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Ancient stones from Olduvai

Oct 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I have been listening to the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects narrated by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

Inspired by the programme, I visited the British Museum. I was particularly interested in seeing two objects from the cradle of humanity, the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania: the Olduvai stone chopping tool (made 1.8 million years ago) and the Olduvai handaxe (made 1.2 – 1.4 million years ago).


The two objects were, of course, behind glass. But the museum had made available alternative, equally old, stone tools that could be handled under the supervision of an expert. It was a great pleasure to be able to handle a stone chopping tool that was over 1.5 million years old. And the children who were playing with the stone tools before I got my turn seemed to be equally enjoying themselves.

MacGregor describes the significance of the finds at Olduvai:

Leakey’s discoveries in the warm earth of the Rift Valley did more than push humans back in time, they made it clear that all of us descend from those African ancestors, that every one of us is part of a huge African diaspora – we all have Africa in our DNA and all our culture began in the same place.

Listening to the news on the radio, it’s easy to imagine the world is divided into rival tribes and competing civilisations. So it’s good, it’s essential in fact, to be reminded that the idea of our common humanity is not just an enlightenment dream, but a genetic and a cultural reality. It’s something we’ll see again and again in this series.

Singer, songwriter and anthropologist Johnny Clegg puts it more poetically in his song “Scatterlings of Africa”:

Ancient bones from Olduvai
Echoes of the very first cry:
“Who made me, here and why?”
Beneath this copper sun
My very first beginnings
Beneath the copper sky
Lie deeply buried
In the dust of Olduvai

And we are scatterlings of Africa
Both you and I
We are on the road to Phelamanga
Beneath a copper sky
And we are scatterlings of Africa
On a journey to the stars
Far below we leave forever
Dreams of what we were
Hawu beke Mama-ye! Mama-ye!
In the beginning
Beneath the copper sky
Ancient bones
In the dust of Olduvai
Who made us, here, and why
Remember!

Improvement suggestions for the Olympus PEN E-P1 camera

Jan 17, 2010 9 comments

I’ve been using an Olympus PEN E-P1 for a while now. Camera manufacturers have finally woken up to the fact that there is a market need for a reasonably small, reasonably light, quality camera. The Olympus E-P1 is one of a growing number of cameras that is fulfilling that need. There are some things that I’d like to see improved, and I discuss these in this post.

My suggestions can be divided into software improvements (which hopefully could be provided by an upgrade sometime in the future), hardware improvements and new accessories. These are listed below and explained in more detail in the following text.

Software:

  1. Allow more of the buttons to be customizable.
  2. Make the focus assist zoom display more easily accessible for manual focus lenses (currently you need to be in the correct info mode)
  3. Make exposure bracketing more easily accessible (currently it’s hidden deep in the menu system).
  4. Add more automatic exposure bracketing options.
  5. Move the Level Gauge setting into the LV-INFO menu
  6. Use upper and lower case letters in the menu system.
  7. Improve the selection of information displayed in Playback mode.
  8. Let users add star rating and other metadata to photos in Playback mode.
  9. Allow the user to disable display animations.
  10. Produce a software development kit to allow development of third-party installable camera applications.

Hardware:

  1. Produce a lighter variant.
  2. Improve the screen resolution from its current 230,000 pixels to at least 460,000 pixels.
  3. Support remote liveview.
  4. Move My Mode settings to the Mode Dial.
  5. Use a 18mm by 15.3mm image sensor to better support different aspect ratio photos (including square)
  6. Standardise the MFT battery
  7. Standardise the MFT electronic viewfinder interface

Accessories:

  1. Produce a 12mm prime lens.
  2. Produce a tilt-shift lens.

Software Improvements

Most of the software improvements are about making functionality more accessible, rather than adding new functionality. When taking photos its important to be able to quickly do the thing you want – if you have to go through several menus to change a setting, then you can miss the photo.

The EP-1 has four main ways to access functionality:

  1. Direct Buttons
  2. Live Control (accessed by pressing the OK button)
  3. Super Control Panel (accessed by pressing the INFO button from Live Control)
  4. Menu system (accessed by pressing the MENU button)

The E-P1’s menu system has been described as “clunky”, “cluttered” and “difficult to navigate”. While I tend to agree, this is ameliorated by the fact that most commonly used functions are available without entering the menu system. Indeed most common functionality is available by use of the Direct Buttons or Live Control – many of my suggested improvements involve extending the use of Direct Buttons and Live Control.

