Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cinema-style age ratings coming to the Internet?

In the history of bad ideas and misguided Internet regulation, I do not think that I have come across something as ludicrous as the latest proposal from the Rt Hon Andy Burnham (Labour - Leigh), the Secretary of State for Culture. Mr Burnham (I'll dispense with the honorific for now) believes that websites should contain some sort of cinema-style classification system to flag those places of the web not friendly to children. He states that:

“If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue. There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it. I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online. More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site, what standards it is operating to. What are the protections that are in place?”
So, the Internet is a big nasty place, we get it. Apparently, children are being harmed by it all the time, I guess that they suddenly find themselves in porn sites, or websites advocating terrorism, drug-abuse, communism, atheism, and maybe even links to My Chemical Romance's Myspace page. Children must be protected! But how to do it? I know! propose a thoroughly unworkable classification system! That should do it?

Let's talk smple math here. There are 186 million servers online, serving at least 1 trillion pages. I would like to know how does Mr Burnham propose to classify all of them. If he intends to classify only .uk pages, that is still a crapload of pages, but also sort of defeats the purpose as the entire web would still be available for view, unless he intends to create a big firewall China-style that will somehow filter the web for us.

As this process will take ages, not to mention an army of censors, I'll get the ball rolling and self-classify my pages. This blog is rated PG.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

SCRIPTed December Issue 2008

(2008) 5:3 SCRIPTed 449-629


  • Artificial Intelligence
    Rebecca Junkin
  • AI & Law on Legal Argument: Research Trends and Application Prospects
    Henry Prakken, pp.449-454
Reviewed Articles
  • Os Novos Meios de Tutela Preventiva dos Direitos de Propriedade Intelectual no Direito Português (The New Means of Preventive Protection of Intellectual Property Rights in Portuguese Law)
    Miguel Lourenço Carretas, pp.455-481

  • Describing Identity Fraud: Towards a Common Definition
    Bald de Vries, Jet Tigchelaar & Tina van der Linden, pp.482-500

  • Regulating Patent Offices: Countering Pharmaceutical Hegemony
    Peter Drahos, pp.501-514

  • Potency, Patenting and Preformation: The Patentability of Totipotent Cells in Canada
    Gregory R. Hagen, pp.515-552

  • The Right to Privacy in the Information Era: A South Asian

    Althaf Marsoof, pp.553-574

  • Medical Research Governance in Korea: The New Bioethics
    and Biosafety Amendment Bill (Draft 17-8353), or ‘Inertia
    Shawn H.E. Harmon and Na-Kyoung Kim, pp.575-582

  • Patentability of Biological Material(s) - Essentially, Therapeutic Antibodies - in India
    Swarup Kumar, pp.583-593

  • Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law (NRCCL)
    Dag Wiese Schartum, pp.594-599

  • The ESRC Centre for Social and Economic Research on
    Innovation in Genomics (Innogen)
    David Wield, pp.600-605

Book Reviews
  • Rights, Regulation And Technological Revolution
    By Roger Brownsword
    Reviewed by Nupur Chowdhury
    , pp.606-609

  • Human Rights And Healthcare
    By Elizabeth Wicks
    Reviewed by Octavio L M Ferraz
    , 610-613

  • Gene Patents And Public Health
    By Geertrui Van Overwalle (ed)
    Reviewed by Shawn Harmon
    , pp.614-618

  • Intellectual Property: The Many Faces Of The Public Domain
    By Charlotte Waelde and Hector MacQueen (eds)
    Reviewed by Mathias Klang
    , pp.619-622

  • Fundamentals Of Patent Law: Interpretation And Scope Of

    By Matthew Fisher
    Reviewed by Krishna Ravi Srinivas
    , 623-625

  • Medical Ethics And Medical Law: A Symbiotic Relationship
    By José Miola
    Reviewed by Alexios Tattis
    , 626-629

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

IE security flaws

The BBC is reporting that there is a new fatal flaw with Internet Explorer that allows hackers to gain access to a computer and steal passwords. In other news water is wet, politicians lie and Windows Vista is a huge disappointment.

Seriously though, this is usually the perfect opportunity for the blogger to pontificate about the evils of Microsoft and recommend readers to switch to Firefox/Safari/Opera/Chrome as of yesterday. Another tactic is to smugly admonish poor sods still using Internet Explorer to realise the folly of their ways and learn to love open source development. And then there is even a chance for Apple-heads to unleash a wave of self-righteousness and claim that this would not happen on a Mac. I will forego the temptation to fall into the aforementioned stereotypical actions, although I am truly fighting the urge to utter the predictable "I told you so", or the always-satisfying Nelsonian "HA HA!"

Instead of any unbecoming haughty displays, I notice that this exploit was designed to steal game passwords. As I've mentioned earlier, one of the fastest growing areas of cybercrime is the theft of virtual goods on games like WoW, where the in-game gold has acquired real currency value. It should be quite telling that this exploit is not being used to purchase things on eBay or Amazon, but to steal virtual goods. Perhaps the payout is not as big, but the risks seem much less. I don't think a cop is going to prosecute a hacker for stealing magic items on WoW.

Monday, December 15, 2008

FBI scam

As a long-time watcher of Nigerian 419 scams, I felt obliged to pass this beauty on. Enjoy.

Anti-Terrorist And Monitory Crime Division.
Federal Bureau Of Investigation.
J.Edgar.Hoover Building Washington Dc

Attn: Beneficiary,

This is to Officially inform you that it has come to our notice and we have thoroughly Investigated with the help of our Intelligence Monitoring Network System that you are having an illegal Transaction with Impostors claiming to be Prof. Charles C. Soludo of the Central Bank Of Nigeria, Mr. Patrick Aziza, Mr Frank Nweke, Dr. Philip Mogan, none officials of Oceanic Bank, Zenith Banks, Barr. Derrick Smith, kelvin Young of HSBC, Ben of FedEx, Ibrahim Sule,Larry Christopher, Dr. Usman Shamsuddeen, Dr. Philip Mogan, Paul Adim, Puppy Scammers are impostors claiming to be the Federal Bureau Of Investigation. During our Investigation, we noticed that the reason why you have not received your payment is because you have not fulfilled your Financial Obligation given to you in respect of your Contract/Inheritance Payment.

Therefore, we have contacted the Federal Ministry Of Finance on your behalf and they have brought a solution to your problem by coordinating your payment in total USD$11,000.000.00 in an ATM CARD which you can use to withdraw money from any ATM MACHINE CENTER anywhere in the world with a maximum of $4000 to $5000 United States Dollars daily. You now have the lawful right to claim your fund in an ATM CARD.

Since the Federal Bureau of Investigation is involved in this transaction, you have to be rest assured for this is 100% risk free it is our duty to protect the American Citizens. All I want you to do is to contact the ATM CARD CENTER via email for their requirements to proceed and procure your Approval Slip on your behalf which will cost you $260.00 only and note that your Approval Slip which contains details of the agent who will process your transaction.


Do contact Mr. Daniel Wilson of the ATM CARD CENTER with your details:


So your files would be updated after which he will send the payment information's which you'll use in making payment of $260.00 via Western Union Money Transfer or Money Gram Transfer for the procurement of your Approval Slip after which the delivery of your ATM CARD will be effected to your designated home address without any further delay.We order you get back to this office after you have contacted the ATM SWIFT CARD CENTER and we do await your response so we can move on with our Investigation and make sure your ATM SWIFT CARD gets to you.

Thanks and hope to read from you soon.


