Tag Archives: copyright

Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness

“The more you move to the right the more radical you are. Because everywhere on the left you actually have to educate people about the law, which is currently unfair to the user, before you even introduce them to the alternatives. You aren’t even challenging the injustice in the law! On the right you are operating at a level that is liberated from identity and accountability. You are hacking identity.” – Sunil Abraham

I have a new piece up on TechPresident titled: Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness.

This piece, as the really fun map I recreated is based on a conversation with Sunil Abraham (@sunil_abraham), the Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

If you find this map interesting… check the piece out here.

map of open

 

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here:

Lessons from fashion's free culture: Johanna Blakley on TED.com

This TEDx talk by Johanna Blakley is pure gold (thank you Jonathan Brun for passing it along). It’s a wonderful dissection – all while using the fashion industry as a case study – of how patents and licenses are not only unnecessary for innovation but can actually impede it.

What I found particularly fascinating is Johanna’s claim that long ago the US courts decided that clothing was “too utilitarian” to have copyright and patents applied to it. Of course, we could say that of a number of industries today – the software industry coming to mind right off the bat (can anyone imagine a world without software?).

The presentation seems to confirm another thought I’ve held – weaker copyright and patents protections do not reduce or eliminate peoples incentive to innovate. Quite the opposite. It both liberates innovation and increases its rate as others are able to copy and reuse one another. In addition, it makes brands stronger, not weaker. In a world where anybody can copy anybody, innovation and the capacity to execute matters. Indeed, it is the only thing that matters.

It would be nice if, here in Canada, the Ministers of Heritage (James Moore) and Industry (Tony Clement) would watch and learn from this video – and the feedback they received from ordinary Canadians. If we want industries as vibrant and profitable as the fashion industry, it may require us to think a little differently about copyright reform.

Articles I'm Digesting 1/11/2010

Here’s a few articles I recently digested:

Enabling Access and Reuse of Public Sector Information in Canada: Crown Commons Licenses, Copyright, and Public Sector Information by Elizabeth F. Judge

This piece (which you can download as a PDF) is actually a chapter in a book titled: From “Radical Extremism” to “Balanced Copyright” : Canadian Copyright and the Digital Agenda.

This piece provides a fantastic overview on both the how and why Crown Copyright impedes the remixing and repurposing of government information. The only thing confusing to me about the article is that it focuses a great deal on data which, by the author’s own admission, is not covered by Crown Copyright:

With respect to data, Crown copyright does not protect raw data (unprocessed data, such as numbers entered into a database), but it does protect an original expres- sion of the data (for example, an original map is a copyrightable artistic work based on geospatial data) and compilations (including compilations of data), providing that there is an original selection or arrangement of the data (that is, there has been human intervention where skill and judg- ment has been exercised).

Given I often have to explain to government types that data is not covered by Crown Copyright (this is in part why it often has – more restrictive still – licenses attached to it) my only concern about the paper is that because of its strong focus on data it will inadvertently muddy the waters. However, still a good piece and I suspect many who read it will wander away hoping that some change to Crown Copyright legislation will be forthcoming.

The Global Debt Clock by The Economist Intelligence Unit

Few outside of Canada understand how much Canadian politics was dominated by the issue of “the debt” in the 1990s. When Bill Clinton made his first visit to Canada the headlines were more concerned with Canada’s bond rating being downgraded than the visit of the new US president.

The belief, however, that Canada has tamed its debt may be a myth. The challenge may be that it people are starting to wise up to all that downgrading. That the debt has simple shifted from the national (which people historically looked at) to the provincial level (which is rarely calculated into “national” debt). The Economist chart puts things into sharp (and dim?) perspective:

Canada’s public debt: $1,257,953,424,658 or $37,042.44 per person or 82.3% of GDP

America’s public debt: $9,117,200,547,945 or $29,491.12 per person or 62.0% of GDP

Of course Canada’s debt includes health care expenditures which in the United States are (more) born by private citizens, so the debt burden per individual once you factor in private debt may not be closer. But then household debt in Canada is about to overtake that in America so again…

This all said, pretty much every country in the developed world looks ugly in terms of debt… this may, sadly, be the boomers biggest legacy.

Disconnect: Why our politics is so out of touch and what it means for our future by Richard Florida and Jeremy D. Mayer

Written back in 2007 this article deserves a revisit:

“In our view, American politics today is distinguished by one feature: instability. In place of an enduring political force such as post-1896 Republican dominance or the Democrats after Roosevelt in 1932, American politics in recent years has see-sawed back and forth. Twelve years of Reagan-Bush were followed by 8 of Bill Clinton, and then Bush and Rove, now this. And, only 6 of those years saw one party with simultaneous control of the presidency and Congress.