1) Allow more of the buttons to be customizable. Currently the (Fn) and (Left Arrow) buttons are customizable. More camera functionality could be made directly available to the user if more of the buttons were customizable. In particular all of the arrow buttons and the exposure compensation (+/-) button should be customizable. It is worth noting that the White Balance function (assigned to the (Right Arrow) button) is not needed when shooting raw, and that the Exposure Compensation (+/-)  button is not needed if either the Main Dial or the Sub Dial is set to directly change the the exposure compensation.

2) Make the focus assist zoom display more easily accessible for manual focus lenses. Using manual focus assist with Micro Four Thirds lenses is straightforward. The zoom display can be set to automatically activate when the focus ring is rotated, and the zoom display automatically deactivates when the shutter button is pressed.

Unfortunately using manual focus assist with non-MFT lenses (OM system lenses, for example), is not nearly so straightforward. Zoom display can only be activated by pressing the OK button when in the Zoom Display Info mode. To access the zoom display for manual focusing you need to press the INFO button repeatedly until the zoom frame is visible and then you need to press the OK button. This is awkward and also means that other information display (for example the histogram) is not available when using manual focus assist. I propose that Zoom Display can be assigned to a Direct Button and that Zoom Display is deactivated when the Shutter Button is pressed.

3) Make exposure bracketing more easily accessible. Exposure bracketing is currently hidden deep in the menu system. It should be made more easily available by adding it to the Sequential Shooting/self timer function. This would make exposure bracketing readily available from a Direct Button, from Live Control and from the Super Control Panel.

The Sequential Shooting/self timer function currently hosts: single frame shooting, sequential shooting, 12 second self timer, and 2 second self timer. I propose that an automatic exposure bracketing option is added.

4) Add more automatic exposure bracketing options. There are two main reasons to use exposure bracketing: to ensure that you have a properly exposed picture (especially in difficult lighting conditions) or to obtain several exposures to combine into a high dynamic range (HDR) image. Digital cameras have advanced metering, instant feedback and live histograms so exposure bracketing isn’t really needed to ensure that you have a properly exposed picture; the primary purpose of exposure bracketing for digital cameras is HDR photography.

The EP-1 allows AE bracketing of +/- 0.3, 0.7 or 1.0 stops. For HDR photography a larger exposure compensation is desirable: 2.0 or 3.0 stops is not unreasonable. Additionally for HDR photography an underexposed frame is not necessarily required. I propose the AE bracketing options allow up to +/- 3.0 stops and also have an option of only taking 2 frames (correct exposure and overexposure, or correct exposure and underexposure).

5) Move the Level Gauge setting into the LV-INFO menu. The Level Gauge setting currently sits directly in the (D) menu of the Tools Tab. It belongs with all the other Information Display items (histogram, zoom, multi-view etc), that is in the LV-INFO menu under the INFO SETTING menu on the (D) menu of the Tools Tab.

6) Use upper and lower case letters in the menu system.The EP-1’s menu system is all in BLOCK CAPITALS. This is less readable and less attractive than mixed case.

7) Improve the selection of information displayed in Playback mode. In Playback Mode there are two options that display shooting information: Simplified Display and Overall Display. Unfortunately the Simplified Display doesn’t show some important image information, instead it elects to show some less important information. This means the user often needs to use the Overall Display (with its smaller image) to review photos in Playback Mode.

Things would be improved if the Simplified Display showed the focal length, shutter speed, aperture value, and exposure compensation instead of the much less useful pixel count, compression rate, aspect ratio and record mode.

8) Let users add star rating and other metadata to photos in Playback mode. I’d like to be able to start the process of organizing my photos on my camera, rather than waiting until I have transferred the photos to my computer. Often I have access to my camera when I don’t have my computer (for example traveling back from wherever I took the photos) and I could save a lot of time by starting to organize my photos before I got home. A basic minimum would be the ability to add a star rating to the photo (eg 3 stars or 4 stars etc).

9) Allow the user to disable display animations. Although animated displays can be attractive, they can also delay feedback to the user. This slows things down and so can be extremely irritating. The worst example of this is the animation that occurs when the mode dial is changed. But the delays cause by animation when the OK button is used to enter Live Control mode and when Direct Buttons are pressed are also extremely irritating. There should be an option to disable all of these animations.

10) Produce a software development kit to allow development of third-party installable camera applications. Olympus makes its money from the sale of cameras and lenses, not the software inside the cameras. Enabling the development of camera applications would increase the market for Olympus cameras and would result in all sorts of novel uses for those cameras.

There is precedent: camera phones, notably the Apple iPhone, but also Google Android and the Nokia phones, have development kits that enable third party camera applications.

Many Canon Powershot cameras have been hacked so that additional functionality can be added to these cameras, see: CHDK. This has enabled things like time-lapse photography, motion detection photography and even the addition of a BASIC-like scripting language to control some of the camera’s functionality.