Note: Do disregard any email you get from any impostors or offices claiming to be in possession of your ATM CARD, you are hereby advice only to be in contact with Mr. Daniel Wilson of the ATM CARD CENTER who is the rightful person to deal with in regards to your ATM CARD PAYMENT and forward any emails you get from impostors to this office so we could act upon and commence investigation.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Science Commons videos

Here are a couple of videos explaining Science Commons and Neurocommons:


Monday, December 08, 2008

Censorship UK

Today Britons have woken up to the fact that they are also browsing the Internet behind a firewall similar in some ways to the much maligned Great Firewall of China. Every news outlet is reporting that Wikipedia has been censored in the UK. Several UK ISPs are accused of filtering an article featuring the cover art for the Scorpions 1976 album Virgin Killer (pictured non-offending cover, unless you sufer from extreme hairtyle consciousness). Customers of several UK ISPs found out that they would get a 404 error when trying to access the page (a list of affected ISPs here). I'm in Costa Rica, so I can see the offending image, but plenty of users have complained they cannot.

As it is common with any hint of censorship on the internets, the virtual post-digestive refuse has hit the rotational air-propelling device, and the collective British geekdom has risen up in arms to protest the action. To me one of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing is that it has uncovered the underlying architecture of control that rests underneath the everyday workings of the UK's network connection. There is a little known UK watchdog called the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), which is the "UK Hotline for reporting illegal content specifically: Child sexual abuse content hosted worldwide and criminally obscene and incitement to racial hatred content hosted in the UK". What a remit! The IWF does not have direct power to censor the web, but it can issue notices to participating ISPs, which can voluntarily add the offending website to a blacklist (called Cleanfeed). If a user tries to access any of the blacklisted URLs and IP addresses, he/she is redirected to an HTTP proxy server that blocks the offending content. Any other traffic goes through the proxy filter. The IWF has admitted doing the filtering:

"A Wikipedia web page, was reported through the IWF’s online reporting mechanism in December 2008. As with all child sexual abuse reports received by our Hotline analysts, the image was assessed according to the UK Sentencing Guidelines Council (page 109). The content was considered to be a potentially illegal indecent image of a child under the age of 18, but hosted outside the UK. The IWF does not issue takedown notices to ISPs or hosting companies outside the UK, but we did advise one of our partner Hotlines abroad and our law enforcement partner agency of our assessment. The specific URL (individual webpage) was then added to the list provided to ISPs and other companies in the online sector to protect their customers from inadvertent exposure to a potentially illegal indecent image of a child."
Nice of them to decide for us. However, this type of hamfisted approach tends to have some other consequences. ORG reports that because one page in Wikipedia has been blacklisted, all of the customers of the filtered ISPs appear to Wikipedia to come from the same IP address (that of the proxy server). The other consequence of course is that censorship online usually backfires spectuacularly (the so-called Streisand Effect), as web users are made aware of the attempt to censor, the offending content goes viral and becomes more popular than it was before the actions. As evidence of this, the Virgin Killer page averaged 500 visits during the previous months (with a peak view of 4,000 views during November. However, the page received 126,000 views yesterday.

So, panGloss warned us about the potential problems of Cleanfeed some time ago in a SCRIPTed editorial. I hate slippery slope arguments, but in this case they are justified. Today it is one page in Wikipedia, tomorrow Google? Facebook? Our much-touted freedoms are slowly being eroded, and the comparison with China is not an exaggeration. We tend to look at the Chinese web and feel a misplaced sense of superiority and smugness. The words mote, beam and eye come to mind.

So, now I leave you with the flowchart that regulates what you can view on the internet in the UK. Enjoy your freedoms.

Update: Interesting bump in sales for the album.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Pirates of the Amazon

Habitual and casual readers may have noticed my love of all things piratical. I've been a fan of pirates way before Johnny Depp donned the colourful bandanna and tricorn hat, mostly thanks to the great novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers. Granted, pirates have been getting a bad name recently due to their failure to look anything like Johnny Depp, and their relinquishing of romantic swords and muskets in favour of more deadly and proportionally less romantic AK-47s. Similarly, there is not one single parrot to be found in modern pirate speedboats and zodiac inflatable boats.

One of the welcome developments of the renaissance of maritime pirate activities off the coast of Somalia has been that finally there seems to be a much welcome backlash against the use (and abuse) of the word "pirate" to describe copyright infringement. Nasty-looking men with semi-automatic weapons who hijack oil tankers are in an entirely different league of wrong-doing to teenagers downloading music on torrent sites. In other words, criminal pirate activity tends to put copyright offences into perspective. As David Vaver said once, piracy is nowhere near equivalent to copyright infringement, just try to release a movie called "Infringers of the Caribbean", and not even Keira Knightley will draw the crowds into the cinema.

Why the pirate musings? Well, it seems like not everyone is happy with the state of affairs, and some people seem intent on maintaining the good (or bad, depending of where you stand) name of online piracy. Net Pirates are back with a vengeance as some bright sparks have created a Firefox plugin that adds a large "Download 4 Free" image to the Amazon website. This image is a link to the page in the Pirate Bay where the user can look at the torrent file with which to download the content for free, as advertised.

There are all sorts of opinions about this hack. The overwhelming response seems to be negative, going by the comments in a torrent-friendly site like Torrent Freak. Granted, this is a clever hack, and the authors claim that their application is "artistic parody", although I am lost as to the artistic value of such an act (call me a purist, but I do not think that pickled sharks and urinals are either artistic and/or clever).

Amazon sent a notice of take down to the makers of the plug-in, and they have complied by removing it, although I am reliably told that it can still be found in several torrent search sites. In my opinion, the legality of the issue is rather less straightforward. For example, the add-on does not deface the origianl website in any form, the changes to the way the site looks are done directly inside the user's computer by modifying the downloaded HTML code, an action akin to that performed by other Firefox plug-ins like Greasemonkey. As such, the user is simply modifying locally the way the page looks by adding a link to Pirate Bay. Similarly, I am not sure if this could somehow fall foul of trade mark law, as the actual modification is done upfront by the user downloading an add-on to the browser. It would be difficult to argue that the user who has installed the plug-in would be confused and would believe that Amazon offers links to Pirate Bay. In my opinion, this is a legal grey area, and it would be interesting to get a ruling on the subject.

A more interesting legal question is that of whether users have the right to make local modifications of HTML code. I cannot think of any exclusive right protected by copyright that would be infringed by this action. Given that temporary and cached copies of pages fall under exclusions in various copyright jurisdictions, I believe that such plug-ins are legal.

We are then left with a moral question, and there I agree with most critics. While I admire the chutzpah and impish nature of the plug-in, I agree with many people who have said that this may be counter-productive, and may give ammunition to copyright maximalists.

Please let the image of the Internet pirate go to its well-deserved place in the Recycle Bin of history.

Thursday, December 04, 2008 offers DRM-free MP3s

Finally! The DRM-free revolution has crossed the Atlantic, and Amazon's UK site will now offer files without pesky technological protection measures in their brand new MP3 store.

iTunes began the revolution with the inception of the iTunes Plus store, but I have noticed that the choice of music has not increased since it began, despite being a success. I will certainly be trying the Amazon store. Will this be the beginning of the end of DRM?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

To twit or not to twit

I've just read a shallow article in this month's Wired that has me thinking about blogging. The article is entitled "Kill Your Blog" in the magazine version, a title that has been changed in the online version. The article declares the death of blogging as a fresh and active medium, and advocates the use of Facebook, Flickr and Twitter as a replacement. It says:

"The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It's almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter."
Call me old-fashioned, but how can a 140 character twit contend with a blog post? While it is true that most of the blogosphere is filled with hot air and inanities, it is still a great place to find updated information and good analysis on a variety of topics.

