Friday, February 02, 2007

Blackboard offer peace treaty to open source community

Blackboard, it seems, have recognised the damage to their image they have done by patenting elearning.

"Facing sharp criticism from academic computing experts, Blackboard Inc. announced Thursday what it calls a legally binding promise that it won't pursue patent lawsuits against users of open-source online classroom technology.

An open-source group said it welcomed the move but noted a key caveat: It covers a number of named open-source projects, but technically leaves open the possibility future open-source initiatives that bundle proprietary software could be vulnerable...

Blackboard denied it would sue academic users but will now make that commitment more formal, with a worldwide agreement that the company's chief legal officer, Matthew Small, said could be used in court against the company if it ever pursued such an action."

Oh dear. The solution to the lawyerly problems is more lawyers. From the BlackBoard site:

"In summary, the Blackboard Patent Pledge is a promise by the company to never assert its issued or pending course management system software patents against open source software or home-grown course management systems. The Blackboard Pledge is legally binding, irrevocable and worldwide in scope.

"As a member of the e-Learning community, we are committed to the open exchange of ideas, collaboration and innovation," said Michael Chasen, president and chief executive officer of Blackboard. "This pledge is part of that commitment and our continued efforts to work collaboratively with the e- Learning community to foster greater openness and interoperability."

Specifically, the Pledge commits Blackboard not to assert U.S. Patent No. 6,988,138 and many other pending patent applications against the development, use or distribution of open source software or home-grown course management systems anywhere in the world, to the extent that such systems are not bundled with proprietary software...

The Blackboard Patent Pledge along with many Frequently Asked Questions can be found at"

The BlackBoard patent pledge is here.

Artists face jail after cartoon stunt sparks US terror alert

The Independent reports further evidence of the irrational paranoia in the US about potential terror attacks in Artists face jail after cartoon stunt sparks US terror alert

" Two artists from Boston found themselves in court yesterday facing the possibility of a prison sentence after signs they had placed around the city to advertise a late-night animated show triggered a traffic-snarling terror scare.

Boston police closed major commuter arteries, underground stations and even a section of the Charles River on Wednesday after receiving phone calls from concerned citizens who had spotted the devices and apparently mistaken them for bombs. The scare crippled parts of downtown Boston.

The Cartoon Network, owned by Turner Broadcasting, later acknowledged that it had contracted with a publicity company, Interference Inc, to distribute the foot-tall, magnetic signs around Boston and nine other cities, including New York and Chicago."

Meanwhile the real terrorists are rolling around on their floors laughing at the fear and panic in downtown America, stoked up by politicians, the media and a wide-eyed populace that is collectively responsible for facilitating this timid mindset, merely because it does nothing effective to counter it. And two blokes are now facing a jail sentence for putting up neon lights promoting a cartoon for goodness sake! The lunatics are well and truly in control of the assylum.

Meanwhile on this side of the assylum, Home Secretary John Reid has been attempting to use the recent terror raids as an excuse to push through longer detention-without- charge limits. The West Midlands police involved in detained the terrorist suspect are less than pleased that Reid waded in. A police insider said:

"There was no need for the Home Secretary to wade in and get his name on the job. He was clearly trying to make political capital out of it. This was not appreciated."

For evil to triumph it requires only that good people do nothing...

Update from Declan:

"So I read the Massachusetts attorney general's press release about the
Aqua Teen Hunger Force lights:

And was interested in what law the "only hair questions" guys are
charged with violating. I've placed the statute here:

The law is actually one prohibiting "infernal machines." No, I am not
making this up. Yes, only in Massachusetts."

Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis

Working Group 1 of the the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are releasing the IPCC's 4th report today in Paris. A summary for policymakers (SPM) is already available (pdf 2.2M) as is a chapter outline of the full report.

Bush oil imports policy fails basic economics test

I missed this a couple of weeks back, Bush oil imports policy fails basic economics test

"George Bush’s policy on reducing US oil imports would flunk an elementary economics test, experts at the University of Sussex Energy Group said today. The aim of reducing US oil usage by 20% over the next 10 years, as outlined in Bush’s State of the Union address, while a laudable and long-overdue goal, is highly unlikely to make much impression on oil imports. Here’s how: Oil is a commodity traded on price, and abundant Middle East oil means that it is cheap. In addition, the US will be unable to erect trade barriers due to world trade rules...

