Tag Archives: intellectual property

W3C Turns the Clock Back on an Open Web

A man protests Digital Rights Management in Bo...
A man protests Digital Rights Management in Boston, USA as part of the DefectiveByDesign.org campaign of the Free Software Foundation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On September 18, Ars Technica reports, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published a new specification recommendation, Encrypted Media Extensions. The recommendation, which natively implements a “Digital Rights Management” scheme in web browsers, marks a giant step backward for user freedom and an “open” World Wide Web.

W3C is the Web’s  “international standards organization.” Simply put, its recommendations are the reason you can load almost any web page in almost any browser and expect to see the same things on your screen. When W3C recommends something, it’s a lead pipe cinch that all the major browser creators will incorporate that recommendation in their products ASAP.

In this case, W3C’s recommendation is the equivalent of a printing standards body deciding that henceforth printing presses should only emboss cuneiform characters in clay tablets. That is, it calls for universal adoption of an obsolete — to the point of silliness — way of doing things.

The purpose of Digital Rights Management is to allow creators to control the use of, and prevent the copying of, “intellectual property” — in the form of copyrighted informational works or proprietary hardware creations — after its original sale.

The 30-odd year history of DRM is one of consumer dissatisfaction and sequential failure. Every DRM scheme is broken sooner or later (usually sooner), after playing hob with purchasers’ ability to actually make use of the products they’ve bought. Lately, in addition to trying to improve DRM, Big Content and Big Manufacturing have begun asking politicians to criminalize cracking of DRM. That’s not going to work either. The only winners in the DRM saga will be the companies which drop the whole idea and come up with revenue models that don’t require them to screw their customers in the name of preventing copying and modification. The false hope of EME puts off that day.

Until the Encrypted Media Extensions scheme is broken in some fundamental way (a way that can’t be fixed with browser updates to the EME code itself), Internet users are going to increasingly find themselves frustrated in copying material they own between their devices, making archival copies, or grabbing snippets under the “fair use” provisions of copyright law.

EME has also already produced a gigantic breach in trust within W3C itself. As Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out (in an open letter announcing EFF’s resignation from the body), “W3C is a body that ostensibly operates on consensus,” yet EME was imposed on behalf of Big Content and over many objections by the body’s director, Tim Berners-Lee,  and adopted by a vote of less than 60%. Berners-Lee and the proponents of DRM may well have permanently wrecked W3C’s reputation as a trustworthy creator and evaluator of standards for the Web.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Lies, Damned Lies, and Hewlett-Packard Printers

HP cartridge (56, 57, 58)
HP cartridge (56, 57, 58) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

September 13 was an unlucky day for an unknown number of Hewlett-Packard printer owners. Instead of going dutifully to work, their printers displayed the error message “One or more cartridges appear to be damaged. Remove them and replace them with new cartridges.”

The cartridges weren’t damaged, though. The printers had been sabotaged with, for all intents and purposes, malware. And the saboteur was Hewlett-Packard itself. The company built a digital time bomb into its firmware to stop owners of HP printers from using ink cartridges sold by third parties.

The company brazenly claims responsibility for the cyber attack, saying it bricked its customers’ printers to  “protect innovation and intellectual property, but also to improve the safety of products for customers.”

There’s a word for that claim, but I can’t use it in a family-friendly column. HP is “protecting” and “improving” only one thing: Its profits from the sale of ink cartridges. A full refill (black and color) using HP-manufactured cartridges can cost about as much as some of the lower-end printers themselves; third party manufacturers sell compatible cartridges for less than half that.

I’ve heard it said that some printers are sold at, or even for less, than manufacturing cost as “loss leaders.” Part One: Cheap printer. Part two: Expensive ink. But of course that only works if you can force the buyer to stick with you through Part Two.

HP has a long record of trying to fool its customers into this kind of bait and switch scam. From patent infringement lawsuits against cartridge competitors to “Digital Rights Management” schemes in its hardware and software (former HP CEO and failed presidential candidate Carly Fiorina announced a “DRM in every product” policy at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show), the upshot is “you don’t really own that thing you thought you bought from us.”

But this is the first time I’m aware of that HP has resorted to cyber attacks on its own customers to stop them from patronizing other businesses. It joins Sony BMG, which got caught using music CDs to install “rootkit” malware in 2005, on a list of companies which can’t be trusted to not screw over customers.

The extinction of state-conferred “intellectual property” monopolies became inevitable with the digital age when information reproduction costs fell to nearly zero. Which is exactly where the profit margins of companies like Hewlett-Packard are headed if they don’t knock this kind of thing off.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Yosemite Sham: Trademark Trolls Try to Tap Taxpayers

English: Picture of the Ahwahnee Hotel. I took...
The Ahwahnee Hotel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hell hath no fury like a former business partner scorned. The Associated Press reports that  a company called Delaware North, which ran Yosemite National Park’s hotels and restaurants for two decades under contract with the US National Park Service, wants a $51 million payoff after losing those concessions to a higher bidder.

Why the payoff? Delaware North claims that it owns the names of long-existing park attractions which it did not start, does not own, and only temporarily operated. The Ahwahnee Hotel. Curry Village. Oh, yes, and “Yosemite National Park.”

In response to a suit filed by Delaware North, the Park Service is temporarily changing some names (of the hotel and the “village,” but not of the park) while dickering over how much it’s willing to pay — it values the names, according to court documents, at $3.5 million.

Apparently trademark trolling is Delaware North’s big new revenue center. The company also runs concessions at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and has filed a trademark application on the name “Space Shuttle Atlantis.” No, I’m not kidding. The cost to taxpayers of building and and operating the space shuttle fleet breaks down to around $40 billion per shuttle, but Delaware North thinks it owns the name because it makes money running soda stands and gift shops that riff on the theme.

But this kind of obvious abuse isn’t the real problem. It’s just a high-profile instance of the problem. The problem is the screwed up concept of “intellectual property” itself.

Yes, it’s clearly and obviously wrong to try to patent rounded corners on devices (as Apple did) or collect royalties on century-old characters (Sherlock Holmes) or tunes (“Happy Birthday”) that have long since become organic parts of their surrounding cultures. But the less clear  and obvious cases are wrong too.

I’m no artist, but I can draw a “swoosh.” I’m no cobbler, but I could probably make a shoe. If I put that “swoosh” on that shoe, Nike will have me in court so fast my head will spin. And heaven help me if I draw a cartoon featuring a particular mouse outline. Why? Because Nike, Disney and other “intellectual property” monopolists have bribed governments to pretend that shapes can be owned.

Delaware North isn’t rightly entitled to an “intellectual property” payday. Neither are  other “intellectual property” scammers. But they’ll probably get over. “Owning” a copyright, patent or trademark? Valuable. Owning that claim’s political enforcers? Priceless.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.