Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Computers in movies

I've just read an excellent article about cinematic depiction of computer use in The Guardian. This is a topic of endless derision from techies and geeks all over the world. The article mentions that the balance can be tricky. In one hand we have the most realistic depiction of computers in film, Antitrust, which is a stinker of a movie. I mean, open source is not really the stuff of emotionally charged thrillers, is it? (to be fair, Revolution OS is a pretty good documentary).

On the other hand, the most ludicrous computer plot device in history, Independence Day, did very well at the box office. I mean, who in their right mind could believe that we would ever devise a computer virus that could infect an alien computer system? From a Mac? Try opening Mac or Linux files with your Windows OS and see your PC explode! Hey, maybe the aliens were using Macs. That would explain a lot... but I digress.

Computer expert Jakob Nielsen has come up with the top ten computer usability bloopers in film (the links are mine):

1. The Hero Can Immediately Use Any UI. "Break into a company -- possibly in a foreign country or on an alien planet -- and step up to the computer. How long does it take you to figure out the UI and use the new applications for the first time? Less than a minute if you're a movie star."

2. Time Travelers Can Use Current Designs. "An even worse flaw is the assumption that time travelers from the past could use today's computer systems. In fact, they'd have no conception of any of modern technology's basic concepts, and so would be dramatically more stumped than the novice users we observe in user testing. Even someone who's never used Excel at least understands the general idea of computers and screens."

3. The 3D UI. "3D is for demos. 2D is for work."

4. Integration is Easy, Data Interoperates. "In movieland, users have no trouble connecting different computer systems. Macintosh users live in a world of PCs without ever noticing it (and there were disproportionally more Macs than PCs in films a decade ago, when Apple had the bigger product-placement budget)."

5. Access Denied / Access Granted. "Countless scenes involve unauthorized access to some system. Invariably, several passwords are tried, resulting in a giant "Access Denied" dialog box. Finally, a few seconds before disaster strikes, the hero enters the correct password and is greeted by an equally huge "Access Granted" dialog box."

6. Big Fonts. "In addition to the immense font used for "Access Denied" messages, most computer screens in the movies feature big, easily readable text. In real life, users often suffer under tiny text and websites that add insult to injury by not letting users resize the words."

7. Star Trek's Talking Computer. "The voice-operated computer in Star Trek is an even more egregious example of designing an audience interface rather than a user interface. Spoken commands and spoken responses make it easy for the audience to follow the action, but it's a very inefficient way of controlling a complex system."

8. Remote Manipulators (Waldo Controls). "In practice, there's a reason we use steering wheels to drive cars instead of joysticks, touchpads, or push-buttons. The steering wheel is an excellent input device for fast and accurate specification of directionality."

9. You've Got Mail is Always Good News. "In the movies, checking your mail is a matter of picking out the one or two messages that are important to the plot. No information pollution or swamp of spam. No ever-changing client requests in the face of impending deadlines. And you never overlook information because a message's subject line violated the email usability guidelines."

10. "This is Unix, It's Easy". "In the film Jurassic Park, a 12-year-old girl has to use the park's security system to keep everyone from being eaten by dinosaurs. She walks up to the control terminal and utters the immortal words, "This is a Unix system. I know this." And proceeds to (temporarily) save the day."
Any other examples?

Friday, December 22, 2006

To snowclone or not to snowclone

I'm generally not into New Year's resolutions, but I believe that this year I will promise to write less snowclones. A snowclone, according to Wikipedia, "is a neologism used to describe a type of formula-based cliché which uses an old idiom in a new context. The term emphasizes the use of a familiar (and often particular) formula and previous cultural knowledge of the reader to express information about an idea." An example is this post's title: the well-known formula of "to X or not to X" is a snowclone.

The term was coined by linguist Glen Whitman, who noted that a new word was needed to describe the journalistic practice of calling things "the new black" (the snowclone is "X is the new Y"). The name comes from the famous urban myth that Eskimos "have X number of words for snow" (the range goes from 10 to 30). This is one of those lazy bits of common knowledge that nobody ever checks, but that is completely wrong, just as the myth that humans only use 10% of their brains. These lazy common knowledge adages can be the source of the snowclone, but the largest source is found in popular culture. Some of the best known snowclones are from movie tags ("In space nobody can hear you X"; "May the X be with you", "I, for one, welcome our new X overlords").

You too can become a snowclone hunter. Just go into Google and search using a snowclone template replacing the X for an asterisk. So, if you can find all instances of "All your X are belong to us", or "Have X, will travel".

