The Anti-Cloud

As cloud computing becomes more pervasive and mainstream, it is likely an increasing quantity of our information will exist only online, on servers managed by someone else. That has its downsides.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a swine of an act. In essence, a copyright owner can issue a takedown notice to a web site owner or, more likely, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosting the web site when they believe their content is being misused by the site. It costs virtually nothing to issue a takedown notice. If the recipient chooses to challenge the notice, they have to challenge it in court = legal costs. Lots of them. As a result most people, especially ISPs, comply with notices regardless of their accuracy. This can be a problem if you are trying to publish content about an organisation that doesn’t want you to publish…

There are two sides to most things in life. If we have cloud computing, can we also expect to see anti-cloud computing at the fringe? An article in The Observer – The Brit dishing the dirt – about Nick Denton and his controversial Gawker gossip blog provides an anti-cloud quote.

‘We actually own our servers, which means we decide what stays up. That’s why we didn’t have to remove the Tom Cruise video. There’s no service provider telling us what to do.’ – Ted Plunkett, Gawker

Whilst YouTube complied with requests from the Church of Scientology to remove a certain video involved Tom Cruise, Gawker has kept the video online. It has been viewed more than 2.5m times.


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Technorati tags: DMCA

Gimme Watermarks

A few weeks ago, a flurry of articles announced the death of DRM-protected music and questioned if watermarks would take their place. Wired ran as good an article as any – DRM Is Dead, But Watermarks Rise From Its Ashes. The response has been mixed, with negative views prevailing. A good balanced argument was written on ZDNet Blogs 2 years ago – Watermarks: A better DRM than DRM itself?

Regardless of whether or not watermarks become common place to track music and video downloads, I can think of an application that I’d love to see embrace watermarks – document management systems… in fact, any store holding content that can be indexed and/or shared around.

One of the biggest bugbears for many organisations is the duplication of content. Documents get emailed around, stored in multiple places, each copy gets edited independently and develops a life of its own, spawning offspring that mutates etc. etc. Misinformation might be corrected in one location but continue to exist in a separate space. How wonderful it would be if a watermarking process could be used to keep track of content – documents, web pages, images, videos, whatever – and present you with a linked network of relationships. Even better, include a tool to then compare all content marked as looking suspiciously similar to identify duplicates versus mutants versus offspring.

Naturally, I’m not being remotely original with this thought. It has lurked in my head since reading Ted Nelson’s opinions about how hypertext should have developed versus what actually happened – Lost in hyperspace:

That project dumbed down hypertext to one-way, embedded, non-overlapping links… XML is only the latest, most publicised, and in my view most wrongful system that fits this description… I greatly regret my part in it, and that I did not fight for deeper constructs. These would facilitate an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; showing the origins of every quotation…

As organisations start standardising document formats, using XML (Mr Nelson may not like it but it’s better than separate proprietary formats for different applications), the watermark approach becomes increasingly possible to implement. Attach a unique ID to the document when it is first saved. Each time it is accessed from its location, append an addition to its ID. If it is closed without being saved, the ID expires. If it is saved, either in the same location or a new one (‘open’ should include being added as an attachment to an email or copied to the clipboard), an amendment is added to the ID. Saved in the same location = version amendment. Saved in new location = copy amendment.

Create a tracker tool that can sniff out the ID of documents within recognised content sources and present a network/hierarchy of all IDs found, showing relations (i.e. all docs starting with the same initial ID). Create a management tool that enables an organisation to organise those relationships. Duplicate documents get collapsed back down into a single source. Mutants get acknowledged as different but with a link to their original source. If the files are saved as XML, then it could even be possible to show which sections of each document are different, so you could check if a mutant really is a mutant or just a near-duplicate with a different title.