Sussex Energy Group experts made the following observations on Bush’s address:

• Reliance on Ethanol: fuel from ethanol may help to increase indigenous production of fuel for vehicles but this comes at a price: the intensively grown grain used to produce ethanol itself takes considerable amounts of energy to produce...

• Technology fantasies: Technology can undoubtedly help address environmental challenges, but Bush’s reliance on technology to solve his energy and environmental problems leaves untouched the question of consumer behaviour. This is the elephant in the room that no US politician seems willing to discuss yet lies at the core of the US citizen’s place at the top of the league table for energy use, emissions and consumption of other resources."

Thanks to Chris Blackmore for the pointer.

ICO advises schools to ask permission to take fingerprints

The Information Commissioner's Office is now advising schools with fingerprint systems to ask the child's and parents' permission before taking fingerprints.

"A spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office said: "Because of the sensitivity of the issue, we are recommending that schools follow best practice and ask permission of parent and pupil before they take a fingerprint."

However, he said: "There's nothing in the act that makes that clear," and could not explain what would happen to schools that failed to follow this advice. Neither could he say at what age a child could assume legal responsibility for its own behaviour, without seeking parental advice...

This was the basis on which the ICO worked till now. Last September when the ICO guidance on school fingerprinting was said to be just weeks away from publication, David Smith, now deputy commissioner, said that schools could fingerprint children without parental consent under the Data Protection Act. As long as kids were deemed to be old enough to make their own minds up, the school could ask them and keep parents out of the loop."

Truth, lies and the law, US style

There is a high profile trial going on in the US at the moment which won't have registered with too many people on this side of the pond. Sooter Libby, former chief of staff of Vice Presient Cheney, is charged with lying to federal prosecutors investigating the Bush administration's leak of the identity of CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, had publicly criticised the administration for claiming that Iraq had been seeking weapons grade Uranium in Niger. In the light of the Libby trial, Edward Lazurus has been thinking about how the law in the US treats the telling of truth and lies.

"At the Top of the Hierarchy: The Lies (and Truths) For Which We Jail the Tellers

At the top of the punishment pyramid are those lies we consider so reprehensible that we will send people to jail for telling them.

Among current news stories, the Libby trial is the most obvious example. Society places a very high value on telling the truth to government investigators, or to grand juries investigating crimes. The same is true of sworn statements in court; if false, they constitute the crime of perjury. In such circumstances, deliberately misrepresenting the truth is a felony.

By the same token, however, you can also go to jail for telling the truth - at least if you aren't forthcoming about how you came by the truth.

Consider the BALCO steroids scandal, in which a federal grand jury has been considering whether to indict a variety of professional athletes, including baseball star Barry Bonds, in connection with their alleged use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Not long ago, a couple of enterprising reporters wrote a very well-received book about the scandal, based in part on secret grand jury testimony that had been leaked to them.

It isn't a crime to receive or to publish such grand jury testimony (though it is a crime to leak it). Moreover, no one has suggested that the two journalists somehow misreported or distorted what was said in the grand jury. And it's pretty hard to argue that the journalists' work was not of substantial public interest. But - like journalists across the country who come into possession of information relevant to whether someone else has committed a crime -- they've been threatened over and over again with jail for refusing to reveal their sources. "

Ironically in the steroids case the journalists look like the only ones in the entire affair in danger of being jailed and yet they were the ones who exposed the wrongdoing.

More evoting problems in Florida in 2006

Ed Felten says:

"The big e-voting story from November’s election was in Sarasota, Florida, where a congressional race was decided by about 400 votes, with 18,412 undervotes. That’s 18,412 voters who cast votes in other races but not, according to the official results, in that congressional race. Among voters who used the ES&S iVotronic machines — that is, non-absentee voters in Sarasota County — the undervote rate was about 14%. Something went very wrong...