This instability, in our view, stems from one primary source: Our economic system has undergone a tectonic shift, to which the political system is still trying to adapt. Just as our politics was recast a century ago by the forces of the Industrial Revolution, so to is it being reshaped today by the rise of the technology, innovation and creativity as economic forces. The rise of this innovative, knowledge-based Creative Economy is even more significant and more challenging to politics as the Industrial Economy. Today, this sector accounts roughly a third of the American workforce — or roughly 40 million workers – nearly three times the industrial sector and blue-collar working class. What’s more, these creative occupations account for the lion’s share of all wealth generation, accounting for nearly half of all wages and salaries paid in the United States. That’s nearly $2 trillion, or as much as the manufacturing and service sectors combined.

But the creative economy doesn’t just generate phenomenal wealth. It also sorts people across new economic and geographical boundaries and generates inequality between and within states and regions as great as that of the early Industrial Revolution. As a result, we’re living through a period of tumultuous political adjustment.”

and speaking of revisits…

American Backlash by Michael Adams

Offers an alternative explanation regarding the challenges faced by incumbent parties in the US. I remembered this as I was recently reading Wente’s piece about Palin and the Tea Party, where she cites pollster Scott Rasmussen:

“who argues that the major division in the country now is not between the Republicans and Democrats, but between the mainstream public and the political class – the small proportion of the population, perhaps 10 per cent, (including most people who work in mainstream media) that still believes that government tries to serve the public interest, rather than colluding with big business against ordinary people.”

This was, of course, the thesis of Adams book back in 2006. Nice to be ahead of the curve.

Open Data Hackathon page by Volunteers around the world

Hope that there will be a dedicated site for this up this week – have a few people stepping forward on that front. In the interim, please do consider adding you name if you are interested in helping organize one in your city.

UK Adopts Open Government License for everything: Why it's good and what it means

In the UK, the default is open.

Yesterday, the United Kingdom made an announcement that radically reformed how it will manage what will become the government’s most important asset in the 21st century: knowledge & information.

On the National Archives website, the UK Government made public its new license for managing software, documents and data created by the government. The document is both far reaching and forward looking. Indeed, I believe this policy may be the boldest and most progressive step taken by a government since the United States decided that documents created by the US government would directly enter the public domain and not be copyrighted.

In almost every aspect the license, the UK government will manage its  “intellectual property” by setting the default to be open and free.

Consider the introduction to the framework:

The UK Government Licensing Framework (UKGLF) provides a policy and legal overview for licensing the re-use of public sector information both in central government and the wider public sector. It sets out best practice, standardises the licensing principles for government information and recommends the use of the UK Open Government Licence (OGL) for public sector information.

The UK Government recognises the importance of public sector information and its social and economic value beyond the purpose for which it was originally created. The public sector therefore needs to ensure that simple licensing processes are in place to enable and encourage civil society, social entrepreneurs and the private sector to re-use this information in order to:

  • promote creative and innovative activities, which will deliver social and economic benefits for the UK
  • make government more transparent and open in its activities, ensuring that the public are better informed about the work of the government and the public sector
  • enable more civic and democratic engagement through social enterprise and voluntary and community activities.

At the heart of the UKGLF is a simple, non-transactional licence – the Open Government Licence – which all public sector bodies can use to make their information available for free re-use on simple, flexible terms.

An just in case you thought that was vague consider these two quotes from the frame work. This one for data:

It is UK Government policy to support the re-use of its information by making it available for re-use under simple licensing terms.  As part of this policy most public sector information should be made available for re-use at the marginal cost of production. In effect, this means at zero cost for the re-user, especially where the information is published online. This maximises the social and economic value of the information. The Open Government Licence should be the default licence adopted where information is made available for re-use free of charge.

And this one for software:

  • Software which is the original work of public sector employees should use a default licence.  The default licence recommended is the Open Government Licence.
  • Software developed by public sector employees from open source software may be released under a licence consistent with the open source software.

These statements are unambiguous and a dramatic step in the right direction. Information and software created by governments are, by definition, public assets. Tax dollars have already paid for their collection and/or development and the government has already benefited by using from them. They are also non-rivalrous good. This means, unlike a road, if I use government information, or software, I don’t diminish your ability to use it (in contrast only so many cars can fit on a road, and they wear it down). Indeed with intellectual property quite the opposite is true, by using it I may actually make the knowledge more valuable.

This is, obviously, an exciting development. It has generated a number of thoughts:

1.     With this move the UK has further positioned itself at the forefront of the knowledge economy:

By enacting this policy the UK government has just enabled the entire country, and indeed the world, to use its data, knowledge and software to do whatever people would like. In short an enormous resource of intellectual property has just been opened up to be developed, enhanced and re-purposed. This could help lower costs for new software products, diminish the cost of government and help foster more efficient services. This means a great deal of this innovation will be happening in the UK first. This could become a significant strategic advantage in the 21st century economy.

