Friday, July 22, 2005

Librarian skills

Jenny Levine's been thinking about the 20 Technology Skills Every Educator Should Have and believes librarians should be equally steeped in these crafts.

" 1. Word Processing Skills
2. Spreadsheets Skills
3. Database Skills
4. Electronic Presentation Skills
5. Web Navigation Skills
6. Web Site Design Skills
7. E-Mail Management Skills
8. Digital Cameras
9. Computer Network Knowledge Applicable to your School System
10. File Management & Windows Explorer Skills
11. Downloading Software From the Web (Knowledge including eBooks)
12. Installing Computer Software onto a Computer System
13. WebCT or Blackboard Teaching Skills
14. Videoconferencing skills
15. Computer-Related Storage Devices (Knowledge: disks, CDs, USB drives, zip disks, DVDs, etc.)
16. Scanner Knowledge
17. Knowledge of PDAs
18. Deep Web Knowledge
19. Educational Copyright Knowledge
20. Computer Security Knowledge

It's a pretty good list, and it becomes useful for us if we substitute the word "librarian" for "educator" throughout, even for items like #13 about WebCT and Blackboard because you have to understand the distance learning you'll be supporting more and more in the future (speaking from a public librarian perspective)."

I agree item 13. should be on the librarian list but I'd prefer the term "virtual learning environments (or VLEs)" instead of "WebCT or Blackboard", which, after all are only proprietary systems. We've been working with evolving VLEs on an industrial scale for about 10 years at the Open University in the UK and we don't use either WebCT or Blackboard.

Blackboard also felt it necessary to get a restraining order preventing students revealing security vunerablilities in their systems in April 2003, in order to prevent "irreparable injury to Blackboard" and their intellectual property rights. The court granted the injunction, so the company had a presentable legal case. There is a legimate question, however, about the degree of control that companies who build digital education systems should exercise over the information that flows through or about those systems.

My own preference is for VLEs to be open, modular, flexible and interoperable.

ID card bill finishes committee stage

From Spyblog: The controversial Identity Cards Bill completed its House of Commons Committee Stage yesterday, just before Parliament broke for the 80 day Summer Recess until October 6th.

UK software patent case

The England and Wales High Court (Patents Court) heard a software patent dispute in March this year. The decision of the deputy judge who presided over the case, Peter Prescott QC, is now available, CFPH LLC, Patent Applications by [2005] EWHC 1589 (Pat) (21 July 2005).

The whole debate over software patents which eventually got rejected recently again by the EU Parliament got horribly hung up on the meaning of the concept of a "technical effect" and what exactly constitutes an "invention." Mr Prescott, to his credit, admits explicitly that this gives the courts a problem:

"What is an 'invention' (in the sense I am now concerned with) is a topic bedevilled by verbal formulae – and by the sweeping of problems under the carpet. So, before I go any further I want to bring some of those problems out into the light of day.

But first: does it really matter? Is it merely a sterile argument about the meaning of words? To which I answer that whoever controls the meaning of 'invention' controls what can be patented and hence an important aspect of industrial policy. There can be but one justification for having a patent system, and that is that it is good for the people of the country. If the patenting of certain things does more harm than good, it matters. Patents that are wrongly granted can be very expensive to challenge and may deter small and medium enterprises.


At the risk of some inaccuracy, patents are supposed to be granted for non-obvious advances in technology. I said "at the risk of some inaccuracy". We sense that we know 'technology' when we see it. And no doubt that is correct, most of the time.

But it is not correct all of the time. Therein lies the delusion. You can prove that for yourself by trying to find a definition of 'technology' that everybody can agree on. The more you try, the more you will discover what a horribly imprecise concept it is. (Would it cover an astro-navigation chart?[4] Naval tactics?[5] Double-entry bookkeeping? The phonetic alphabet?[6]) Many have tried to frame an acceptable definition, but to the best of my knowledge none have succeeded[7]. It is like the equally vexing question, "What is Art?". The hard truth is this: concepts of that sort have no existence, and words of that sort have no meaning, except by human convention; but human beings are hopelessly in disagreement at the margin. And it is, precisely, at the margin of uncertainty that cases come up for decision.

The same goes for the cognate word 'technical'. A number of surveys in the context of patenting have shown that, not only is there no agreement about the meaning of the word, but that most informed respondents agree that "trying to define the words 'technical' or 'technology' is a dead-end" [8]. That 'technical' is vague has implicitly been recognised in our courts too. For example, in Gale's Application [1991] RPC 305, 328 Nicholls LJ said that Mr Gale's algorithm did not solve a 'technical' problem lying within the computer. He continued:

I confess to having difficulty in identifying clearly the boundary line between what is and what is not a technical problem for this purpose. That, at least to some extent, may well be no more than a reflection of my lack of expertise in this field.

