Copyright Reform Bad for GPL/Open Source?

Ars Technica has a piece about Sweden’s Pirate Party pushing for copyright reform. Counterintuitively, this may weaken alternative licensing schemes (“copyleft”) such as the GPL. The GPL relies on strong copyright law to enforce its stipulation that derivative works also carry the GPL (“share-alike”), which keeps open source projects from going proprietary.

The Pirate Party’s plan, which proposes five-year copyright terms, would make it unnecessary for companies to conform with copyleft licensing requirements only five years after the code is published. This effectively guts copyleft as a vehicle for encouraging broader code disclosure and makes copyleft licenses such as the GPL behave more like permissive licenses.

If, after five years, you can do whatever you want with copyrighted/copylefted code, then you’re not bound by the GPL. Not only would free software be fueling proprietary projects without any code in return, but developers of proprietary code would be less likely to help develop the free version and more likely to just wait out the five years and simply take the code. As Richard Stallman notes:

Once the Swedish Pirate Party had announced its platform, free software developers noticed this effect and began proposing a special rule for free software: to make copyright last longer for free software, so that it can continue to be copylefted. This explicit exception for free software would counterbalance the effective exception for proprietary software. Even ten years ought to be enough, I think. However, the proposal met with resistance from the Pirate Party’s leaders, who objected to the idea of a longer copyright for a special case.

I understand libertarian inclinations, but this is a case where a stricter law actually leads to more freedom. Pirate party supporters, please give Stallman’s argument some serious thought.


Harvard Law Prof: "Protect Harvard from the RIAA"

Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson writes:

The RIAA has already requested that universities serve as conduits for more than 1,200 “pre-litigation letters.” Seeking to outsource its enforcement costs, the RIAA asks universities to point fingers at their students, to filter their Internet access, and to pass along notices of claimed copyright infringement.

But these responses distort the University’s educational mission. They impose financial and non-monetary costs, including compromised student privacy, limited access to genuine educational resources, and restricted opportunities for new creative expression.

With colleges and universities under increasing pressure from the record labels’ lobby, now is the time to push back. The educational mission is a more vital interest to our schools than collaboration with the entertainment industry to prop up their obsolete revenue model.

[via Slashdot]


HD-DVD Encryption Authority Vows to Fight Key Leak

Ars Technica has the latest in the HD-DVD encryption key leak story (see my previous post). The encryption method in question is called AACS and it’s managed by the AACS Licensing Authority.

“If the local neighborhood gang is throwing rocks at your house, some people might tell you not to call the police because they will just throw bigger rocks,” [AACS LA chairman Michael] Ayers said.

But the bigger point is what happens when you “call the police,” to continue with his metaphor. Yes, the cops can stop people from throwing rocks at your house, so you’ve got to take that risk knowing that those same kids might retaliate next week. But AACS isn’t a house, and encryption keys aren’t rocks. Can “the cops” stop a 16-byte number from existing online? We can peer into the future and see the answer because history is, in fact, repeating itself.

The article goes on to draw the natural parallel between the HD-DVD encryption hack and DeCSS, the 1999 DVD encryption hack. The two situations will end in the same result: the code will continue to be available online. Unfortunately, the AACS LA seems determined to harass a bunch of people with lawsuits before bowing to the inevitable.


Digg Gets Caught in HD-DVD Encryption Fight

As I posted a while back, a method was found for extracting the encryption codes for HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, allowing unauthorized decryption. Basically the problem is that in order to let legitimate users play their movies, you have to give them both the locked version and the key. It’s just a matter of time before someone takes that key and unlocks something else. In the case of HD-DVDs, it’s even worse because the encryption scheme depends on a single master key.

Next came some twists that speak volumes about the current state of “intellectual property” and its radical opposition to free speech. Yesterday the story went around social bookmarking and discussion site Digg that the key had been found. Because the master key was so short, the original poster included it in the title of their post.

Digg received a DMCA takedown notice and decided to comply. Users went nuts. They flooded the site with posts containing the key code and lobbying Digg’s management to fight back. Finally, at the end of the day, founder Kevin Rose posted his decision.

First, this case highlights the fact that even if you have a good method of securing information, there is no reasonable level of lockdown that will prevent this type of “leak”. This is a tangent, but I think an enlightening one: the same thing applies to security from terrorism.

There is no such thing as a tradeoff of freedom for security, because security is an illusion. Inmates in maximum-security prisons still manage to murder each other. Unless you’re willing to impose restrictions on the public greater than those on prisoners, you can’t make violence impossible. If violence is possible, you can’t be secure — only more or less likely to be attacked, more or less likely to live through it.

Any amount of freedom in a society, which I hope we can agree is a good thing, brings with it “security holes”. The fact that we are not constantly at war with each other is a social construct based on alternative effective methods of conflict resolution. We are free to be violent, but mostly choose not to.

Back to freedom of information. Freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum. Any amount of freedom of expression in a society depends upon the public’s ability to use and repurpose the expressions of others. No reasonable amount of restriction of free expression will achieve full control over access to information. And the crucial point is that with the internet, one lapse in access control leads to full publicity. Therefore the idea of trading freedom of expression for information security, in the public context, is an illusion.

Second, Digg’s reaction is a miniature version of the process that society as a whole is going through to readjust its beliefs and policies to internet technology. Because of the internet, that encryption key is now a piece of public information. And the public is getting tired of corporate interests manipulating the legal system, trying to put the cat back in the bag.