New blogs will not make it to the top of Technorati, so what? Will a twit suffice? I'm sceptical. I constantly get tired of the obsession with Twitter from some media types and cool-hunters, it is an interesting tool, but the thing I dislike about Twitter is that it seems to favour the self-obsessed and their need to showcase their boring lives. I suspect that there are legions of people walking around thinking of doing something only because it will make for a great Twitter entry.

Granted, it is possible that I don't like Twitter because I suffer from chronic un-coolness.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The internet is for gay porn...

... or so it seems for British lawyer firm Davenport Lyons, which has been sending letters on behalf of German gay porn makers to obtain payment from people who download their films through P2P and Torrent sites. But not only are individuals being accused of copyright infringement, stock photography sites are also pursuing small and medium enterprises for disproportionate amounts.

Some firms are fighting the charges, as they are often going to the wrong people. However, one has to wonder at the brilliant tactic used by obscure porn producers, who obtain much better dividends by making their film available on torrent sites, and then sue those who download it (or seem to download it).

Here is to hoping that someone will stand up to the bullies and they will get a black-eye in court.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bio in 6 words

Mathias Klang at Wrote tagged me with the six word memoir meme, so I will try to rise to the challenge.

I've always liked the line in Half a Person by The Smiths that says "16, clumsy and shy, I went to London and I", but it exceeds the limit. So I will go for this one:

Milk, juice, beer, rum, whiskey, water.

I'll tag panGloss, Aurelio and Daithí.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jury decides on cyberbullying case

A Federal jury in Los Angeles has convicted Lori Drew of three misdemeanour counts of computer fraud, specifically accessing a computer without authorisation. This is not unusual in itself, but the novelty of the decision is that Ms Drew's conduct was to create a fictional MySpace account to bully neighbour teenager Megan Meier, who committed suicide as a result of the emotional distress caused by Ms Drew.

I have commented already on the strange tactic by Federal prosecutors of using anti-hacking law against cyberbullying. While the jury did not believe that the action was a felony, and therefore only convicted the action as misdemeanour, I still find that the legislation does not really fit the offence. Lori Drew's conviction should be taken as the potential criminalisation of breaching Terms of Service, something that I am not sure the law was designed to accomplish to begin with.

It is possible that this case is a one-off, but a worrying precedent has been set.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cybercriminals making a killing on magic swords

(via Pangloss) The European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) has published a report about the prevalence of cybercrime against virtual world inhabitants. The report states that:

"2007 was the year of online gaming fraud – with malicious programs that specifically target online games and virtual worlds increasing by 145% and the emergence of over 30,000 new programs aimed at stealing online game passwords. Such malware is invariably aimed at the theft of virtual property accumulated in a user’s account and its sale for real money."
Pretty interesting, considering that the real-world value of virtual goods is growing in value, with some experts placing the total GDP of virtual worlds in the trillion of dollars. As these virtual goods become more likely to be exchanged for real money, they will continue to be the target for hackers and cyber-criminals with the intention of removing online gold and other valuables in order to sell them on the virtual markets in exchange for real currency.

The likeliest scenario of a virtual robber is that of a gamer who has his/her password stolen, and then the criminal enters into their account, removing all gold and tradeable valuables, which are then sent to a third party, and probably removed once more to remove traces of the goods. The gold then is sold to third-party gold sellers in China, where it is exchanged to real money when some gamer buys it.

The report also has a likely scenario for attacking guild banks.
"In games such as World of Warcraft, in-game guilds have banks where they store their most valuable items. Full access to such guild banks is limited to players high in the guild hierarchy. However guilds often have web sites open to guests where information such as email addresses, instant messaging usernames and social networking details, are available. Members of the guilds are also active in forums. This leads to the following attack scenario:
• Attacker visits guild sites or forums and checks in the MMO/VW to gather a list of high-ranking officers in the guild and their contact information.
• This is used to gain account information that can be used for social engineering, phishing, hacking, etc.
• Attacker logs in as a player, accesses guild bank, and sells all items.
• Attacker changes account details so a player cannot login. "
I have heard from WoW players and guilds who have been victims of such attacks, but I had no idea of the scale of the problem. As the report rightly points out, this type of cybercrime usually goes unreported, and it is not hard to imagine that law enforcement bodies around the world will be highly sceptical about crime that amounts to someone stealing a magic sword, or currency that is not seen as any different from Monopoly money. However, these crimes have real value, and they are a worrying trend.

Hmmm... I wonder if my online characters still have their gold intact.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Smells like teen suicide

(via ORG-Discussion list and various other sources) A teenager in Florida has committed suicide while webcasting the event on video website Reportedly, as many as 1,500 people were witnesing the event at one time, and some even encouraged the teenager with messages like this one: "Do it, do the world a favour and stop wasting our time with your mindless self-pity."

I have been following the strange obsession that the British media has with the Internet and suicide. I am usually puzzled by the over-the-top technophobic tone with which these news are often portrayed. For example, The Times informs us that:

"According to one charity that works to prevent suicide, there have been at least 17 deaths in Britain since 2001 involving chatrooms or sites that give advice on suicide methods."
Sounds like an epidemic! However, one has to place these figures in context. Young-male suicide is at a 30-year low, while in 2006 5,554 people committed suicide in the UK. In the grand scheme of things, internet-related suicide is negligible. As someone mentioned in an online mailing list, it would be interesting to try to determine if online communities are acting also as a deterrent by offering suicidal people an environment where they can find support.

Perhaps one day there will be measured coverage of sad events such as this one.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Always look on the bright side of YouTube

Monty Python releases its own YouTube channel to get back at all the people who have been ripping them off for three years.

If you cannot beat them, join them... 'tis but a flesh wound.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Obama and Creative Commons

I have been looking at the amazing pictures on Flickr taken at the Obama household on the night of the U.S. election, and I have to say that I am utterly surprised by the fact that the photographs are all shared under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike).

Is this a good sign of things to come?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Patenting patent trolling

(via Patently-O) Halliburton (yes, THAT Halliburton) has made a patent application for patent trolling. Enjoy USPTO application 20080270152, which protects a method for "Patent Acquisition and Assertion by a (Non-Inventor) First Party Against a Second Party".

The abstract reads:

"Methods for a first party to acquire and assert a patent property against a second party are disclosed. The methods include obtaining an equity interest in the patent property. The methods further include writing a claim within the scope of the patent property. The claim is written to cover a product of the second party where the product includes a secret aspect. The methods further include filing the claim with a patent office. The methods sometimes include offering a license of the patent property to the second party after the patent property issues as a patent with the claim. The methods sometimes include asserting infringement of the claim by the second party after the patent property issues as a patent with the claim. The methods sometimes include negotiating a cross-license with the second party based on the assertion of infringement of the claim, where under the cross-license the first party obtains a license to an intellectual property right from the second party. The methods sometime include attempting to obtain a monetary settlement from the second party based on the assertion of infringement of the claim."
Even more delightful is the flowchart describing the claims:

Looks like someone is tired of paying out to patent trolls, Halliburton was famously involved in the software patent case of Halliburton v Smith.

I don't know, I would like an examiner with a good sense of humour to get this one and grant the claim. It would be delightfully ironic to have patent trolls sued for patent infringement :)

The Matrix runs on Windows

Everybody knows that The Matrix runs on UNIX, but what if it ran on Windows XP?