Copyright Castles and Creative Tactics

Last week, there was a Forbes article that cropped up on Techmeme with what is likely to become a prophetic title: If Content Is King, Then Copyright Is Its Castle. The article centred on the argument that copyright is essential for creativity and included the following gem:

“Copyright compels creativity, it furnishes the incentive to innovate. If you limit the protection of copyright, you stifle the expression of self.” – Sumner Redstone, Chairman, Viacom and CBS

The thing with castles is that they were great in their day – walled fortresses that proved quite difficult to break into without dying in the process. But then, one day (well, it probably took quite a few), the tactics and technology changed. Invaders came up with 3 options: 1. Ignore the castle and just go around it; 2. Camp outside with a picnic and wait for everyone inside to start getting very very hungry; or 3. (unsurprisingly, most popular) purchase the latest gadget – canons – and blast the walls to smithereens. And so castles were doomed to decline and become tourist attractions (I live near a couple of them), and more than a few of their inhabitants died in the process.

The comparison with traditional media channels seems quite reasonable.

Lawrence Lessig has promoted an alternative viewpoint for quite some time now. He delivered a fabulous speech at TED – How Creativity Is Being Strangled By The Law. Anyone who has seen the short video clip of an alien being squashed by a glitter ball whilst singing Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ will love the Jesus version included in the talk…

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Filed under: Trends – Digital R? Management

Who controls your data

There is a bit of a furore going on over a piece of code being leaked to the web that enables you to crack HD-DVDs. However, one of the blog posts/news articles includes a snippet of information that I am more interested in, because it highlights a big flaw in the strategy for moving your data into the Internet cloud. Snippet from a blog on Wired, documenting a takedown notice from Google to someone using their Google Notebook application (bold highlighting is mine):

… Google has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that content in your notebook Google Notebook Entry allegedly infringes upon the copyrights of others. The particular section of your notebook in question is the section covering

…. If you do not do this within the next 3 days (by 4/30/07), we will be forced to remove your entire notebook. If we did not do so, we would be subject to aclaim of copyright infringement, regardless of its merits. We can reinstate this content into your blog upon receipt of a counter notification pursuant to sections 512(g)(2) and (3)of the DMCA…

Back in March, I wrote a post – Google and Microsoft looking alike – talking about Google’s strategy for getting us to use their online services for storing our data. If they are happy to act as big brother on behalf of people who use the DCMA as an easy form of censorship, will we be comfortable to hand over the keys to our information?

Take a simple scenario. I use Gmail for email. Someone sends me an email containing content that might infringe copyright. Google receives a notification from the copyright owner and issues notices similar to the one above with 3 days to comply. I happen to be on holiday and don’t check my email, so have not even read the allegeded offending email, let alone seen the takedown notice. When I return to work, my entire Gmail account has been deleted. What if I ran my entire business using Google services? Would they all be deleted too? Hmmm…

I last blogged about the DMCA in January 2006 – Post and be damned. The NewScientist magazine had published an article examining the use of the DMCA as a form of censorship. One study found that 47% of takedown notices concerned material that would likely have been deemed fair use. However, the DMCA enables content owners to issue takedown notices without having to go to court, placing the onus on the individual to legally challenge them. Targeting the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) has proven effective – they will simply remove the content unless the individual web site owner is prepared to finance a legal challenge to the notice. Picking on Google (and any other player in the web software/services playground) makes it even easier. Google can simply shrug and say ‘we have to do this or else we would be subject to a claim’. But the impact on the individual or organisation targeted is now even bigger. You don’t just lose your web site, you could lose your entire ability to do business if you rely on web-based services…

No patent no fee

I want to throw a ping pong ball at the television whenever one of those hideous adverts comes on the screen. They go along the lines:

  • Have you recently slipped on a banana skin carelessly left on the floor at work and stubbed your toe against an open door that should have been closed…
  • Were you forced up a two-foot high ladder without putting on a safety helmet, back protector, knee pads, armour-plated suit and with no safety net in place…
  • Was your new haircut ruined by a downpour the weather forecast failed to predict..

“Well we can help you get the compensation you deserve. No win no fee.”

