Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Road trip

It's been a busy weekend, and a busy week too! Off to England at the end of last week for a good friend's wedding. Caught up with lots of old friends, and generally had a great time - we especially enjoyed the dark satanic mills!

Then wandered around England a bit for work. Met some of our foreign colleagues, who seem to know what they are talking about (which is nice). And noticed that England seems to have developed far more speed cameras than I remembered. We may well be the most watched people ever.

I drove three cars in four days, and discovered that Saabs are mad, that cruise control is a real boon when you have to keep to 40 on a stretch of motorway, and that the AA website routefinder directions are not always as good as they might be (or that I can't read... but I don't think that was it). Maybe I should get myself one of those satellite navigation systems instead for my birthday? Fortunately it's not for a while yet, so I have plenty of time for sanity and my "how much would I really use it" instincts to reassert themselves.

So... are they any good, these SatNav thingies?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

You can't copy that!

We are used to hearing that you are not allowed to copy music, films, books, or pictures. They are copyrighted. The owners' rights must be protected.

Fair enough... So what's copyright?

It's the right to control how works are reproduced, for a limited time.

And what's it for? Why do we allow people to control what other people do with books or CDs they have bought?
It's about justice, and pragmatism: Justice, because it's only fair that the author of a work should be allowed a reasonable chance to profit from it; and pragmatism, because if it's profitable, then more useful or beneficial works are likely to be produced.

But don't you buy the book, or CD, or DVD, or whatever?
Yes, and No. You own the physical copy, but you have only a license to use the music or software or whatever. And that license is very limited.

What about us, the consumers? Do we have any rights? Or researchers? They can't stop you from quoting them, can they?
No. There is something called fair dealing (in the UK) or fair use (in the US). It allows copies of part of a work to be made for study purposes, for example. Or parody. The rules vary. In the US you may be explicitly allowed to make a copy to listen to on your car hi-fi. In the UK, you may not be (we really could do with a formal statement of a sane and fair set of rights here).

So what's wrong with that?
Not very much - the basic principle is fair. Except that...

  • In the UK the consumer's rights are very limited. This should be fixed!

  • The copyright term keeps getting extended. In the USA it started as 17 years. It's been increased 11 times, most recently by 20 years. And it's never been decreased. That is pointless and bad:
    • Pointless because an extra 20 years of revenue on works produced by dead people won't give them an incentive to be more artistic or creative or whatever - it's just a handout to copyright holders (rarely the original artists);
    • Bad, because the public domain - the works we CAN use freely - becomes that much poorer, as all that content is suddenly snatched out of our hands.

  • A cunning trick called DRM (digital restriction methods, or digital "rights" management) is being planned by content distributors - film & TV studios, record companies, etc - to control even more what you can do with your CDs, your DVDs, your TV and video even.

    You know how you can record TV or even Radio programmes, to watch at your leisure? Or if you are studying them? Well, with new digital radio and high-definition TV, they want to be able to stop you. And your TV that you paid for will do the enforcing.

    Never mind whether you have a legal right to make a recording - at the whim of the content company, they will be able to turn off your recorder, or delete the recording automatically after you've made it.

    If you're still on holiday when your recording of Eastenders or Dr Who "expires", or if you're an historian who wants a record of what the Prime Minister actually told the country, too bad!

  • Greedy corporations - the people who called the video recorder the "Jack the Ripper" of entertainment, and tried to ban it - will decide what you can watch, and when you can watch it. "They" will own your TV & video, not you.

    That can't be good for innovation, for cheap and competitive gadgets that help you control how you watch TV or listen to music. It will protect today's technology and today's businesses with the might of the criminal law (using our taxes to pay for it all), and it will stifle progress.

  • And best of all, even if you have a legal right to make a copy, it will be a criminal offence to try to get round any sneaky DRM that might stop you from making those legal copies. It already is in the USA. You could go to jail for something you're legally entitled to do.

They will tell you it's about stopping piracy, but it isn't (and it won't work - the pirates have a way round all of this). It's about control. And it's about abolishing fair use, so the studios and record labels can charge you more and more money for less and less access to your films & music.

It isn't fair!

And guess what's being made compulsory in the next version of the globalisation treaties that shape our laws?

It's not protection for consumers, that's for sure!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Time they started earning their salaries?

We taxpayers have been funding the Northern Ireland Assembly since it was suspended in 2002. That's quite a lot of salary for doing nothing.

While some MLAs may have been keeping busy, and might even have asked the odd difficult question of the government, they have not been doing the job we pay them for -- or the job we elected them to do, in most cases (I know some of the DUP feel it is their mandate to do nothing until... well that bit's not clear). Still, we have hardly had value for money from any of them!

But on Monday the Lords approved plans to recall the Assembly and give them a chance to elect an executive, or otherwise get on with governing.

It ought not to be too difficult to do a better job than the Blair administration... but I'm not going to make any rash predictions. Our underperforming politicians could fail to meet even this unchallenging target.

Time will tell.

At least this way, if they refuse to find a way to get on with the job, we'll stop paying for them in November.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The United Nations Human Rights Commission was criticised for, among its many failings, being composed of countries with truly dreadful records on human rights. It was almost as though they were there to prevent their records from being scrutinised.

So now there is a United Nations Human Rights Council instead. A completely different organisation. Except that it includes China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. OK, a slightly different organisation. It's got a different name, at least.

We should be grateful that Sudan, Zimbabwe and Syria did not stand. And presumably the United States government was keen to avoid further international scrutiny of its human rights blind spot in Guantanamo Bay and the rest of its counter-terrorist "Gulag".

But maybe it will do better than its predecessor. We can always hope... Certainly we should watch!