Several explanations have been proposed, but only two are at all plausible: ballot design and machine malfunction. The ballot design theory says that the ballot offered to voters on the iVotronic’s screen was misdesigned in a way that caused many voters to miss that race. Looking at screenshots of the ballot, one can see how voters might miss the congressional race at the top of the second page...

It’s one thing to say that ballot design could have caused some undervotes, but it’s another thing entirely to say it was the sole cause of so elevated an undervote rate...

The malfunction theory postulates a problem or malfunction with the voting machines that caused votes not to be recorded. There are many types of problems that could have caused lost votes...

If we had a voter-verified paper trail, we could immediately tell which theory is correct, by comparing the paper and electronic records. If the voter-verified paper records show the same high undervote race, then the ballot design theory is right. If the paper and electronic records show significantly different undervote rates, then something is wrong with the machines. But of course the advocates of paperless voting argued that paper trails were unnecessary — while also arguing that touchscreen systems reduce undervotes."

Felten will be offering some more thoughts on the problem over the next week or so.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Mixers raided

From the NYT: Cracking Down on Mixtape CDs

"Not long before Christmas, Jeff Baker, the chief of police of Morrow, Ga., a small town just south of Atlanta, and one of his officers were walking through a local shopping mall when they happened to pass a kiosk hawking rap music CDs. One in particular caught their attention... did not carry the name or address of the owner of the music copyrights, as Georgia law requires. Rather than arrest the kiosk vendor immediately, Chief Baker said, “We’d rather go after the source of the material. And at that point we had no idea what the source was.”

Any rap music aficionado would; the creator of the album is DJ Drama, whose real name is Tyree Simmons, arguably the nation’s most prominent producer of mixtapes, the name given to popular but largely unlicensed CDs stocked with yet-to-be released rap hits and free-style rhymes.

And many more people now know: last week, local authorities, working with the recording industry’s trade association, stunned fans and music executives alike by raiding DJ Drama’s studio in Atlanta and arresting him and a fellow D.J., Don Cannon, on racketeering charges."

Recommended reading.

Microsoft Vista Security Hole

From the BBC:

"Microsoft has admitted that speech recognition features in Vista could be hijacked so that a PC tells itself to delete files or folders."

Lobbyists for HAVA and evoting

The Black Box Voting folks have been looking into who specifically did all the lobbying to get the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed (which basically mandates electronic voting) and seem to be a little surprised at what they have found.

"While many election reform activists are under the impression that touch-screen (DRE) voting machines were some sort of Republican plot to take over America, the truth is that lobbying for the DRE-seeking "Help America Vote Act" came primarily from the foundation of the Democratic Party itself.

Activists throughout America have expressed surprise at the Democratic Party's unwillingness to pull DREs off the shelf. One reason is simply this: To do so would damage the credibility of those who lobbied for HAVA. And those who lobbied for HAVA just happen to be the biggest funders and activist workhorses for the Democratic Party itself...


1. Public interest groups - mostly progressive
2. Labor unions
3. Minority rights groups
4. Disability rights groups
5. Industry

Of these, the first four tend to favor Democrats but the fifth group -- industry, the group charged with writing the computer code that counts America's votes -- is made of of vendors that are more often close to the Republican Party.

Democrats lobbied HAVA in but to a large extent, Republican-affiliated vendors executed the mechanics of the plan. Some would call this comical; others, tragic."

These stories rarely involve a simple conspiracy on the part of an easily identifiable set of bad guys though the situation could be argued to contain its fair share of those. More often than not it is a complex mess of people, organisations, issues, situations and agendas leading to a series of decisions with, as the electronic voting scenario in the US aptly demonstrates, a less than optimum outcome.

Billion dollar pills

From the Economist: Billion dollar pills, an article wondering if the pharmaceutical industry's business model, esesntially focussing on blockbuster drugs and exploiting them to the nth degree, is suffering.

Sony settle with FTC over rootkit charges

Sony have settled with the FTC on charges related to the damage done by the drm rootkit on some of their music CDs. They have apparently agreed to pay customers up to $150 for damage to their PCs.