2.     Other jurisdictions will finally be persuaded it is “safe” to adopt open licenses for their intellectual property:

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt dealing with governments it is that, for all the talk of innovation, many governments, and particularly their legal departments, are actually scared to be the first to do something. With the UK taking this bold step I expect a number of other jurisdictions to more vigorously explore this opportunity. (it is worth noting that Vancouver did, as part of the open motion, state the software developed by the city would have an open license applied to it, but the policy work to implement such a change has yet to be announced).

3.     This should foster a debate about information as a public asset:

In many jurisdictions there is still the myth that governments can and should charge for data. Britain’s move should provide a powerful example for why these types of policies should be challenged. There is significant research showing that for GIS data for example, money collected from the sale of data simply pays for the money collection system. This is to say nothing of the policy and managerial overhead of choosing to manage intellectual property. Charging for public data has never made financial sense, and has a number of ethical challenges to it (so only the wealthy get to benefit from a publicly derived good?). Hopefully for less progressive governments, the UK’s move will refocus the debate along the right path.

4.     It is hard to displace a policy leader once they are established.

The real lesson here is that innovative and forward looking jurisdictions have huge advantages that they are likely to retain. It should come as no surprise that the UK made this move – it was among the first national governments to create an open data portal. By being an early mover it has seen the challenges and opportunities before others and so has been able to build on its success more quickly.

Consider other countries – like Canada – that may wish to catch up. Canada does not even have an open data portal as of yet (although this may soon change). This means that it is now almost 2 years behind the UK in assessing the opportunities and challenges around open data and rethinking intellectual property. These two years cannot be magically or quickly caught up. More importantly, it suggests that some public services have cultures that recognize and foster innovation – especially around key issues in the knowledge economy – while others do not.

Knowledge economies will benefit from governments that make knowledge, information and data more available. Hopefully this will serve as a wake up call to other governments in other jurisdictions. The 21st century knowledge economy is here, and government has a role to play. Best not be caught lagging.

On Governments and Intellectual Property (or why we move slowly)

David H. sent me this short and fantastic article from Wired magazine last week.

The article discusses the travails of Mathew Burton, a former analyst and software programmer at the Department of Defense who spent years trying to get the software he wrote into the hands of those who desperately needed it. But alas, no one could figure out the licensing rights for the software it was supposed to work with… so it never went anywhere. Today Mathew has (unsurprisingly) left Defense and has open sourced the code so that anyone can use it. The lesson? The tangled mess of navigating all the license agreements isn’t protecting anyone and certainly not the public. It’s just preventing interesting new and derivative works from being used to render American safer.

In short, the crises here doesn’t have to do with size of government, but in a misplaced desire by many governments to protect “intellectual property.”

Now I understand the need of government to protect physical property. A forest, for example, can only be logged once every few generations, so allocating that resource efficiently matters. But intellectual property? Things like documents, data, and software code? It’s use is not diminished when someone uses it. Indeed, often its value increases when numerous people start to use it.

But rather than give to tax payers the intellectual property their tax dollars already paid for, our governments lock them down. Today, under the false belief that they are protecting themselves and potential revenue streams (that have never materialized) our governments copyright, patent and license all sorts of intellectual property our tax dollars paid for. In short, we treat ideas like we treat forests, something that only a handful of people can use and benefit from.

This has three happy consequences.

First, ideas and innovations are more expensive and spread more slowly. Remember the goal of innovation is not to license technology, its to use technology to enable us to be happier, safer or more productive (or ideally all three!). When our governments license technology that accomplishes one or all of these things they are, in fact, restricting the number of people who can benefit by giving a single actor a monopoly to sell this service (again, one tax payers funded to develop!) to tax payers or (worse) back to the government.

Second, we end up wasting a colossal amount of money on lawyers. With our governments pretending to be a corporation, managing all this intellectual property tax payers funded to develop, we naturally require an army of lawyers to protect and license it!

Finally, many governments are locked out of open source projects and communities. Since, by policy, many governments require that they own any code they, or their contractors develop, they cannot contribute to open source projects (in which the code is by definition, not owned but shared). This means free, scalable and customizable software and products that small companies like Google are forbidden within government. Instead they (and by they, I mean us) have to pay for proprietary solutions.

At some point I’d love to read more about how government got into the intellectual property businesses. I imagine it is a history paved with good intentions. However, the more I reflect on it, the more I wonder why the first order question of “why do governments have intellectual property” never gets asked. The costs are high and the benefits seem quite low. Maybe it’s time we radically rethink this.

