Two cheers for the Librarian of Congress

Sometimes the Librarian of Congress does the right thing:

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress issues new rules on Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemptions. Acting Librarian David Mao, in an order (PDF) released Tuesday, authorized the public to tinker with software in vehicles for “good faith security research” and for “lawful modification.”

The decision comes in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, in which the German automaker baked bogus code into its software that enabled the automaker’s diesel vehicles to reduce pollutants below acceptable levels during emissions tests.

“I am glad they granted these exemptions,” said Sherwin Siy, vice president for legal affairs for Public Knowledge in Washington, DC. “I am not glad it was necessary for them to do so in the first place.”

The auto industry, and even the Environmental Protection Agency, opposed the vehicle-tinkering rules that were proposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others. About every 36 months, the Librarian of Congress and the Copyright Office entertain proposals for exemptions to the DMCA, which was passed in 1998. The DMCA prohibits circumventing encryption or access controls to copy or modify copyrighted works. The ultimate decision rests with the Librarian of Congress.

The takedown boom

From Ars Technica:

Piracy news site TorrentFreak reports that Google removed 75 percent more URLs in 2014 than it did the previous year. Google doesn’t tally up annual totals, but it does release weekly reports on DMCA notices, and TorrentFreak took it upon itself to add up the weekly reports. Most of the takedown requests are honored. Google has a longstanding tradition of supplying DMCA takedown notices to Chilling Effects, a website that archives such requests.

Just a few years back, the number of takedown requests could be measured in the dozens, not the millions. In 2008, Google handled 62 DMCA takedown requests, and, in that year, each request was over just one copyrighted work. In later years, DMCA notices came to ask for millions of URLs to be removed to protect multiple works.

Content mining just got easier

This from Peter Murray-Rust’s blog:

Today 2014-06-01 is a very important date. The UK government has pushed for reform of copyright and – despite significant opposition and lobbying from mainstream publishers – the proposals are now law. Today.

Laws are complicated and the language can be hard to understand but for our purposes (Scientific articles to which we have the right to read ) :

If you have the right to read something in the UK then you have the right to extract and publish facts from it for non-commercial use.
This right overrides any restrictions in the contract signed between the publisher and and the buyer/renter.

Of course we are still bound by copyright law in general, defamation, passing off and many other laws. But our machines can now download subscribed articles without legal hindrance and as long as we don’t publish large non-factual chunks we can go ahead.

Without asking permission.

That’s the key point. If we had to ask permission or were bound by contracts that forbid us then the law would be useless. But it isn’t.

For those of us interested in extracting information from online sources for research and network-analysis purposes, this is a significant moment.

If you think the music industry is a big deal, think again


Given all the noise the recording industry makes — and the idiotic amount of attention it gets from government ministers — you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was one of the most important industries on the planet. In fact, as this chart shows, it’s minuscle compared to the industries that drive our economies. It’s about the same size as the watch industry. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to those who work in it, or that its future doesn’t matter. But let’s have a sense of proportion about it.

HT to Benedict Evans for highlighting the chart.

Google Books: fair use


“In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits. It advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders. It has become an invaluable research tool that permits students, teachers, librarians, and others to more efficiently identify and locate books. It has given scholars the ability, for the first time, to conduct full-text searches of tens of millions of books. It preserves books, in particular out-of-print and old books that have been forgotten in the bowels of libraries, and it gives them new life. It facilitates access to books for print-disabled and remote or underserved populations. It generates new audiences and creates new sources of income for authors and publishers. Indeed, all society benefits.”

Judge Chin’s judgment in Authors Guild v. Google, p.26.

Forbes has a useful commentary on the decision.

Exclusive! NSA and Homeland Security lack sense of humour

Photograph from CBS.

This comes to us via the you-couldn’t-make-it-up department.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have issued “cease and desist” letters to a novelty store owner who sells products that poke fun at the federal government.

Dan McCall, who lives in Minnesota and operates, sells T-shirts with the agency’s official seal that read: “The NSA: The only part of government that actually listens,” Judicial Watch first reported.