"Looks like you are trying to bend a spoon with your mind. Have you tried realising the truth that there is no spoon?"

Friday, November 14, 2008

The evils of virtual worlds

Yesterday was the official "bash virtual worlds" day in the UK press. With the launch of the latest World of Warcraft expansion (Wrath of the Lich King), news sources went overboard in the coverage of thousands of costumed geeks queuing outside Oxford Street's HMV; at some point the game's launch was the top story in both the BBC and the Guardian, with legions of Tauren and Night Elves adorning the streets of London attracting similarly large numbers of journos and papparazzi. The tone of the coverage has been mixed, but the overarching theme has been set by the Today program, the BBC 4 flagship radio news and current events show which usually sets the agenda for the days news throughout the British media. The technophobes in chief at Radio 4 decided to run not with celebratory coverage, but with a report about the dangers of online game addiction kicking the day's news. Then we were treated to similar coverage, with one doctor being interviewed about the many teenagers falling prey to the evils of game addiction. Further reports stressed on the addiction element. Other news outlets continued the trend, the Telegraph reported on one gamer who collapsed after queuing for 40 hours without food or water, the Times lamented about WoW Widows, while the Daily Mail was uncommonly subdued. At the other end of the spectrum, the tech-friendly Guardian adopted a more balanced reporting. The main story did contain some talk about the addiction controversy, but there were several comments against the seemingly unstoppable tide of negative articles: Alex Sassoon Coby wondered why the game is so popular, Rowenna Davis wrote an astute comment about the virtual versus physical reality, Naomi Alderman made a rather preposterous post about how gaming helped her go through post-9/11 trauma, while the always enjoyable Jack Schofield wondered if WoW can save people from TV addiction. Jack says:

"Millions of British people are addicted to something they call "the boob tube". Every night they slump for hours in front of a flickering box, having their brains rotted by a continuous diet of mindless pap. They could be doing something interesting with their lives, but they need a continuous stream of stuff, and it's available right round the clock. They can't go out, they don't have time for proper meals, they can't even take a bathroom break when they need one. If they miss a dose due to holidays or illness, they start trying to "borrow tapes" or even going online to hunt down that missing episode of EastEnders, Coronation Street, Strictly Come Dancing or whatever."

Granted, while the addiction angle was down-played by some outlets, the day was capped by another virtual world story. By the afternoon, Warcraft geeks had been pushed from the headlines by the sad story of Amy Taylor and David Pollard, a married couple (both on and offline) who had an extensive presence in Second Life. Ms Taylor filed for divorce from Mr Pollard because she allegedly caught him chatting intimately with another SL character. Ms Taylor told the Daily Mail that "It may have started online but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much now it is over." The news coverage that ensued had a tinge of sensationalism mixed with the very clear implication that there is something clearly wrong with these people. Perhaps I am being slightly unfair to journalists and commentators. The SL divorce story is indeed farcical, but the world is filled with all sorts of sad people who end their relationships for less of an excuse. Where are the stories covering the thousands of divorces due to email, SMS, chat rooms, and Facebook?

While I have low expectations of the British media, it seems to me that there is a deep Luddite vein that is exploited repeatedly whenever games and virtual worlds are concerned. For most people, gaming simply replaces other entertainment activities, such as reading, watching TV, or listening to the radio. When you boil it down to basics, gaming is a way of removing oneself from reality and experiencing other points of view. But is that not the same of reading? When reading I have spent countless hours lost in Middle Earth, visited Macondo, explored the Galaxy in Culture ships, and metamorphosed into a giant insect. On TV I have followed the perilous journey of the Battlestar Galactica in its brave escape from the Cylons. In cinema I have witnessed the triumph of the Rebel Alliance, followed the romantic adventures of a French waitress, and seen seven brave samurai rescue a village from bandits. Those are hours of my life "wasted" in other realities instead of "being outside" doing "real things" and interacting with "real people". Are there people who abuse gaming? Sure! But so do lots of people who abuse alcohol, knitting and sport. To me this is the most fallacious of dichotomies, people who are inclined to spend 12 hours in front of a computer screen playing a game are not likely to suddenly go out and become involved in "real life" if you switch the computer off.

What really worries me is that the talk of "addiction" is usually followed by concerned calls of people asking the government to "do something about it". I am just waiting for the first call by someone to think about the children. I will then run out of the room screaming. Thankfully, the gamer stereotype will be shifted by demographic changes, as more and more people will have grown up with computer games (hey, even celebrities are doing it!)

For the record, I'm not buying Wrath of the Lich King, I'm bored of Warcraft.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Not The New York Times

An expensive and complicated spoof of the New York Times has hit the streets of Manhattan (with accompanying website). The headlines offer something akin to a liberal wish-list, from the end of the PATRIOT Act, to the passing of a new law called the Safeguards for a New Economy (S.A.N.E.) bill. There are also clever adverts throughout the site. In one, De Beers Diamonds offers to donate an artificial limb to a person who lost theirs in one of Africa's diamond conflicts with the purchase of any diamond.

I love complicated pranks, particularly mischievous yet harmless ones, so I am in awe of the scale of this one. I w0nder if the authors have crossed a line. I am not familiar with parody legislation, but it seems to be much stronger in the U.S. than it is here in the UK. I am however wondering at the domain name (, which seems to be too close to the real thing. Given the fact that there is no provision for parody in domain name registration procedures, it seems likely that if challenged the website could disappear (which would be a real pity). My guess however is that the New York Times will sit this one out, it does not really dilute the brand, and it is somehow flattering to be singled out for such a monumental spoof.

QR Code

I've been playing with QR codes. If you have a mobile phone with a QR Reader, use your mobile phone camera on this picture.


The word convergence keeps popping up in my head.

Adding: You can also generate text:


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bilski: an end to stupid patents?

I finally got around to reading In Re Bilski (via Groklaw), the latest landmark case in the United States with regards to patentability issues. While abstract ideas are not patentable, ever since the case State Street, the U.S. has allowed mere abstractions as patentable subject matter if they produce a "useful, concrete and tangible result". This means that one did not need to have anything tangible, technical or even plausible, in order to get a patent, but that the result would be tangible; which confirms my firm belief that patent law is 90% sophistry and 10% mumbo-jumbo. It is no coincidence that software patents and business method patent applications exploded after State Street was decided. The impact of allowing abstract "inventions" can be seen when one compares the patent landscape in Europe and the United States, as mere abstractions or business methods are not patentable subject matter in Europe. The result of such practice is a more reasonable and rational patent policy, with better quality patents and less worry for innovators.

