, and the rest is history. I did find a paragraph that was supposed to be kept, but it has been lost somewhere along the way:
'Remember that it isn't always the sensational stuff that writers are looking for, it can just as easily be something that you take for granted like having raised twins or knowing how to grow beetroot. Mind you, if you know how to fly a helicopter or have worked as a film extra, do feel free to let the rest of us know about it.'
This would make for some excellent research on the scale-free nature of the blogosphere.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Should Saddam's video be regulated?

The supposedly private yet very public execution of Saddam Hussein has given us the first big cyberlaw story of 2007.

The story can be tackled from a wide range of angles: Who owns the video? Can (and should) it be banned? Is there any law that could be applied to stop its distribution? Is this what the User Generated Content (UGC) future will be like? However, I think that one of the most interesting questions posed by the viral propagation of the video clip has been one of regulation of online content.

Some people could make the argument that the distribution of the video is detrimental for many reasons: security, peace, national unity, politics, etc. The video has helped to give Saddam the semblance of martyrdom, and it will undoubtedly be used as a rallying call for insurgents. After all, his last words have already become memorable. Are these reasons enough to ban the video? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. However, how can you stop it? This is an example of an area that will become more relevant in the future. A large number of us now carry in our pockets a small multimedia centre, we can take video and pictures in situations that we would not have conceived ten years ago. And following the principle of Replicator Technology, once something has been released in digital format, copies of it can (and will) be made.

Perhaps I'm not very imaginative this new year, but I cannot see how we can stop undesired UGCs from spreading. Be it snuff film, terrorist instructions, bullying videos, abusive behaviour on camera, privacy violations, etc. I just cannot see any manner in which you stop digital copies from replicating. Self regulation from some of the largest players like YouTube have removed some of the worst offenders, but once the video is out in the open, it will continue to be copied, distributed and viewed all over the world. National legislation will only shift the problem to those unregulated jurisdictions, and the problem will not stop.

And what does this mean for the mainstream media? After all, there is a user rebellion afoot. Consumers are not content with news media showing restraint and not displaying the video, people will vote with their clicks and download the content wherever they can.

Perhaps we could just learn to live with the UGC future. If 2006 was the year of YouTube, this one may very well be the year where it all becomes mainstream. Citizen journalist, citizen rebel, citizen criminal?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Happy New Year

Happy new Year to all regular (and non-regular) readers. I've been overwhelmed by the steady numbers that the blog has been getting. Sometime in the last two days we've managed to reach the 30,000 hit mark, and last December was the most viewed month since I started counting, with more than 2,000 individual visits during the month. Needless to say, this prompts me to continue doing the same during 2007 (I know the masses want more llama pictures).

I thought of recording an MP3 of myself singing Auld Lang Syne, but I can never remember the lyrics, and it's hard to get on the spirit of Hogmanay at 28 °C. Perhaps next year...