October 30, 2006
Chihuly glass at the New York Botanical Garden

It's a shame about the lawsuit , because Dale Chihuly's artwork is really impressive. He's brought new ideas to the world of artistic glassblowing, and he'll always be recognized as the original master of these forms, but copyright shouldn't give him a monopoly on the ideas.

More photos from my Oct. 29 visit to the Botanical Garden.

Posted by Wendy at 09:35 AM
October 24, 2006
Tweaking Firefox (100-item search)

One of the first things I do when I download a new Firefox, is to update the Google search plugin to return 100 items on a screen. (Though Google often offers relevant results in the top 10, I find I'm as often searching to find "what's out there" as to reach "the best result.") Since I didn't find instructions the first time I googled this hack, here it is:

Find the "searchplugins" folder -- on Debian, it's in ~/.mozilla/searchplugins, while on Windows, it's probably C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\searchplugins, and open the google.xml file in your favorite text editor. The guts of the search query is in the lines:

<Url type="text/html" method="GET" template="http://www.google.com/search">
  <Param name="q" value="{searchTerms}"/>
  <Param name="ie" value="utf-8"/>
  <Param name="oe" value="utf-8"/>
Add this line just below the oe (character-set) specification, and you're good to search further, faster:
  <Param name="num" value="100"/>
While the file's open, you might also spot the line
<Url type="application/x-suggestions+json" method="GET" template="http://suggestqueries.google.com/complete/search?\ output=firefox&client=firefox&qu={searchTerms}"/>

That's a little "search suggestions" script to suggest terms you might want to use to complete your query (example) -- but you might remove it if you don't want all your half-typed inquiries sent to Google. On the browsing privacy front, you'll also want to examine the anti-phishing feature. The basic version checks sites locally (updating a local list with periodic downloads), but the extended version sends Google the URL of every website visit, to check against Google's list of badware.

You'll probably also want to disable the automatic installation of new search plugins, lest the change get overwritten next time there's an update. (Options, Advanced, Update)

I particularly appreciate the new "resume browsing" feature, given the number of times 20-tab windows have crashed on me...:

Resuming your browsing session: The Session Restore feature restores windows, tabs, text typed in forms, and in-progress downloads from the last user session. It will be activated automatically when installing an application update or extension, and users will be asked if they want to resume their previous session after a system crash.

Posted by Wendy at 01:51 PM
October 20, 2006
Jeff Ubois on Erasing Televised History, Copyright-style

Remember Dan Quayle's attack on fictional character Murphy Brown? Well if you don't, or want to refresh your recollection of the 1992 episode, you'll have to rely on secondary sources, Jeff Ubois reports.

Due in part to the vagaries of copyright and contract, public access to the televised part of our historical record is severely limited. Ubois, while a Berkeley researcher, was able to get almost none of the audiovisual material documenting the Quayle speech, the TV coverage, or Murphy Brown's response. He's just published a paper on the project: "Finding Murphy Brown: How accessible are historic television broadcasts?" with the Journal of Digital Information.

In a Kafkaesque twist, Ubois was almost unable to publish the paper as he wanted because a different journal insisted he needed copyright permissions from the correspondents whose refusal of permission he wanted to document! From his blog:

Copyright restrictions ultimately made it impossible to get the original Dan Quayle speech, or the Murphy Brown episodes in question. In an odd coda to this project, one digital library journal (from which I withdrew this paper) insisted that the correspondence detailing refusals by various organizations to allow access to or use of the Quayle/Brown footage was itself copyrighted, and therefore unsuitable for publication. Those excerpts are included in the current piece. It was disturbing how one effect of copyright law is to chill academic discussions of copyright law.

Posted by Wendy at 03:58 PM
October 19, 2006
Forbidding Vistas: Windows licensing disserves the user

Reading the Windows Vista license is a bit like preparing for breakfast with Lewis Carroll's Red Queen: You should be ready to believe at least six impossible things about what users want from software.

It is unlikely that a home user looking for a computer operating system has any of these "features" of the Vista EULA in mind: The Red Queen

  1. Self-limiting software
  2. Vanishing functionality through invalidation
  3. Removal of media capabilities
  4. Problem-solving prohibited
  5. Limited mobility
  6. One transfer only
    and a bonus,
  7. Restrictions on your rights to use MPEG-4 video

Details below. While Microsoft should be commended for putting its license into plain English, that doesn't help to make the license restrictions any more palatable. Quoted italicized language comes from the Vista license.