Photographic software, such as Lightroom, supports third party application development and third party plugins.

Thom Hogan has called for Nikon to do a similar thing with its cameras in his article “The Inverted Razor Blade” here

It’s time for camera manufacturers to open up their camera APIs to third party developers – there will be considerable first party advantage to the first manufacturer to do so. The market leaders Canon and Nikon are not going to take the initiative (market leaders never do), so there is a considerable opportunity for a second tier camera manufacturer such as Olympus to take the initiative and really increase their market share.

Actually I think Olympus should go further than just support third party applications. I think they should open source all the camera user interface (UI) software. Olympus gains no competitive advantage from its UI software, indeed its UI puts it at a competitive disadvantage to other camera manufacturers that have better UIs (notably Canon). Open sourcing its UI would allow community led improvements to that UI – for example if the UI was open source I could implement most of the improvements I suggest in this blog post myself.

I’m not advocating that Olympus open source the entirety of its camera software, just the UI. Clearly Olympus gains considerable competitive advantage from its photo processing and camera control software – these can remain closed, but the interfaces to this software should be published.

But this is all a bit radical – I don’t expect Olympus or any other camera manufacturer to open source any of its software in the near future. But I don’t think supporting third party camera applications is radical, and I repeat, the first camera company to do this will find itself gaining considerable market share.

Hardware Improvements

1) Produce a lighter variant. The E-P1 is already available in two colour variants: silver and white. I’d like to see a lightweight variant that shaves at least 50g off its weight of 335g. The E-P1 has a stainless steel shell – while this is attractive, it adds unnecessary weight. Let’s have a variant with a lighter plastic shell (or a thinner steel shell). I’m sure some people will prefer the current stainless steel variant, but I am also sure that some people (perhaps a minority) will prefer the lighter variant. Olympus are helping create a new market segment, and it is good marketing to expand that segment as much as possible.

2) Improve the screen resolution from its current 230,000 pixels to at least 460,000 pixels. The E-P1’s screen resolution of 230,000 pixels trails that of its competition. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, DMC-GF1 and DMC-LX3 all have screen resolutions of 460,000 pixels. The Canon PowerShot G11 and PowerShot S90 have screen resolutions of 461,000 pixels.

3) Support remote liveview. For certain photographic applications the ability to have liveview on a computer attached to the camera via a USB cable is extremely useful.

This facility is supported by the Nikon D300, D300s, D5000, Nikon D90, D700, Nikon D3, Nikon D3X, Canon EOS-1D Mark III, EOS-1Ds Mark III, EOS 5D Mark II, EOS 40D, EOS 50D, EOS 500D/Rebel T1i, EOS 450D/Rebel XSi and EOS 1000D/Rebel XS only cameras.

4) Move MyMode Settings onto the Mode Dial. The ability to store frequently used settings is extremely useful, but the E-P1’s implementation is confusing and difficult to use. It would be much better to add two additional settings (say C1 and C2) to the Mode Dial, and provide a means for the user to configure these settings.

5) Use a 18mm by 15.3mm image sensor to better support different aspect ratio photos (including square). The micro four thirds standard specifies an image diagonal of 21.63mm. So a square image within a micro four thirds image circle would have a dimension of 15.29mm by 15.29mm. This means a 18mm by 15.3mm sensor would allow image ratios of 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 all with the same diagonal field of view, that being the maximum allowed by the micro four thirds standard.

The raw image should store the entire sensor output – this would give the most flexibility in post capture processing.

Even more radically a 18mm by 18mm sensor could be used – this then allows post capture changing from portrait to landscape in all aspect ratios.

6) Standardize the MFT battery. The advantages that are achieved by having a standard lens system are enhanced by having a standardized battery. The need to duplicate spare batteries and battery chargers is a disincentive to buying more than one micro four thirds camera. This is true whether it is a single person or a family contemplating more than one camera, or a person thinking of upgrading their camera. If Olympus and Panasonic MFT cameras shared the same batteries, then it would be more convenient for users and both manufacturers would sell more cameras.

7) Standardize the MFT electronic viewfinder interface. The advantages to users and manufacturers of having a standard battery also apply to external viewfinders. If Olympus and Panasonic electronic viewfinders were interchangeable then both manufacturers would sell more cameras and more viewfinders. The fact that something as expensive as an electronic viewfinder may become obsolete is a powerful disincentive to purchase.

Accessories

1) Produce a 12mm prime lens. The EP-1 lends itself particularly well to landscape and architectural photography. For these applications a 12mm prime lens would be useful. My preference if for a lightweight lens – I would sacrifice maximum aperture for weight, but there are certainly users who would sacrifice weight for maximum aperture. There is probably sufficient demand for a 12mm prime lens to produce both lightweight and large aperture variants.