First some background. In 2002 Mr Bernard Bilski filed and application (08/833,892) to protect a "Capped Bill System". The abstract reads:

"A method of providing one of a good or a service to at least one entity at one of a payment, rate, or price that is capped at a pre-determined amount. The method includes producing an offer for the entity, wherein the offer represents at least one of a capped maximum payment, a capped maximum rate, a capped maximum usage, a capped maximum consumption, or a capped maximum price amount. The method also includes providing the good or service to the entity at one of a payment, rate, or price that may fluctuate, wherein the payment, rate, or price cannot exceed the capped maximum payment, capped maximum rate, capped maximum usage, capped maximum consumption, or capped maximum price amount."
At first reading, one realises that this does not describe anything specific, it is purely the abstract description of a capped payment method. Where is the novelty? Where is the tangible result? The examiner agreed and rejected the application. The Board of Patent Appeals agreed with the examiner. Mr Bilski then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC), which affirmed the rejection of the Bilski application. The question at the heart of the majority decision is whether the method described in the Bilski application is patentable subject matter. One of the ways in which business method patents were allowed in the past was by the application of what is known as the machine-or-transformation test, namely, that if the abstract process described could be carried out by a machine, or allowed some physical transformation, then it would be patentable. The CAFC majority disagreed that the Bilski application met such test. They say:
"Even if it is true that Applicant's claim "can only be practiced by a series of physical acts" as they argue, see id. at 9, its clear failure to satisfy the machine-or-transformation test is fatal. Thus, while we agree with Applicants that the only limit to patent-eligibility imposed by Congress is that the invention fall within one of the four categories enumerated in § 101, we must apply the Supreme Court's test to determine whether a claim to a process is drawn to a statutory "process" within the meaning of § 101."
To me the most interesting part of the ruling is the dissenting opinion by Judge Mayer, which goes even further, and makes the point that the question is one of allowing abstract thoughts to be patented. He says clearly and astutely:
"The patent system is intended to protect and promote advances in science and technology, not ideas about how to structure commercial transactions. Claim 1 of the application of Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw (“Bilski”) is not eligible for patent protection because it is directed to a method of conducting business. Affording patent protection to business methods lacks constitutional and statutory support, serves to hinder rather than promote innovation and usurps that which rightfully belongs in the public domain. State Street and AT&T should be overruled."
Judge Rader seems more favourable to business and software method patents, but even he agrees that the majority decision is unnecessarily complex. He says that:
"In sum, this court today invents several circuitous and unnecessary tests. It should have merely noted that Bilski attempts to patent an abstract idea. Nothing more was needed."
It would be easy to miss the importance of Bilski amongst the patent law technicalities, but make no mistake about it, it is a massive shift in U.S. patent policy, something that draws USPTO practice closer to Europe. It seems clear that the United States patent system is finally waking up after a patent binge, and is realising that it has a very bad hangover. Business method patents are an aberration for several reasons, chiefly amongst them is the fact that they disproportionately reward applicants who have incurred in little or no investment to come up with their "innovations". They reward trolls and punish legitimate businesses, making the mere business competitive environment a more hazardous place to conduct private endeavours. One has to hope that Bilski will be the beginning of the end to the most outlandish patents out there, and may inject some rationality back to patent law.

So far, the only people I have heard complaining are patent attorneys. That says it all really.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Googleverse: Utopia or Dystopia?

It is a bit tired to say that Google's stranglehold on the search engine market seems unshakeable. To offer a couple of ironic factoids, I found the accompanying image using Google Image Search, and this blog is published in Blogger, a Google-owned service.

Many people have been warning us about Google's dominance for a while, yet we continue to use it for a variety of reasons, from convenience to the fact that it works well. Spiegel Online has published a very interesting article on the growing backlash against some of Google's more controversial services, such as StreetView, but also building a disturbing picture of the amount of data mining going on at the Mountain View company. Gmail users have become accustomed (and immune) to warnings about the practice of Google searching for keywords in their messages to target contextual advertising. iPhone users can also be tracked when using Google Maps in their mobile devices, which tell Google exactly where you are.

The practices at Google cut right to the heart of the modern debate about Internet privacy that is usually the topic of discussion in various conferences I attend. Those who do not see privacy breaches as a problem, tend to offer three arguments. One is whether there is safety in numbers. With the amount of data that Google gathers, is it possible for any person to actually misuse it? Your personal information is lost in petabytes of meaningless noise available online, so it is unlikely that someone will actually access it. The other argument is, so what? If the user gets a free and useful service, who cares if the company makes a buck by providing context advertising to the consumer? The third is of course the issue of privacy itself. If you have nothing to hide, then why bother about what information is held by Google or any other company?

These are legitimate answers to the issue of privacy, but I cannot help being slightly worried by the far-reaching power of Google. I am also concerned about the environment of unaccountability in which Google is allowed to operate. In Europe we have data protection law for a reason, and perhaps it is time for regulators to look at Google's practices and start asking questions about lines crossed.

It is clear that privacy is a growing concern in the media due to the widely advertised privacy blunders by government officials. We also have a public debate prompted by the Daily Mail editor riling about growing privacy protection due to human rights legislation. If privacy is back on the menu, then the largest online perpetrator should certainly come under regulatory scrutiny, regardless of whether one believes that its practices are not such a big threat to our rights.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A progressive IP and IT policy in the US?

One of the defining characteristics of U.S. IP policy in the last 16 years has been an inevitable move towards stronger protection, while in IT the move has been towards laissez-faire deregulation of media. Many people politically classed as either liberal or progressive have come to expect nothing but bad news coming from the United States government. From the forceful push towards maximalist IP protection pursued by the USTR, to idiotic misunderstanding of the Internet, every time the U.S. passes new legislation in these topics, we brace ourselves for another round of corporatist encroachment.

IP Watch is reporting on some names as the potential advisors to the Obama administration. I have to say that I like the list so far. Arti Rai, Beth Noveck, and Larry Lessig are amongst those mentioned, which seems to fare really well for the next American administration. The top items on the agenda would be network neutrality, bilateral trade agreements, WTO's negotiations, patent reform, and copyright enforcement. It is possible that placing the right people at the top of imporant public policy insitutions would help to steer the United States into a more progressive IP and IT policy. A more liberal administration could also be more friendly to open source initiatives, much like some parts of the European Union are.

Having said that, I have to be a realist and accept that the copyright and telecomms industries have a lot of power regardless of who's in charge, and that it is likely that things won't change that much.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

SCRIPTed Conference CFP

“Governance Of New Technologies: The Transformation Of Medicine, Information Technology And Intellectual Property”
An International Interdisciplinary Conference

March 29-31, 2009
University of Edinburgh


Those interested in presenting a paper at the “Governance of New Technologies” conference should email Authors should identify the conference title in the subject line of the email.

Abstracts should be attached to the email as a Word document. Abstracts should:
  • identify the author’s name, institutional affiliation, and the stream within which
  • the author believes the paper most appropriately falls;
  • specify their audio-visual requirements; and
  • contain a 300 word outline/summary of the paper.
We are accepting abstracts until 1st December 2008. Early submission is recommended as places are limited.


As part of its celebration of 5 years of success, SCRIPTed is pleased to host an international and interdisciplinary conference focusing on the governance of new and evolving technologies, and the consequences of these technologies for the law and for society more generally. Examples of such new technologies and practices – which are revolutionising the way we live, learn and interact, the way we deliver healthcare and other public services, the way we conduct business, and so on – include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • genomics and stem cell applications;
  • xeno-transplantation;
  • synthetic life;
  • nanotechnology;
  • artificial intelligence;
  • internet and digital information technologies;
  • e-commerce and m-commerce;
  • Web 2.0 applications and virtual worlds.
The conference will consider developments in, and governance and social implications of, these and other new technologies and practices within the context of three primary and overlapping streams, namely (1) medicine and healthcare, (2) information and communication technology, (3) and intellectual property.


Prof. Bartha Knoppers: University of Montreal, Canada
Prof. Dan Hunter: University of Melbourne, Australia
Dr Francis Gurry: Director General World Intellectual Property Organization,

Please visit our conference website for information on the program and registration:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

User Generated Election

Congratulations are in order to American readers for bringing to a close the long and arduous election process, a truly remarkable result has been achieved.

You will be hearing a lot about this in the next few days, but it is clear that the U.S. election has been one of the best showcases for the User Generated Content web. While the 2004 election was all about blogging, this one has consolidated the power of the participatory web, and will probably come to be known as the YouTube election. From Tina Fey's Palin impersonations, to recounting every single gaffe on the campaign trail, YouTube has been an important part of the election process. Instead of being used to convince people, it has served as an excellent tool to galvanise supporters and reinforce voting patterns.