But for my part I think Nicholls LJ was too modest. I believe his difficulty arose, not through lack of expertise, but because of the inherent vagueness of the concept itself. In Fujitsu Limited's Application [1997] EWCA Civ 1174, [1997] RPC 608 Aldous LJ said:

I, like Nicholls LJ, have difficulty in identifying clearly the boundary line between what is and what is not a technical contribution.

Likewise the German Federal Court of Justice in XZB 15/98,"Sprachanalyseeinrichtung", 11 May 2000.

I mention this near the outset of this judgment because it is important. If you look at the case law on the subject, both here and in Munich, you will find many references to "technical contribution", "technical result", and so on, being touchstones by which these cases are decided. The use of the word 'technical' as a short-hand expression in order to identify patentable subject-matter is often convenient. But it should be remembered that it was not used by the framers of the Patents Act 1977 or the European Patent Convention when they wanted to tell us what is or is not an 'invention'. In any case the word 'technical' is not a solution. It is merely a restatement of the problem in different and more imprecise language. I am not claiming that it is wrong to decide cases with reference to the word 'technical'. It happens all the time. What I am saying is that it is not a panacea. It is a useful servant but a dangerous master."

Having worked in a Technology Faculty for the past ten years or so, it will be no surprise to know that academic colleagues have wrestled with the notion of a definitive definition of the word "technology" for many generations. It's imperfect and will be of little use to Mr Prescott and judicial colleagues but a working definition we sometimes use with our students is:

"Technology is the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by organisations that involve people and machines."

No. It doesn't transfer well to the legal context.

The judge decided, btw, that the network betting software under consideration did not qualify as patentable, confirming the original Patent Office ruling.

Freedom of expression dispute

Kimbrew McLeod is has written to Leo Stoller, a man who claims to own the words "stealth," "hoax" and "chutzpah" amongst others and derives a healthy income threatening to sue organisations using these words without his permission. If you scroll down the list of phrases he claims to own, however, you'll come to one, "freedom of expression", for which McLeod was awarded a trademark, in 1998.

McLeod applied for the trademark as prank to test the United States Patent and Trademark Office system - would he be able to get such a trademark in a country where freedom of expression was protected by the constitution. Well it seems he would, could and did. His FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION mark was registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office on January 6, 1998, and it bears the registration number 2,127,381.

Doubleday (Random House) also published a wonderful book by McLeod earlier this year called "FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity"

So once Kimbrew McLeod found out Leo Stoller was claiming ownership of his famous trademarked phrase, he wasn't going to pass up on the opportunity to generate some publicity over it. It's worth saying that Stoller is not the only one making a tidy sum from the kind of activity he's engaged in. There's a guy called Ashleigh Brilliant (I kid you not) in California who claims he owns about 7500 aphorisms and makes a living threatening to sue companies (largely publishing and media companies I believe) who unknowingly step on his "property." Publishing houses all too familiar with the costs of defending lawsuits rightly calculate it will usually work out cheaper just to pay royalites or damages. Nice work if you can get it. Ooops. I hope that doesn't belong to Brilliant or Stoller, though George and Ira Gershwin would, of course have a stronger claim (or possibly even Fred Astaire's family, as I think he was the first to record the song).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

New Open Access Copyright Journal

Larry Lessig and Michael Geist have launched a new open access journal on copyright. Good idea. From the website:

Copyright, a new peer-reviewed journal led by a renowned editorial team, seeks papers on all aspects of copyright in the Internet age. The journal features an extremely rapid review and publication time while maintaining rigorous standards on the quality of work. Every effort will be made to have the initial reviewers' decision within two weeks of submission. The journal focuses on detailed research and case studies vetted by peer-review; opinion pieces and shorter communications are also invited and will be accepted at the editors' discression.

Copyright is structured to be a new type of journal, not just a place to publish ideas but a locus to generate them--vital in an area of academic interest largely composed of subdisciplines of other fields. For instance, while the majority of articles will still be published in the traditional fashion, a novel, collaborative approach has been implemented as well. Potential authors can simply begin contributing to such an article while the system tracks the individuals' contributions. The article is then submitted through the normal review process and, if accepted, authorship is assigned based on the tracked contributions as the last step of the review process.