Previous snowclones that I have been guilty of? All your Googlebase are belong to us; To bolbdly go where no patent has gone before; Limewire Strikes Back. How depressing.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Music industry sues

Several recording companies have sued Russian site for copyright infringement. The site is not precisely a P2P sharing network, it is more analogous to "legal" download sites where users purchase individual songs and albums at amazingly low prizes. The problem is that the site does not pay royalties to the music industry.

I think that the copyright legal issues in this case are quite straightforward, even if one considers the quirks of Russian copyright law. It seems to me like AllofMP3 are engaged in direct commercial infringement of protected works. However, what may prove to be a very relevant piece of litigation is the fact that this case may prove to be one of jurisdiction and long-arm enforcement of IPR. This is because Mediaservices, the Russian company that owns AllofMP3, has been sued in New York. This is definitely a case worth following.

I never though I would say this, but I hope the music industry win this one. I must be growing soft in my old age.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Halliburton loses appeal on software patent case

(via IPKat). Halliburton has lost its appeal on its case against Smith international with regards to software for designing drill bits. The software patent involved in Halliburton v Smith protected a software simulation program for designing the drill bits. Halliburton sued Smith, claimed it held patents in both the drill and design software and that Smith was using similar software to produce comparable results. Smith questioned the patents’ validity. The design software patent contained a long technical description of drills and drill bits, plus a description of the algorithm used to design the software. The instructions to the person skilled in the art were extremely detailed and could only apply to that particular desired result. This seems precisely to be the type of patent that has a technical effect, however one defines it. Pumfrey J agreed that there was nothing wrong with the patent per se and that it fulfilled the requirements of technicality . The problem with the patent is that it did not have adequate disclosure to ensure that an average skilled person would be able to work the patent.

In the appeal, the main point discussed was that of disclosure. Art.83 of the EPC provides that an application "must disclose the invention in a manner sufficiently clear and complete for it to be carried out by a person skilled in the art". Jacob J stressed how important this is for an application, and repeated the earlier judgement that there is nothing in the description of the software that would allow a person skilled in the art to work the patent. He said:

"Patents are meant to teach people how to do things. If what is "taught" involves just too much to be reasonable allowing for all the circumstances including the nature of the art, then the patent cannot be regarded as an "enabling disclosure." That is the basic concept behind the requirement of sufficiency and one that lies at the heart of patent law [...]. The setting of a gigantic project, even if merely routine, will not do. Moreover the analogy with genetic engineering and pharmaceutical inventions is not apt. The work that goes into bringing them to market relates to testing efficacy and safety – not in actually making the invented product."
I truly believe that there is a new UK doctrine based on the latest UK-based software patent rulings. We are getting rational policy advice and rational cases. What am I going to complain about?

Monday, December 18, 2006

SCRIPT-ed December 2006

The latest issue of SCRIPT-ed is now online. In this issue:


  • Alastair Kent, "Patients and IP – Should we care?"
Special Issue on Privacy:
  • Lilian Edwards, "Introduction to the Special Issue"
  • When personal data, behavior and virtual identities become a commodity: Would a property rights approach matter?, Corien Prins
  • Andreas Busch, "From Safe Harbour to the Rough Sea? Privacy Disputes across the Atlantic"
  • Judith Rauhofer, "Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you: Legislative developments in relation to the mandatory retention of communications data in the European Union"
  • Caroline B Ncube, "Watching the watcher: recent developments in privacy regulation and cyber-surveillance in South Africa"
  • Ralf Bendrath and Rikke Frank Jørgensen, "The World Summit on the Information Society – privacy not found?"
  • Miranda Mowbray, "Implementing Pseudonymity"
  • Andrea M. Matwyshyn, "Penetrating the Zombie Collective: Spam as an International Security Issue"
  • Philip Leith, "Squeezing Information out of the Information Commissioner: Mapping and measuring through online public registers"
Peer-reviewed articles:
  • Philip Ruthen, "Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) - The imposition of ‘truth’?"
  • Aurelio Lopez-Tarruella Martinez, "Licences for Use of Digital Works: The Difficult Balance Between Right-holders and Users"
  • Ana María Delgado García & Rafael Oliver Cuello, "The Spanish Tax Administration and the Internet".
  • Nicolas Jondet, "La France v. Apple: who’s the dadvsi in DRMs?"
Book Reviews:
  • Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software, Joseph Feller et al (editors). Reviewed by Andres Guadamuz
  • Copyright and Other Fairytales, Helle Porsdam (editor). Reviewed by Maureen O'Sullivan
  • Xenotransplantation: Law and Ethics, Sheila A. M. McLean and Laura Williamson. Reviewed by Jessica Wright.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bridging the Costa Rican digital divide

Continuing the series of stories from Costa Rica, the Costa Rican govenrment has started to implement a series of measures to reduce the digital divide between the information haves and have-nots.

