Jul 242012
 

Today would be the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart, the pioneer female aviator. Google is celebrating with a Google Doodle, showing Ms. Earhart climbing onto a what appears to be a Lockheed Vega 5B (which is not the same as the famed two-engine Electra 10E in which she disappeared.)

Ms. Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The exact circumstances remain a mystery. At the request of her husband, she was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, by a California court.

The reason why I looked up her official date of death was that I came across “the official Website” of Ms. Earhart. I put this in quotes because I found it odd that a person who disappeared 75 years ago can have an “official Website”, but then, what do I know? So I went and looked to see what the site was. While the site’s stated purpose is “to honor the life, the legend and the career of Amelia Earhart”, it is fairly evident that the real goal is to market the Earhart brand. Indeed, in the Site Purpose section, they warn would be users with stern language: “Any use of the name, image or likeness of Amelia Earhart , without the express written consent of the estate is strictly prohibited.”

Now I know precious little about personality rights in the United States, but I found this warning curious. Be it far from me to pick a fight with lawyers, but exactly who are these people doing the prohibiting, and on what grounds?

The site is marked “© Family of Amelia Earhart”, but the FAQ states that any e-mail sent through this site “goes to the webmaster of CMG Worldwide, the company that represents the name/image/likeness of Amelia Earhart”. So this is a full-fledged marketing operation. Nothing wrong with that (in fact, I appreciate their candor) but that still leaves my question unanswered: exactly what rights do they have to Ms. Earhart’s name?

Well, if Wikipedia can be believed: none. Had Ms. Earhart been domiciled in Indiana at the time of her death, her estate would hold the rights for another 27 years or so. But in California, the personality rights for a celebrity expire after 70 years. So to the best of my knowledge, Ms. Earhart’s likeness and indeed, anything related to her personality, are now in the public domain. (Not necessarily photographs. The copyright status of those may depend on when the photographer died.)

But then it occurred to me to check Ms. Earhart’s site using archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Unsurprisingly, the site has been in existence for many years. Although its visual style changed, much of the text remains the same, including text in the Site Purpose section. And back in 2003 (the date of the earliest version archived by the Wayback Machine) Ms. Earhart’s personality rights would still have been protected under California law.

Meanwhile, Ms. Earhart’s disappearance must remain a mystery for now. The latest expedition to locate her aircraft was called off as it ran into unexpected difficulties.

 Posted by at 9:01 am
Jun 202012
 

Parliament passed Bill C-11 Monday evening. That means that we are one Senate approval away from having a law in Canada that criminalizes acts such as watching a foreign DVD (even one with expired copyright!) using region-free software.

I am really ticked off about this. So much so that I am contemplating doing just that: breaking the law every day by watching a Hungarian DVD or ripping a DVD to my hard drive, and announce publicly what I have done.

But then… life is too short. There are more important things to be outraged about. And realistically, this government knows fully well that the letter of this law is unenforceable; that in reality, nothing has changed insofar as our daily lives are concerned, except that there is now one more law on the books under which all of us can be treated as criminals at the pleasure of the Powers That Be. Just what Ayn Rand warned us about.

Still, if someone were to start such a civil disobedience campaign, I would be sorely tempted to join it…

 Posted by at 3:01 pm
Jun 162012
 

Just as Canada is about to enact its most Draconian copyright law yet (yes, simply watching a foreign DVD using region-free software will make you a criminal) there are signs that the software gaming industry is finally seeing the light. Reportedly Marcin Iwinski, one of the founders of CD Projekt, known for their best selling Witcher game franchise, declared that “we will never use any DRM anymore”. The reason? Witcher 2 was cracked within two hours of its release. Perhaps that in itself is not particularly surprising, but consider this: this game was simultaneously released DRM-free on GOG.COM. But it was the DRM retail version that was cracked in two hours! “What really surprised me is that the pirates didn’t use the GOG version, which was not protected. They took the SecuROM retail version, cracked it,” said Iwinski.

The reality is that DRM only inconveniences legitimate law-abiding customers. You pay for the game, you get a copy crippled with a software component that might break your computer. You download the cracked version from a “warez” site, you get a DRM-free copy. What, pray tell, is the VALUE a legitimate customer gets in exchange for paying good money?

Finally, it seems that at least some in the gaming industry began to ask this very question. Perhaps one day, we may even be able to convince dinosaur politicians…

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
May 242012
 

I just wrote an e-mail addressed to all Conservative members of Parliament:

Members of Parliament, Honorable Ministers, Right Honorable Prime Minister:

You are about to vote into law a Bill, C-11, that will declare me a criminal (a criminal!) were I to insert a DVD, legitimately purchased in my native Hungary, into my North American computer and watch it using appropriate software, as said software necessarily breaks a digital lock, namely the region code.