2) Produce a tilt-shift lens. An E-P1 with a tilt-shift lens would be like a mini-view camera. The small size of the MFT sensor would presumably make it possible to produce a reasonably cheap tilt-shift lens, opening this area of photography up to many more people.

Public domain

I’m placing all these ideas in the public domain: I’d be more than happy if Olympus adopts them – indeed that’s the whole point of stating the ideas.

Update 21st January, 2010

On Saturday 9th January, 2010 Amateur Photographer reported that Samsung is planning to incorporate part of its camera line up into the list of products supported by its App Store, see:
Apps for Samsung NX series in future

If it is not careful, Olympus might find Samsung steals its newly found market niche. If the choice is between Samsung NX with Apps, or Olympus Pen without Apps, then I can see a significant segment of Olympus’s potential market opting for the NX.

The disruption is beginning. It would be sad to see Olympus fall victim to The Innovator’s Dilemma

Update 11th May, 2010

The specifications for the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 are now available. It seems Sony has understood the demand for a compact light quality camera. The NEX-3 and NEX-5 are considerably smaller and lighter than the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras. The 16mm pancake lens is admirably small and light.

The 230,000 pixel screen of the Olympus models is looking increasingly uncompetitive.

I renew my call for Olympus to produce a smaller and lighter variant (keeping the in-body image stabilisation). The Micro Four Thirds lenses are smaller than the equivalent Sony lenses, so Olympus could produce the smallest and lightest overall package.

Here are the weights (including batteries) and sizes of the various mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras:

Model Weight Weight
with lens
Dimensions LCD Dots
Olympus E-P1 355g 426g 121 x 70 x 36 mm 230,000
Olympus E-P2 355g 426g 121 x 70 x 36 mm 230,000
Olympus E-PL1 334g 406g 115 x 72 x 42 mm 230,000
Panasonic GF1 315g 415g 119 x 71 x 36 mm 460,000
Sony NEX-3 297g 371g 117 × 62 × 33 mm 920,000
Sony NEX-5 287g 361g 111 × 59 × 38 mm 920,000
Samsung NX10 414g 499g 123 × 87× 40 mm 614,000

The Sony cameras are the lightest of the bunch. They are even lighter than the Canon PowerShot G11. It seems like someone has finally got it: size and weight are important. The best camera is the one you have with you, this means a camera small and light enough that you don’t have to think about taking it with you.

Here are the weights and dimensions of the pancake lenses available for these cameras:

Model Weight Dimensions Filter diameter
Sony E 16mm f2.8 74g 62 x 22.5 mm 49 mm
M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f2.8 71g 57 x 22 mm 37 mm
Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7 100g 63 x 25.5 mm 46 mm
Samsung 30mm f2 85g 61.5 x 21.5 mm 43 mm

Sony has done a great job with its lens. E-mount lenses are inherently larger than micro four thirds lenses, since they have to cope with a larger sensor. Despite this, the Sony 16mm f2.8 lens is only 3g heavier than the comparable 17mm f2.8 Olympus lens.

Here are the weights and dimensions of some of the high end compact cameras:

Model Weight Dimensions LCD Dots
Canon PowerShot G11 375g 112 x 76 x 48 mm 461,000
Canon PowerShot S90 195g 100 x 58 x 31 mm 461,000
Leica X1 306g 124 x 60 x 32 mm 230,000
Nikon Coolpix P6000 280g 107 x 65.2 x 42 mm 230,000
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 265g 109 x 60 x 27 mm 460,000

Improvement suggestions for Sony ebook readers

Sep 23, 2009 1 comment

I’ve been using a Sony PRS-505 ebook reader for several months now and, as I said in my post Pleasantly surprised by Sony ebook reader, its ergonomics are unexpectedly good. There are some things that I’d like to see improved, and I discuss these in this post. The PRS-505 has been superceded by the PRS-300 (pocket sized ereader) and the PRS-600 (ereader with touchscreen). Most of my suggestions for improvement apply to these devices as well (judging from a quick browse of the manuals); the exceptions being bookmark comments and search, which have been implemented on the PRS-600 but not the PRS-300.

My suggestions can be divided into software improvements (which hopefully could be provided by an upgrade sometime in the future), hardware improvements and new accessories. These are listed below and explained in more detail in the following text.

Software:

  1. Add option for half-page ‘turn’.
  2. Allow user to mark books as read, and to give books a rating.
  3. Improve ‘book lists’.
  4. Allow the user to add comments to bookmarks (text input on PRS-300 to be via numeric keys, as on phones).
  5. Add search facility (text input again via numeric keys). Users need to search within a given book or across all books.
  6. Add text to speech, so users can listen to books (no restrictions are required for public domain books).
  7. Improve display of PDF documents, especially improve the reflow algorithm.

