Monthly Archives: July 2009


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Can You Copyright Algorithmic Output?

A bunch of folks have been sending in Neil McAllister’s writeup at InfoWorld about how Wolfram Alpha, the incredibly overhyped “knowledge engine” (that, in my experience doesn’t work very well) is claiming copyright on all of its output, which raises questions about what would happen if others did the same thing:

In other words, Wolfram Research is claiming that each page of results returned by the Wolfram Alpha engine is a unique, copyrightable work, like a report or term paper. That makes Wolfram Alpha different not just from classic search engines, but from most software. While software companies routinely retain sole ownership of their software and license it to users, Wolfram Research has taken the additional step of claiming ownership of the output of the software itself. It’s a bold assertion, and one that could have significant ramifications for the software industry as a whole.

It really depends on the output, but in many cases I have trouble believing the output really is copyrightable. After all, you cannot copyright facts and (in the US, at least) you can’t copyright a collection of facts, either. The article doesn’t discuss that, and seems to assume that the output may be copyrightable, but I would think that it would need to be significantly more unique and have additional creativity before it could be covered (and then, only the unique parts would be covered). Still, there may be a legal gray area, as McAllister notes:

Suppose you have an Excel spreadsheet full of numbers that you input, but then you ask Excel to generate a series of complex graphs based on rules, formulae, and templates designed by Microsoft. Or what about pivot tables? What about mash-ups or tools like Mozilla Jetpack? If unique presentations based on software-based manipulation of mundane data are copyrightable, who retains what rights to the resulting works?

I’m guessing that the graphs still wouldn’t be copyrightable, as they’d really just be the same collection of data, but you could see a mathematically illiterate court finding otherwise…

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Create an autostartup script for Debian and Ubuntu systems

In Debian-based distributions (and here I’m also talking about the widely-spread Ubuntu), there is no rc.local file preinstalled. The good thing is that you can make one easily so you can have a place to put commands to be started up automatically at boot. Here’s what you have to do:
sudo nano /etc/init.d/local.autostart
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Explaining Why ‘If We Charge, People Will Pay’ Thinking Is Misguided

Rose M. Welch points us to a wonderful writeup by King Kaufman at Salon (whose sports column I miss — but the value of his work about the future of journalism more than makes up for it), concerning the news that Time Magazine used a stock photo it bought from iStockPhoto for a recent cover story. The photographer whose photograph was used was thrilled (as were some of the other photographers). However, there was also a group of photographers who went on to berate him (the photographer) for getting screwed over by a “multi-billion dollar company.” Except, of course, they’ve missed the point. The photograph had already been taken (it didn’t take any more work by the photographer to do this) and he was perfectly happy to get money he wouldn’t have received otherwise — even if it was a small amount. From there, Kaufman goes into beautiful beat down mode, and explains how the complaining photographers are flat-out wrong… while also comparing the situation to journalists who say the answer is to just put up a paywall and magically people will pay. It’s so good, that I’m quoting a large portion of it, but go read the whole thing as well (and then follow that blog):

Saying that if photographers all refused to do stock photography they’d all get paid more is like saying that if restaurants all refused to give customers napkins without charging they’d all make a bundle on napkin sales. It’s like saying that if local bands refused to play for drinks at dive bars, they’d all make good money playing music.

It’s also like saying that if news organizations stopped giving away content on the Web, people would pay for news content online. It’s absurd.

The posters in that forum who are making that argument are failing, or refusing, to understand basic economics, if not human nature. All photographers are not going to refuse to do stock photography. The ones who do refuse will simply be opening up the market for those willing to sell their pictures cheaply, either because they’re not in it for the money or because they can make a profit on volume.

And those arguing that Time should have paid more for this stock photo because it sometimes pays more for other photos, or because it has a lot of money, are forgetting a little thing called supply and demand.

We should note, though, that because Time prints so many copies, it is likely it had to pay iStockphoto for an unlimited-run license, and that its cost was more like $125 than $30. Still nowhere near thousands, and we should also note that Lam, the photographer, was thrilled with his Time cover at a price of $30, and plenty of his colleagues were thrilled for him.