Here is my question: Why are you doing this to us Canadians?

In what Orwellian universe does this serve the interests of our country? Or even, for that matter, those of the Walt Disney Corporation?

Sincerely,

Viktor T. Toth <address and telephone number provided>

PS: I am a former Conservative voter. I am not a political activist (nor am I a “radical extremist”, Mr. Moore), and this desperate last-minute attempt to persuade you is done on my own initiative. Please, do not disrespect me by responding with a stock answer that is just generic propaganda in favor of Bill C-11. While I am quite prepared to receive no answer at all, if you do choose to reply, please address my question directly. Thank you.

Needless to say, I don’t actually expect this e-mail to change anything.

 Posted by at 9:23 am
Apr 292012
 

I am not the activist type, but I admit I am a little distressed by the fact that no Canadian events appear to be planned on The Day Against DRM.

Day Against DRM vertical banner

The reason for my distress? Our federal government is about to enact into law Bill C-11, a bill that will make the simple act of copying a DVD to your computer for convenient viewing, or viewing a DVD purchased abroad using “region free” software, criminally illegal.

 Posted by at 10:05 am
Feb 202012
 

I just finished doing our taxes. It’s not very complicated (I keep good books) but it still took a few hours. I feel drained… and not just in the wallet. Groan.

Speaking of Groans, I am re-reading the story about the 77th Earl of Groan, Mervyn Peake’s incredible trilogy about the mysterious castle of Gormenghast and its inhabitants. I became aware of this book some 10-odd years ago when the Canadian cable network Space showed the eponymous BBC miniseries; I had no idea what I was watching, but I got hooked by its atmosphere. Later, I bought the book and read it, and what a read it is! Now I decided to read it again, taking my time this time, enjoying every sentence, every turn of phrase. After spending hours with tax software, retiring to my bed with Gormenghast will be quite the relief.

The tax software I use is GenuTax. It is decent, perhaps not the best, but it has an advantage other tax packages lack: it does not require Activation nor does it incorporate other Draconian DRM technology. This is why I switched to this software many years ago. I am disgusted by software companies that treat us all like would-be criminals. Unfortunately, GenuTax is not doing well; their business model is a losing one (lifetime free upgrades) and I worry that they won’t be around much longer, which will be a pity.

 Posted by at 10:48 pm
Jan 182012
 

Here is Google’s way of protesting proposed copyright legislation: black out the company logo and direct users who click on it to a protest page.

And then here is Wikipedia’s form of protest: black out the entire site. Never mind that the people you are most likely to hurt are your friends, and the people who are the least affected are your opponents. Why not be vindictive about it, if you can?

Indeed, while you are at it, why not black out Wikipedia even for non-US users, just for good measure, despite the fact that there is very little they can do that would affect the decisions of the US Congress.

Fortunately, the blackout is easily circumvented.

Nonetheless, doing what Google did would have been just as effective, and far less harmful both to Wikipedia’s reputation and to users who rely on its services every day. Unfortunately, radical activism prevailed over common sense: the difference between public protest and sabotage was forgotten. This is what dooms revolutions: they may be started by idealists and poets but ultimately, it is characters like Boris Pasternak’s Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago, who set the tone.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm
Jan 172012
 

I just wrote a comment, registering my objection to Wikipedia’s decision to protest a proposed US legislation with a total blackout of its English-language site.

In a letter titled “Summary and conclusion”, those behind this decision state that “over 1800 Wikipedians […] is by far the largest level of participation […], which illustrates the level of concern”. I was one of the 1800+. But, my concern was not about SOPA (I am concerned about it, but that’s another matter) but about the proposed radical action and its possible negative consequences for Wikipedia.

I also pointed out that given the way the vote was organized, it is clear that the decision was not a result of a majority (50%+) vote. It was merely the option (one out of many) picked by the most vocal minority. Taking such radical action without a clear majority mandate is a badly misguided step, to say the least.

There were also calls to make the blackout more thorough: block attempts to view cached versions of Wikipedia pages on Google, or attempts to bypass the JavaScript code that redirects the user to the blackout page. This is childish and vindictive, and also kind of pointless: the stated goal (raising awareness of the proposed legislation and its negative consequences) is easily accomplished without such thoroughness.

Lastly, I pointed out that with the legislation effectively dead (in the unlikely event that both houses of Congress pass the legislation, the White House all but promised a veto) proceeding with the blackout makes little sense. It is as if we threatened nuclear war, our opponent backed down, and then we went ahead and nuked the hell out of them anyway, just for good measure.