Copyright is particularly interested in publishing interdisciplinary works and works not normally considered within the purview of such a journal, such as those covering social and political impact of copyright. The journal also encourages lay participation through community projects.

Copyright seeks articles on all topics related to copyright, including:
Digital Rights Management
Quantitative studies of the effects of legislation
Scholarly communication and Open Access
Peer-to-peer networks
International copyright
Collaborative authorship
Blogs and other new media
Collaborative filtering
Copyright in developing nations
Social implications of copyright
This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Indeed, high-quality papers relating to any aspect of copyright are welcome.

The Quakers on ID cards

William Heath has a quote from Quaker Parliamentary Liaison Secretary, Michael Bartlett, on ID cards:

"..some Quakers feel the scale of suspicion in current proposals amounts to a denial of integrity comparable to the former insistence on swearing oaths. A requirement to produce biometric evidence of identity, in such everyday transactions as visiting a GP, symbolises a breakdown of trust unprecedented in peacetime and unparalleled in Common Law jurisdictions...At the heart of a Quaker attitude to governance is the understanding that it is unhealthy for too much power to be concentrated in any one place. A decision to require compulsory holding of identity cards goes to the nub of democratic politics: the relationship between the citizen, the community and the state. Such a fundamental shift in this balance calls for a maturity of debate that cannot be conducted in the sound bites of studio phone ins and requires the type of reasoned public consultation that cannot take place in a general election campaign."

I agree with Mr Bartlett that the public debate lacks maturity. I doubt whether it will progress to the depth he would wish on the issues of liberty he focuses on, however, when we can't even get past canards and personal insults on the technology aspects alone.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The firefight with the LSE will continue

William Heath has it on good authority that the UK government's firefight with the LSE over ID cards will continue.

New anti terror law for UK

Another anti terrorism law will be passed in the UK in the Autumn, following the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke's meeting with the opposition home affairs spokesmen, Mark Oaten and David Davis. Having successfully pushed through data retention plans at the EU council of ministers meeting, Mr Clarke is maintaining his commitment to resist rushing through new anti-terror laws in the wake of the London bombings. This legislation was already in the pipeline before the London atrocities and this new agreement with the opposition parties merely enables it to be processed more quickly through parliament than Mr Clarke originally envisaged.

D-lib magazine 10 years old

What Peter Suber describes as one of the most successful and influential OA journals covering digital-library issues, the 10th anniversary edition of D-Lib Magazine is now online. Particularly recommended is Clifford Lynch's article
Where Do We Go From Here? The Next Decade for Digital Libraries The language is a little heavy but the sentiment familiar - focus on what you want your information system to do, not on what the invogue technology can currently do:

"The next decade for digital libraries may well be characterized most profoundly by the transition from technologies and prototypes to the ubiquitous, immersive, and pervasive deployment of digital library technologies and services in the broader information and information technology landscape."

Get on the damn elevator!

Melanie Scarborough at the Cato Institute recently released an interesting paper, called The Security Pretext, the thesis of which can be partly summed up in past and likely future presidential candidate, Senator John McCain's words, "Get on the damn elevator. Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up for crying out loud. You're almost certainly going to be ok. And in the unlikely event that you're not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That's not a life worth living is it?"

Scarborough argues that "national security" is being used as an excuse to justify otherwise unsustainable measures and spending "on everything from peanut subsidies to steel protectionism...

For freedom to prevail in the age of terrorism, three things are essential. First, government officials must take a sober look at the potential risk and recognize that there is no reason to panic and act rashly.

Second, Congress must stop federal police agencies from acting arbitrarily. Before imposing costly and restrictive security measures that inconvenience thousands of people, police agencies ought to be required to produce cost-benefit analyses.

Third, government officials must demonstrate courage rather than give in to their fears. Radical Islamic terrorists are not the first enemy that America has faced."

She's being a little unfair on the policing agencies. You can't blame them (or the peanut bureaucrats!) for raising their sails to take advantage of prevailing political winds. I believe it's a function what economists call public goods theory (everyone acts in their own best interests). It's up to each of us as individuals, as well as the politicians and the hard working public servants in these agencies to maintain a sense of perspective and, to paraphrase Senator McCain, get on the damn plane, preferably without having to wait for granny to have her shoes searched.

UK Governmment press ahead with child database

The UK government have decided to go ahead with plans for an electronic database to track every child in the country in response to the appalling child murder cases of recent years. (They actually have little choice, having passed the Children Act last year, which provides the legal basis for it).

