April 16, 2008

Darwin Online [7:47 pm]

Darwin’s private papers get Internet launch (pdf)

The first draft of Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin Of Species” is among a wealth of papers belonging to the intensely private man who changed science being published on the Internet on Thursday for the first time.

Comprising some 20,000 items and 90,000 images, the release on http://darwin-online.org.uk is the largest in history, according to the organizers from Cambridge University Library which holds all the Darwin papers.

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A Network Design Problem [2:06 pm]

How the heck do you engineer this? Consumer groups urge “do not track” registry (pdf)

Two consumer groups asked the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday to create a “do not track list” that would allow computer users to bar advertisers from collecting information about them.

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Comic Heroes, Creators and Compensation [9:32 am]

Joe Simon, a Creator of Captain America, Still Fighting for Comic Book Artists at 94

For Mr. Simon and Mr. Kirby, though, the biggest blow came when they were dismissed from the series, which had been selling a million copies a month, in a dispute over royalties. The team moved to Detective Comics today DC Comics, but Captain America stayed with Timely, the forerunner of Marvel Comics.

It’s a tale worthy of its own comic and one of many inspirations for Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”: On the frontier of a new industry, writers and artists creating scores of characters, but publishers profiting from them.

These days creators have learned from the past by self-publishing or otherwise securing the rights to their progeny. But some of the founding fathers of American superheroes are still seeking justice. [...]

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Anthropology and Product Development [8:36 am]

Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?

[Jan] Chipchase is 38, a rangy native of Britain whose broad forehead and high-slung brows combine to give him the air of someone who is quick to be amazed, which in his line of work is something of an asset. For the last seven years, he has worked for the Finnish cellphone company Nokia as a “human-behavior researcher.” He’s also sometimes referred to as a “user anthropologist.” To an outsider, the job can seem decidedly oblique. His mission, broadly defined, is to peer into the lives of other people, accumulating as much knowledge as possible about human behavior so that he can feed helpful bits of information back to the company — to the squads of designers and technologists and marketing people who may never have set foot in a Vietnamese barbershop but who would appreciate it greatly if that barber someday were to buy a Nokia.

[...] This sort of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering is central to what’s known as human-centered design, a business-world niche that has become especially important to ultracompetitive high-tech companies trying to figure out how to write software, design laptops or build cellphones that people find useful and unintimidating and will thus spend money on. Several companies, including Intel, Motorola and Microsoft, employ trained anthropologists to study potential customers, while Nokia’s researchers, including Chipchase, more often have degrees in design. Rather than sending someone like Chipchase to Vietnam or India as an emissary for the company — loaded with products and pitch lines, as a marketer might be — the idea is to reverse it, to have Chipchase, a patently good listener, act as an emissary for people like the barber or the shoe-shop owner’s wife, enlightening the company through written reports and PowerPoint presentations on how they live and what they’re likely to need from a cellphone, allowing that to inform its design.

[...] This is when I voiced a careless thought about whether there might be something negative about the lightning spread of technology, whether its convenience was somehow supplanting traditional values or practices. Chipchase raised his eyebrows and laid down his spoon. He sighed, making it clear that responding to me was going to require patience. “People can think, yeah, monks with cellphones, and tsk, tsk, and what is the world coming to?” he said. “But if you wanted to take phones away from anybody in this world who has them, they’d probably say: ‘You’re going to have to fight me for it. Are you going to take my sewer and water away too?’ And maybe you can’t put communication on the same level as running water, but some people would. And I think in some contexts, it’s quite viable as a fundamental right.” He paused a beat to let this sink in, then added, with just a touch of edge, “People once believed that people in other cultures might not benefit from having books either.”