 Posted by at 10:02 am
Dec 032011
 

A while back, I wrote an e-mail to James Moore, Minister of Heritage, expressing my concern that the proposed new copyright legislation (Bill C-32) is going to turn me into a de facto criminal for the mere act of copying legally purchased DVDs to my computer’s hard drive for easy viewing.

Yesterday, much to my surprise, I received a reply. In his reply the Minister explains, among other things, that “copyright owners may decide whether to use technological protection measures for their content and consumers whether to pay for such content”.

In other words, screw me, it’s laissez faire capitalism. (In fact, he’s preaching to the choir: I stopped purchasing software like computer games eons ago because I despise Activation-type technologies.) Except that… our Minister and his government already decided that it is NOT laissez faire capitalism since government intervention (in the form of criminal sanctions, no less!) is required to protect the interests of copyright owners. The Minister’s reply is also representative of this government’s very callous attitude towards culture in general: by stating that “Copyright is a marketplace framework law”, the Minister makes it clear that they see intellectual property only as marketable products, and the consumption of culture as merely a voluntary consumer activity. I wonder if they maintain the same attitude towards, say, food or health care: in the marketplace, after all, consumers have a choice whether or not to purchase foodstuffs, right?

Their plans concerning copyright law was one reason why I did not vote Conservative this time around, and it seems that my concerns were well justified. Now my hope is that as this legislation passes, its ridiculousness will eventually become evident, and either the Supreme Court will step in or a successive government will make the necessary changes.

 Posted by at 9:42 am
Oct 012011
 

Once again, our beloved conservative government is trying to turn me into a criminal for simply copying all my (legally purchased) Blu-Ray and DVD movies to a hard drive for convenience. In fact, the proposed law very specifically makes it clear that reproduction for private purposes is legal only if “the individual, in order to make the reproduction, did not circumvent, as defined in section 41, a technological protection measure, as defined in that section, or cause one to be circumvented”.

Looks like I will be a lawbreaker. Or worse, I am a radical extremist, according to our beloved government’s heritage minister.

Meanwhile, the score is Disney: 1, people of Canada: 0, courtesy of the Conservative Party.

Message to Stephen Harper: let me know when you came back to your senses so that I can vote conservative again.

 

 Posted by at 5:02 pm
Jul 082011
 

Today, I received a phone call from 1-510-943-3040.

A gentleman with an Asian accent informed me that he is from the MS Windows Service Department (or whatever) and that in the last 30 days, they received repeat warnings from my computer about some malware attack.

I played along for a minute or two… but when the gentleman asked me to turn on my computer, I just couldn’t any longer. Still holding back my anger, I first explained to him that right now I am staring at a bookshelf containing a number of books I wrote about C++ and Windows programming; that I’ve been a computer professional since the 1970s (true, I received my first professional contract at the tender age of 16 in 1979)… and then, in language more rude I am afraid, I also told him that they are nothing but crooks and criminals, and that he should get off my f…ing phone.

The insolence!

 Posted by at 9:45 pm
Apr 212011
 

I used to think of myself as a moderate conservative. I didn’t much care for conservative ideology, but back in the 1980s, conservatives seemed to be much less burdened by ideology than their liberal counterparts, and more willing to make decisions based on facts.

How times have changed.

We have an election coming up here in Canada, and I cannot imagine voting for the Conservative party. It’s not that I dislike Harper. Hey, he’s a cat lover, and I am most certainly fond of cats. Nonetheless… he worries me.

The way the Harper government undermined the de facto independence of Statistics Canada and placed ideology ahead of facts when they made the decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census is but one example. Having grown up in a communist country, I used to think that ideological blindness was a prerogative of the political left; now I know better.

Proposals to rewrite Canada’s copyright law is another issue. Like the much criticized “Digital Millennium Copyright Act” of the United States, proposed law in Canada would also make it illegal to tamper with copy protection technology even when the planned use of the copyrighted work would itself be legal. Many don’t seem to understand that this formulation effectively turns a “limited monopoly” intellectual property right into an unlimited one: by using copy protection technology (even worthless, token technology will do), a copyright holder can prevent otherwise legal fair use. To be sure, I don’t necessarily expect a Liberal government to do better, but right now, it’s the Conservative proposals that I need to worry about, because they’re the ones edging ever closer to a parliamentary majority.

Then there was the proroguing of parliament, not once but twice. Harper’s conservatives seem utmostly concerned about the traditions of our parliamentary democracy when they try to frighten us with the spectre of a liberal-led coalition government (which, incidentally, would be entirely legal and constitutional, and also representing the majority of Canadian voters) yet they seem to think that shutting down parliament is not a violation of the same traditions. I am all for upholding both the written and unwritten traditions of this great country, but that then also includes not shutting down parliament, or, for that matter, not messing with or muzzling our statistics office.

