Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Number 10 answers software patent petition

(via Laurence Diver and other sources) The Prime Minister's office has been accepting online petitions, which has prompted all sorts of people making specialist requests. One such petition has been posted against software patents, which reads "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to make software patents clearly unenforcible". The petition gathered 2,215 signatures.

Perhaps more astounding than the actual petition was the very informed reply. The response reads:

"The Government remains committed to its policy that no patents should exist for inventions which make advances lying solely in the field of software. Although certain jurisdictions, such as the US, allow more liberal patenting of software-based inventions, these patents cannot be enforced in the UK.

The test used to discern between patentable and non-patentable subject matter in the UK has recently been clarified by the courts, and is applied rigorously by the Patent Office. Under this test, the true nature of the advance being claimed in a patent application must be determined, and if this advance lies solely in the field of software, or another non-technical field such as methods of doing business, the patent will not be granted. If the advance being made by an invention does lie in a technical field, it must also be non-obvious and sufficiently clearly described for the invention to be reproduced before a patent will be granted by the Patent Office.

The recently published Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, an independent review commissioned by the Government, recommended that patent rights should not be extended to cover pure software, business methods and genes. The Government will implement those recommendations for which it is responsible, and will therefore continue to exclude patents from areas where they may hinder innovation: including patents which are too broad, speculative, or obvious, or where the advance they make lies in an excluded area such as software."
However, notice that the language is still against "pure software", or "software as such". As I have commented often, some software patents will still get through, but this is an encouraging sign.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Resuming normal service

Those few regular readers who care about these sort of things may have noticed that I have not been posting that often in the last few days. I have been moving flats, which has of course affected my online connection as well. I have finally moved everything and I'm now online. Expect posting to become regular again.

How did we ever manage without broadband?

Monday, February 26, 2007

eBay bans in-game goods

(Valuable item from Ultima Online)

(via Colin Miller) This is an old item, but I've just read it. According to Slashdot, eBay has caved-in to increasing pressure from the games industry and has de-listed all in-game items from its database. However, I've made a search and you still can find some items. If you want to buy gold, rare items, swords of power and exotic pets, you will have to go to other websites. In many instances, you may have to go to officially sanctioned websites, such as Sony's Station Exchange, in order to get your goodies. Why? Because this could be another profitable source of income for MMORPG providers.

For those who are not familiar with virtual economies or gaming, there are online games in which players can obtain highly prized rare and/or collectible items through skill and labour within the virtual world (the relevance of the use of such words will become clear). It is also possible to accumulate in-game wealth in the shape of gold or other currency, which can be transferred to other players. Such items have generated an economic boom in which people would spend real money to purchase their online game-only items, fuelling virtual farming, where people from developing countries would be used in virtual sweatshops to produce said currency. Game companies saw the booming market, and started offering their own shops.

How could game developers maintain their official stores as the monopolistic provider of virtual goods? After all, one could undercut the official market by creating an underground economy where virtual goods could be freely exchanged, a traditional black market if you may. The solution to the conundrum was actually quite simple, yet inspired. Claim intellectual property protection over all goods generated in the game through constrictive EULAs, and punish all of those who break the agreement or infringe the company's IP. By doing this, then eBay could eventually be held liable for serving as a marketplace for infringing materials, hence last month's action.

Do game companies have a case? I personally do not think so, as some of the clauses could be found abusive in Europe. I also think that virtual items created through the gamer's skill and labour should be rewarded with their own copyright protection. After all, Microsoft does not own the copyright over anything I write with Word, so why should the game maker get the copyright over what I create within the game? To emphasise this point, Second Life allows gamers to claim copyright over their creations, allowing the use of Creative Commons licensing for some works.

This has been the subject of some literature already of course, but I just wanted to have a wee rant.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Creative Commons version 3.0 launched

The version 3.0 f the generic (or unported) Creative Commons licences have now been released. There are many important improvements in the new licences. The biggest change has been to distinguish between the generic licence and the American one. The generic is now drafted with neutral international language in accordance to the Berne Convention, so finally we are rid of the confusing terms like "derivative" (although the licence is still called No derivs), but the language now refers to adaptations.

Other changes are the consistent changes to moral rights treatments, and specific language to make it easier for music groups to collect royalties from collecting societies. Here is a list of changes according to the original post from Mia Garlick:

"Separating the “generic” from the US license

As part of Version 3.0, we have spun off the “generic” license to be the CC US license and created a new generic license, now known as the “unported” license. For more information about this change, see this more detailed explanation.

Harmonizing the treatment of moral rights & collecting society royalties

In Version 3.0, we are ensuring that all CC jurisdiction licenses and the CC unported license have consistent, express treatment of the issues of moral rights and collecting society royalties (subject to national differences). For more information about these changes, see this explanation of the moral rights harmonization and this explanation of the collecting society harmonization.