1. Self-limiting software, or Mandatory Activation. "Your right to use the software after the time specified in the installation process is limited unless it is activated. … You will not be able to continue using the software after that time if you do not activate it." Moreover, "[s]ome changes to your computer components or the software may require you to reactivate the software." In order to use Microsoft Vista, you must consent to communication to Microsoft of information about the software and the device on which you have installed it. If you don't do so in time, your software will begin to degrade in function.

2. Vanishing functionality through invalidation. "The software will from time to time validate the software, update or require download of the validation feature of the software. … [if validation fails] you may not be able to use or continue to use some of the features of the software." Again, your computer must make periodic (period unspecified) contact with the Microsoft mothership if you want to continue to enjoy what you thought you paid for. Microsoft, of course, disclaims any liability for the consequences if their servers fail or mistakenly deny you validation.

3. Removal of media capabilities. "When you download licenses for protected content, you agree that Microsoft may include a revocation list with the licenses." "[C]ontent owners may ask Microsoft to revoke the software's ability to use WMDRM [Windows Media digital rights management] to play or copy protected content." In other words, one movie or music file may take away your ability to play another, if the content owner (not the computer owner) chooses to cut back the Windows Media Player's features. Don't like the reports that Creative is removing radio recording functions from its MP3 players, under music industry pressure? Prepare for that kind of feature flux to be routine in Vista -- you've agreed to it in the license.

4. Problem-solving prohibited. "You may not work around any technical limitations in the software." Microsoft might be referring to anticircumvention of technical protection measures here, but since it's often hard to tell the difference, from the user's perspective, between a TPM and a bug, this reads as a prohibition on user debugging and problem-solving. After all, down-rezzing HD content or refusing to allow users to copy quotes from an e-book don't strike most people as wanted features. Can you work around a document's failure to save properly?

5. Limited mobility. "The first user of the software may reassign the license to another device one time." If you upgrade your machines more frequently than you care to change operating systems, you'll just have to pay again. Don't worry about this applying too frequently, though, because most OEMs will probably keep bundling Windows with their hardware, thanks to Microsoft's pricing encouragement, and Microsoft won't offer refunds if you don't like the terms on those OEM bundles.

6. One transfer only. "The first user of the software may make a one time transfer of the software, and this agreement, directly to a third party…. [T]he other party must agree that this agreement applies to the transfer and use of the software." You can give your old computer to Dad, but if he wants to give his older computer to the neighborhood community center, they'll have to find their own operating system (may I recommend Ubuntu?).

Bonus. MPEG-4 Visual Standard

NOTICE ABOUT THE MPEG-4 VISUAL STANDARD. This software includes MPEG-4 visual decoding technology. MPEG LA, L.L.C. requires this notice:

Humpty DumptyUsers never asked for these impossible limitations. Microsoft decided unilaterally to add them, claiming it could abrogate personal ownership, fair use, and first sale rights because "The software is licensed, not sold." If Microsoft faced real market competition on the home desktop, users could vote with their wallets, but anticompetitive practices and network effects make Microsoft a like-it-or-not proposition for most users.

While Carroll's Humpty Dumpty might have been able to choose the meanings of his words at will, on this side of the looking glass, software vendors shouldn't be able to redefine the meaning of "buying software" by the simple attachment of a click-wrap license.

Public domain Tenniel images (1872) from The Victorian Web.

Posted by Wendy at 12:18 AM
October 18, 2006
RIP: Habeas Corpus

With the President's signature on the Military Commissions Act of 2006, this country enters a shameful period of disregard for human rights and due process of law. Those non-citizens the administration has deemed "unlawful enemy combatants" -- with no proof -- will no longer have the right to challenge their detentions before a United States Court. They may be subjected to inhumane treatment because the adminstration refuses to rule out the practices of torture.

I can only hope that this law will have a swift route to the Supreme Court, and that it will swiftly be declared unconstitutional by a Court that still remembers the values upon which this nation was founded. The way to protect and preserve freedom is not to devalue it.