The same pricing dynamic is in play in journalism. The price is not set by how much time, effort, talent or experience went into making the product, and it’s not set by how much money the customer has. It’s set by supply and demand. The supply of stock photography is very large. The supply of general news content is huge.

If Time hadn’t found Lam’s stock photo of coins in a jar for $30, or $125, it would have found a similar photo for a similar price. If news consumers can’t get their news online for free from their favorite news organization, they’ll find it for free somewhere else.

What happened with Lam’s photo is not a failure of the system, not a case of photographers eating their own and not a matter of big, rich Time magazine taking advantage of the little guy. I doubt those photographers would expect Time, because it has such a big budget, to pay $3 for a postage stamp or $20 a pound for the office coffee.

What happened with Lam’s photo is simply the way the industry works. Time paid what it paid for that image because that’s about what it was worth.

When the barrier to entry is low, the supply of goods is large and the alternatives available to the buyer many, the price is going to be low. Wishing it were otherwise, as the photographers are doing in that online forum and as opponents of free content do in Future of Journalism nerdland, will not make it otherwise.

Indeed. What Kaufman describes is the same sort of economic illiteracy that we run into in conversations all the time. People feel that because they don’t like the way things work, they need to either blame those who are happy with the way things work or to blame those of us who are simply explaining the economics of supply and demand to them. It’s a blame the messenger sort of thing. If I could create a world where photographers and journalists could magically make tons of money, I would. That would be great. But, that’s not the world we live in, and pretending it is (or pretending you can simply start charging high amounts and people will keep paying) doesn’t help matters. Instead, figuring out ways to understand the economics at play, and then looking for ways to take advantage of those basic economics, seems to make the most sense. This is not about what “should” happen or what people would “like” to happen. It’s about what is happening, and learning to take advantage of it.

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Create a Simple Image Slide Show using jQuery

I have seen a lot of users requesting for simple jQuery scripts for SlideShows. I saw a couple of them, but the scripts assumed that the number of image tags has to be fixed beforehand.

I thought of making an attempt at a real simple SlideShow script using jQuery. Here’s what I came up with 5 lines of jQuery code. The images have been added to a ‘images’ folder kept at the root. The images has been defined in an array which can be retrieved from a server. For simplicity sake, I have harcoded the images paths, however the script functionality can adapt dynamically to the number of images in the array.

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"

html xmlns="">
title>Simple Slide Show with jQuery</title>
script type='text/javascript'
script type="text/javascript">
imgs = [
var cnt = imgs.length;

$(function() {
setInterval(Slider, 3000);

function Slider() {
$('#imageSlide').fadeOut("slow", function() {
$(this).attr('src', imgs[(imgs.length++) % cnt]).fadeIn("slow");
img id="imageSlide" alt="" src="" />

The code is not perfect but will give you an idea of how to extend this sample to suit your own requirements. You can see a Live Demo here.

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Skype Founders Claim eBay No Longer Has A Right To Skype’s Core Tech

As you know, eBay bought Skype for a ton of money a few years back, without having any real plan for what to do with it. There were no synergies between the two, and about the best that can be said for eBay’s ownership of Skype is that they didn’t kill it (though, frankly, the new UI is so bad, it makes me wonder what they were thinking) and let it continue to grow organically. Earlier this year, eBay finally announced plans to spin off Skype. Fair enough. It can probably do a lot more outside of eBay than from within. However, it turns out that there may be a bit of a legal hitch, as Skype’s founders claim that eBay/Skype no longer have the legal rights to Skype’s underlying technology. Apparently, the claim is that Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis and a separate company they ran, Joltid, only licensed the underlying technology to eBay/Skype for a limited time — and that deal has now concluded. The two companies are scheduled to fight this out in court.