"According to the Federal Trade Commission, which announced the settlement, Sony BMG's anti-piracy software limited the devices on which music could be played to those made by Sony Corp., Microsoft Corp. or other Windows-compatible devices.

The software also restricted the number of copies of the music that could be made to three, the agency said, and ``exposed consumers to significant security risks and was unreasonably difficult to uninstall.''

``Installations of secret software that create security risks are intrusive and unlawful,'' FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said...

The settlement requires the company to allow consumers to exchange through the end of June the affected CDs purchased before Dec. 31, 2006, and reimburse them up to $150 to repair damage done when they tried to remove the software. It also requires Sony BMG to clearly disclose limitations on consumers' use of music CDs and prohibits it from installing software without consumer consent.

For two years, Sony BMG also must provide an uninstall tool and patches to repair the security vulnerabilities on consumers' computers and must advertise them on its Web site. The company also is required to publish notices describing the exchange and repair reimbursement programs on its Web site."

Britain blocks Italy's bid to ban death penalty

Hidden away on page 19 of yesterday's Independent: Britain blocks Italy's bid to ban death penalty. Last week the Italian government tried to get EU foreign ministers to support an initiative for a global ban on capital punishment. The UK scuppered the plan because they though it might have embarrassed the US. Disgraceful.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Former NYT reporter to testify in CIA leak case

From Findlaw:

"Journalists will take center stage Tuesday at the CIA leak trial as Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald begins calling reporters as witnesses.

Fitzgerald said Judith Miller was to take the stand Tuesday, the first time the former New York Times reporter has testified publicly against the man she went to jail to protect as a source.

Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, is accused of perjury and obstruction for lying about conversations he had with journalists about outed CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Prosecutors want to show that Libby lied to investigators about his conversations with journalists regarding Plame, who believes she was outed as retribution for her husband's criticism of the Bush administration's prewar intelligence on Iraq."

Monday, January 29, 2007

Information Commissioner says patients may opt out of NHS spine

Via the Register:

"The Information Commissioner has been told that patients will have the opportunity to refuse to have their details uploaded onto the new NHS medical records system. The news comes just weeks after the Department of Health refused patients that right. "

Patent Office Orders Re-Examination of Blackboard Patent

Pamela Jones and the Software Freedom Center (which made the formal request) report that BlackBoard's patent on elearning systems is being re-examined by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

"In response to a formal request filed by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) today ordered re-examination of the e-learning patent owned by Blackboard Inc.

SFLC, provider of pro-bono legal services to protect and advance Free and Open Source Software, had filed the request in November on behalf of Sakai, Moodle, and ATutor, three open source educational software projects. The Patent Office found that prior art cited in SFLC's request raises "a substantial new question of patentability" regarding all 44 claims of Blackboard's patent."

That's good news in my book and ther eis a good chance the US will now quash the indefensible patent on prior art grounds but remember it is not just in the US that BlackBoard have succeeded in securing this patent. Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have granted the patent and it is pending in the EU and various other parts of the world.

Novartis v India on drug patents

From OneWorld:

"India, which amended its patent laws for TRIPS-compliance in 2005, introduced a clause to ensure that pharmaceuticals did not block the entry of low-cost generic drugs. A year ago this clause blocked Novartis’ patent application for its anti-cancer drug Gleevec. Now, in a major case that will have a profound effect on the affordability of essential medicines in India, Novartis is challenging this unique Indian provision

A division bench of the Madras High Court is set to hear a case that could potentially have a profound effect on the affordability of essential medicines in India and throughout the developing world. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG is challenging the constitutional validity of a key provision in India’s Patents Act; a provision designed to ensure that frivolous 20-year patent monopolies are not granted at the cost of public health. If Novartis succeeds in this unprecedented challenge, India’s status as the primary supplier of low-cost essential medicines to the developing world will be jeopardised. More fundamentally, if it succeeds, it will mark the first time in history that a multinational corporation succeeds in legally abrogating a country’s sovereign right to implement its obligations under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) in a manner consistent with the protection of public health.

