What Ralph Lauren doesn’t want us to see!

Wonderful combative post by Cory Doctorow.

Last month, Xeni blogged about the photoshop disaster that is this Ralph Lauren advertisement, in which a model’s proportions appear to have been altered to give her an impossibly skinny body (“Dude, her head’s bigger than her pelvis”). Naturally, Xeni reproduced the ad in question. This is classic fair use: a reproduction “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting,” etc.

However, Ralph Lauren’s marketing arm and its law firm don’t see it that way. According to them, this is an “infringing image,” and they thoughtfully took the time to send a DMCA takedown notice to our awesome ISP, Canada’s Priority Colo. One of the things that makes Priority Colo so awesome is that they don’t automatically act on DMCA takedowns. Instead, they pass them on to us and we talk about whether they pass the giggle-test.

This one doesn’t…

And, so, Cory goes on:

So, to Ralph Lauren, GreenbergTraurig, and PRL Holdings, Inc: sue and be damned. Copyright law doesn't give you the right to threaten your critics for pointing out the problems with your offerings. You should know better. And every time you threaten to sue us over stuff like this, we will:

a) Reproduce the original criticism, making damned sure that all our readers get a good, long look at it, and;

b) Publish your spurious legal threat along with copious mockery, so that it becomes highly ranked in search engines where other people you threaten can find it and take heart; and

c) Offer nourishing soup and sandwiches to your models.

Attaboy! This has also made me think about how useful it would be to have an ISP like PriorityColo.

BBC tries to sneak in ‘Broadcast Flag’ DRM by the back door

Terrific piece by Cory Doctorow.

As the BBC readies itself to begin free-to-air high-definition broadcasts, it has petitioned Ofcom for permission to encrypt part of the broadcast signal – specifically, the data-channel that contains instructions for decoding and playing back the video. The corporation argues that because it isnt encrypting the actual video just the stuff that makes it possible to watch it that it isnt violating the rule against encrypting its programmes.

The encryption keys necessary to decode BBC programmes will be limited to companies that agree to the terms set out in the Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator agreement, something created by a bunch of non-UK companies in co-operation with the Hollywood studios. This agreement includes requirements to encrypt any stored programmes and any digital outputs on the device, so that anyone who wants to make a device that plugs into a DTLA-licensed box will also have to take a DTLA licence. Its a kind of perfect, airtight bubble in which all manufacturers are required to limit their designs to include only those features which make the big studios happy. These limitations – on recording, storing, and moving programmes – are not the same as “what copyright allows”. Rather, they are, “what makes the movie studios comfortable”.

I’ll say it again: the public’s deal with the BBC is: we pay you the licence fee, you give us programmes, we can do what we want with them within the confines of copyright law. The studios promised that they would boycott US free-to-air television unless they got a version of this called the ‘Broadcast Flag’. They didn’t get the Broadcast Flag, and they didn’t boycott. They have shareholders to answer to, and those shareholders won’t put up with corporate tantrums that promise no licensing revenue until the rest of the world rearranges itself to the company’s convenience.

This is important. Time to look out that list of BBC Trust members. And the OFCOM directory.

Amazon and the memory hole — contd.

Jeff Bezos may be hoping that his apology for the way copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm were deleted from customers’ Kindles would have got him off the hook. Maybe it will. But it ain’t over yet.

A growing number of civil libertarians and customer advocates wants Amazon to fundamentally alter its method for selling Kindle books, lest it be forced to one day change or recall books, perhaps by a judge ruling in a defamation case — or by a government deciding a particular work is politically damaging or embarrassing.

“As long as Amazon maintains control of the device it will have this ability to remove books and that means they will be tempted to use it or they will be forced to it,” said Holmes Wilson, campaigns manager of the Free Software Foundation.

The foundation, based in Boston, is soliciting signatures from librarians, publishers and major authors and public intellectuals. This week it plans to present a petition to Amazon asking it to give up control over the books people load on their Kindles, and to reconsider its use of the software called digital rights management, or D.R.M. The software allows the company to maintain strict control over the copies of electronic books on its reader and also prevents other companies from selling material for the device.

Two years after Amazon first introduced the Kindle and lighted a fire under the e-books market, there is increasing awareness of how traditional libraries of paper and ink differ from those made of bits and bytes. The D.R.M. in Amazon’s Kindle books, backed up by license agreements with copyright holders, prevents customers from copying or reselling Kindle books — the legal right of “first sale” that is guaranteed to owners of regular books…

Amazon and the memory hole

This morning’s Observer column.

Up to now, the debate about eBooks has been dominated by technical issues: ergonomics, portability, storage capacity, the readability of display screens, the quality of the user interface and so on. These are important matters, but ignore the biggest issue of all, namely the ways in which the technology enables content owners to assert a level of control over the reader that would be deemed unconscionable – and unacceptable – in the world of print.

Our societies have spent 400 years developing legal traditions which strike a reasonable balance between the needs of authors and publishers on the one hand and those of users on the other.

Compromises like the doctrine of ‘fair use’ are examples of that balancing act. One of the reasons the publishing industry is salivating over the potential of electronic texts is that they could radically tilt the balance in favour of content-owners in a single decade. We’re sleepwalking into a nightmare of perfect remote control. If nothing else, the tale of Amazon, Orwell and the memory hole ought to serve as a wake-up call.