There are a few interesting asides to all of this. First, it reminds me of how Zennstrom and Friis ended up in another lawsuit a few years back, also involving questions about licensing the core underlying technology of Skype. There’s a lot of background here, and not all the details are clear (at all), but that original case involved the claim that Zennstrom and Friis used the same core underlying technology that they used to build Kazaa to build Skype. Way back, Zennstrom and Friis had created two operations: Kazaa and FastTrack, which created the underlying tech used in Kazaa. However, they also licensed FastTrack to a company called Streamcast, that made a product called Morpheus that competed with Kazaa in the file sharing space. Got that?

The folks at Streamcast insist that part of their contract with FastTrack was that they had a right of first refusal on buying the underlying technology. But then, all sorts of stuff happened, with Kazaa being sold off to a group in the South Pacific, but Zennstrom and Friis supposedly retaining some core technology which (Streamcast claims) they used to build Skype. Then, once Skype sold, Streamcast claimed that the whole thing was an elaborate shell game, but in selling the Skype underlying technology, Streamcast claimed that Zennstrom and Friis violated their agreement on having a right of first refusal on purchasing the technology.

Yet, now I’m left wondering if that original claim was true. If the current claim is that Joltid still “owns” the original technology and Skype/eBay only licensed it, then the technology itself might never have actually been sold (unless, we’re talking about two separate core underlying technologies… which is possible).

Still… the bigger question? How the hell did eBay make a deal and not make sure it had either purchased (entirely) the core underlying technology or had a guaranteed perpetual license that couldn’t be revoked? The eBay Skype purchase was bad enough already. Could it be even more ridiculous in that eBay didn’t even properly purchase the technology in question? It seems preposterous to believe that a company could screw up an acquisition that monumentally, so you have to wonder if it’s actually true.

In the meantime, since there are questions about how eBay can rebuild Skype’s underlying core technology without violating the many patents in the space, it makes you wonder if eBay may be forced to simply buy someone else’s technology. Maybe it’s time to call up the Gizmo Project (which has built a very Skype-like product) to see what they’re up to these days. Though, can you imagine eBay needing to buy another company just to power Skype so it can be spun off again? Yikes!

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A Google Wave reality check

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–Lars Rasmussen sighed, half an hour into a demonstration of Google Wave, the company’s audacious attempt to reinvent Internet communication: we’d found another bug.

Rasmussen had patiently worked around other minor bugs during the demo Tuesday at Google’s headquarters, but when images dragged into a wave wouldn’t load properly, he asked his brother Jens, seated at the conference room table, to get an engineer on the issue right away. It’s about two months before Google opens up Wave access to a larger audience, and there is a ton of work to be done.

Google's Lars Rasmussen demonstrated Wave for the first time in May, and is now focused on stamping out the bugs.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

Google Wave was unveiled in May at the Google I/O Developer conference, and dazzled attendees with its goal: a combination of real-time communication with social-networking and search capabilities built into a familiar interface. Wave is more than just an in-box on steroids, however. It’s also a communications platform that developers can use to build their own applications, something that many were excited about in the early hours of Wave’s life on the public stage.

Behind the scenes, the reality is sobering for the Rasmussens and the 6,000 or so people actively using Wave. Job No. 1 for the brothers Rasmussen–who are managing the Google Wave project–is making sure Wave is stable enough to accommodate 100,000 new users that will start doing the Wave after September 30, when Google opens up the limited preview to a wider audience.

At the moment, around 25 percent of all Wave sessions end in a crash, Lars said. That’s obviously not acceptable and, in an ironic twist, the highest priority bug on Google Wave at the moment involves search.

“I would imagine in six months this will be fast, slick, stable and usable,” Lars said. “Right now, you have to be a super early adopter (to use Wave). By September 30, an early adopter.”

Wave has been in the works for about two and a half years. The original prototype–constructed in nine months to pitch the concept to CEO Eric Schmidt and co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page–was actually discarded in favor of a system that provided better scale, Lars said.

Much of that time has been spent simply designing the workflow of Wave: how to add people to a wave, reply to a wave, add pictures, and create rules. Wave shares some basic infrastructure with Gmail, but is essentially a completely separate undertaking and has been a bit of an “organizational experiment” for Google in terms of giving an important project a great deal of autonomy, Lars said.