Digg recognizes that its value is dependent upon its social nature. Placing restrictions on users will dry up that well of participation and cause Digg to fail. It’s precisely the many-to-many nature of the internet that makes explicit the radical dependence of content and service providers on the good will of their users.

Without waiting for the market to sort out the problem, Digg listened directly to its users and made the right decision. In a sense, actually, the users made the decision. That’s a fundamental shift in the way things work, which is making its way through every institution — though mostly at a slower pace than Digg’s one-day turnaround.


Joost Readies Launch

Joost is a p2p streaming video system. Basically you watch TV on your computer; I’ve been using the beta and it works really well. The limitations are 1. you can’t save the videos, only stream them, and 2. your favorite show is probably not on Joost (yet).

Ars Technica reports that Joost will come out of beta later this month with content from CNN and other Turner networks, in addition to existing deals with CBS and Viacom.

While other net video services like YouTube and Google Video have been hugely successful with short clips, TV networks want more control and more DRM. I’m sure they’re also happy to save on high-bandwidth streaming servers and pass that task to users’ network connections. Joost is a few steps ahead and seems well-positioned to give the networks what they want.

I do think it’s cool that the old media are trying out new distribution methods. But they seem to be sacrificing some key features of web services — searching, repurposing, linking, and layering content via standard, open protocols and APIs. They’ve rebuilt the one-to-many TV network model on top of the many-to-many internet. This may be necessary to secure participation of the old media players but let’s not stop demanding full functionality — which means open interoperability — of these new services.


"Ghost Works" has an insightful essay on the concept of “ghost works” — those that are never produced because of fear of copyright problems. Recommended reading.


Webcasters Lose Appeal of Rate Hike

As I posted earlier, the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board negotiated a sweetheart deal for the RIAA and music publishers, mandating webcasters pay extremely expensive royalties. Webcasters, led by NPR, appealed the decision, but that appeal was rejected.

The new royalty scheme goes into effect May 15. Unless something is done now, a lot of radio stations, new media outlets, and anyone else who wants to stream but can’t afford it, will have to shut down their webcasts.

If there were a principled reason within copyright law to stop this, it would apply to radio as well. Record labels tried and failed to get royalties whenever a record was played over radio (see Lessig’s Free Culture). There is no principle here, it’s just a question of whose pocket the copyright administrators and Congress happen to be in.


RIAA vs. Colleges Update

As I’ve mentioned before, recently the RIAA has increasingly targeted college and university students for lawsuits. In the past, most people who received notices settled out of court, but the winds may be changing. Ars Technica has been covering the story, including the latest development: North Carolina State University has refused to provide students’ names to the RIAA. Now the RIAA must subpoena the ISP, i.e. NSCU, for the names.

It’s too early to say what will happen here, but certainly the RIAA is no longer getting the cooperation, nor the knee-jerk settlements, it’s used to. Stay tuned.


Yale Access to Knowledge Conference

Boing Boing mentions Yale’s upcoming Access to Knowledge conference (April 27-29) addressing policy issues raised by new IT developments. Remote participation via the A2K Wiki is encouraged.

We now have the ability to easily share knowledge with everyone in the world. I have talked a bit about the problematic transition from a closed information ecosystem to an open model — the most pressing issue in college IT. We’re looking for ways to preserve the expertise that academia has accumulated and which, to a large extent, has been encoded in professional culture.

Ironically, the principle of free access to knowledge, and the practices to support it, have only developed in closed-access institutions. The project now is to decode those practices into explicit policies, and put our money where our mouth is. Naturally, these new policies run against the grain of some of the protectionist policies of the closed model.

Especially with respect to the law, e.g. “intellectual property”, where educational institutions have special status, we need to make sure that leveling the playing field means increasing protections for the public rather than decreasing protections for educational institutions. A similar reevaluation is going on in many different areas: do bloggers deserve the same First Amendment protections as professional/institutional journalists? (See EFF’s Bloggers’ Rights resources.) Do publishers have the right to control all copying of their work? (See Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture.)

In each case, a deal was struck at some point in the past that gave rights to a limited group of people. Now that the tools are available to all, we have to revisit that deal and see whether the limitations on the group were a key factor in striking the balance or simply a historical accident. We probably do need to expand our concept of a free press to include bloggers. As with other First Amendment rights, the more speech the better. Copyright, on the other hand, probably should not be extended to cover the majority of use of creative works. Historically, non-commercial use was generally unregulated; the absolute power of publishers over their work was limited by its scope.

New technology has shifted the balance in a wide range of areas, and now we need to renegotiate the policy deals. The A2K Wiki provides a good overview of these areas and some policy directions.


WIPO Broadcast Treaty — Your Chance to Speak

Boing Boing points out the upcoming public hearing on May 9 about the WIPO Broadcasting Treaty.

The Broadcast Treaty is a proposal to let broadcasters (and “webcasters” — people who host files and make them available to the Internet) claim a copyright to the stuff that they transmit. Broadcasters get this special right even if the stuff they’re sending around is in the public domain, or Creative Commons licensed, or not copyrightable (like CSPAN’s broadcasts of Congress). Fair use doesn’t apply to this right.

Seems ridiculous, right? Weigh in!