Starting in February, the government will be offering computer and internet connections at affordable prices. For as little as ¢12,000 CRC per month (about £12 GBP, or $24 USD), users will lbe able to lease the computer and the internet connection. For ease of use, the payment will be added to the phone bill.

This is an excellent proposal, and I hope that it will prompt many of my fellow countrymen to join cyberspace.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Commission green-lights CAFTA in Costa Rica

The Commission on International Affairs of the Costa Rican legislature has approved CAFTA amidst strong opposition from students, intellectuals and union leaders. The vote in the commission was 6-3 in favour of sending the agreement to the plenary for it to be voted. As mentioned earlier, some of the less controversial surrounding aspects of the treaty are now under discussion, including IP reforms that will implement DMCA-like provisions into Costa Rican law.

I must admit that I'm still torn. While it is clear that the agreement is good for the Costa Rican economy, I'm disgusted by the storng IP enforcement clauses that ave been included into the treaty.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Inventor kills lawyer over idea for portable toilet

(via Patentingart list) It is true that to many of us IP is a source of income, but is it a matter of life and death? One man in Chicago thought so. Truck driver and sometimes inventor Joe Jackson murdered patent lawyer Michael McKenna and two other people at the offices of the Chicago firm Wood, Phillips, Katz, Clark & Mortimer.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Jackson invented a portable toilet for truckers, and went to McKenna to have the invention patented. However, Jackson became convinced that McKenna had stolen his idea and had registered the toilet for himself after researching on the Internet. I conducted a search on the USPTO on published applications and issued patents for Michael McKenna, but did not find anything. The search terms "joe jackson" and "toilet" did not produce any results either. According to family members, McKenna told Jackson that he could not patent the invention because it was already invented.

Jackson eventually snapped, and murdered the patent lawyer.

Tragic as the event is, I found something quite interesting in one of the articles detailing the unfortunate events. The Chicago Tribune describes the other lawyer killed as "an expert in the arcane legal field of intellectual property." Arcane?

I'm off to make some incantations and read some entrails.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Musician revolt?

I may be the only UK-based technology and IP blogger that has not yet mentioned the Gowers report. Because I'm in Costa Rica, I've been tempted to ignore writing about the report because so many people have already commented intelligently on it. Perhaps my only take is to stress again future. For too long have that I believe we may be witnessing a turning of the tide when it comes to IP policy. The fact that the Gowers review has managed to conduct its affairs with transparency and by looking closely at the actual evidence truly makes me feel optimistic about a more balanced IPIP owners gotten away with a one-sided push towards more protection. Public acceptance of the report so far seems to be decidedly favourable.

However, I have been prompted out of silence by the spectacle of ageing musicians pleading for copyright extension in a page published in the Financial Times. Under the title "Fair Play for Musicians", the ad contains 4,500 signatures of poor struggling acts such as U2, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Simon Rattle. I was astounded that this has been picked up by the mainstream press at international level. I heard the story on the radio while I was driving, and I almost crashed from shock. Copyright extension has become a hot topic, worthy of making the entertainment news in Costa Rican radio.

Nevertheless, despite the considerable star power wielded by the British Phonographic Industry, I think that this tactic will backfire and it will be a turning point with the public. There is nothing worse than a bunch of wealthy ageing rockers pleading for more money. It smells of greed and desperation (and somehow, it also smells of mothballs and dusty electric guitars, but I digress). Lessig has published a rebuke in FT, and I'm sure that widespread derision to this tactic will simply serve to expose what this is all about, earning a few more bucks.

By the way, David Berry has circulated a message pointing out that some of the signatories are actually dead. Lonnie Donegan (2002) and Freddie Garrity (2006) are deceased, no more, ceased to be, bereft of life (you know the rest). This makes me think that the BPI must have some mighty mediums in their ranks, or perhaps the ghosts of musicians past never leave the premises and hang around looking after their royalties. I don't know about you, but the image of a ghostly Mick Hucknall fills me with dread.

