Site Update

As part of an ongoing site overhaul, today sees some new templates. I’ll be reposting all the links that have disappeared from the sidebar over the next couple of days and making a few more adjustments. Any visitors who encounter anything that they think might be an error while browsing the site, please let me know by leaving a comment on this post. Thanks.

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Copyright vs. Community

[RMS in debate after the lecture]Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, was in Bristol on 22nd May to give a talk entitled Copyright verses the Community. The core of his presentation set out a series of suggestions for an equitable, socially conscious copyright scheme as opposed to that being advocated by the large media publishing corporations.

He certainly lived up to his reputation as a slightly eccentric character. He sat at the front of the audience eating and drinking throughout his presentation. Should someone use a phrase or concept he deemed meaningless or pernicious (such as the idea that copyright needs “protecting” or that the phrase “intellectual property” carries any useful meaning) he was uncompromising in his refusal to play and would state loudly his rejection of the offending words.

He occasionally had to encourage his questioners to slow down when interrogating him and did this by shouting something like “You’ll have to speak slowly” in the kind of drawn out voice one associates with talking to small children or simpletons. He did manage to avoid getting too irate when someone (who’d obviously been spending a bit too much time reading alt.flame) decided it would be a good idea to ask him what right he has to insist that we should use the term “GNU/Linux” instead of just plain old “Linux”. But despite, or perhaps because of, his eccentricities he makes an engaging speaker, as is often the case when someone cares deeply about their subject – and RMS has devoted his life to his.

His justification for a rethink of copyright law is based in the belief that the law should reflect the context of the times in which it is to be used. Our current ideas and laws concerning copyright developed in the age of the printing press, when the ability to copy large amounts of information was the exclusive preserve of the publishing industry. Now, with the advent of computers and computer networks, the whole situation has undergone a revolutionary change.

It is now possible for individuals to copy digitised information at very low cost and to distribute copied data rapidly and widely. The “copyright bargain” of the age of the printing press, where the right to copy and redistribute material was sacrificed in return for a perceived incentive for production, is no longer such a good deal for the public. This new context has led the corporations who formerly monopolised this ability to demand ever increasing penalties and intrusive preventative methods in their efforts to shore up a system designed in a different era. Is computer technology causing problems for copyright law, or is copyright law causing problems for the users of modern digital computers?

Stallman argues that not only are these restrictions difficult to enforce but that they are socially bad – the corporations try to portray sharing as theft and seek to impose Draconian limits on the ways we can use copyrighted materials. This drastically reduces the usefulness of many of these materials and results in laws that criminalise people being community-spirited. He suggests that instead of hiking penalties and restricting the use of computer technology, it would be far more socially beneficial to change the laws to provide a more permissive approach to the use of copyrighted works.

That’s our choice – do we change the laws, or do we allow the corporations to insert their greedy fingers deeper into our lives and dictate to us how we should use our computers in our homes? How long will it be before you have to pay every time you listen to a track on an album? Or before that album becomes unplayable on half you equipment, forcing you to buy new hardware to access material you have paid for? Or before you realise that since switching to E-Books – and this is a topic Stallman is particularly concerned with – you can no longer trade your used books with others or lend out your copies to friends?

Unfortunately it seems that for the time being our governments are siding with the corporations. This is illustrated by well-known examples from the US: the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which criminalises anyone who breaks the encryption on copyrighted materials, even if they legally own them; perpetual copyright “on the installment plan” where copyrights are renewed each time they are due to fall into the public domain; and the attempts to pressurise European governments and legislatures to prosecute those responsible for the release of decryption code used to watch DVDs (which fortunately don’t always succeed).

For all his doom-saying, Stallman has an alternative. His framework is deceptively simple and elegant, and still has room for money to be made and authorship rights to be asserted. Just because he criticises the current situation and the behaviour of the media corporations doesn’t mean that there’s no room for business and profit in his vision – just that the social good should come first, rather than being quietly disposed of in boardrooms and at party fundraisers.

He suggests a system based around three categories of works which could be broadly labelled Practical, Representative and Artistic. Three categories because he firmly believes that a one size fits all approach to copyright law is flawed, and that different rules should apply to different things.