The legal provision at issue – Section 3(d) of the Patents Act – is a provision unique to Indian law, and stipulates that modifications of already-known medicines cannot be patented unless such modifications make the drugs significantly more effective. This provision was designed to prevent an all-too-common practice in the pharmaceutical industry known as ‘evergreening’, whereby patent owners patent trivial modifications of already existing drugs to artificially extend their monopolies beyond the 20-year period granted it on the original patent. Pharmaceutical companies have been engaging in such practices in other countries, effectively blocking the entry of low-cost generics for years...

Armed with this provision, the Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA) in September 2005 filed an opposition against Novartis’ patent application for its anti-cancer drug Gleevec, claiming that this application only concerned a modification of an already-known drug that did not improve its efficacy. Subsequently, in a landmark decision, the Patent Office in Chennai declared in January 2006 that Novartis’ patent application for Gleevec was insufficient to meet the requirements of Section 3(d), and denied Novartis a patent...

In March 2006, the Indian Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS and the Manipur Network of Positive People filed an opposition against GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK’s) patent application for Combivir, an important fixed-dose combination of two of the most widely used antiretroviral medicines in the developing world. The substance of GSK’s patent application proved to be exceedingly silly, and is demonstrative of exactly the type of frivolous patenting that Section 3(d) was enacted to prevent. Essentially, GSK sought a 20-year monopoly for combining two already known drugs – lamivudine and zidovudine, neither of which are patentable in India – with something called a ‘glidant’, of which the preferred variety is silicon dioxide, better known to most people as sand. To be fair, it was not just sand that is the subject of GSK’s ‘invention’. It also included corn starch, talc, calcium carbonate (better known as chalk) and a host of other simple, commonplace substances that drug makers routinely add when making a drug in pill form. Remarkably enough, as with Novartis and Gleevec, GSK had already obtained a patent for this in the United States, the United Kingdom, and several other countries.

In the face of the strong opposition filed by the activist groups, and the sheer frivolity of its patent application, GSK announced in March 2006 that it would be withdrawing its patent application for Combivir, thereby allowing several Indian generic manufacturers to continue making their versions of this essential drug combination without fear of liability."

India v Pakistan on Basmati Rice

The FT reports that the latest dispute between India and Pakistan is over intellectual property rights in Basmati rice.

Diebold Shows How to Make Your Own Voting Machine Key

From Alex Haldermann via Freedom to Tinker: Diebold Shows How to Make Your Own Voting Machine Key.

"By now it should be clear that Diebold’s AccuVote-TS electronic voting machines have lousy security. Our study last fall showed that malicious software running on the machines can invisibly alter votes, and that this software can be installed in under a minute by inserting a new memory card into the side of the machine. The last line of defense against such attacks is a cheap lock covering the memory card door. Our video shows that the lock can be picked in seconds, and, infamously, it can also be opened with a key that is widely sold for use in hotel minibars and jukeboxes...

According to published reports, nearly all the machines deployed around the country use the exact same key. Up to this point we’ve been careful not to say precisely which key or show the particular pattern of the cuts. The shape of a key is like a password — it only provides security if you keep it secret from the bad guys. We’ve tried to keep the shape secret so as not to make an attacker’s job even marginally easier, and you would expect a security-conscious vendor to do the same.

Not Diebold. Ross Kinard of SploitCast wrote to me last month to point out that Diebold offers the key for sale on their web site. Of course, they won’t sell it to just anybody — only Diebold account holders can order it online. However, as Ross observed, Diebold’s online store shows a detailed photograph of the key...

Could an attacker create a working key from the photograph? Ross decided to find out...

Ross sent me his three homemade keys, and, amazingly, two of them can open the locks on the Diebold machine we used in our study!"

Google v Stoller

Rebecca Tushnet says Google have sued Leo Stoller the guy that claimed to have a trademark on the word "stealth." That will earn them a few brownie points in the cyber rights community.

