October 19, 2003

McGill and TurnItIn.com [3:15 pm]

A TPP Student has pointed me toward a McGill student’s challenge to Canadian universities’ requirement that students routinely have their assignments vetted by TurnItIn.com before grading: McGill student launches challenge

A 19-year-old student has launched the first challenge to controversial new rules at some Canadian universities that force students to submit essays to an American company where they’re vetted for plagiarism.

Jesse Rosenfeld, a second-year International Development student at McGill University, has filed a grievance with a senate committee at the Montreal university after receiving a zero on an assignment in his economics class. Mr. Rosenfeld had refused to submit his work to Turnitin.com, a new course requirement, and instead handed in his work directly to his professor. That landed him the failing grade.

Mr. Rosenfeld says he doesn’t like being treated as though he’s guilty until proven innocent. Besides, he doesn’t consent to the way the California-based company plans to use his original academic work.

“I’m suppose to hand in my paper to a private company, which is then entered into a data base, which the company in turn profits from. I’m indirectly helping a private company make a profit off my paper,” said Mr. Rosenfeld. [emphasis added]

The McGill dispute is much larger than one student at one institution, say experts. They say the standoff over a commercial plagiarism detection program raises key academic freedom and copyright issues.

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A New Incarnation of The Copyright Cage [12:57 pm]

Etienne points to a new incarnation, with updated content, extended arguments and refined conclusions, of Jonathan Zittrain’s Copyright Cage — this one is The Copyright Cuffs in CIO Magazine.

For example, the Recording Industry Association of America successfully shut down Napster for providing services to netizens to facilitate the sharing of copyrighted and public-domain files alike, without taking steps to filter out the former. (The recording industry is not resting on its legal laurels. It is now suing the venture capital firm Hummer Winblad for daring to finance Napster under what seems to be a novel Matryoshka-doll theory of contributory contributory copyright infringement.) The industry’s suit against Napster’s technological descendants Morpheus and Grokster has, however, foundered in a thoughtful—but probably soon-to-be-overturned—district court holding and opinion that found a number of important technical differences between the two generations of software.

The puzzle for the judge was that these software products are essentially small leveragings of the core functions of the Internet itself—golden spikes that complete a railroad built by others. (The Gnutella client, a recent-vintage bane of the copyright industries, fits on a single floppy disk.) Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Morpheus case, the fact is that the Internet was built to copy things. Almost every software application that capitalizes on this central functionality is therefore a Kinko’s of sorts, and decreeing all search-and-copy software to be contributorily infringing copyright is simply too large a step for a court to take. Microsoft Windows’ “Network Neighborhood” feature, for example, is simply a way to swap files, and the company has promised that improvements to its next version of Windows will focus on indexing and finding desired material across a network.

[...] How is it that IT and ISP industries easily 10 times the size of their publishing counterparts are being harnessed to the needs of their little siblings? One answer is rooted in a form of status quoism that sees the current allocation of rights and duties under copyright as “fair” and the happenstance of technical innovation that might displace it as “unfair.” The utilitarian complement to that argument is that copyright provides incentives for innovation, and if copyright is rendered ineffective, the creators create less or cease altogether.

What’s obscured in that analysis is due credit for the longstanding status quo of individual practice in spite of (and previously simply alongside) Title 17.

The Net forces us to confront the contradictions between what the law technically requires and what individuals do. Initial attempts to reconcile the two have been disappointing.

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Software Activation [11:34 am]

Slashdot discusses the fact that the new version of the Adobe Creative Suite is saddled with the same kind of product activation that aggravated the TurboTax user base last year: Adobe Makes Products Harder to Use, More Expensive. There are a number of excellent comments, with this one articulating the primary reason that I continue to do all I can to support and use open source/free software:

Problems with product activation (Score:5, Insightful)

by FattMattP (86246) on Sunday October 19, @01:42AM (#7252209)

(http://www.youmaybenext.com/)

[I originally posted this on a digital video forum so I'm reposting it here on slashdot]

I have a problem with product activation because it puts too much control into the software publisher’s hands over how I use the software I’ve paid for. There are a lot of legitimate reasons to need to reactivate. I want to plan my software and hardware upgrades according to *my* schedule, not some vendor’s. Fortunately, some companies are already learning hard lessons about product activation. Check out this story on Intuit: http://money.cnn.com/2003/05/19/technology/techinvestor/hellweg/ [cnn.com]

The company I work for bought a program called Stream Anywhere from Sonic Foundry a while back. It’s great. We use it on every streaming media production that comes out of our video edit suite. But Sonic Foundry doesn’t sell it anymore and they were just bought by Sony. Will Sony issue me a new activation code in the future if/when I move to a new computer? Will they even keep the key-generator around for an end-of-life product? What if I upgrade my computer in two years and I need to reactivate but they can’t or won’t give me a code?