Other parodies say, “Spying on you since 1952,” and “Peeping while you’re sleeping,” the report said.

Federal authorities claimed the parody images violate laws against the misuse, mutilation, alteration or impersonation of government seals, Judicial Watch reported.

I particularly admire the crack about the NSA being “the only part of the government that actually listens”.

Brian, who told me about the first link, also pointed me to a fuller account about the artist, Dan McCall who came up with the tee-shirt.

What McCall meant as pure parody, apparently wasn’t very funny to bureaucrats at the NSA.

While he calls it parody they call a violation of the spy agency’s intellectual property.

“Because when you’re pointing straight at an organization or making fun at it, turning it on itself, that is classic parody,” he said.

The agency ordered him to cease and desist and forced his T-shirts off the market.

Hmmm… I’d have thought that he’d have a good First Amendment and Fair Use case. But maybe m’learned friends think not.

Google Reader, Hitler and me

This morning’s Observer column.

One of the wonders of the online world is the Downfall meme on YouTube. (For those whose time is too valuable to be wasted watching video clips, I should explain that the parody is based on remixing a scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film, Der Untergang [Downfall], which chronicles Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker.)

The clip takes the scene in which Hitler, memorably portrayed by Bruno Ganz, launches into a tirade upon finally realising that the war is truly lost and overlays it with subtitles about contemporary issues or events. Thus Hitler rants about the inability of the iPad to do multitasking, that Sheffield United have been relegated or that Twitter has gone down again.

What brings this to mind is that a new version of the meme appeared last week. In it, Hitler is told about Google’s decision to “retire” (ie scrap) its Reader app. “WHAT THE FUCK ARE THEY THINKING??!!” he roars. “HOW CAN THEY DO THIS TO US?!! How dare they take away Google Reader. I have over 300 feeds in there!! Have they any idea how much effort I’ve put in? Of all Google products I spend 99% of my time with Reader. Why do they do this?” And so on.

For the first – and I hope the only – time in my life, I find myself agreeing with the Führer. For I, too, am a dedicated user of Google Reader…

It’s interesting — and perhaps predictable — to see the storm of (mainly geeky and journalistic) outrage at Google’s decision. But — as this post argues — it was probably a perfectly rational business decision from Google’s point of view. Most Internet users don’t use RSS, there’s no obvious direct revenue stream from it and Google is desperate for strategic reasons to shepherd its users onto Google+. On the other hand, maybe the reputational damage will cause the company to think again. After all, Google’s prime pitch is that it’s a good Net citizen — campaigning to keep the Internet open and uncensored etc.

Another thought sparked by the uproar is an observation made ages ago by Clay Shirky in another context when he said that what people complain of as information overload is actually a symptom of filter failure. I agree. Every new communications technology in history has led the early victims of it to complain of information overload. But in due course they figured out tools for managing the overload. The Net is no exception and RSS is one of the first-generation tools we devised to handle it.

In the meantime, the important thing for people like me is what to use instead of Reader. The Online Journalism Blog has published a very helpful spreadsheet giving details of the various alternatives. Thanks, guys.

Information wants to be fr…, er, shared

I’ve just bought the Kindle edition of Information Wants to Be Shared by Joshua Gans on the basis of this abstract:

Stewart Brand famously declared, “Information wants to be free.” Except he didn’t (not really). And it doesn’t. Information is much more complicated than that. What information really wants–what makes it more valuable, useful, and immediate, Joshua Gans argues–is to be shared. Using the tools and logic of information economics, Gans shows how sharing enhances most information’s value. He also shows how the business models of traditional media companies, gatekeepers who have relied on scarcity and control, have collapsed in the face of new technologies. Equally important, he argues that sharing can revive moribund, threatened industries even as he examines platforms that have, almost accidentally, thrived in this new environment. Provocative, intriguing, and useful, “Information Wants to Be Shared” will change the way you think about your ideas and the media you use to consume and produce them.