UPDATE: This article by Marina Hyde is a must-read.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Bush and Arias talk CAFTA

Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace laureate Oscar Arias Sánchez met in the White House with George W. Bush to talk about debt, democracy in Latin America, and of course CAFTA. As mentioned in earlier posts, Costa Rica has yet to ratify and implement the agreement.

Bush was briefed about the legislative process to approve CAFTA, and while he did not put any public pressure for the approval, he did mention that trade is one of the most important elements for development. Costa Rica is the largest economy in the CAFTA treaty, and its absence in the agreement would a tremendous blow for the free trade zone.

Bush also mentioned that he may look into condoning $104 million USD in debt that Costa Rica has with the USA in exchange for investment in health and education. Bush stated that those countries which invested in education and not in weapons should be rewarded in some form.

I must admit that when I heard that my irony meter broke and I could not continue listening to the press conference, so I don't know if something else of importance was mentioned.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Spanish café loses case on "free music"

A Spanish court in Pontevedra has ruled in favour of the Sociedad General de Autores y Editores (SGAE) against a café named Direccion000. SGAE initiated action against the cafe to claim royalties for de public performance of music in the locale, while the owners claimed that they did not have to pay because they were only using “free music” under Creative Commons licences.

The café lost the case in first instance and appealed on the basis that the locale has several signs claiming that they had permission to play free music in the establishment under the terms of CC licences. However, SGAE was able to prove that the music selection included artists under their representation.

Perhaps the most worrying paragraph from the case is that which describes the legal validity of CC licences presented as evidence. According to the court:

“…it is worth to point out that the document presented by the defendants-appellants as a licence for free use of music does not constitute anything other than a mere informative leaflet about its own content, lacking any form of signature, and therefore bereft of legal value whatsoever”.
I find this worrying because it seems to imply that CC licences are invalid without a signature, which would spell trouble for their legal validity in Spain. I would hope that the court was shown the human readable deed, and not the licence as such.

I do not have sympathy for the café owners as it seems to me that they were playing commercial music while advertising that the locale only played “musica libre”. Still, I am greatly concerned about wider potential implications with regards to CC contract formation (or licence formation where applicable).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

When the Internet breaks

In the age of broadband, Blackberries, 3G and wireless, we have come to expect 24/7 online access all the time. But what happens when the Internet breaks?

Costa Rica and the rest of Central America are connected to the Internet through two fibre optic cables: Maya-1 and most importantly Arcos-1. The former runs from Puerto Lempira in Honduras to Punta Cana in the Domenican Republic (some maps here). Since last Sunday, the Arcos-1 cable has been down, which has meant that the Internet is either very slow, or not available at all.

This has made me think back on some digital divide issues and the fact that large part of the Internet relies on complex inter-connection agreements for the lease of bandwidth, and that when one of those connections is unavailable, the Internet suffers. If such an event takes place in developed countries with vast inter-connected fibre optical networks, the impact is considerably smaller. However, with countries that rely heavily on one or two main cables for connection, any shortages hit very hard indeed.

The national telecomms company ICE and RACSA, the monopolist Internet Service Provider in Costa Rica, have mentioned that they are likely to sue if the faults where caused by negligence.

By the way, this message reaches you thanks to some other cables, such as the Antilles Crossing.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Troubled CAFTA in Costa Rica

The Central American Free Trade Agreement is the multilateral treaty signed between the United States, the Domenican Republic and several countries in Central America. As it happens with most free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration, there is a requirement to impose heavy protection of intellectual property rights in the signatory countries. In most instances, the protection seems particularly unnecessary for developing countries. Why are strong anti-circumvention provisions required in the text? Why the emphasis on implementing criminalisation of IPR infringement?

Anyway, the road to CAFTA has been extremely difficult in Costa Rica. Firstly, the agreement hung in the balance last February at the local elections when anti-CAFTA candidate Ottón Solís almost defeated pro-agreement candidate and now president Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez. The agreement has also been the subject of heated popular demonstrations from university strudents and intellectuals.

CAFTA (or TLC in Spanish) is now in process of being voted in not in a bulk legislative package, but it has been broken up. IP provisions are now being considered by the plenary, including reforms to the existing IP law, and a new trade mark legislation. It seems to me that the Costa Rican government is trying to sneak some of the least controversial issues such as IP protection before sending the treaty to vote. Let's face it, IP issues do not send people to the streets (unless they are protesting software patents).

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Costa Rica

I'm on my way to the land of Imperial, gallo pinto and lovely beaches. I will still be posting regularly from home.