Sunday, February 21, 2010

American copyright law

I recently finished watching an excellent short course on American copyright law (particularly as it relates to technology) given by
Keith Winstein.

It's an introduction to American copyright law and Keith has a great sense of humor as he explains the intricacies of copyright, from historically important copyright cases to the modern DMCA and important technological changes along the way.

Armed with a full 8 hours of lectures on American copyright law I feel abundantly qualified to provide some insights on what's wrong with copyright.

I think the first big problem facing copyright right now is that it's very complex and resolving a conflict in court takes a ludicrously long time (years or longer, particularly if, as often happens for complex cases, appeals go to the supreme court etc.). This means that these cases cost enormous amounts of money to litigate and are often resolved long after technology renders a particular decision moot anyway. Additionally, there is very few legal remedies against a copyright holder for bringing unreasonable copyright claims against someone. This ends up giving a lot of power to large publishers who can afford the time and money for these sorts of cases and could easily lead to unfair settlements simply because a party cannot afford the legal fight. Keith notes that many publishers will decline to allow an author to quote from another source without an agreement from the source publisher, even if the use is obviously fair use, simply because the possible legal consequences are too great. He also mentions from long ago (1996) which had a plan to allow consumers to stream their CDs over the internet to other locations (like listen to your music at work). Before creating the service they got legal advice and were told that it was not likely to be considered infringing. Turns out the courts viewed it differently, which sucks for the investors (although now that I can fit all my CDs on an iPod it's less of an issue). The lack of legal certainty and complex and expensive legal cases means that fair use is much more restricted than it seems in legislation because everyone wants to stay away from possible edge cases and no one wants their business to become embroiled in a copyright case. The murky legal environment impedes innovation. The SCO vs. the world
is probably the clearest example of a (mostly) copyright case that almost everyone agrees has no merit yet has created legal problems for the Linux community for over 7 years.
I'm not sure how you could solve these problems. Copyright cases are expensive partly because copyright law is complicated, it's hard to define exactly what "fair use" means, particular when new, disruptive technologies emerge raising completely new issues (for example, copyright law has a special exemption that loading a computer program into memory does not constitute making a copy for legal purposes). I think it would be hard to make copyright law simple by writing a newer or better version of the law, the issues are inherently complex.

One approach might be to recognise that copyright exists (as defined in the US) to provide an incentive for creators (i.e. writers, movie studios etc.). The US congress has, in the past, changed the copyright law to encourage technological innovation (radio stations get a really good deal for instance, as a historical accident when congress was trying to encourage the development of radio). The problem with the current approach is that congress tries to write a law and then as technologies come along the law is interpreted by the courts, often requiring them to interpret the law for situations the writers could not have possibly predicted (the last major revision the the US copyright act was 1976, things have changed). Instead of using a (hopefully forward-thinking) static law interpreted by the courts, perhaps an agency would be a better approach, like the FCC or the reserve bank that has broad powers to adjust copyright as necessary to both incentivise creators and encourage technological innovation etc. If I had a business idea I can check with the agency if it's an infringing use, if they say it isn't then I can have legal confidence for my investors. It won't happen, but it's my idea. A real world problem would be that copyright laws are already written by lobbyists (with literally billions of dollars at stake) so the agency is likely to stuggle to maintain impartiality.

Some other things that I learned from the course (anything obviously wrong is my mistake, not Keith's). Consumers can get away with a lot because nobody wants to sue individual consumers. In the lawsuits over video tape recorders, MP3 player and more recently online file-sharing, mostly copyright holders want to find a nice, big entity like a company and sue them, it's pretty troublesome to sue individuals (this is why decentralised file sharing is such a big deal). I learned that copyright is "man-made," copyright is not like "Thou shalt not steal." If I make a copy of your song or play your movie in my restaurant this is obviously not the same as breaking into your house and stealing your piano. Copyright was made to promote progress of the arts and sciences and over American history a lot of changes and exceptions have been added to fit that purpose (like radio stations being allowed to play records for a minimal fee). So when copyright holders make out that it's "obviously wrong" to allow a particular technology or use, that claim really needs to be evaluated, it's not necessarily "obviously wrong" in the same way that stealing someone's piano is. Ideally, we should go back to what actions will encourage progress in the arts and sciences, I think that's a really noble reason for copyright.

Other miscellaneous thoughts:

DRM is often being used to stop me doing things that I could probably legally do, lend my movie to you, rent a movie out etc. These things are actually legal uses of a movie.