Laws were created to define boundaries for behaviour and those who chose to ignore them were supposed to be punished. The trouble with civilian cases was always the cost of the trial – lawyers and courts rarely come cheap – favouring those with the money rather than those with a good case. But then some bright spark came up with the idea of ‘No Win No Fee’, making lawyers affordable to all (and richer in the process…) And ignited a compensation culture with cases now challenging every last loop hole of the law to extract money or avoid punishment. The net result: the cost of insurance to do just about anything has now increased to ridiculous levels and we all have to pay the price.

What’s all this got to do with patents? It’s an expensive process to apply for a patent, favouring the commercial business over the individual with a good idea, but the resulting licensing fees can be very lucrative – sound familiar? I’m just waiting for the day when I see the following advert:

“Have you ever woke up in the morning with an idea? Have you ever seen a new product on the market that you thought of years before but didn’t know what to do about it? Well we’ll submit your patent application on a ‘No Patent No Fee’ basis and you can gain the license fees you deserve.”

I truly admire those who have the courage to invent without protection and let us all benefit from and build on their creativity. But I have tried to be a supporter of patent law. I agree with the principle – providing a mechanism that enables inventors to profit from their efforts for a limited period of time can create a virtuous circle that encourages further invention.


We are increasingly seeing examples where people are exploiting the system. If it’s not someone challenging who owns (and should be compensated for) the hyperlink or smiley face, it’s examples like the following:

Friendster wins patent (Red Herring article, but Google for lots of other thoughts and opinions on this one…)

It appears that Friendster has been awarded a patent for a “system, method, and apparatus for connecting users in an online computer system based on their relationships within social networks.”

Now, if the patent describes a specific system, method and apparatus for creating a social network, that Friendster have gone to the effort to design, build and test, then fair enough (I suppose). But if the patent refers to the general system, method and apparatus for building social networks, all of which have been described for years, then it’s pants. And pants are not a good thing in this particular paragraph.

Nokia phone doubles as metal detector (Yahoo News article)

It appears that Nokia has been awarded a patent for fitting an induction coil to a mobile phone. The primary purpose is to provide a clearer signal for people with hearing difficulties. It appears that it can also double up as a metal detector.

So what does this mean? Have Nokia invented a specific unique but copiable design for attaching an induction coil to a mobile phone (in which case, fair enough), or does the patent cover the general idea? If it is the latter, I wonder who owns the patent for induction coils fitted to churches and post office counters and every other system that makes use of them today or in the future. Hey, you never know when the patent for fitting an induction coil to a space station orbiting around Jupiter might come in handy…

This is the grey area of patents – protecting specific unique and original inventions versus general theories, obvious extensions and after thoughts. In a ‘no win no fee’ world, grey areas will be exploited to the point where nobody wins in the end.

Post and be damned

Article in the New Scientist (subscription required to access full article). Subtitle says it all:

“Copyright laws are designed to encourage creative endeavour. But on the web, they are being used to silence and intimidate.”

The article highlights how section 512 of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) enables copyright owners to send ‘takedown notices’ to ISPs or web hosts without going to court. The onus is placed on the person who posted the materials to legally challenge the takedown notice, meaning most give up and remove the content rather than face expensive legal costs. Takedown notices are becoming an effective form of censorship.

The article quotes a couple of recent studies. One found that 47% of takedown notices concerned material that would likely be deemed fair use. Another found that 9% of takedown notices contained significant flaws that rendered them invalid. Regardless, more than half the content was removed. Interestingly, the majority of notices related to commercial sites run by competitors. Example given was a company that sent 15 takedown notices in 2004 to Google, demanding search results linking to its competitors be removed (the reason given: the web sites contained copyrighted phrases). Google complied and replaced the links with links to the takedown notices archived on the Chilling Effects website.

This post is filed under Blogs and DRM.