Google Wave is designed to be a next-generation Internet communications application and platform. When it works.

(Credit: Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET)

So why go public now, with so much yet to be accomplished? The brothers Rasmussen have heard the shouts of “vaporware,” and actually chose the opposite launch strategy for the product that launched their Google careers: Google Maps wasn’t unveiled until it was complete.

The difference with Wave is that Google believes developer feedback is crucial to its evolution as a product. “We wanted to get people thinking about how we’re going to use it and what people are going to use it for,” Lars said.

For now, however, Wave is carefully labeled as a “developer preview,” a status that doesn’t even rise to the level of one of Google’s ubiquitous beta projects. While Google still has no formal process for determining what projects are previews as opposed to betas as opposed to full-blown products, the goal for Wave is reduce the number of crashes to less than 1 percent of all session starts, at which point the “beta” tag can be more confidently applied.

When introducing Wave in May, Google said it hoped to open the service up to the general public some time in 2009. That seems unlikely when viewing Wave in late July, but launching a product that has been hyped as much as Wave with anything even close to the number of bugs currently present would be a disaster.

Lars knows this. “Google can be a cushy place to work; we’re not going to run out of payroll anytime soon. But we’re putting a lot of pressure on ourselves.”

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High School Student Sues Amazon For Deleting His Summer Homework?

Well, you just knew that there were going to be class action lawsuits filed over Amazon’s decision to delete unauthorized George Orwell ebooks that had been sold for the Kindle, but it appears that the class action lawyers have found the most headline-worthy story to get the word out. As we mentioned in the original post on this story, at least one kid lost the notes he had been taking on one of the books. So, we get a story about how a high school student is suing Amazon for deleting his summer homework, and the lawyers are hoping to turn it into a class action.

As bad as Amazon’s actions were, I can’t see this lawsuit getting very far. For most Kindle users, they’re going to have a hard time showing any sort of real “harm.” The kid with the lost homework might be able to show some (small) amount of harm, but I have to imagine that Amazon is mostly protected from liability in such cases. Still, with Amazon being quick to apologize and swear it would never ever ever delete an ebook again, you have to wonder if Amazon will step up and just try to appease the kid (and get the lawyers to go away).

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Is There Really A ‘Piracy’ Problem For Newspapers?

A few years ago, newspapers were all blaming Craigslist for their own business model problems. Then, of course, it became popular to blame Google. However, there’s been an odd shift recently, to a claim that the problem is from “pirates” and “parasites.” We see this in the AP’s sudden desire to DRM the news by tracking how it’s used and going after those it feels are using its content unfairly. We see it in the Marburger brothers’ plan to put legal pressure on “parasitic aggregators.” The problem, as we discussed, however, is that these parasitic aggregators are few and far between and the complaints against them just don’t ring true at all.

Being a “publisher” of sorts, this is actually an area we have some experience with. As we’ve noted many times, there are plenty of “parasitic aggregators” (we usually refer to them as “spam blogs”) that copy all our content. We track them, just because they tend to show up in searches, and one thing quickly becomes clear: they get little to no traffic at all, and any advertising revenue they bring in has to be close to nil. The average lifespan of such sites is usually about 3 months before they go away, and the argument that they take money away from us is silly. If anyone sees those copied posts, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Techdirt is the originator of the content, and from that to learn it’s probably easier/faster/better to just read the content here — plus, by reading it here, they get to take part in the conversation that’s actually happening here. The Marburgers admit that any one of these parasitic aggregators might not bring in that much money, but in aggregate (yes, aggregating the aggregators), they represent a substantial loss. Yet, they offer no evidence of that whatsoever, and as a publisher whose content is regularly used in this manner, I’ve seen no evidence that this is a real problem at all from a revenue standpoint.

Of course, that’s the lowest of the “low” on these parasitic aggregators. But the Marburgers’ define parasitic aggregators to include sites that don’t have reporters on the scene, but still have journalists who write up stories based on others’ reporting. But, oddly, the properties it names, such as Newser and The Daily Beast are both relatively small — and both try to position themselves as sort of “premium” sites, rather than (as the analysis implies) ones trying to push down CPM ad rates. If these sites are taking away any traffic from major media sites, it’s minimal at best, and it’s quite unlikely they’re really putting any pressure on newspaper ad rates.