The "FBI" warning on movies is not by the FBI and actually make claims which are probably not legally enforceable. Maybe the FBI could sue the movie companies for trademark infringement.

As much as we don't like movie studios etc. they are probably somewhat right to be afraid of technology. Almost everyone I know has at some point downloaded a song or movie etc. from Bittorrent or friends. Now, obviously movie companies would help if they had more credible legal online offerings (things like Hulu, Amazon on Demand, iTunes etc.) and priced them better (it's currently nearly half the price for some shows to buy the DVD than on iTunes in Australia). But, at the end of the day, they are competing with a price of 0. That's pretty hard to beat. The should be worried. DRM is misguided and making things worse (now the Bittorrent version of your show is both cheaper and easier to use).

The DMCA is just evil, making it illegal to break DRM won't stop file-sharers (they're already infringing copyright), but it does made it almost impossible to watch movies on Linux legally, criminalise people who make book readers for blind people etc. It's crazy that showing that you used or intented to use your DRM breaking for copyright infringement is not required to make breaking DRM illegal. Legislation cannot fix the fundamental problem that DRM can't work.

MIT open courseware and friends are fantastic. A lot of uni's put up special lectures, but I think the ability to "sit in" on whole courses is great, is a fantastic way to learn a little about a topic. Where is Australia's open courseware? I'd like to do the Ozzie (or commonwealth) version of this course.

[I'm not a lawyer. This post does not constitute legal advice (may God have mercy on your soul if you thought otherwise).]

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Amazon's coup

Apple has entered the e-book market by announcing their long-awaited iPad (although many speculated it might have a snappier name). Whatever you think of it, just because of their market position they're likely to sell a few. Along with their new gadget, comes a new store, the iBookstore. Its no secret they are trying to do for ebooks what they did for MP3s - make a killer device, match it with a easy-to-use integrated store and then own the whole stack. Which is great for them, but sucks for consumers, because it leaves us tied to Apple device's and it's hard for anyone else to compete with them. Case in point, witness how hard Apple is making it for Palm Pre users to have access to their music library on their phone. It's actually even worse in the case of ebooks, because they'll be encased in DRM that makes it even more difficult to move them outside of Apple's devices. So imagine that you've built up a neat library of books for your iPad, when another company release an even cooler book reader. Since it's not Apple sanctioned you have the rather uncool choice of buying your library again or sticking with Apple approved hardware.

Obviously, there's a simple way out of this. All the ebook people can use a standardised, non-DRM format, and have nice export APIs that make their stores play nicely with each other. Then you can choose the device you like and buy books from the store that offers you the best deal. That is about as likely to happen (in the short-term anyway) as the devil is likely to report snow at his (or her) headquarters.

But there is a another way out. Ebook devices are pretty multi-functional, so there's space for someone else to add their own software. Of course, as is well known, Apple guards the entrance to its devices closely, only Apple-approved apps are allowed in. Judging on their past performance, Apple is not about to approve competing ebook readers for the iPad (goodbye Kindle!) However, as Google will tell you, there is a way around that.

One of Apple's golden achievements (and really it is something to be proud of) is mobile Safari which is on the iPad, iPhone and iPod. It's a modern browser with support for HTML5 features like offline browsing. Best of all, at least for now, Apple let's you load any webpage you want (even ones they haven't carefully approved!). So anyone can go right ahead and write an HTML5 ebook reader, including offline support (so you can read books without a net connection). With a bit of work, this can basically be as good as a native application. Better yet, since most other new and up-and-coming smart phones have nice web-browers it won't be too much hassle to have your nice ebook reader work on most new smartphones (Android, Pre, Nokia and even Windows Mobile if Microsoft ever gets their act together). Since an obvious thing to do with an ebook reader is browse the web, one can predict that on most new ebook readers you are going to start seeing decent web browsers this web-book solution is likely going to work for a lot of newer ebook readers (although offline support might lag). And obviously, you get automatic support for reading books on a PC. The happy thing about this setup from the point of view of the consumer, they buy their books once, and they can then use them on all their devices. Better yet, there is nothing to stop multiple companies from doing this (although consumers will probably prefer having their books all in one place).