One reason why I consider myself conservative is that I believe in fiscal conservativism: government being a “necessary evil”, it should be small, and the amounts it spends on programs, however worthy, should be constrained by the realities of available revenue and a desire to keep taxes low. Instead, Harper’s government delivered the biggest deficit in Canadian history. True, it was a result, in part, of an unprecedented recession, but only in part; they were well on their way towards sliding into the red long before the recession hit the Canadian economy.

Having said that… I don’t think that Harper is evil incarnate or that his re-election means the end of Canada as we know it. This is a fortunate country, blessed with a decent political elite that you can respect even when you disagree with them. But I still wouldn’t feel comfortable with Harper in charge of a majority government. I sincerely hope that he does not win that majority on May 2.

 Posted by at 2:00 pm
Oct 122010
 

It is rare to read anything these days from Canada’s unofficial copyright critic, Michael Geist, that is even mildly optimistic. Not so today… Geist appears to welcome the near-final version of ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, notably its relatively flexible approach to copy protection and digital access controls. It seems that sanity may prevail, despite earlier concerns about secretly negotiated Draconian restrictions. Let us hope that this does not go unnoticed by Canada’s Parliament as it considers revisions to our proposed new copyright law.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm
Mar 142010
 

Like any good geek, I like computer games. I’m not obsessed by them (the image of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons serves as a powerful deterrent) but I do enjoy the occasional play. And I certainly have the disposable income to buy a new title when it comes out.

Except that I haven’t bought a new game in years. Ubisoft’s official explanation about their “always on” digital rights management system is a good example why. A company that needs to know every time I am playing, a game that kicks me out of my Internet connection drops momentarily… why would I want to pay good money for that? Come to think of it, why would I even want something like that for free on my computer?

The answer is, I don’t.

I have no statistics to prove it, but I think  DRM does far more harm than good. It may (or may not) deter piracy. On the other hand, I bet that the number of customers alienated and put off by DRM far exceeds the number of those who suddenly see the light and, as a result of DRM, start paying for stuff they previously stole. So the net result may very well be a decrease in sales.

Perhaps one of these days, software, especially game software companies will come to their senses again and realize this. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the occasional shootout with some heavily pixelated aliens in Duke Nukem.

 Posted by at 3:44 pm
Nov 122009
 

According to leaks, a secret meeting held in Seoul and led by the ever so vigilant champion of all that’s free, the United States, may lead to the most Draconian restrictions yet on Internet freedom. Under the pretense of fighting counterfeiting, the participants (which include the United States, Canada, and the EU) are really discussing copyright provisions, and are planning to agree on a series of measures that would make a Cuba or North Korea proud. These include giving new powers to border guards, extending controversial protection of copy protection measures, removing privacy protection such as the “safe harbor” status of ISPs, and mandating “three strikes and you’re out” laws.

The fact that such talks are held in near complete secrecy by itself speaks volumes. This is how an East Germany negotiated border control measures with other communist states, not how free states negotiate about the rights of their citizens.

Once I stop fuming, I’ll write a nice, polite e-mail to our esteemed Prime Minister and ask if he and his government are really planning to go completely mad. I’d rather not see another penny in my life as revenue from the software I develop than live in a country which thinks that such totalitarian measures are needed to protect corporate profits from unruly citizens.

Meanwhile, I just had an idea. I think it is time to organize massive civil disobedience campaigns. I doubt it’d be too difficult to convince millions, if need be, to make one illegal copy a day of a song, a video, or software, not for profit, not even for public distribution (I am, after all, respectful of intellectual property), just to make a point and break badly crafted, stupid, hostile laws that should, really, must, be repealed (or, in the case of Canada, not enacted in the first place.)

 Posted by at 12:31 am
Nov 042009
 

Here’s another fine example of a somewhat Orwellian interpretation of Draconian copyright laws: according to Texas Instruments, hacking your own pocket calculator is illegal.

Recently a friend of mine, responding on the bureaucratic nightmare surrounding the H1N1 flu shots, remarked that “it’s enough to turn one into a Republican”. What can I say? Acts like those of Texas Instruments are, on the other hand, enough to turn one into a commie. After all, when corporations treat their own customers as the #1 enemy, what is the customer to think?

 Posted by at 5:17 pm
Oct 262009
 

When will companies finally learn that Activation and copy protection do little to deter real piracy, only punish and alienate legitimate users? Here is something I just came across in a PC World blog:

“Microsoft support reps were still replying to users’ questions about product keys with a canned response citing ‘several reasons why a product key might not be accepted.’

