Archive for the ‘business’ Category

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For the public? Good.

2009-07-20

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.

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Riding the long tail

2009-03-20

A professor at INSEAD has come up with a system that generates tomes full of stuff on obscure topics, and sells them on Amazon, only printing them when they’re ordered.

Supposedly, he has over 200,000 books available, with such racy titles as “The 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats, and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India“.

This article includes a video by the author, talking about his book “writing” process, and also about his ambitions for automatically-generated video games, teaching and game shows.

Not everyone is happy about what he’s doing, though.

I wonder if Jeffrey Archer knows about this.

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Innovate me harder

2008-11-26

This is in response to the lament by antipodean envoy Matthew Cashmore that ‘Innovation’ no longer means anything.

(Statement of disclosure: I work for a company with ‘Innovation’ in its name, so you’d think I would know something about it.)

I’m afraid innovation as a term meaning “process of inventing” or “something invented” will soon be lost, much as the term creative has been lost. Both words have become accidental victims to the modern obsession with branding, where short, distinctive terms barge longer, supposedly more meaningful words and phrases out of the way in the name of memorability. Also, because they’re easier to say when drunk.

Indeed, it is instructive to look at the fate of the term creative in order to see what awaits innovation, now that it too has been elbowed off the roof towards the same cold, semantic pavement.

Creative used to mean “capable of creating”, where creating meant “coming up with something that hadn’t existed before.” For example, scientists, engineers, artists and writers can reasonably claim to be creative, as can people who solve problems for a living in any walk of life. (Bizarrely, people who create problems for a living only seem to be found in Hollywood, politics and large-scale IT projects; no-one knows why.)

Most of what traditionally creative people do, working at the edge of the Genuinely New, is, frankly, incomprehensible to almost everyone else. It cannot be any other way, any more than everyone can be beautiful, or smart, or the first to post a comment on a blog.

But despite a stubborn lack of talent or motivation, many people would like to be inventive or artistic anyway. So the word creative was not-at-all-misleadingly adopted as a substitute adjective for activities that are artistic-looking or inventive-seeming, activities which, as they’re not actually inventive, can be done by a broader range of people using weaker chemicals, less rigorous maths and cheaper insurance.

On the face of it, this invention of the so-called “Creative Balloon” was no bad thing: if ‘creative’ people could have bridged the Gulf of Comprehension between the Islets of Invention and the Continents of Application, then it could have been of benefit to everyone who lives in geographical metaphors.

Unfortunately, however, due to the shameless actions of those who understand people only too well, the term creative was savagely co-opted as a job description that seems to be applicable to anyone above the level of dishwipe at an ad agency. The long-term consequences of this are hard to predict, but top government zoologists believe that they will include the emergence of a new species of Creative, identifiable by their primary-coloured spectacles, a completely bald head, and a propensity to blurt out: “yeah, but what if we make it REALLY BIG?”

Sadly, this already means that some of our most creative people are now vulnerable to being mocked, because of how diluted the term creative has become. Why, some of my best friends have actual talent, I’ll have you know, despite it saying Creative Blahblah on their business cards; business cards that are often egg-shaped and printed on feathers for reasons that are, frankly, incomprehensible to me.

And so we come to Innovation.

In less novelty-stained times, innovation used to be the harbinger of that which was New! Never seen before! This is It! The First of its Kind!

Obvious examples include:

  • Breguet’s tourbillon escapement,
  • spread-spectrum radio,
  • Post-It notes, and
  • the Celebrity Cock-Fighting Channel.

But now, incessant demands for “more innovation!” have hurled us footlong into a world where high-definition toilet paper, Google Maps on gravestones, and even Lara Croft-flavoured Piccalilli seem frighteningly possible.

Consequently, creative is no longer enough to contain a notion like “artistic-ish” or “inventive-y“, and stronger measures are now required. So across the land, the odour of Innovation is being wafted into boardrooms by top government gesticulators, acting on directions from Whitehall to find new sources of Innovation and Creativity before existing supplies run dry.

I believe the hope is that, one day, Britain will lead the world in the Innovative Industries, much as it currently tells everyone it leads the world in the Creative Industries. (A term, by the way, which is nearly as sensible as ‘Maternal Industries’ or ‘Comedic Industries’.)

As part of this campaign, innovation has now officially been redefined from “the process of invention” or “something new and invented” to any of:

  • shiny, cheap and mass-producible“,
  • easy to explain, yet hard to define“,
  • last year’s ideas in this year’s colours“, or
  • …now with USB!

Furthermore, it is now clear that we must promote our most ambitious Creatives to the level of Innovatives, so that they can take what they’ve distilled from building the European Fashion Mountain and pour it directly into the European Lake of Innovation (once China has decided which peasant valley will be flooded to build it).

I expect to see more of this broadening out of inventive-like activities, built around the same core of actual invention and creativity that Britain has always failed to crush completely. The only difference will be that, since all the Creatives and Innovatives will be working hard being, well, creative and innovative, actual invention will be outsourced to some boring technical people at somewhere called D&R. This will be achieved via a Creative and Innovative new process called Outovation.

Outovation represents the first real attempt at building a whole new word from scratch, rather than creating a derivative of an existing word. This entirely avoids the need to pay licensing fees for existing words, and provides a brand new source of tax revenue from the work of British Outovators, wherever they are.

Indeed, top government over-estimators predict Outovation will be worth over £17billion by 2012. Which will be just enough to cancel out budget over-runs for the London Olympics, according to top government under-estimators.

So, although Innovation may be losing its meaning, we can all rely on good old British Outovation to carry us forward. At least until the USB version comes out next year; it’s supposed to be magenta.

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Opposites attract

2008-10-22

According to its page on Amazon.co.uk, the book “Bill and Dave” is frequently bought together with Carly Fiorina’s Memoirs.

Presumably so that people can read one, and spit on the other, according to their disposition.

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I’m so tempted

2008-07-31

HP has apparently finally released a calculator that can be entirely reprogrammed for custom applications, and the software development kit (SDK) includes comments suggesting that they’ll change what’s printed on the keyboard too, if you order enough of them.

HP’s erstwhile calculator division in Corvallis were actually talking about doing this back in the 1980s, when they mooted making a blank Pioneer model available to third-party developers, such as Zengrange, so that we could create niche-market calcs.

I don’t know why they didn’t do it then (since they had many willing and able third-party developers using the HP-41 and HP-71 as a platform for applications, and a custom Pioneer would have been cheaper to make), and I really don’t know why they have done it now. Perhaps some single individual on their dev team, such as Cyrille de Brébisson, made a really impassioned case to management to fly a kite on this; I’d love to know what the business case was that finally worked.

Anyway, despite not having done any serious calculator-related development for over fifteen years, I’m still tempted to get one, and play around with some ideas for custom calcs. I still think there are plausible market opportunities for specialized calculators, and the shirt-losing risk in pursuing them is in the up-front hardware design and manufacturing cost, which it looks like HP has just taken away.