No Endorsement Language

That a person may not misuse the attribution requirement of a CC license to improperly assert or imply an association or relationship with the licensor or author, has been implicit in our licenses from the start. We have now decided to make this explicit in both the Legal Code and the Commons Deed to ensure that — as our licenses continue to grow and attract a large number of more prominent artists and companies — there will be no confusion for either the licensor or licensee about this issue. For a more detailed explanation, see here.

BY-SA — Compatibility Structure Now Included

The CC BY-SA 3.0 licenses will now include the ability for derivatives to be relicensed under a “Creative Commons Compatible License,” which will be listed here. This structure realizes CC’s long-held objective of ensuring that there are no legal barriers to people being able to remix creativity in the way that flexible licenses are intended to enable. More information about this is provided here.

Clarifications Negotiated With Debian & MIT

Finally, Version 3.0 of the licenses include minor clarifications to the language of the licenses to take account of the concerns of Debian (more details here) and MIT (more details here).

As part of discussions with Debian, it was proposed to allow the release of CC-licensed works under DRM by licensees on certain conditions — what was known as the “parallel distribution language” but this has not been included as part of Version 3.0 of the CC licenses."

This is a huge step for CC licensing. Expect the version 3.0 of the Scottish licences shortly.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Internet addict sues IBM

You could not make up stories like these even if you tried. James Pacenza used to work for IBM until he got fired for participating in adult chat rooms. He now has sued IBM because he claims to be a sex addict and an Internet addict, and that under his condition he's entitled to protection under the American with Disabilities Act.

While this has some comedic value, the case could be the first test of Internet addiction. As early as 1998, clinical psychologists have been claiming that the Internet can be addictive. A PubMed search on "internet addiction" retrieves 156 results. Could this person have a case if there is such a thing as Internet addiction?

Having played MMORPGs from time to time, I can empathise with the addictive claim.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Music downloads do not affect sales

(Via Howard Knopf) Those involved in the P2P debate might remember the 2004 Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf paper on the effect of music downloads on sales. The paper has now been published in the Journal of Political Economy with updates. The abstract reads:

"For industries ranging from software to pharmaceuticals and entertainment, there is an intense debate about the appropriate level of protection for intellectual property. The Internet provides a natural crucible to assess the implications of reduced protection because it drastically lowers the cost of copying information. In this paper, we analyze whether file sharing has reduced the legal sales of music. While this question is receiving considerable attention in academia, industry, and Congress, we are the first to study the phenomenon employing data on actual downloads of music files. We match an extensive sample of downloads to U.S. sales data for a large number of albums. To establish causality, we instrument for downloads using data on international school holidays. Downloads have an effect on sales that is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Our estimates are inconsistent with claims that file sharing is the primary reason for the decline in music sales during our study period."
I have not yet read the published version, so I do not know if there are any changes to the unpublished one. The original prompted some angry replies, and even some reasoned rebuttals.
The study comes at a time when EMI has worried the music industry by stating that its profits have plummeted because of decreasing sales.

IF P2P does affect sales (this is a big IF), then doesn't that mean that the music industry has lost the war on piracy? Suing all of those users has not had an effect, so it may be a good time to re-think business models. I think that getting rid of DRM may actually do the trick. I know that I would buy more from iTunes if their music was DRM-free.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

UK Law Database

Finally! Looking for UK legislation? The Department of Constitutional Affairs has released its Statute Law Database. No longer will you have to guess the legislation's name to find it in Google, everything is now available in one place.

I've been browsing it (as you do), and I think that it looks very comprehensive, particularly the regional support. The database includes Scottish Parliament acts and Scottish statutory instruments, so I'm glad to see that Scotland is given its proper place.

The database still has some holes: the Consumer Credit Act 1974 is still not online.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Web 2.0 video

Creative Commons blog and even Eben Moglen are all talking about this video explaining Web 2.0, the hyper-web, or however you want to call it. It was quite an amazing display, really well done. Web 2.0 is one of those terms that I see defined in different ways. Originally, it was meant a description of web-based or browser-based applications, such as gMail, Google Desktop, gadgets, Windows Live, etc. Now it is used to describe user-generated content, social networking and the wiki web.

I still felt that the point was over-stated. Do we really need to re-think everything?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Vista Wow? More like Boo!

So, as part of my research into software and operating systems, I purchased a cheap OEM version of Vista and installed it on my new and shiny Core 2 Duo system. I also installed OpenSUSE 10.2 as a dual boot to test comparative installation times and ease of use.

Vista looks good, Microsoft has really done a sterling job with Aero and the look-and-feel of the operating system. The menus are approachable and easy to use, and the desktop is definitely one of the nicest out there, with the exception of Mac's stylish workspace. However, I became easily exasperated by Vista's new security features, particularly the User Account Control (UAC). As a power user, I like to be in control of my operating system, something that is very difficult to exercise in Vista. While I know that this will make the new OS tremendously secure, I found the constant prompts when I wanted to do something a serious nag factor. Worse, I could not even delete files! Sure, I do not want a virus, spyware or zombie master taking over my system, but I would like from time to time to delete a file or two if I feel like it.