  • Practical works are those we use to get jobs done such as software, recipes, dictionaries, textbooks and encyclopaedia. These works should be Free in sense used by the FSF, so that users can share them, learn from them and modify them for their own circumstances without restriction.
  • Representative works include memoirs, opinions, and scientific papers, and as such should only be available for non-commercial redistribution of unaltered copies as modified versions would be a distortion and therefore potentially harmful.
  • Artistic works are more problematic, and Stallman suggests that a limited period of exclusive copyright similar to that used for Representative works could be enforced before these works drop into the Public Domain. He suggests ten years as a reasonable starting point for this, but would clearly be open to a reduction should it prove helpful in future.

This is, of course, a simplified version of his proposals. He went into greater depth and suggested some solutions for potential problems, such as when a work falls into more than one category, but he doesn’t see it as a problem that he can’t address every conceivable case – it would be for the courts to decide on points of contention. For the most part it would be clear to what category a work belonged. Works of collage or pastiche would be permitted where the sampling was clearly just that and a new work emerged from the fragments of the others, even using samples from artistic works still under copyright. And file sharing on computer networks would be legal.

This is the issue that everyone has heard about, of course. If we are to believe the music companies, the industry would collapse if this happened and we’d have no more music and movies because no one would be paying for them. In the case of music, Stallman contends that the majority of musicians effectively get zero income from CD sales anyway, and that the best they can hope for is a high profile leading to ticket sales for concerts and subsequent merchandising. As such, only the corporations and a handful of megastars would notice significant drops in their earnings.

I’m not expert enough on the music industry to offer a view on these matters, but again Stallman made a couple of suggestions about potential alternative sources of revenue for musicians that would fit into the new copyright scheme:

  • A tax on bandwidth or blank media with proceeds going directly to producers depending on popularity, where popularity is measured using statistical sampling and funds are distributed in a non-linear manner to prevent a few big names grossing all the cash.
  • A system of where music fans are encouraged to regularly make small voluntary payments (“micro payments” is a phrase too tainted by its association with Digital Rights Management technologies to be useful any more, apparently). That it is possible to make money by requesting voluntary payments has been demonstrated already – all we lack is a system to make it so easy that there is no practical barrier to doing so. It might not lead to vast profits, but would be more in line with the way most people operate would certainly be more morally palatable.

Stallman doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but at least he has some suggestions. Possibly the biggest problem is bringing these issues to the attention of the general public before it’s too late to wrestle back a bit of control. With governments seemingly supporting repressive legislation sponsored by the media companies, it will take quite a struggle for a system resembling this one to be adopted. Stallman would probably have us all become activists on the basis that this is the only ethical thing to do, but expressing concern over these issues can all too easily be dismissed as paranoia or anti-capitalist propaganda. After all, the corporations are only protecting their investments, right? But at what cost to us?

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blosxom plugin: altlinks

This is a trivial plugin I wrote to scratch a bit of an itch. It had always slightly annoyed me that while blosxom itself was designed to use the filesystem hierarchy as its structure and allowed you to view pages based on their position in the hierarchy, there was no simple method to include alternate <link>s to syndication feeds or alternative flavours that mirrored a visitor’s position. Hence altlinks.

Currently, the plugin works for path-based views right the way down to individual story pages, but date-based paths are ignored completely – the href attribute will be formed from whatever path information is available in the requesed URL. That is, if you request, the alternate will have an href attribute pointing to I originally thought this wouldn’t matter, but I suppose for the sake of completeness I should I add this at some time. When I get around to it, I will post an updated version here.

I wasn’t going to post this code at all, particularly since it’s not quite finished, but then I thought it might be useful to someone somewhere sometime, so here it is. The plugin provides three variables for use in templates, allows the user to specify which flavours these variables point to, and contains full documentation.

Transforming <foaf:mbox> to <foaf:mbox_sha1sum>

Recently I added a number of people into my FOAF file. At first I included their email addresses in plaintext using the property, but I decided that this wasn’t really acceptable for several reasons so decided to switch to using the obscured property instead.

Instead of calculating the SHA 1 digests of all the email addresses separately and pasting them into the file, I wrote a simple Perl script to go through it and do it all automatically. It occurred to me that this might be useful to someone else one day, so here it is. The script includes some documentation in POD format.

There are snippets of code from various programming languages for creating SHA 1 digests available from Sam Ruby’s website, which helped by pointing me towards the module I needed for the program. For more about FOAF, visit the FOAF Project website.


Just a brief note to anyone surfing by or checking my syndication feeds – I’ll start posting stuff again soon. Internet access is sporadic at the moment, I’m looking for work, getting used to living in a new city, and doing a bit of a redesign too. The rest of the New Zealand stuff will appear at some point and I might even start posting some different stuff for a change as well.

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