Update: Bobbie Johnson had a good piece about this in the Technology section of Thursday’s Guardian and the following day reported the reaction of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, to the debacle. Bezos wrote:

“This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle… Our ‘solution’ to the problem was stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted and we deserve the criticism we’ve received.”

Orwell, Amazon and the downsides of tethered devices

With my Open University colleagues Martin Weller, Simon Rae and Doug Clow I’ve just finished an experimental online reading group aimed at exploring ways of encouraging ‘deep reading’. It’s aimed at people who are interested in ideas but find it difficult to find time to do anything other than skim-read serious books. The project is based on the idea that “if a book is worth reading then it’s worth reading well”. The first book we chose for the exercise was Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop it, a central theme of which is the dangers to ‘generativity’ (i.e. technology-enabled creativity) posed by tethered devices like the iPhone.

As far as I remember (I can’t locate my copy of the book just now), Zittrain doesn’t mention the Amazon Kindle, but — as we’ve seen in the last week — it provides a rather dramatic case study. I’ve already blogged about this, but the FT’s Richard Waters has posted a striking comment which makes the point well.

Amazon’s woeful decision to delete unauthorised copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from its customers’ Kindles hammers home an uncomfortable lesson.

The idea that you can “own” digital data, in the same sense that you can own a book, was always suspect. But at least some forms of digital media have conveyed many of the attributes of ownership. With local storage, the bits have been delivered onto a device that you can unplug and put in your pocket. The information, at that point, is “yours”.

Unless the device in question is a Kindle. Once connected to Sprint’s Whispernet (now that’s a name George Orwell would have appreciated) Amazon can (and did) reach in and delete it.

New internet media platforms like this raise a dilemna. Their owners have the power to control information on the client. So if they have a legal responsibility to remove data from their systems – say, after receiving a take-down notice under the DMCA – failing to expunge it may expose them to liability.

That seems to be the conclusion Amazon came to. The outcry this has caused has now led it to promise to be less intrusive in future, though it has failed to say how it will act the next time around.

Operating systems designed for the Web, like Chrome OS, take this further. With no local storage, nothing can ever be owned, only rented…

Yep. And that’s why anyone who thinks that the future belongs to eReaders is what Lenin had in mind when he coined the phrase “useful idiot”.

LATER: One of the participants in our online reading group sent us a link to this Bookseller article which draws attention to an interesting point made by the New York Times which reported that

Amazon’s actions were at odds with its published terms of service agreement for the Kindle that does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content”. Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle, the NYT noted.

The Bookseller reports that Amazon would now be altering its policy so that it could block illegal copies, but not take back copies innocently downloaded by customers. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” a spokesman said.

The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts)

Remarkable, thought-provoking post by Mark Pilgrim on the Orwellian overtones of the Amazon Kindle.

LATER: Right on cue comes this story from the New York Times:

In George Orwell’s “1984,” government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”

On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm,” that were dropped down the memory hole — by Amazon.com.

In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.

An Amazon spokesman, Drew Herdener, said in an e-mail message that the books were added to the Kindle store by a company that did not have rights to them, using a self-service function. “When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” he said.

Student challenges prof, wins right to post source code

Fascinating Boing Boing post by Cory Doctorow about a student’s fight to publish code that he wrote for an assignment.

Kyle’s a student at San Jose State University who was threatened with a failing grade for posting the code he wrote for the course — he wanted to make it available in the spirit of academic knowledge-sharing, and as code for potential future employers to review — and when he refused, his prof flew into a fury and promised that in future, he would make a prohibition on posting your work (even after the course was finished) a condition of taking his course.

Kyle appealed it to the department head, who took it up with the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development and the Judicial Affairs Officer of SJSU, who ruled that, "what you [Kyle] have done does not in any way constitute a violation of the University Academic Integrity Policy, and that Dr. Beeson cannot claim otherwise."

There’s a lot of meat on the bones of this story. The most important lesson from it for me is that students want to produce meaningful output from their course-assignments, things that have intrinsic value apart from their usefulness for assessing their progress in the course. Profs — including me, at times — fall into the lazy trap of wanting to assign rotework that can be endlessly recycled as work for new students, a model that fails when the students treat their work as useful in and of itself and therefore worthy of making public for their peers and other interested parties who find them through search results, links, etc.

Kyle’s blog post has lots more detail — including copies of the correspondence with his Prof and the university administration.

Thanks to Glyn Moody for Tweeting it.

Should genes be patentable?

From Technology Review.

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit that challenges the right of Myriad Genetics to patent a genetic test for breast cancer. The suit revives the question, should human DNA be owned?

For years, patent officials around the world have wrestled with how to apply existing patent law to the discovery of genes that promise to be powerful predictors of disease. The legal question has been, are these discoveries natural entities that cannot be patented, or can a diagnostic test involving a particular gene be considered intellectual property?

Currently, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has it both ways. It does not allow anyone to patent my own specific BRCA1 gene, but it allowed Myriad to patent the sequence of the gene with mutations that indicate breast cancer–which can then be compared with another patient's version of the gene to see if she carries the mutation pattern.

Now the ACLU, joined by a broad coalition of plaintiffs, including physicians, patient groups, and scientific associations, argues that this was a mistake and should be overturned…