Copyright damages usability

Interesting article over on Wired – Thinking outside the box office (thanks, as usual, to http://tech.memeorandum for highlighting it)

The article makes a great point about why current copyright legislation increases piracy, i.e. it makes it difficult to use stuff in the way you want to:

I was channel surfing the other night and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was on. It would be fascinating to do a mash-up of Gus’ version with Hitchcock’s version…

…So right now, I could do that at home and give it to a friend, just as something for them to watch on a Friday night. But we don’t live in a world where that can be made commercially available. So it goes underground. And underground is just a sexier word for illegal. It’s frustrating.

Here here! I would often like to include an image or media clip to stress a point in a presentation or article. But until we see better implementations of copyright and micro-payments, it is just too difficult and/or slow and/or expensive to do so. I lose the opportunity to help enhance my content (or else use the clip illegally) and the content creator loses the opportunity for additional recognition and revenue.

Hopefully the disruption and benefits that mash-ups are starting to provide, combined with efforts such as the work of the Creative Commons organisation, will push us towards a change that is long overdue. The technology is ready and (not always) waiting…

And while I’m on the soapbox, who thought it would be a good idea to plonk an anti-piracy advert at the start of film DVDs? As if it wasn’t bad enough having to sit through the copyright notice. For goodness sake, if it were a pirated copy, the pirate would have edited out both elements when making the copy, so all you are doing is annoying people who bought a legitimate copy of the film, lecturing them about something they didn’t do. Doh! Stick ’em at the end of the film (hint: there’s a reason why the legal small print comes at the end of a contract). It might help media companies if they didn’t keep giving people reasons to be annoyed with media companies…

Security versus Control

Microsoft has a (relatively new and not well known) technology called Rights Management Services (RMS). When used with Office 2003, it provides the ability to apply rights to individual documents and emails, enabling an author to control access and distribution. For example, if you wanted to send out an email containing sensitive data, and did not want any recipient to forward the email on to other people, you click a button and, hey presto, the email is sent with certain features unavailable. Recipients can not forward the email, print it, cut/copy & paste it and if they reply to the email, the original message is removed (they can’t even open it to read the email if they are not on the approved recipients list). Another example: if you have a document containing time-sensitive content, such as a price list, you might want to set an expiry date. Beyond the expiry date, the document can no longer be opened – this could prevent people from accidentally using an out-of-date price sheet when selling products. If you have a document you want to collaborate on with only a limited group of people, you can restrict who has the right to view, edit and print the document.

This ability is sometimes called document security, but that description is wrong and can be misleading. The accurate definition is controlling distribution of content. It’s a subtle but important difference. When a document has rights applied to it using RMS, the rights (lets call them ‘a lock’) live with the document. When someone tries to access the document, they will be challenged – the appropriate certificate (let’s call it a ‘key’) is required before the document can be opened. However, because the rights live with the document, and the document is allowed to travel outside the boundaries of a company’s own IT systems, the potential will always exist for someone, with suitable tools and patience, to crack open the document without a key. It’s just like a safety deposit box. You put items into a safety deposit box (locked) to control who has access to those items (the key holders). However, if you decide to leave the safety deposit box in the park, someone is going to pick it up and, eventually, they will get the box open by fair means or foul. That’s why you store the safety deposit box in a vault. The vault is the security layer. Yes, vaults do occasionally get broken into. But it’s a lot harder to do than taking that safety deposit box home and working on it in your own time, and when it happens, you know it has happened. The big hole in the wall and the people wearing balaclavas are a bit of a give away.

The Rights Management Service is a useful tool when you have a need to control distribution of content. It is not unbreakable – you can’t stop someone using a camera to take a photo of the document whilst it is displayed on their monitor screen – but it is a lot lot better than no restrictions at all when handling sensitive content, and is certainly better than traditional methods, such as sealed and recorded delivery of physical copies of the documents. If you want document security, you need to consider the vault – the store where the document will reside – and you need to consider the implications of allowing the document to be removed from that vault, from a security perspective.