A more serious problem that I've encountered is that my favourite software does not work in Vista. An operating system is only as strong as the applications you can run. My anti-virus did not work (BitDefender), neither did iTunes, Winamp and my motherboard's tuning software. Firefox encountered serious problems when I tried to install plugins, and whenever I tried to install anything, chances were that the features were not compatible with the operating system. I know that this is a problem that is shared by other 64 bit architectures, but I felt that the application support is woeful.

To round things nicely, nothing works in OpenSUSE. It seems like the Linux driver support for my chipset is not there, so I did not have Internet access right away. Seems like I'm stuck with XP for a while.

Update: This is my first post from Vista though.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Has DRM had its day?

Apple boss Steve Jobs has surprised pretty much everyone by making a statement about technological protection measures in the music industry, in a move reminiscent of Bill Gates' comment about how DRM had become too complex for consumers. In an open letter to the public, Jobs has stated that:

"Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies."
This is remarkably sensible, and at least it has opened the debate against DRMs. It is heartening that such a powerful voice as Jobs has seen the light. To be fair, he is probably just worried about slumping sales in iTunes, and he wants to make sure that Apple will end-up with the largest piece of the digital downloads cake. With so many companies placing themselves as competitors, and with Microsoft Vista and Zune placing themselves as a viable competitor, Jobs and Apple want a cut of the sales. iTunes has brand recognition, and if their music can play anywhere, then they would probably see their sales increase.

The music industry has not responded well to the suggestion of course. Warner Music's boss Edgar Bronfman has already pronounced that Jobs' ideas are "without logic and merit". Strong words from one of the biggest names in the music industry.

I'm going to sound extremely optimistic here, but I think that at least we're having a debate about DRM, and the story has made the headlines.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Sex offenders must register e-mail address

And the 2007 prize for the most useless piece of online regulation goes to....

The Beeb reports on the latest proposal from Home Secretary John Reid to force paedophiles and other sex offenders to register their electronic mail details, as well as chat-room login names and other virtual identifiers in order to avoid Internet grooming. The Internet is after all full of nasty people.

And this will work how? Sure, sex offenders will register their details, and open a new Hotmail account the same minute they register the old one. And of course, nobody can register a new user name in a forum. That one has never been tried before either.

At least John Reid did not say that we must regulate the Internets...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Personality rights wiki

The AHRC Research Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law has now released a personality rights wiki, where you can browse the latest cases on personality rights from all over the world. Do you know a case that is not listed? Write a stub for it, a note, or just drop a quick link.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Blackboard issues OS patent waiver

A follow up on the Blackboard patent story. Blackboard has seen the writing on the wall and has issued an enforcement promise for open source software projects. According to the terms of this pledge, Blackboard will not enforce U.S. Patent 6,988,138 against software released with an open source licence. According to the press release:

"[...] the Pledge commits Blackboard not to assert U.S. Patent No. 6,988,138 and many other pending patent applications against the development, use or distribution of open source software or home-grown course management systems anywhere in the world, to the extent that such systems are not bundled with proprietary software."
Too little too late? I'm not sure about the enforceability of unilateral promises in the United States, but I hope that this pledge is valid.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Identity Society event in London

Luke Razzell has forwarded this invitation to an event in London for publicity purposes.

Identity Society is delighted to announce an Open Space event (aka "unconference") on February 19th in the revolving restaurant space on the 34th floor of the BT tower in central London. The tower's curious history as an Official Secret is detailed here. Our panoramic views (one shown below) will surely inspire us to think big about our objectives. Identity Society is still just a twinkle in our eye—this event is an amazing opportunity for you to contribute to its meme pool at inception.

But what is the Identity Society actually about?

a view from BT towerOur integrated experience of our own and others' identity helps us make sense of our life: each person's unique, individual experience is threaded though their interactions with friends, family, businesses, government, doctors, the legal system and information of all kinds. At the same time, as individuals, we are very skilled at selectively disclosing and concealing aspects of our identity according to context and need.

So, given our consumate individual skills with identity, why is our society so often so poor at mediating the flow of identity information for helpful outcomes? Why can't we make key medical information readily available to doctors in an emergency without compromising our privacy at other times? Or enjoy a personalised shopping experience that is joined up across retailers? Or have our government vouch for our identity without allowing them to track our every action? What is the psychological impact of revealing or concealing our identity in various situations? And at root, what does identity mean anyhow?

These are just a few of the questions that Identity Society might address. But the Open Space event is an opportunity for us to work out what the best questions really are, and to begin to devise an effective strategy to answer them. Some of the best and the brightest in the UK and US identity scene are already signed up to attend—we hope to see you there too!
Click here to register!
I cannot attend, but it seems like an excellent event.