[...] As a joke, Chipchase sometimes pulls out his cellphone and pretends to shave his face with it, using a buzzing ring tone for comic effect. But there’s a deeper truth embedded here, not just for people in places like Kenya or Buduburam but for all of us. As cellphone technology grows increasingly sophisticated, it has cannibalized — for better or worse — the technologies that have come before it. Carrying a full-featured cellphone lessens your needs for other things, including a watch, an alarm clock, a camera, video camera, home stereo, television, computer or, for that matter, a newspaper. With the advent of mobile banking, cellphones have begun to replace wallets as well. That a phone might someday offer a nice close shave suddenly seems not so ridiculous after all.

See earlier posting from 2004 on a similar topic; see also The Merchants of Cool.

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Digital Course Packs [8:09 am]

Publishers Sue Georgia State on Digital Reading Matter

The lawsuit, which may be the first of its kind, raises questions about digital rights, which are confronting many media companies, but also about core issues like the future of the business model for academic publishers.

Indeed, as the printed word is put in digital form, holding onto rights seems to many like climbing up the slippery sides of a glass. The case centers on so-called course packs, compilations of reading materials from various books and journals. The lawsuit contends that in many cases, professors are providing students with multiple chapters of a given work, in violation of the “fair use” provision of copyright law. The publishers are seeking an order that the defendants secure permissions and pay licensing fees to the copyright owners.

[...] [I]n 1992, Princeton University Press and others sued Michigan Document Services, a photocopying service, which was producing course packs for University of Michigan students without permission from the copyright holders. The business was eventually found to be in copyright infringement.

“Georgia State’s activity seems identical with Michigan Document Services’ activity,” said Susan P. Crawford, a visiting professor at Yale Law School.

But she pointed out that unlike Kinko’s and Michigan Document Services, Georgia State was not making money from the electronic course packs.

Yet, she added: “It’s difficult to argue that this is a truly noncommercial use. Georgia State may be a nonprofit institution, but its students pay a lot of money for course materials, and would presumably pay money for the materials being provided to them by the university.”

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Taking A Page From the RIAA? [8:03 am]

And building her fan base: Potter fan faces Rowling in court

The author of an unofficial Harry Potter encyclopaedia broke down as he faced JK Rowling in court in a battle over the right to publish his book.

Steven Vander Ark said his only goal was to celebrate Rowling, sitting in front of him, who he called a “genius”.

Rowling had earlier told the court his plans to publish The Harry Potter Lexicon amounted to “wholesale theft”.

She is suing Mr Vander Ark and his publisher RDR Books in New York for copyright infringement.

Asked whether he still thought of himself as part of the Harry Potter fan community, Mr Vander Ark struggled to speak through tears.

The fact that this got to court suggests, of course, that there are strongly-held (and possibly reasonable differences of) opinions on both side of this question (or at least questions of both fact and law to be heard), but it’s been interesting to note that, where there are newspapers that post comments along with the article, most observers see this as a David and Goliath fight, as opposed to one of punishing a venal thief. Whether the tears are real or not, the battle for public opinion here appears to be going as well for Rowling as it has for the RIAA.

See also Sued by Harry Potter’s Creator, Lexicographer Breaks Down on the Stand

Later: this APWire article doesn’t help Rowling implores NYC judge to block publication of guide (pdf)

A three-day trial over an unauthorized Harry Potter encyclopedia ended Wednesday with a flash of anger from J.K. Rowling.

The British author returned to the witness stand and told a judge that if he allows the fan-written lexicon to be published, it will clear the way for countless rip-offs of her books, as well as those by other authors.

”I believe the floodgates will open,” Rowling said, her voice rising. ”Are we the owners of our own work?”

[...] The discussion Wednesday seemed to both delight and dismay the judge, who began the day by urging the two sides to settle out of court.

Patterson likened the trial to the story Charles Dickens told in ”Bleak House,” a novel about the pain caused by endlessly drawn-out lawsuits in the 19th century British judiciary system.

Patterson predicted a similar fate for the Potter case. He said it involved unresolved areas of American law and was almost certain to end in years of appeals.

”I think this case, with imagination, could be settled,” Patterson said.

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