Hardware:

  1. Add a solar cell to improve battery life
  2. Make ereader smaller and lighter (implemented on PRS-300)
  3. Retain audio output (lost on PRS-300, retained on PRS-600)
  4. Retain SD card slot (lost on PRS-300, retained on PRS-600)

Accessories:

  1. Produce a cover that contains a notepad and penholder, so the user can make notes while reading.

Software Improvements

1) The most frustrating thing about the Sony ereader is the amount of time that it takes to ‘turn’ a page: almost two seconds. This is sufficient to interrupt the flow of reading and is a constant minor irritant. The problem is not unique to Sony, it is inherent in the electronic paper technology used in the majority of ereaders. There is a solution though: add an option for half-page ‘turn’. That way when you get half way through a page you can press the page-turn button, the top half of the page ‘turns’ and you and continue reading the bottom half of the page. Once you get to the end of the page, the top half of the next page is ready and waiting for you. At this point you press the page-turn button again so when you get halfway through the page the second half of the page is ready for you.

2) An ereader is not only a book reader, it also has some of the functions of a library. A user needs to be able to browse the books in the ereader to decide what they might want to read next. They need to be able to keep books and documents they have read for reference, but don’t want these read books to get in the way of the day to day use of the device. These needs would, to some extent, be serviced by the ability to mark books as read and to give books a star rating (zero to five stars).

3) The ‘book lists’ are reasonably functional, but they can be poorly formatted and they could display more information. Here’s an example of a part of the Books by Author book list:

PRS-505 book list

  1. The page title is incorrectly capitalized and prematurely truncated. It reads A – Arthur con instead of A – Arthur Conan Do
  2. The book titles are displayed in different sized fonts: this looks sloppy. Instead if a reduced size font is require for any title, then all the titles on that page should be displayed in the same reduced size font.
  3. Book titles are unnecessarily truncated: An Inquiry into the Nature and Ca… Instead this title should be wrapped into the next line, where there is ample room.
  4. The number of pages in a book should be displayed. This is very useful when browsing the list of titles.
  5. If the ereader supported ratings, then the star rating of the book should be displayed.

4) The PRS-600 already allows the user to add comments to bookmarks, so Sony have implemented the functionality. I think the only reason it was not added to the PRS-505 or the PRS-300 was that Sony overlooked the possibility of using the numeric keys for text input.

5) The PRS-600 already implements search. Again I think Sony overlooked the possibility of using the numeric keys to enter search text on the PRS-505 and the PRS-300.

6) Sometimes it’s preferable to listen to a book rather than read it. The light may be failing. The reader’s eyes may be tired, or they may have forgotten their glasses. The reader may be blind or have very poor eyesight. Text to speech would be a valuable addition to the PRS-300 and the PRS-600. I realise there are some issues with copyright works, but there is no problem implementing text to speech for works in the public domain.

7) Ereaders are useful for reading published documents as well as books. White papers, scientific papers, documents, manuals and so on. Most of these works are published in PDF format and A4 or letter size. They need to be resized to be read on a ereader, but unfortunately this resizing normally does a poor job of reflowing the text. The text reflow algorithm needs to be improved.

Hardware Improvements

1) A quick Fermi calculation shows that a solar cell would be a worthwhile addition the PRS-505. According to solarbotics a small solar cell can produce about 0.12mW/mm2. There’s space on the front of the PRS-505 for a 20mm by 40mm solar cell, this should have an output of about 96mW. I don’t know what kind of battery is in a PRS-505, but let’s assume it’s similar to a camera battery, about 1000mAh at 3.5V. That contains 12600 joules and it will power 7000 page turns, so that’s 1.8 joules per page turn. So the solar cell will take 1.8/0.096, say 20 seconds to generate energy to turn a page. How beneficial this is depends on how fast you read: if it takes you more than 20 seconds to read a page, then you’ll never need to charge your ereader. If you read at 10 seconds per page then the battery life is extended to 13,500 page turns. What’s more you can charge your ereader just by leaving it on the table.

2) Smaller and lighter. This is implemented on the PRS-300. Unfortunately in the process Sony have removed the SD card slot which seriously restricts the number of books you can take with you. The loss of audio output on the PRS-300 is also regrettable.

3) Retain audio output. This is necessary for text to speech.