We also spent $6,000 on a product to let us sync PowerPoint slides to live streaming video. When you install it and run it for the first time, it wants to connect over the internet to register. When we installed it on a different machine that we bought just for this purpose, I had to call them and talk them into letting me activate it again. This isn’t an activation code — it actually talks to their servers to activate.

What do I do if this small vendor goes out of business and I have to reinstall Windows for whatever reason? Am I just SOL? I wouldn’t be able to reactivate even on the same machine because of the method they use. This isn’t as much an issue with someone big like Microsoft or Adobe, but smaller companies usually follow ideas of the larger companies. I could see in a few years where everything from big commercial apps down to small shareware programs require activation.

Even with a big vendor, what’s going to happen when they end-of-life the product? Will I still be able to reactivate PhotoShop CS or Windows XP several years down the road when there’s a newer verison out? Or will they refuse to reactivate it and tell me I have to purchase a copy of whatever newer program they are currently selling? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the later. They have everything to gain yet the customer stands only to lose.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I’m writing to Abode to let them know I don’t like it and won’t purchase any of their products that use product activation. Most importantly, I’m going to vote with my wallet (and my company’s wallet where applicable).

A really striking dimension of this whole thing is the fact that software copy protection (at least in commodity software) was tried twenty years ago and essentially dropped, a point that DRM opponents keep raising today. The argument has been that copy protection failed then because (1) it was easy for professional thieves to break, (2) it aggravated paying customers and (3) it raised costs for software publishers without a noticeable beneficial effect to the bottom line. The story goes on to say that, with the removal of copy protection, sales rose and firms overall had a net increasein income.

That’s a cute story, but then why is software activation coming back? Are these firms too dumb to avoid repeating the errors of the past? Has something changed to make the story wrong? Or, was the story wrong even then?

Increasingly, I’m beginning to believe that the story was never right in the first place. I think that what really happened was that the big players (Microsoft, Lotus, etc.) learned about the power of the "network effect" and saw how to exploit it to garner more income than copy protection would ever have given them. By essentially giving their software away to a subculture of users operating in the gray economy, these firms gained the market power that allows them to monitor and charge firms operating in the white economy who have to give their workers the tools that the gray market users have made the standard — Windows, Photoshop, Excel, Word, Powerpoint, etc. Moreover, the gray market users were far less expensive than paying users, because they did not require/could not acquire technical support from the vendors.

In effect, this strategy exploited the very features of the networked community that the open source/free software movement describe — the power of community to add value to software. Granted, in a more limited way — no one gets to rewrite the code. But the community was able to provide technical support and bug detection at a very low cost to the firms who actually did write the code.

And now, these firms believe that they are secure enough in their market position that they can return to the use of (significantly improved) copy protection tools whose effectiveness is increasingly defended not through expensive software R&D but instead by the power of the State — anti-circumvention, for example.

Of course, this is only supposition on my part — but it’s an interesting research question, too…….

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An Entertaining Letter [10:50 am]

In response to Amy Harmon’s "What Price Music" that raises some issues in the face of commodity music distrubution: 99-Cent Songs; the Candidate; New Jersey [pdf]

To the Editor:

Thanks to Amy Harmon ["What Price Music?," Oct. 12], I have written my first food article, “What Price Meat?” In it I expose restaurants like Peter Luger for charging $20 to $30 for a pound of meat when McDonald’s sells a pound of the stuff for a few bucks and manages to throw in bun, lettuce, tomato and pickle.

An original copy of “Revolver” may have cost $4.50 in 1966, and adjusted for inflation that might equal $26, but were you to buy a clean, original British copy today it might set you back well over $100. Why? You’d have to hear it played back properly, look at it and touch it to understand. Thirty-seven years from now, what do you think those MP3 files will fetch?

I’ve taken an absurdist tack here, but consider what reducing recorded music to an undifferentiated commodity does to the musicians and the recording, mixing and mastering engineers who produce it (not to mention listeners who appreciate the difference between quality and convenience). Don’t get me wrong: I use and enjoy my iPod, and I eat fast-food burgers, but I never confuse them with a gourmet meal.

MICHAEL FREMER

Wyckoff, N.J.

The writer is a contributing editor to Stereophile magazine.

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