The House of Commons Education and Skills committee produced their response to the government's plans in March this year. The government released their response to the committee's response last month.

From the summary of the committee's report:

"The government needs to be commended at the outset for embarking on such an ambitious and wide-ranging programme of root-and-branch reform.

We have been impressed by the commitment, dedication and enthusiasm demonstrated by those responsible for delivering the reforms at the front line...

Some specific aspects of the reforms give us cause for concern. The government has proposed the establishment of a network of 'child indexes' (or databases) containing basic details on all children in England, to aid communication between professionals. These proposals are not currently well-grounded in research evidence. Crucial decisions to go ahead in principle were taken before it could be demonstrated that the indexes would be worthwhile and that practical problems with security and with keeping information up to date could be overcome. We welcome reassurances given to us by the Minister for Children, Young People and Families that she could proceed slowly and would not enter into commissioning arrangements for child indexes lightly, and that more research will be undertaken before going ahead."

It goes on to say that resourcing of the proposals will be a challenge and that the government notion that resources should be found through local savings in existing budgets are unrealistic.

The government's response effectively rejects the committee's more serious criticisms and welcomes their helpful advice, particularly suggestions to do more research before proceeding too quickly.

I have a couple of questions.

Firstly why didn't the committee report their views before the 2004 Children Act was passed? In relation to the information systems that the heart of the proposals the committee's questions about security and integrity of the information are pretty fundamental.

Secondly, when the government mentions doing more research before proceeding, does this mean real independent research or just commissioning consultants to tell them what they are doing is a good idea? This is neither a criticism of the government nor of the consultants. It is a well known tenet of modern management that you have to pay your own employees whether you listen to them or not. If, however, you pay external consultants a lot of money to conduct a study, then that money is wasted if you don't listen to their opinion (the fact that this is a sunk cost, the spending of which should be irrelevant to the decision making, is always overlooked). Therefore, in commissioning consultants it is politically expedient to ensure that they have clear objectives right from the start, including a knowledge of what the commissioner would wish the commissioning organisation to hear on the subject.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Harry Potter and the e-pirates

Apparently the latest Harry Potter novel, which sold nearly 7 million copies in the first day, has already been illegally copied and distributed in electronic form.

Universal Music Australia Pty Ltd v Cooper

A court in Austalia has held a website owner and his hosting ISP liable for facilitating copyright infringement. Stephen Cooper ran the "MP3s4FREE" website. It's not particularly surprising that Mr Cooper was held liable for copyright infringement but he has also been held liable for linking to other websites containing infringing material.

The court made copiuous reference to a much criticised US court decision, Universal City Studios, Inc v Reimerdes, where the defendant editor of the Hacker 2600 magazine, despite relying on a first amendment defence, was also held liable for linking (in that case to websites containing the DMCA-outlawed DeCSS code). Although Judge Kaplan was criticised over the DeCSS linking decision my most enduring memory of that judgement was his entertaining expose of the publicity seeking tactics of both sides in the case.

Thanks to Yiango Yiangoullis for providing a link to the Cooper decision.

William Hill v BHB

A VUNet report on Friday last suggests that William Hill's victory in its long running dispute with the British Horseracing Board (BHB) means that publicly available information cannot be locked away in commercial databases to the extent that critics of the EU database directive have often argued.

Article 7(1) of the directive says "Member States shall provide for a right for the maker of a database which shows that there has been qualitatively and/or quantitatively a substantial investment in either the obtaining, verification or presentation of the contents to prevent extraction and/or re-utilization of the whole or of a substantial part, evaluated qualitatively and/or quantitatively, of the contents of that database."

The case had been referred back to the UK Court of Appeal by the European Court of Justice, which has said that in relation to the BHB database (italics mine),

"The resources used to draw up a list of horses in a race and to carry out checks in that connection do not constitute investment in the obtaining and verification of the contents of the database in which that list appears."

The UK Appeal Court, though clearly sympathetic to the BHB cause, conclude that clinches the case for William Hill. It will be interesting to see how this affects future database disputes.


The latest edition of Edinburgh Univeristy's AHRC Research Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law Script-ed journal is now available. As usual it is recommended reading. Particularly recommended are

the special feature on the FIGARO International Workshop: “Intellectual Property Rights Issues of Digital Publishing - Presence and Perspectives”, which was held at Hamburg University in September 2003

a paper by Marko Berglund on The Protection of Traditional Knowledge Related to Genetic Resources and

Andrés Guadamuz González's paper on legal challenges to open source.