4) Retain SD card slot (or at the very least add some serious memory capacity: 8GB or more). Although the 512MB and 350 book capacity of the PRS-300 may seem a lot, it’s not. There is a fundamental difference between being able to keep all of your ebooks on your ereader and being only to keep some of them. As soon as your ebook collection exceeds the capacity of your ereader you incur the overhead of having to manage your collection. You need to transfer books on and off the ereader. When you go on a trip you have the worry “do I have all the books/documents I need/want?”. You need to waste time checking what books are on the ereader. You run the risk of accidentally deleting books.

Accessories

Ereaders are not just about reading books for leisure. They are for reading documents and textbooks. They may be used when doing serious study. It’s essential to be able to make notes while reading an ebook. A cover that can include a notepad and pen is essential for some users. The cover needs to come in two variants: notepad on the right for right-handed users and notepad on the left for left-handed users.

Public domain

I’m placing all these ideas in the public domain: I’d be more than happy if any ebook manufacturer adopts them – indeed that’s the whole point of stating the ideas.

Google Book Scanning Program

Sep 9, 2009 1 comment

When I first heard about the Google Book Scanning Program, I thought: They can’t do that, it breaks copyright law. I now know this position is too simplistic.

So why did I change my opinion? Well, I bought an ebook reader. And quite a few of the books that were free were about copyright and copyright law. I read them. To my surprise I found it a fascinating subject. These books included Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind by James Boyle and CONTENT: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future by Cory Doctorow.

As technology advances the law needs to change to keep up. And, perhaps surprisingly, the law has been remarkably good at adapting itself to the advent of new technology. I’ll qualify that: when new broad laws or judgements are made they tend to understand the essence of the new technology and these laws or judgements tend to be remarkably robust, some are even almost prescient (the judgement that software should be protected by copyright law, not patent law, for example). However when new specific laws or judgements are made to address a particular problem the result tends not to be so good.

The pioneers of technology often find themselves in a grey area of the law, or even on the wrong side of the law. Lessig’s and Boyle’s books are full of examples:

  • In the early days of aviation it was illegal to fly over private property, since the owner’s property rights extended indefinitely upward.
  • When radio started broadcasting recorded music the artists complained that their “creative property” was not being respected and that they should be paid. This claim was rejected (when a radio plays a recording it only has to pay the composer, not the artist)
  • Cable TV.  When companies first started wiring communities with cable television in 1948, most refused to pay broadcasters for the content that they echoed to their customers. Even when the cable companies started selling access to television broadcasts, they refused to pay for what they sold.
  • VCR. When Sony produced the VCR the film studios claimed that, because the device had a record button, Sony was benefiting from the copyright infringement of its customers. Then MPAA president Jack Valenti warned, “When there are 20, 30, 40 million of these VCRs in the land, we will be invaded by millions of ‘tapeworms,’ eating away at the very heart and essence of the most precious asset the copyright owner has, his copyright. One does not have to be trained in sophisticated marketing and creative judgment, to understand the devastation on the after-theater marketplace caused by the hundreds of millions of tapings that will adversely impact on the future of the creative community in this country. It is simply a question of basic economics and plain common sense.”

Progress often requires technology pioneers to test the law. If Sony had just acquiesced and said “OK, VCRs are illegal, we won’t do those” it would have been to the detriment of everybody: the general public and the movie and television industries.

As technology evolves, the law adjusts. In the case of copyright sometimes this means more rights for creators, sometimes less. As Lawrence Lessig says in Free Culture:

In each case throughout our history, a new technology changed the way content was distributed.  In each case, throughout our history, that change meant that someone got a “free ride” on someone else’s work. In none of these cases did either the courts or Congress eliminate all free riding. In none of these cases did the courts or Congress insist that the law should assure that the copyright holder get all the value that his copyright created. In every case, the copyright owners complained of “piracy.” In every case, Congress acted to recognize some of the legitimacy in the behavior of the “pirates.” In each case, Congress allowed some new technology to benefit from content made before. It balanced the interests at stake.  In our tradition, as the Supreme Court has stated, copyright “has never accorded the copyright owner complete control over all possible uses of his work.” Instead, the particular uses that the law regulates have been defined by balancing the good that comes from granting an exclusive right against the burdens such an exclusive right creates.

The Google Book Scanning Program is just another case where the law must balance the interests at stake. It is certainly in the public interest that our cultural heritage is digitised and made searchable. It’s also in the interests of authors. It’s in the public and authors interest that out of print works are made available.

It’s not, however, in anyone’s interest that Google has a monopoly. But the way to avoid a monopoly is not to stop Google digitising books, but to get more people to do so. Amazon. Microsoft (which only recently stopped its digitization project). Government funded Legal Deposit Libraries (such as the British Library). The EU free access library Europeana.