“Essentially, either, ‘You mistyped it. The product key you typed doesn’t match the key assigned to Windows on your computer. Microsoft has identified the product key you entered as counterfeit,’ or ‘the product key has already been used on another computer,’ according to Microsoft.

“One person griped: ‘I Have been on the phone since 4 pm EST and I still don’t have a valid product code. Thank you Microsoft! Thank you for wasting my valuable time! Time is money and this had been a flagrant waste of it,’ wrote thatguy38.”

So all you’re trying to do is install legitimately purchased software, and you end up with a major headache, a useless computer, lots of wasted time, and on top of that you might get accused of theft. Talk about a strong incentive to either use cracked pirate copies or to forego using commercial software altogether, switching to open source instead.

 Posted by at 9:27 pm
Oct 082009
 

Google’s Street View has just been introduced in Canada.

Many people consider it a “gross invasion of privacy” that someone can take pictures of their streets and post it on the Internet. “What if they see my car in my driveway?” they scream at the top of their lungs, as if Google broke some long established taboo by photographing a public street.

But wait a minute… are these the same people who readily submit to having their laptops searched, its content, personal and business, examined and scrutinized, just so that customs can catch the occasional pedophile?

For what it’s worth, I couldn’t care less if Google posts photographs of my street or my house. On the other hand, I am so concerned about real invasions of my privacy, I am willing to face the wrath of customs agents by using Bruce Schneier’s method of laptop protection against unwarranted searches.

Curiously, most of the people commenting on Schneier’s article completely misunderstand his point: it’s not that I have anything illicit or shameful on my laptop that I need to hide. That would be easy. It’s that I object to the principle of strangers going through my entire life.

The really scary thing is that so many people, citizens of supposedly free countries, already adopted such a strong police state mentality: rather than looking for a lawful way to maintain their privacy, they are discussing various ways to break the law without getting caught. What I like about Schneier’s method is that it does not involve breaking the law: all my statements to customs agents would be truthful. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished… I’ll likely be harassed more than the smartalec who just creates a hidden partition on his laptop and keeps the visible partition sterile. But, at least I’ll suffer with a clean conscience, whatever good that does.

 Posted by at 12:57 pm
Jul 292009
 

Another software product I’ll not be buying because of activation is Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I just received a promotional e-mail from TigerDirect Canada, offering this software for only CAD 59.97. Back in the old days, I’d have placed the order without much hesitation. But that was before the days of activation.

Simply put, I don’t buy software the license of which is tied to my computer hardware. My computer hardware is always changing. I have backup and test computers, and I often install software on those before risking my main computers. I only use licensed software and I abide by the terms of the license, but I do not put up with police state nonsense. Software companies do NOT have the right to police which of my computers I install their software on, so long as the spirit of the license is not violated: I am the software’s only user, and I only use one copy at a time. The purpose of test/backup installations is not to violate the terms of the license but to ensure that my ability to work remains uninterrupted by system failures or software incompatibilities.

In any case, my computer has no money. It is silly to tie a license to my computer, which has no ability to purchase anything. I, on the other hand, do have money, and I can purchase things, but why would I want to purchase things that would be tied to a computer that really is a transient entity: tomorrow, its hard drive may change, the day after, its motherboard, and so on? (The particular computer on which I am writing this text has been through many incarnations since the days when it began its existence as an Intel ‘486 machine on my then two-computer home network in the early 1990s, yet in a sense, it still has the same “identity”. Unfortunately, not quite in the sense in which computer identities are interpreted by activation software.)

Activation was supposed to boost sales by reducing software piracy. Perhaps it does that, though I remain skeptical. Meanwhile, at least in my case, I probably saved several thousand dollars over the years by no longer buying software on a whim. What can I say… their loss, my gain, I get to keep more money in my retirement account or pay off my mortgage faster.

I also note with a mild degree of amusement that cracks for most popular software are widely available on the Internet. Further, because activation and copy protection can be cumbersome, a growing number of people who purchased legitimate copies actually use cracked versions for comfort and convenience. I am guilty of doing the same: in order not to have to insert the blasted CD every time I play some particular games, I am using cracked versions instead, in which the copy protection code is bypassed. And this is when one feels compelled to ask the obvious question: if I, a legitimate purchaser, am nonetheless forced to use cracked (i.e., illegal) copies of software just so that I can use it the way I want to, what’s the point of paying for it in the first place?

This is a sad question to ask, given that I also make a living from writing software and as such, software piracy can hurt my wallet.

 Posted by at 3:13 pm