The copyright implications have also been surprisingly overlooked. YouTube is filled with clips from news sources all around the United States, and there has been little or no grumblings from the networks. Perhaps the fact is that traditional news sources are starting to mature about their online presence, and they finally realise that extensive YouTube exposure is a good thing. What seems clear is that this election has been a success for the UGC tool set. Blogs have once more proved to be astoundingly accurate sources of information that often outmatch mainstream sources (for example, the excellent Podcasts, Wikipedia, Flickr and YouTube have also demonstrated the power of peer production.

However, the important question in everyone's mind is, how did Azeroth vote?

Dwarves voted for McCain, while the Horde are overwhelmingly for Obama. It figures.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Open source invention

This is a very good article in the New York Times about publicising inventions via Web 2.0 tools like YouTube. The piece concentrates on Dr Johnny Chung Lee, a 28-year-old inventor who became a YouTube celebrity by posting Wii hacks, including how to make a muilti-touch whiteboard, and the mind-boggling video on generating real 3D gaming experiences. The videos went viral, and attracted 2 million and 6 million views respectively. Dr Lee got so much coverage that when he finished his PhD he got snatched up by Microsoft, and is now working for their technology innovation division. The New York Times makes a good point about how most innovators communicate their inventions to the public:

Contrast this with what might have followed from other options Mr. Lee considered for communicating his ideas. He might have published a paper that only a few dozen specialists would have read. A talk at a conference would have brought a slightly larger audience. In either case, it would have taken months for his ideas to reach others.

Dr Lee has started a trend, and now one can find thousands of do-it-yourself guides on YouTube for anything, from how to use the Wiimote to control Google Earth, to how to beat bosses in World of Warcraft. The idea according to Dr Lee is to use what he calls the “work-to-wow ratio”, which means getting the biggest wow for the least amount of work. Dr Lee shares his inventions in the best open source spirit, and his website has software for the 3D display and the whiteboard.

Something not mentioned in the NYT piece however is the patent implication of Dr Lee's practices. Patenting requires novelty, therefore by making his inventions public before filing for a patent would invalidate any later request. However, by placing his inventions on YouTube, it also precludes anyone else from trying to patent the invention. This is, for lack of a better word, open source invention.

The results are clear. More than 700,000 have downloaded the open source software necessary to make an interactive whiteboard, and it is a cheap option that allows anyone with a Wiimote to make their own version (the cheapest whiteboards in the market go for $1,000 USD). But more importantly, Dr Lee's success point the way towards a new model of invention. Share your ideas and findings on YouTube, and if they are good they will have an impact immediately. Imagine if Mr Lee had tried to patent instead of sharing, he may be sitting on a useless patent with no way to bring it to market. Sharing then becomes a good strategy for the struggling inventor.

On a related note, I hope we had known about the Wiimote whiteboard it at the School of Law, as we spent a lot of money on ours (pictured here).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Twittering terrorists

From the same people who brought you The War on TerrorTM, comes the latest in terrorist tools: Twitter! Wired reports that an American intelligence outfit has been attempting to guess which tools might be used by terrorist to unleash death and destruction on an unsuspecting populace. GSM phones, chat software and digital maps are on top of the terrorist gadget-wish-list (apparently, the cell phone of choice for the wannabe jihadist is the Nokia 6210 Navigator).

The intelligence report is filled with some quality information. Did you know that Al Qaida has its own social-network site? I would very much like to have access to that one in order to read terrorist profiles:

"Status: On my way to blow up embassy
Listening to: Appetite for Destruction"

The report also highlights the combination of Skype and voice-altering software to mask terrorist conversations from surveillance by security forces. It even has some of the cell-phone backgrounds of choice for the discerning religious fanatic intent on death to the west (hint: no Paris Hilton wearing a skimpy bikini in any of those pictures). But perhaps the best part of the report is its depiction of Twitter as a potential terrorist tool. There's no way I can truly make justice to the real thing, so here it is, straight from the horse's mouth:

What makes Twitter unique is that the member can send Tweets (messages near realtime) to Twitter cell phone groups and to their online Twitter social networking page. They can also Mashup their Tweets with a variety of other tools including geo coordinates and Google Maps or other electronic files/artifacts. Members can direct and re-direct audience members to other websites and locations from "Tweets" and can engage in rapid-fire group social interaction. [...] Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences."

Damn those vegetarians, always trying to sell their aggressive and radical no-meat agenda to the naive masses!

So,we will have to add Twitter to the many Web 2.0 tools for terrorism. After all, World of Warcraft is allegedly filled with jihadists intent on destroying our freedoms.

Twitter, bringing death and destruction 140 characters at a time.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Woman jailed for killing avatar

Internet news sites are abuzz with the report that a Japanese woman has been jailed after reportedly "killing" her virtual husband's avatar after a virtual divorce. A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher was virtually married to a 33-year-old office worker in the online game Maplestory - a cutesy Korean manga-style world.

Reportedly, the husband divorced his virtual wife without warning, and hell hath no fury like an avatar scorned. The piano teacher knew the login details of her online lover, so she entered the game using his password and deleted the character. An avatar had ceased to exist, for all practical purposes, it had been killed. The owner did not take the "killing" lightly, phoned the police, and the Sapporo woman was arrested and taken into custody charged with "illegally accessing a computer and manipulating data". None of the many reports say if she has been released, but the charges carry a maximum sentence of one year and maximum ¥500,000 JPY fine (contrary to the five years claimed by many news sites).

It is perhaps too easy to laugh at the mirth-inducing reports of middle-aged piano teachers and mild-mannered office workers taking their manga characters way too seriously. Nevertheless, it seems evident that there are some interesting legal issues at stake. Firstly, I find it intriguing that anti-hacking laws are being used to protect the integrity of an avatar. The statute in question is the 1999 Unauthorized Computer Access Law, which as the name suggests, penalises unauthorised access to a computer. Art. 3 reads:

Article 3. No person shall conduct an act of unauthorized computer access.
The act of unauthorized computer access mentioned in the preceding paragraph means an act that falls under one of the following items:
(1) An act of making available a specific use which is restricted by an access control function by making in operation a specific computer having that access control function through inputting into that specific computer, via telecommunication line, another person’s identification code for that access control function (to exclude such acts conducted by the access administrator who has added the access control function concerned, or conducted with the approval of the access administrator concerned or of the authorized user for that identification code);

There is no reason why this criminal type would not apply to the present case (that's too many negatives). Moreover, avatars are the embodiment of hours of hard work on the part of the player, and it would be interesting to see if besides the criminal conduct incurred, the perpetrator could also be the recipient of civil action. Nowadays it is possible to allocate real-money value to virtual goods, so a high-level character could be worth a lot of money. If a person deletes the character, shouldn't there be some sort of civil damage recourse as well?

Finally, I think that if this case had taken place in the UK, one could have used the Computer Misuse Act. s1 and s3 of the act penalise unauthorised access and unauthorised modification of computer material respectively.

I'm now off to make sure that my many avatars are still alive.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Flame wars: defamation or assault?

(via Denis Magnusson) A Canadian court has issued an injunction against a stamp-dealer who posted threatening materials on the internet against Richard Warman, a human rights campaigner. The systematic hate campaign by one William Grosvenor included death threats, false accusations of sex with minors, photos of the victim's home address, Google Maps information on how to get to his domicile, and a range of other abusive offences. When granting the injunction, the judge equated them with assault:

"They are threatening and intimidating and, by virtue of their repetitiveness, their detail regarding the plaintiff's whereabouts and their level of malevolence, they are more than empty threats and insults. They are vicious and serious and are to be taken seriously."
Besides an injunction ordering to take down the abusive content, the judge ordered Mr Grosvenor to pay $50,000 CAD.