It seems that after initial knee-jerk reactions people are coming to their senses. In July, Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Telecoms and Media, stated:

We should create a modern set of European rules that encourage the digitisation of books. More than 90% of books in Europe’s national libraries are no longer commercially available, because they are either out of print or orphan works (which means that nobody can be identified to give permission to use the work digitally). The creation of a Europe-wide public registry for such works could stimulate private investment in digitisation, while ensuring that authors get fair remuneration also in the digital world… Let us be very clear: if we do not reform our European copyright rules on orphan works and libraries swiftly, digitisation and the development of attractive content offers will not take place in Europe, but on the other side of the Atlantic . Only a modern set of consumer-friendly rules will enable Europe’s content to play a strong part in the digitisation efforts that has already started all around the globe.

On the 7th of September EU Commissioners Reding and McCreevy issued a joint statement: It is time for Europe to turn over a new e-leaf on digital books and copyright. In it they said:

…we also need to take a hard look at the copyright system we have today in Europe. Is the present framework still fit for the digital age? Will the current set of rules give consumers across Europe access to digitised books? Will it guarantee fair remuneration for authors? Will it ensure a level playing field for digitisation across Europe, or is there still too much fragmentation following national borders? What could be the contribution of Europeana, Europe’s digital library, when it comes to working on a European response to digitisation efforts in other continents? Is Europe’s copyright framework modern enough when it comes to digitising orphan works and out-of print works? These books represent the vast majority of European libraries’ collections (around 90%) . In our view, these books must be recovered and given a new lease of life.

Once again the law is adjusting itself to technology.

I’m a technologist. I love technology. But now I’m starting to love the law as well. I certainly understand why some people have a passion for the law.

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Illicit P2P File-Sharing and the law

Aug 26, 2009 1 comment

Much of the discussion around the UK government’s Consultation on Legislation to Address Illicit P2P File-Sharing has been about whether the penalty of internet disconnection is too severe, or about what is or is not legal, or about what should be legal.

I’d like to talk about something else: what happens when someone is accused of doing something illegal. What happens is that we go through the criminal justice system. People who break the law are sentenced by a judge after due legal process. The sentence passed takes into account previous convictions, so repeat offenders are properly dealt with.

The “creative industries” think the law is too slow and want to be able to directly punish people, bypassing the legal process.

The government is proposing that, in the interests of expediency, Ofcom or a government minister can act as judge and jury. There is nothing special about the crime of illegal file sharing that means extrajudicial powers of punishment should be granted either to Ofcom or to ministers.

Once a minister has this power, who’s to say their judgement won’t be biased by, say, the fact that the accused has a blog that is critical of the government.

Mandelson seems to want to create a Judge Dredd for the internet. And the most frightening thing is that, with the current cabinet, he would be Judge Dredd.

Pleasantly surprised by Sony eBook reader

Aug 26, 2009 3 comments

About two months ago I bought a Sony ebook reader. I had two main reasons: I was going on holiday and wanted to take a few books to read, but did not want to be encumbered with their weight and more importantly I have a book storage problem. I like to read and I read a lot; as a result I have too many books: over 30 meters of them. Books storage has become a problem. Well, it’s been a problem for a few years.

So I bought a Sony PRS-505, at present the most widely available ebook reader in the UK.

I hate reading documents on an computer screen, so I wasn’t expecting much from an ebook reader. I’ve been pleasantly surprised – the ergonomics of reading on the Sony ereader are unexpectedly good:

  1. The ereader screen closely approximates paper. The contrast is not as good as black ink on new white paper, but it is as good as an old book where the pages have yellowed a bit. Because the screen is passive reading is bright sunlight is not a problem.
  2. The page-turning buttons are conveniently placed. There are two sets of page-turning buttons, so it’s easy to turn the page whether you are holding the ereader in your left or your right hand.
  3. Battery life is about 7000 page turns, so you don’t need to worry about the battery running out.

Sony made some good choices with the design: the ereader can be charged via a USB cable, so you don’t need a separate charger (although you can buy one if you want) and the ereader supports SD cards.

In short, once I got some books onto my Sony ereader, I had a pleasant reading experience.

And there’s the rub: it’s a pain to get books onto the ereader. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The ebook Library software supplied by Sony is truly awful.
  2. There aren’t many suppliers of ebooks for the Sony ereader.

ebook Library software

This software is designed to allow you to manage your book collection on the ereader. It’s equivalent to iTunes, however it’s nowhere near as easy to use. Moving books on and off the ereader is not intuitive and it’s easy to get duplicate copies of books on the ereader’s internal memory and SD card.

ebook Suppliers

In the UK Sony seems to have done deals with Waterstones, WH Smith and Borders. Although these stores have large selections of books, their selection of ebooks is limited. And their ebooks tend to be very expensive. Ebooks bought from these stores have disadvantages over paper books: you can’t lend them to a friend, you can’t sell them second hand (or give them away). What’s more ebooks are cheaper to produce and distribute than paper books. So they should be cheaper than paper books. Yet often ebooks are more expensive than paperbacks. Anyway, I refuse, as a matter of principle, to pay more for an ebook than a paper book. I hope you do too – if no one buys the ebooks at inflated prices the publishers will have to reduce the price.