Posted by Wendy at 10:09 AM
October 17, 2006
Restricted Fabrics: Cutting against the grain of personal property

Cory BoingBoings use-restricted fabric:

Copyrighted fabric: no selling the stuff you make from it
Reprodebot sells fabric that comes with a "license agreement" that prohibits you from making commercial goods out of the material. What this means, at the end of the day, is that they're not selling you anything at all -- instead, they're licensing the fabric to you, and it isn't your property, and you can't do with it what you want.

fabricPool Party

Please note: This fabric can be purchased for personal sewing projects only. This print cannot be used for items made for resale.

I can hear the law-and-economicians gearing up arguments about the efficiency of price discrimination: Suppose the creator of this fabric pattern wants to sell it for commercial use, and finds that commercial re-sellers are willing to pay her $35/yard. If she sold the fabric uniformly at that price, a few interested personal users would be unable to afford it. She could sell it to those personal users at $24.95/yard (or $12.95/yard) (still above her marginal cost of manufacturing the fabric), but she'll do that only if she can prevent commercial use and arbitrage -- pretend-personal users buying the fabric just to re-sell it commercially at $25/yard -- by those who've paid only $12.95. So, either we permit use restrictions (what you can buy for $12.95 is not an unencumbered bolt of cloth), or the seller will sell only at $35 and some people will miss the opportunity to buy something that was worth $12.95 to them.

But the perfect price discrimination story has several holes, some correctable, others not.

  • Some people don't know they're buying use-restricted fabrics, so they end up with something worth less than $12.95 to them. The first buyer could be given a clear warning on the purchase site, but what if he later decides he can't use a whole bolt of fabric, and wants to dispose of some?
  • It's difficult to track the use-restrictions. Do we make people leave the mattress tags on even after buying the mattress, or do we make every subsequent purchaser investigate the chain of fabric-title for restrictions? Can a gift recipient sell an old blanket at a tag sale? (The transaction costs of tracking the restrictions burden the public more than allowing the price discrimination benefits.)
  • The economics might be wrong. If the designer couldn't put use restrictions on her product, perhaps she'd sell it somewhere between $35 and $12.95, and public welfare would increase because more people would be getting more value.
  • The seller is trying to lock up something she doesn't have the legal right to: Copyright grants artists the right to prevent reproduction of their original works, but not to prevent resale of a lawfully obtained copy (first sale doctrine). Moreover, that doctrine represents a policy choice about the amount of incentive needed to induce creative work. Though the copyright holder has the choice whether or not to make fabric, she shouldn't get further control over the market for pillows and tents made from matching fabric.

    Clarifying the terms in a purchase contract solves only some of these problems. It doesn't, in particular, address the concern that the seller might be using the powers of copyright to exclude more than copyright was intended to control -- and more clearly in areas of interoperable products or expressive speech, to control a market or a debate beyond that which is healthy for society.

    Posted by Wendy at 11:31 AM
  • October 13, 2006
    Cool Apps: Google Maps for Palm; Eudora going Open Source

    A couple of items to drive the Internet intravenous line a bit deeper:

    • Qualcomm announces it will take Eudora open source, building on the Thunderbird platform. This Eudora user rejoices that she'll finally be able to customize her display of multiple open mailboxes.
    • Palm offers Google Maps for Treo, assuring that you're giving even more data to the GooTube behemoth. Don't forget to and serial numbers often.

    October 12, 2006
    Spamming the News Cycle: Spamhaus non-story goes viral

    Google News now shows more than 300 stories about Spamhaus, most about a proposed court order following a district court default judgment.

    To me, the most interesting is the meta-story -- why the non-event of a proposed order has the blogs scrambling with claims of constitutional crisis and even the notoriously close-lipped ICANN issuing an announcement "in response to community interest expressed on this topic."

    We're seeing a clash of cultures between tech and law. The tech world, afraid the law will jump to erroneous conclusions and cripple an anti-spam mechanism, is in turn making some quick but wrong assumptions about the legal process. Happily, there's enough play in both tech and legal systems to correct for both these errors.

    On the legal side, we have a process that has so far aired only one side -- because the other is challenging the court's jurisdiction even to hear the case. Spamhaus, based in the U.K., runs widely-used SPAM blacklists. Marketer e360 Insight sued Spamhaus in an Illinois court to be removed from one of these lists, claiming that its legitimate mail was being blocked (in Illinois) due to Spamhaus's actions. Spamhaus did not defend the suit, asserting that the U.S. courts lacked jurisdiction.

