Archive for July, 2009


One thing your Dad may never know about


Wired has published a list, called 100 things your kids may never know about, which includes many going-going-gone technological experiences that old farts like me can relate to, but that young-uns will probably have to live without.

All this technological stuff is nostalgic, but ultimately, it’s really kind of trivial. For a real challenge, try explaining to a teenager: “having to get someone’s permission to be able to say something to the world.

When you’ve grown up with the web and blogs, and MySpace and YouTube, and Bebo and Twitter, and Facebook and Flickr as part of the way you communicate, it can be pretty hard to conceive of having go through publishers and broadcasters, or needing to be licensed, or having to wait your turn for the mike, in order to have your voice heard beyond letters and phone calls and earshot.

I find it disappointing that Wired, of all magazines, is obsessing over the progressive changes to the speed of modems and the size of disks, rather than the profound changes in social relations that connected computers have brought.

Maybe some grown-ups just can’t conceive of not needing permission to speak to the world.

(Thanks to Matt Locke for pointing this generational difference out.)


For the public? Good.


Simon Bradshaw has written a delightful summary of some legal opinions around the current dispute between the National Portrait Gallery and Wikipedia, in which the Gallery are seeking to prevent the distribution of high-resolution digital images of paintings whose copyright has expired.

Simon makes it obvious that, at least under English law, this dispute isn’t clear-cut. In particular, the National Portrait Gallery could well prevail in an English court using claims of copyright infringement, despite the works at the centre of this dispute being undeniably out of copyright, and despite the digital images being more akin to really detailed photocopies (which don’t attract copyright protection).

I think this dispute gets to the heart of what and, more importantly, who the National Portrait Gallery is for.

Given what they say about their mission and their history, it seems to me that the Gallery’s role ought to be the widest possible dissemination of those works that we, the public, have already paid for. This payment might have been with money, but has certainly been by granting a limited monopoly to the artist, in the form of copyright.

If anything, the Gallery ought to be helping Wikipedia, and anyone else willing to bring these works into wider public use.

If the Gallery are the official custodians of works that have been acquired for the public, then by what right do they restrict the public’s access to those works no longer in copyright, beyond that necessary to physically safeguard the works themselves? How does limiting the public’s use of these works advance their stated aim “to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media“? How does restricting people from seeing, or using, out-of-copyright works promote the appreciation and understanding of those works?

On their own web site, the Gallery makes some statements that I find rather extraordinary.

The Gallery has a public duty not only to conserve and display works in its Collection…

Fair enough; I’d expect nothing less of a National Gallery established by Parliament, and supported with public funds.

…but also to ensure they are correctly represented in reproductions and publications.

I’m sorry? So the Gallery are also the Image Quality Police, with implicit jurisdiction over every publisher in the world? Who gave them that duty, and why?

There are sometimes sensitive issues involving artists, sitters, donors or lenders of Collection works, to which we must be responsive. Accordingly, we tightly control the circumstances and quality of reproductions from the Collection.

I believe the right to exert such control should fall away when the copyright in a work lapses. This will undoubtedly be long after the artist’s and sitter’s deaths, who are actually the only individuals whose “sensitivities” ought to carry any weight anyway. Note also that they’ve used a situation that arises “sometimes” as an excuse for imposing a general policy, which is never a good way to do things.

We also exert strict controls on all photography in the Gallery, which is allowed only on the understanding that copyright rests with us and that any further reproduction deriving from resulting photographic materials is subject to our written permission.

Note that their statement doesn’t say “photography in the Gallery of works still in copyright“, it says “photography in the Gallery“. So, if I take a picture of my foot in the Gallery, the copyright in that picture apparently belongs to the Gallery. By what right?

The Gallery’s image licensing department raises money by licensing reproductions, thus supporting both the free entry policy and the Gallery’s main functions caring for its Collection and engaging people with its works.

I interpret this statement to mean that the Gallery have decided to favour fund-raising, through restricting access to out-of-copyright works, over their duty to enable public access to those works.

I think I can hypothesize the Gallery’s motive as: “this licensing business, which we’ve built on top of our custodianship of out-of-copyright works, is a nice little earner. Wikipedia is jeopardizing this part of our income, which we’ve somehow come to depend on, therefore we want them to stop.

Frankly, I think the Gallery has lost the plot, and needs to be reminded of it.