Minister Moore and the Myth of Market Forces

Last week was a bad week for the government on the copyright front. The government recently tabled legislation to reform copyright and the man in charge of the file, Heritage Minister James Moore, gave a speech at the International Chamber of Commerce in which he decried those who questioned the bill as “radical extremists.” The comment was a none-too-veiled attack at people like University of Ottawa Professor Michael Geist who have championed for reasonable copyright reform and who, like many Canadians, are concerned about some aspects of the proposed bill.

Unfortunately for the Minister, things got worse from there.

First, the Minister denied making the comment in messages to two different individuals who inquired about it:

Still worse, the Minister got into a online debate with Cory Doctorow, a bestselling writer (he won the Ontario White Pine Award for best book last year and his current novel For the Win is on the Canadian bestseller lists) and the type of person whose interests the Heritage Minister is supposed to engage and advocate on behalf of, not get into fights with.

In a confusing 140 character back and forth that lasted a few minutes, the minister oddly defended Apple and insulted Google (I’ve captured the whole debate here thanks to the excellent people at bettween). But unnoticed in the debate is an astonishing fact: the Minister seems unaware of both the task at hand and the implications of the legislation.

The following innocuous tweet summed up his position:

Indeed, in the Minister’s 22 tweets in the conversation he uses the term “market forces” six times and the theme of “letting the market or consumers decide” is in over half his tweets.

I too believe that consumers should choose what they want. But if the Minister were a true free market advocate he wouldn’t believe in copyright reform. Indeed, he wouldn’t believe in copyright at all. In a true free market, there’d be no copyright legislation because the market would decide how to deal with intellectual property.

Copyright law exists in order to regulate and shape a market because we don’t think market forces work. In short, the Minister’s legislation is creating the marketplace. Normally I would celebrate his claims of being in favour of “letting consumers decide” since this legislation will determine what these choices will and won’t be. However, the Twitter debate should leave Canadians concerned since this legislation limits consumer choices long before products reach the shelves.

Indeed, as Doctorow points out, the proposed legislation actually kills concepts created by the marketplace – like Creative Commons – that give creators control over how their works can be shared and re-used:

But advocates like Cory Doctorow and Michael Geist aren’t just concerned about the Minister’s internal contradictions in defending his own legislation. They have practical concerns that the bill narrows the choice for both consumers and creators.

Specifically, they are concerned with the legislation’s handling of what are called “digital locks.” Digital locks are software embedded into a DVD of your favourite movie or a music file you buy from iTunes that prevents you from making a copy. Previously it was legal for you to make a backup copy of your favourite tape or CD, but with a digital lock, this not only becomes practically more difficult, it becomes illegal.

Cory Doctorow outlines his concerns with digital locks in this excellent blog post:

They [digital locks] transfer power to technology firms at the expense of copyright holders. The proposed Canadian rules on digital locks mirror the US version in that they ban breaking a digital lock for virtually any reason. So even if you’re trying to do something legal (say, ripping a CD to put it on your MP3 player), you’re still on the wrong side of the law if you break a digital lock to do it.

But it gets worse. Digital locks don’t just harm content consumers (the very people people Minister Moore says he is trying to provide with “choice”); they harm content creators even more:

Here’s what that means for creators: if Apple, or Microsoft, or Google, or TiVo, or any other tech company happens to sell my works with a digital lock, only they can give you permission to take the digital lock off. The person who created the work and the company that published it have no say in the matter.

So that’s Minister Moore’s version of “author’s rights” — any tech company that happens to load my books on their device or in their software ends up usurping my copyrights. I may have written the book, sweated over it, poured my heart into it — but all my rights are as nothing alongside the rights that Apple, Microsoft, Sony and the other DRM tech-giants get merely by assembling some electronics in a Chinese sweatshop.

That’s the “creativity” that the new Canadian copyright law rewards: writing an ebook reader, designing a tablet, building a phone. Those “creators” get more say in the destiny of Canadian artists’ copyrights than the artists themselves.

In short, the digital lock provisions reward neither consumers nor creators. Instead, they give the greatest rights and rewards to the one group of people in the equation whose rights are least important: distributors.

That a Heritage Minister doesn’t understand this is troubling. That he would accuse those who seek to point out this fact and raise awareness to it as “radical extremists” is scandalous. Canadians have entrusted in this person the responsibility for creating a marketplace that rewards creativity, content creation and innovation while protecting the rights of consumers. At the moment, we have a minister who shuts out the very two groups he claims to protect while wrapping himself in a false cloak of the “free market.” It is an ominous start for the debate over copyright reform and the minister has only himself to blame.