An honourable mention goes to O’Reilly, they have a no-nonsense policy for their ebooks:

“When you buy an O’Reilly ebook you get lifetime access to the book, and whenever possible we make it available to you in three, DRM-free file formats—PDF, .epub, and Kindle-compatible .mobi—that you can use on the devices of your choice. Our ebook files are fully searchable, and you can cut-and-paste and print them. We also alert you when we’ve updated the files with corrections and additions.”

You can also get ebooks for free. One of the best places I’ve found so far is feedbooks. Free ebooks include out of copyright books (mostly published before 1920), books published under a creative commons license (Cory Doctorov and Lawrence Lessig are pioneers here), and authors giving away taster chapters of their books, hoping you’ll buy the whole book.

Since getting my ereader, I have become quite interested in the issue of copyright. I’ve learnt a lot and will write about it in a future blog post.

Update 23 Sept 2009: I’ve made some suggestions on how the Sony PRS-505 can be improved at Suggestion for improvement to sony ebook readers

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Consultation on Legislation to Address Illicit P2P File-Sharing – my response

Aug 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Here is my response to the Department of Business Innovations and Skills Consultation on Legislation to Address Illicit P2P File-Sharing. My response concentrated on the proposal that Ofcom, an administrative body, should be able to bypass the judicial process. There are many other problems with the proposed legislation – I choose not to address these since there are plenty of people addressing these in their responses. In particular we can rely on the ISPs acting in their own self interest to respond to a certain class of problems.

Dear Mr Klym,

This email is a response to the consultation document “Consultation on legislation to address illicit peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing”. From now on I will refer to this document as “the consultation document”.

I am responding as an individual. My name and address is:

Martin Budden
[address removed]

I strongly disagree with the proposal to give “Ofcom power to impose other obligations” as outlined in paragraph 4.23.

There are number of reasons this power should not be granted.

i) The consultation document itself recognises that this power is contentious. Paragraph 4.23 states “this element of the proposal is new and will be contentious”. Indeed it is so contentious that the consultation document recommends, in paragraph 4.27, that this power is “subject to annulment by resolution of either House of Parliament” to “ensure that the power cannot be used frivolously”.

ii) The power has been rejected elsewhere. In France (see paragraph 3.19), the French Constitutional Council “ruled that the decision to suspend internet connections of digital pirates should be made by the courts as opposed to an administrative body”.

Furthermore the European Parliament has passed an amendment to the Telecoms Package that states that judicial ruling is required to impose restrictions on end-users (see paragraph 3.20). What’s more the European Parliament stated that this was in “accordance with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on freedom of expression and information”. So if the government passed a bill that allowed Ofcom power to impose other obligations it would do so in the knowledge that the bill was in contradiction to European law, and that any challenge to that bill taken to the European Court of Human Rights would be likely to succeed.

iii) Industry itself has stated that taking legal action is “having a clear effect”. See page 18 of “IFPI:07 Digital music report” at http://www.ifpi.org/content/library/digital-music-report-2007.pdf (a document cited in the consultation):

“Surveys on levels of illegal file-sharing across different countries show that legal actions are having a clear effect. Studies also show that fear of legal action is an important factor driving consumers away from unauthorised P2P. In the US lawsuits were the most cited reason among internet households for changing from unauthorised P2P to legal downloading”

iv) I’ve save the most important reason for last: the consultation document is proposing to give extrajudicial punishment powers to Ofcom. This shows an unwarranted lack of faith in the judicial system. What’s more, even if the judicial system were deficient, the correct response would be to fix the deficiencies in the judicial system, not to bypass it.

Let’s look at the proposal in a little more detail:

“It is entirely possible that the obligations on notification and collection of anonymised information on repeat infringers that may lead to legal actions taken by rights holders that we set out here will not, by themselves, deter some infringers.”

In other words someone who breaks the law, and is punished by due process of law, may continue to re-offend. Well, this is true of any criminal offence, and the legal system has means to deal with it: a judge takes previous convictions into account when passing sentence. In the context of peer to peer file sharing this means, in the case of re-offenders, that a judge should be able to order ISPs to impose technical measures such as blocking, bandwidth shaping and filtering. It does not mean that the Ofcom should be able to bypass the judicial process and directly require ISPs to impose these technical measures.

Yours sincerely,
Martin Budden

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