I believe anyone ought to be able to use images of works that are out of copyright for any purpose whatsoever, without asking anyone else’s permission, and without paying so much as a brass farthing for the privilege. This could include printing high-quality reproductions of works and selling them to anyone who wants a fine portrait on their wall; or it could include printing the works on toilet paper, for anyone who wants to appreciate a little art while they poop.

I believe this ability, for the public to copy, re-use and re-purpose artistic works whose copyright has lapsed, is precisely why copyright lapses in the first place. It’s the final stage of the deal that copyright represents, between the public and the artist. The artist gets certain exclusive rights for a time that they are free to exploit to their wallet’s content, but in return, the public eventually gets to do what it likes with their art, short of laying claim to any physical instances of it.

It seems to me that, by engaging Wikipedia in this dispute, the National Portrait Gallery has forgotten the primacy of its roles as custodian and promoter, and is attempting to deny the public its proper use of works acquired for the public good for the sake of a bit of cash.

Let the Gallery help copyright holders license the hell out of works that are still in copyright; that’s one of the things that copyright is supposed to make possible. But out-of-copyright artistic creations are ours, the public’s. The canvas and the paint and the box it comes in are physically the property of someone, but once the copyright has lapsed, the imagery itself no longer belongs to anyone in particular, but everyone in general.

I think it’s shameful that a National Gallery of Anything feels okay about erecting a tollbooth in front of images that I believe legally, and quite possibly physically, belong to the public, using excuses such as “protecting sensitivites” or “ensuring reproductive quality” or “supporting free entry“. I see this as building a business on public property, and then denying the public access to that property for the sake of the business.

If the Gallery cannot be persuaded to reset their course, and put the public first in their decision-making, then I hope this dispute with Wikipedia does get to court, or judicial review, or whatever’s appropriate. I further hope that this will result in the Gallery’s role being clearly articulated as custodians for the public, and that where that role conflicts with any income stream they have built on top of it, the income stream should not be what wins.


Give me space


If you ever enter credit card information online, you’ll undoubtedly encounter the peculiar request to omit spaces from credit card numbers, such as on this fairly typical form:

Excluding spaces

Now, as an actual programmer of computery software, I see such requests as completely bizarre. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why you, the human, should have to carefully avoid pressing the space bar while entering a credit card number. Since the bank, to whom this data will shortly be delivered, is expecting a credit card number, and since the bank defines what those look like, they can scrupulously throw away everything else you, or your space-loving cat, types that isn’t 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 0.

It’s so easy, that I’d expect any competent programmer to be able to immediately write a piece of code to do this, off the top of their head, with no bugs. If they couldn’t do this in, say, a technical interview for a programming job at bank, they shouldn’t be hired.

In fact, it’s highly likely that the amount of time and effort necessary to place the warning “(excluding spaces)” in the web page is more than the effort required to adjust the software to remove the spaces for you.

Cleaning up the data you receive, such as removing unnecessary spaces from it, is known as sanitizing the data, and it’s not only trivial, but essential if the bank is to have a chance of running a secure and reliable operation.

In my more cynical moods [not at all encouraged by having actually worked in banking operations, he said rolling his eyes], I see the “excluding spaces” request as meaning “our programmers aren’t so good with the sanitizing and the programming and the stuff, so please help them, thanks so much“.

So, with all that in mind, here are not one, but two, stories of what happens when banks apparently fail to remove spaces from a critical value, with hilarious consequential overdrafts.

If you look at both these stories, the amounts of money the poor saps’ credit cards were charged are suspiciously identical: $23,148,855,308,184,500.00. This is the kind of stupid number that immediately makes me want to view it in base 16 (a technically useful way of representing data), in case that provides a clue as to what’s going on.

In base 16, 2314885530818450000 (with the extra 00 on the end meaning cents) is 2020202020201250. That looks a lot to me as if it’s really meant to be 1250 (for example, meaning $12.50 in binary-coded decimal, commonly used in financial systems to represent numbers precisely), but somehow with a pile of spaces stuck on the front (since 20 is a common computer code for space). This is almost certainly the work of a piece of software between the retailer and the bank, which is wrongly padding the value out to fit a fixed-size field for transport (and probably also wrongly changing the type of it too).

But it’s also a sterling example (sic) of why the receiving system should remove unexpected spaces from something that’s intended to be a number, rather than just passing it on to a program that will mishandle it gloriously.

Of course, it would also, maybe, perhaps, be a good idea to make sure that the withdrawal request doesn’t exceed the size of the world economy. But that’s actually harder than just excluding spaces, since the banks think they can get you to do that for them.