The time to do this is right about now. The technology is easy, one could get a working prototype within a week, and a decent setup in months. The key thing would be to make this available before iPad owners have already bought a bunch of books from the iBookstore. The biggest problem is getting rights from publishers. In fact, getting rights has been such a problem for Apple the iBookstore is coming out US only for the time being. However, if publisher don't want to end up in the same place as music retailers, where Apple sells such a high percentage of all their sales that Apple basically gets to dictate the terms, they should be looking to help some competitors. If someone could get this setup with global rights by the time the iPad ships it could be a major coup. Imagine, Australian iPod owners look for the iBookstore, only to realize it won't be available in Australia for months, but they can buy books right way from someone else.

There is one obvious company that could do this in a heartbeat. Amazon. They've got a huge ebook collection already (so no time trying to negotiate publishing rights which is the really time-consuming aspect), already sell ebook readers, have the server infrastructure and they've already put Kindle on the iPhone. Apple is not going to let them put Kindle on the iPad but this provides an end run around Apple's rules. If I was Amazon I'd be desperately working on a HTML5 ebook reader right now. Release it the day the iPads ship. Then people have the choice of buying books from Apple and using it on one device, or Amazon and having it work on everything they own (especially good for households that end up with a Kindle and an iPad). Even better, since Amazon's already got international distribution rights for a bunch of ebooks, they'll be the only option for non-US users for the time being. If Amazon cuts its margins on ebooks for awhile they could give seriously better deals than Apple. The war would be over in about a year.

Amazon this could be your moment to parlay yourself into being THE ebook supplier and let us read our books on any device. You've got a month.

UPDATE 15/02/2010: I wasn't aware the Google had said they planned to enter the e-book market. I think this web-based ebook for every device is probably pretty much what Google is planning on doing.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Emacs and Sage

I have been unhappy with my current practice of cut and pasting statistical results etc. from MATLAB or Python output into LaTeX for publishing. Changes to code and recalculations lead to an endless possibility for error. So I have been working on using SageTex as an interface LaTeX. As a small step that might be helpful to others by adding the commands at the end of this post to my .emacs file (actually I use Aquamacs) I can type C-c C-c sage to run Sage on the appropriate segments of my LaTeX file (see SageTeX) for more detail. I will post in future about my experience using SageTeX for getting closer to the goal of reproducible research (SageTeX also has a MATLAB interface so I plan to use it for interfacing with MATLAB too).

;; SageTeX setup
;; This adds the command sage when in LaTeX mode (to invoke type C-C C-c sage)
(eval-after-load "tex"
'(setq TeX-command-list
(append TeX-command-list
(list "sage" "sage %s.sage" 'TeX-run-command nil t :help "Run SAGE on the SAGE file corresponding to this LaTeX file (run latex first).")))))

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Publication: Natural scene statistics and the structure of orientation maps in the visual cortex.

Hunt, J.J., Giacomantonio, C.E., Tang, H., Mortimer, D., Jaffer, S.,Vorobyov, V., Ericksson, G., Sengpiel, F. & Goodhill, G.J. (2009).
Natural scene statistics and the structure of orientation maps in the visual cortex.
Neuroimage, in press.

Publication: On the simulation of enzymatic digest patterns: the fragmentation of oligomeric and polymeric galacturonides by endo-polygalacturonase II

Hunt, J. J., Cameron, R. G., Williams, M. A. K. (2006)
On the simulation of enzymatic digest patterns: the fragmentation of oligomeric and polymeric galacturonides by endo-polygalacturonase II,
Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1760:1696-1703

Access article via DOI link 10.1016/j.bbagen.2006.08.022,Local PDF, Arvix Preprint physics/0609004

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Electronic publishing and the narrowing of science and scholarship

A recent publication in Science by James Evans came the intriguing conclusion that:
... ironically... one of the chief values of print library research is poor indexing. Poor indexing - indexing by titles and authors, primarily within core journals- likely had unintended consequences that assisted the integration of science and scholarship. By drawing researchers through unrelated articles, print browsing and perusal may have faciliated broader comparisons and led researchers into the past. Modern graduate education parallels this shift in publication - shorter in years, more specialized in scope, culminating less frequently in a true dissertation than an album of articles.

The move to online science appears to represent one more step on the path initiated by the much earlier shift from the contextualized monograph, like Newton's Principia or Darwin's Origin of Species, to the modern research article. The Principia and Origin, each produced over the course of more than a decade, not only were engaged in current debates, but wove their propositions into conversation with astronomers, geometers, and naturalists from centuries past. As 21st-century scientists and scholars use online searching and hyperlinking to frame and publish their arguments more efficiently, they weave them into a more focused- and more narrow-past and present.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

I will derive

This might prove a useful diversion if I ever end up teaching Calc 101.

(Was recently on Slashdot)