"Here's something that will make Google very few new enemies, and perhaps some new friends: As reported by the TTABlog, Google has sued Leo Stoller, the well-known trademark "entrepreneur," for false advertising, RICO violations (the predicate acts being state-law extortion and wire and mail fraud), and unfair competition. The complaint, 222 pages including the exhibits, is here.

I've said a couple of times in this space that there's no provision in trademark law penalizing false claims of trademark ownership, or even false claims to own a federal registration, in contrast to the rule for patents. Google has brought its claims under the Lanham Act's general prohibition of false advertising; not only does it dispute Stoller's claims to own a federal registration to the mark "Google," but its allegations also encompass Stoller's claims to own common-law rights in the mark, representations that he could license the mark, representations that he'd prevailed in numerous court cases, and representations that "99% of [his] opponents opt to settle.""

Stoller also claimed to own the phrase "freedom of expression" which irritated Kimbrew McLeod, who had actually managed to get a trademark on the phrase some years previously in an exercise in demonstrating the otherworldlyness of the US system of intellectual property.

Vista Red Flags

Michael Geist says the small print in Microsoft Vista's licence raises red flags.

"for the past few months the legal and technical communities have dug into Vista's "fine print." Those communities have raised red flags about Vista's legal terms and conditions as well as the technical limitations that have been incorporated into the software at the insistence of the motion picture industry.

The net effect of these concerns may constitute the real Vista revolution as they point to an unprecedented loss of consumer control over their own personal computers. In the name of shielding consumers from computer viruses and protecting copyright owners from potential infringement, Vista seemingly wrestles control of the "user experience" from the user.

Vista's legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user's knowledge...

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for "spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software." The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software. Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated "high" or "severe,"even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted."

Intelligent caring teens

There is a wonderful letter in today's Independent from an inner city school teacher, Brian Collier (scroll down to Blair's distortions and 'respect zones'). He questions Tony Blair's demonisation of today's teenagers.

"I am a year older than the PM, and I remember the "Wilful Damage" posters on the wall of my primary school in Bury, Lancashire. I remember my parents lamenting the lack of manners of young people in the Fifties and Sixties. I remember gangs of "teddy boys" with razor blades and bicycle chains fighting in the centre of town on Friday night. I remember football hooliganism on a scale that would fuel our worst nightmares now...

Young people today are more caring, more questioning, more intelligent and less racist than they've ever been. I should know, I teach A-levels to an extremely diverse groups of teenagers in an inner-city further education college."

It's good to see someone who works with and understands young people speaking out on their behalf.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Head of the Youth Justice Board Edged out for being off message

From ARCH:

"The head of the Youth Justice Board, Rod Morgan, has resigned after the Home Office decided to advertise his job rather than simply renew his contract. He isn’t going quietly. In a Newsnight interview to be shown tonight, he says of the 26% increase in children entering the criminal justice system that:

government targets for bringing offences to justice were having “perverse consequences” by swelling prisoner numbers unnecessarily.

Minor offences that used to be dealt with informally or out of court were now being pushed into an overstretched criminal justice system, and work to improve regimes in young offender institutions was being “undermined”

Predictably, the Home Office has a two-fingered response:

“We refute the claim that young people are being demonised and criminalised. Considerable emphasis has been placed on providing activities for young people.”

As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Home Office is already pretty cheesed about the YJB report on ASBOs, so their decision to re-advertise Rod Morgan’s job in an attempt to find someone holding the right song-sheet was always on the cards.

It was less than 6 months ago that Rob Allen came to the end of his contract with the YJB, and sounded off about:

elements which are deeply disappointing: the increasing criminalisation of young people involved in minor delinquency, and the stubbornly high use of custodial remands and sentences.

‘And there are some developments of which we really should be ashamed, in particular aspects of the way we lock up children, the demonisation of young people involved in anti-social behaviour and the coarsening of the political and public debate about how to deal with young people in trouble.’

Meanwhile, YJB board member Howard Williamson grits his teeth and hangs on but for how long, who knows? He has already deplored the

increasingly authoritarian and interventionist state

Pardon the apoplexy, but what depths have we plumbed when a government prefers appeasing tabloids by getting macho with children rather than listening to its own"