Interesting case from many perspectives, but I found the equating of constant defamatory and threatening material with assault a novel way of dealing with cyber-offences. As we conduct more of our lives online, it seems logical that an attack on our real and virtual persona will equate an assault under law.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rock On (Book Review)

Rock on: How I Tried to Stop Caring About Music and Learn to Love Corporate Rock by Dan Kennedy.

I had high expectations for this book because it describes the experiences of a middle-management marketing type employed by Atlantic Records during the time internet downloading became prevalent and started affecting the music industry as we know it. The book does describe the corporate culture before the big shock came, and has some interesting anecdotes about what was happening behind the scenes in the post-Napster era.

Nevertheless, Kennedy's book feels like a wasted opportunity. The style is rather annoying, it uses a hipster-smirking tone that would be more at home in a blog (this is rich coming from me, but I digress). Kennedy's use of obscure stereotypes to describe his characters gets old really fast, and is confusing as hell. Was "Suave Older Robert Wagner Character" the same as "Ageing Suburban Classic Rock Guy"?

Having said that, I found some hidden gems in the book. For example, the realisation that people in the music industry were downloading music just like the rest of us; or the fact that executives were as clueless to respond to the new marketplace as we always thought they were. The culture of corporate excess, bloated salaries, and the operation in an irony-free environment were endearing. My favourite part of the book is when Kennedy describes the launch of a Jewel song about not selling out, while at the same time the same song is used to advertise leg-shaving products. Really, no amount of sarcasm conveys the absurdity of such a situation.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book for these little jewels (geddit? jewels, hehe), but Kennedy's style made me struggle through large sections of the book. Self-deprecating humour is OK, but writing an entire expose based on one's shortcomings takes its toll on the reader.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

*Bleeping* patents

Habitual readers may suspect already that I think software patents are a *bleeping* bad idea. Yeah, they are often filed by *bleeping* patent trolls, or are awarded to *bleeping* obvious "inventions" that do not advance the state of the art in any *bleeping* way.

Enter U.S. Patent 7,437,290 which describes a method for automatic censorship of audio data for broadcast. The abstract reads:

"An input audio data stream comprising speech is processed by an automatic censoring filter in either a real-time mode, or a batch mode, producing censored speech that has been altered so that undesired words or phrases are either unintelligible or inaudible. The automatic censoring filter employs a lattice comprising either phonemes and/or words derived from phonemes for comparison against corresponding phonemes or words included in undesired speech data. If the probability that a phoneme or word in the input audio data stream matches a corresponding phoneme or word in the undesired speech data is greater than a probability threshold, the input audio data stream is altered so that the undesired word or a phrase comprising a plurality of such words is unintelligible or inaudible. The censored speech can either be stored or made available to an audience in real-time."
What the *bleep*? What sort of stupid *bleep* is that? How can Microsoft claim such *bleeping* idiocy?

Seriously though, I actually think this is a useful invention. Otherwise the above text would be rather colourful. Now I'm off to swear in the shower, the last refuge of the foul mouthed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Palin and the llama

So... Sarah Palin was in Saturday Night Live yesterday... and what is in the background? A llama!

Is she going for the pro-llama vote? I may have to change my opinion about her.

Update: Thanks to John for pointing this site out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Virtual currencies stifled by regulation?

(via panGloss, The Register and Out-Law) Roll back the time to 1999. The internet was relatively new, electronic commerce was still a buzz-word, and everybody was talking about electronic cash, virtual currency and Mondex. In the future we would have relinquished our reliance on paper money, and we would be conducting our everyday commercial transactions with a combination of smart cards, RFID chips and mobile phones. The European Commission, in a characteristic surge of regulatory vigour, drafted several directives dealing with e-commerce, including the Electronic Money Institutions Directive, the legal skeleton supporting the frame of the brave new incorporeal marketplace.

Fast forward to 2008. My trousers are still jingling with coins. I look into my wallet and those pesky pieces of paper are still there. True, I have several smart cards, but those chips are inserted into "traditional" payment methods, such as credit and debit cards. Whatever happened to our dream of electronic money?

The European Commission conducted a consultation process that looked at the topic of e-money, and the findings are troubling. There are only 20 electronic money institutions in the entire EU, and the issued value amounts only to 1 billion EUR. The consultation unearthed some problems with the existing legislation that stifles the provision of electronic money. The impact document states that:

"During the review process, stakeholders expressed concerns that the current directive lacks legal certainty. First of all the definition of electronic money is considered unclear. Second it is unclear for stakeholders whether or not it is applicable to certain business models such as certain prepaid payment from mobile network operators and electronic vouchers."
So, we should blame the legislation for the lack of electronic money... or should we? True, I am on record criticising the EMI directive, and how the definitions were pretty useless when looked at closely. PayPal pretty much exploded the system when it was declared an EMI, an later became a bank. Similarly, I have always been averse at proactive regulatory efforts because it is my strong belief that they usually fail miserably in reading technological advances. The regulatory landscape of electronic commerce and information technologies is filled with the carcasses of failed and/or ineffective pieces of legislation drafted with specific technologies in mind.

Nevertheless, I do not think that the EMI directive is to blame. I blame the efficiency of traditional payment systems. Why have an extra cash card, when debit cards will suffice for most transactions? Why try to jump-start the electronic money market, when PayPal dominates electronic payment systems? Moreover, electronic money has not taken off in jurisdictions that never enacted the EMI directive, which tends to confirm in my mind that the problem is one of consumer confidence and lack of a "killer app" in the field of electronic money.

Last year I asked a simple question to my students for their essays: “Virtual in-game currency, such as Linden Dollars, is electronic money as defined by the Electronic Money Directive”. I got some excellent answers as a result (I'm hoping LawClanger will publish his essay), which served to confirm that the directive was bursting at the seams when confronted with real-life examples. I still think that virtual currencies could be classed as electronic money, and the admission of regulatory defeat by the Commission has served to confirm my suspicions; I believe that the growing economic importance of virtual currencies will eventually prompt the recognition of virtual currency as valid electronic money. Hopefully, the more generic definitions contained in the new directive proposal will serve to that effect.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The global copyfight rages on

The Wall Street Journal has published an excerpt provocatively named In Defense of Piracy from Lessig's new book Remix (out tomorrow). It seems like Lessig is still very much involved in the copyfight, highlighting the almost farcical story of Holden Lenz and Prince.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the copyfight has been relegated to a chapter in intellectual property textbooks. The music industry seems to have stopped suing its customers, and there has been a bit of an impasse with the attack on intermediaries and the three-strikes proposals. However, the copyfight is alive and well in countries that are updating their intellectual property legislation. Chile for example has been in the middle of drafting a new IP law, and it seems like there is a good old struggle going on down under. The government brought together a number of stakeholders to attempt to achieve a good balance between user and artist interests. However, the goverment completely undermined it by signing an agreement with the local collective society (SCD), and have sent forward a draft Ley de Propiedad Intelectual that makes the DMCA look like The Pet Goat.