It really just seems like a problem that isn’t there.

But adding a bit more fuel to the fire, recently, was an article in the NY Times that read more like a press release from a company called Attributor (who’s been banging this misguided drum for years), where it claims that a recent study found “publishers were losing $250 million a year from unauthorized copying.” This number is creating all sorts of questions and controversy. And, it should. Because the number is bunk. Attributor is pretty cagey with how it came up with the numbers, but it involved looking at how many pages were “copied” from 25 major publications and then extrapolating out to other media sites. Even companies that work with Attributor think the claims are ridiculous. On top of that, even if you grant the premise on these “losses,” that still represents a tiny amount of money spread across the entire industry.

But, just as with the music industry and its complaints about “piracy,” this is yet another case of people falsely declaring sales not made (or, in this case, ad impressions not loaded) as being “losses.” The reality is that you don’t know if people would have seen the content otherwise. And you don’t know if, having viewed the content at one of these other sites, they aren’t later convinced to just go directly to the source. Like music “piracy” the issue isn’t “parasites” or aggregators “free-riding.” The problem is the originating sites not adding enough value to make it worthwhile to visit them, rather than using one of these other (still tiny) sites. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re a publisher, and someone paraphrasing your content is enough to keep people away from your site, you’re not doing a very good job adding enough value on your site to get folks to visit.

This is a problem that just doesn’t exist. It’s being blown way out of proportion. There is no real problem with “parasites” or “pirates” when it comes to news content. It’s a distraction, and publications that spend a lot of time or money on it, will find that they’re taking their eyes off the real issue: providing value to bring in more users and adapting to the new media marketplace.

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Video Game Downloads Harming The Used Video Game Market?

We’ve had a bunch of articles in the last couple years about video game execs complaining about the used video game market, saying that they deserve a cut of any such sale — or that the used market should be banned altogether. This, of course, is short-sighted, as studies have shown that a healthy secondary market improves the primary market by adding value to the product (i.e., people may be more willing to buy the new product, knowing they’ll be able to resell it later). And, of course, the market has a way of dealing with these things.

So, it’s a bit amusing to now see sort of the flip side to that story (sent in by the amusingly named “Just Another Moron in a Hurry”) — with some warning that the rise in direct downloads of video games is threatening the used video game market, and that may be bad for consumers as well. Obviously, those games can’t be resold (at least not easily), and thus there isn’t a cheap price entry point for consumers, as there is with used packages games. Again, even though this is complaining from the other side, I’m not sure it’s really that big of a deal either, as the market again should start to deal with this situation. Being able to offer games direct to consumers should lower video game production costs (no more packaging/shipping/logistics/hard goods/etc.) and, even they don’t initially, eventually the prices should reflect that, as well.

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AMC Theatres Pull Movie Listings From Washington Post; Post Hopes Movie Attendance Drops

Remember back when you used to check the local newspaper for movie listings? To be honest, I can barely remember when that happened. These days, it’s just easier to look up the info online. However, many newspapers apparently still print movie listings — and apparently (I had no idea…), this is actually paid advertising by the theater chains. AMC Theatres, however, is realizing that most people now get movie times online and has pulled its listings from the Washington Post (via Romenesko), leading some readers to believe, incorrectly, that the Post had dropped the listings (similar to the way many newspapers have dropped stock listings). But, since this is ad revenue, the Post is actually quite upset about this, and worried that other chains might follow suit. So it’s actually hoping that theater attendance will drop, and AMC will be convinced to pay for movie listings again. Of course, the data itself is factual information, and if the Washington Post really wanted to, it could print the times itself — but, instead it clearly wants the advertising money (and to prove why it thinks AMC is making a mistake). It will be fascinating to see what happens, but I get the feeling that even if AMC is convinced to come back, it won’t be long before movie theaters stop paying newspapers to print showtimes.

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