    As often happens in such cases of default judgment, the court took at face value the arguments from the party who appeared and asked for a proposed order. The plaintiff then overreached (as is also common), and proposed that ICANN be ordered to deactivate the Spamhaus.org domain name. The court has not yet acted on plaintiff's proposed order.

    Even if the court were to adopt this order, it would be open to challenge from many angles: ICANN is not a party to the lawsuit who can be bound by an injunction; ICANN has no contractual power to order a domain de-activated; Spamhaus challenges the court's jurisdiction. In short, as some commentators have recognized, e360's broad request is far from an enforceable order shuttering Spamhaus.org.

    On the tech side, while loss of a domain name would be painful, as a domain may be the key point of contact for an Internet-based organization, it would not actually stop a newly-relocated spamhaus-is-now-here.info from putting e360 on the very same lists.

    It's clear we have a ways to go in reaching cross-cultural understanding. But I'm also thinking of how we can harness similar tech community outrage against other ICANN actions that have real impact, such as the sluggish process of approving new top-level domains and the shrinking of privacy options for domain name registrants.

    Posted by Wendy at 11:07 AM
    October 06, 2006
    Coming Soon: Kitten with a EULA?

    kittensThe NYT reports that a company by the name of Allerca has begun to offer genetically modified hypoallergenic cats. For a mere $4000 and a barrage of screening, you too can put your household on the list.

    But wait, before you put your money down, there's a lengthy purchase agreement, including this odd restriction

    Purchaser shall not sell or transfer any Cat purchased hereunder to anyone other than an immediate family member, and shall not offer to any person the purchase of a Cat or any genetic material from a Cat, the rights Purchaser may have under this Agreement, or any other right related hereto, without the Company’s express written authorization.

    The Times likewise notes that "At 10 to 12 weeks, every Allerca kitten is neutered before it is delivered. The company insists this is mainly to prevent feline overpopulation. But every Allerca cat carries the dominant hypoallergenic gene and, in theory, could produce copycat hypoallergenic kittens."

    "No reproduction" clauses have fast become standard for producers of genetically modified crops such as Monsanto's Roundup Ready, though even that development has its share of controversy. Patent rights or no, I think owners will balk at the thought of licensed housepets.

    Posted by Wendy at 11:03 AM
    October 05, 2006
    How To Speak Anonymously, from Toorcon

    Via BoingBoing and Toorcon comes a pointer to a great new HOWTO: How to Speak Anonymously in Public. Alan Bradley and Kevin Flynn apparently gave the talk on memory cloaking with only a laptop and video projection at the podium, tunnelling the talk and slides from a remote location over Tor so the connection couldn't be traced back to the speakers.

    Along with its detailed technical explanation, the guide points to lots of the subtle pitfalls that might trap the tyro anonymous speaker. As Seth has also pointed out, many of the challenges are more social than technical: Programs might leave automatic timestamps in the timezone set on your local machine, or you might be unavailable at times matching sleep patterns on the U.S. East Coast. Your applications might "phone home" for updates, or your real-world friends might all show surprising interest in the anonymous speaker's subject. Purchasing obscure components or doing research might link you to the subject. Voice distortion software can change the pitch and cadence of your speech, but not unique turns of phrase.

    It's hard to do anonymity well, and it gets harder when governments tap phone and Internet providers and ask for data retention, but it's also a critical First Amendment value. Wish I could have been there!

    Posted by Wendy at 06:05 PM
    October 03, 2006
    Day against DRM

    Today is DefectiveByDesign's Day Against DRM. Time to take inventory of your media and electronics and determine how many of them are coded to do someone else's bidding than yours, their owner. How many of your devices will break if you try to network them with other devices? How much of your media will stop you from playing it where and how you choose? How much will frustrate your attempts to look inside or write your own software?

    DRM isn't working for you, the purchaser/listener/remixer, but for a publisher who wants you to pay and pay again for multiple viewings of your video, or a hardware maker who wants to lock you into its line of incompatible devices. Acceding to these demands will only a next generation of media devices with even less functionality, even more meter-feeding. Instead, ask for electronics and media that meet your needs, and make sure you're getting what you asked and paid for.

    Posted by Wendy at 10:41 AM