Claudio Ruiz has written a post on the most worrying aspects of the draft law, which pretty much eliminates fair use, enhances liability for intermediaries, eliminates most educational exceptions, creates a virtual monopoly by the SCD, and most worryingly includes language that prohibits the renunciation of rights, making Creative Commons licences ineffective. After all, if you cannot renounce your rights, you cannot draft a "some rights reserved" licence! Christian Leal was interviewed on TV about the new law, and I found his explanations very well made. The Chilean blogosphere is up in arms about the turns of events (and the Facebook group against the law has now more than four thousand members!)

So the copyfight is alive and well. In the new digital economy, and with financial systems collapsing all around us, intellectual property is gaining more traction as a viable support for national economies, certainly more sustainable than ficticious credit instruments. We can therefore expect renewed interest in trying to squeeze the last penny out of intellectual creations.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Question of Sport

Questions of Sport: What are the Legal Rights and Wrongs?
1 Day Conference to be held at Hawthorn Suite, Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, UK

To celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement that the Commonwealth Games are coming to Scotland, and with the London Olympic Games looming large, Edinburgh Law School is organising a day-long event to looks at legal rights and wrongs associated with sporting competition. The event will take place on Friday 7 November 2008 at Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh from 9am-5pm. The event is being organised by SCRIPT, the law and technology research centre based in Edinburgh Law School and sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The many questions which remain unanswered include the rights and wrongs of enhancement technologies, the privacy implications for sportsmen and women of anti-doping monitoring measures, the existence and extent of merchandising and commercialisation rights and control of the trade marks associated with large sporting events.

Speakers include
Julia Bracewell OBE
Seona Burnett Partner McGrigors
Helen Arnot Head of Legal Department, STV SMG plc
David Marshall CEO Tennis Scotland
As well as many others

On November 7th, on the eve of Scotland's game with the All Blacks, we hope to explore these questions surrounding modern sporting competition with sportspersons, lawyers and lay people alike. The format of the day will be short talks from a wide range of experts (legal and non legal) with plenty of time for discussion. A final panel session will involve leading sports personalities with legal backgrounds giving their own impressions on the issues.

We hope that you can join us, please follow this link
to find details of how you can register. There is a nominal charge of £20 which covers lunch and refreshments during the day.

If you need any further information please contact John Anzani at

Thursday, October 09, 2008

COMMUNIA Workshop in Amsterdam

Marking the public domain: relinquishment & certification" - this is the title of the 3rd COMMUNIA Workshop to be held in Amsterdam on 20-21 October 2008. The workshop will address the legal, economical and technical issues related to certifying public domain works and relinquishing intellectual property rights in Europe.

The first session will consist of two keynote speeches by scholars on the public domain, to be followed by an introduction of two specific tools being developed by Creative Commons. Other two sessions will examine the possibilities of relinquishing rights in European jurisdictions and discuss tools needed to determine and certify the public domain status of works that are (believed to be) in the public domain.

Also scheduled are presentations of organizations and projects that have build their models or practices) around Public domain material, and other meetings of the COMMUNIA working groups.

The workshop takes place in Pakhuis de Zwijger, in central Amsterdam. Participation is open to the public and free of charge. Because of venue limited capacity, though, participants need to pre-register.

For more information, including downloadable registration form, please visit:


The COMMUNIA Thematic Network aims at becoming a European point of reference for theoretical analysis and strategic policy discussion of existing and emerging issues concerning the public domain in the digital environment - as well as related topics, including, but not limited to, alternative forms of licensing for creative material; open access to scientific publications and research results; management of works whose authors are unknown (i.e. orphan works).

Funded by the European Commission within the eContentplus framework, the 3-years long project expects to provide policy guidelines that will help each stakeholder involved - public and private, from the local to the European and global level.

More information:

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Symbian software patent appeal rejected

I have been following with interest the software patent case of Symbian v Comptroller General for Patents. The Court of Appeals has rejected an appeal by the UKIPO, which seems to move English software patent rulings closer to te EPO Board of Appeals interpretation.

As background, Symbian is a UK company which produces a popular mobile phone operating system, and in 2004 made a PCT application for "Mapping of dynamic link libraries in computer devices". The patent was awarded by the European Patent Office (EP1678608), but it was rejected by the UKIPO (GB0325145.1). Symbian appealed the decision and won. The UKIPO found the ruling by Patten J to be faulty, and filed an appeal, which as I mentioned, has been rejected.

The decision has been drafted by Lord Neuberger, and I have to say that it does not go into too much detail of the law, and therefore is a less compelling read than Aerotel and other rulings, but it still contains some interesting discussion. The core issue of the Symbian appeal is rather straightforward. Was the UKIPO justified in excluding Symbian's patent application? Patten J opined that it was not, and the Court of Appeals agrees. Lord Neuberger is of the mind that excluding inventions in computers is arbitrary and unfair:

"It can also be said in favour of Symbian's case that it would be somewhat arbitrary and unfair to discriminate against people who invent programs which improve the performance of computers against those who invent programs which improve the performance of other machines. However, as against that, what goes on inside a computer can be said to be closer to a mathematical method (which is, of course, not patentable by virtue of art 52(2)(a)) than what goes on inside other machines."
Nueberger L makes a strong case against exclusion of software by the mere fact that it is software, while acknowledging the inherent difficulties in looking for prior art when the source code is absent. Nueberger L spends some time trying to determine whether or not there is a technical contribution in the Symbian "invention", and concludes that there is, and therefore the patent application cannot be excluded on those grounds. The case then is not about the novelty of the application, it is about unwarranted exclusion of a valid application on the grounds of the patentability of software.

What is clear is that the Symbian appeal is a concerted attempt to bring the EPO and English decisions closer together. While Aerotel placed a large wedge between the EPO Board of Appeals and English courts, recent cases have been bridging the gap, particularly in the area of obviousness in non-software cases (namely, Conor v Angiotech and Actavis v Merck). Lord Neuberger spends his last paragraphs building bridges and making a friendly gesture to the EPO. He says:
"It is, of course, inevitable that there will be cases where the EPO will grant patents in this field when UKIPO should not, at least so long as the view in Pension Benefit and Hitachi is applied by the Board and is not applied here. The fact that the two offices and their supervisory courts have their own responsibilities means that discrepancies, even in approach or principle, are occasionally inevitable. However, the fact that such discrepancies have been characterised as "absurd" by Nicholls LJ, and the reasoning in [3] of Conor emphasise the strong desirability of the approaches and principles in the two offices marching together as far as possible. This means that there is a need for a two-way dialogue between national tribunals and the EPO, coupled with a degree of mutual compromise. More directly relevant to the present appeal, it means that, where there may be a difference of approach or of principle, one must try to minimise the consequent differences in terms of the outcome in particular patent cases."
This seems reasonable, but to my mind the Symbian appeal is a wasted opportunity to clarify concepts. The ruling completely fails to address the fact that the Symbian patent application is woefully obvious, and should not have been granted on the grounds of novelt and inventive step. True, this case has never really been about the application itself, it has been about the narrowness of interpretation of what constitutes software as such, technical effects, and therefore whether software should be excluded from patentability on those grounds. However, most of the definitions of technical effect in the case law delimit it as a novel step that advances the state of the art in a comprehensive manner. The case might have analysed that the Symbian application is seriously lacking in those grounds, and therefore did not meet the technical contribution requirements. However, Neuberger L and Patten J before him do not go into this vital question in detail, and I believe they should.

It seem like the UKIPO will have to redraft their guidelines again.

Update: The Times Online has an article on the ruling, which I found quite misleading. They are making it seem as if software patents could not be obtained in the UK prior to the ruling, which is not true. As I mentioned, Symbian has brought EPO and UK practices closer together, which does indeed mean that more software will be subject to patent protection.