Category Archives: Editorial

Freedom of Expression Awards – Digital

Freedom of Expression

The winners of the annual Freedom of Expression Awards were announced lat week. These awards “exist to celebrate individuals or groups who have had a significant impact fighting censorship anywhere in the world”, and they fall into four categories: Arts, Campaigning, Journalism, and Digital Activism.

We’re used to thinking of freedom of expression as the ability to say what we want and how we want, and we know that all over the world people campaign for this and other rights so the first three of those seem intuitive. Digital Activism is very of this era and the entries used digital in diverse ways.

Turkey Blocks  – the winner

A campaign/tech team that monitors and publishes information on censorship and government blocking of the internet, particularly social media platforms. They have been able to identify 14 mass censorship events that coincide with political events, and their tools will be used elsewhere in the world.

Jensiat

An online graphic novel that aims to help Iranians understand cyber-danger, and sexual health. Each episode helps readers understand cyber issues such as protecting their privacy online. One goal was to make tech less “male”, and empower women to use technology. Unsurprisingly it was censored by the Iranian government.

Bill Marczak

A digital sleuth who has investigated government attempts to track journalists and activists in Bahrain, and uncovered technological weaknesses and spyware that put them in danger.

Evan Mawarire

A campaigner for better democracy in Zimbabwe his #ThisFlag campaign kicked off with a video of himself wearing his nation’s flag and led to mass protests. It’s now illegal for a flag to be in private ownership. It’s a mark of a campaign’s effectiveness when the government makes stupid laws in response.

The description for the category is “for innovative uses of technology to circumvent censorship and enable free and independent exchange of information”. Two of these finalists are there because the delivery of their campaign content was digital, and two are there because they did something in the digital ecosystem to understand and expose censorship. It’s a little hard for me to see the publication of a video online as innovative use of technology – YouTube has been around since 2005 – but the impact was high and Evan Mawarire was arrested on his return to Zimbabwe.

Look back at past winners in this category there is a strong reminder of just how great the risk of fighting for these rights can be. Bassel Khartabil won in 2013 for his work on creating a more open internet in Syria. He was not able to accept the award in person as he had been arrested, he is still imprisoned, and other activists are fighting for his release five years on.

Freedom of Expression is a basic right and the cornerstone of a functioning free society, the kind of society I want to live in. All the finalists are fighting for rights I pretty much take for granted, and I really shouldn’t, the rights were hard won and can be destroyed. ,

Image:  Artist Studio   |   See Ming Lee   |   CC BY-SA 2.0

Fake News

fakenewsFAKE NEWS!

The rise and rise of this term has made it even harder to determine what to believe, although it has a very long dishonourable history. I’ve taken to checking and rechecking posts before commenting. But yesterday a friend posted an article claiming that the BCC and CNN had faked reports of chemical attacks in Syria. Both those organisations attract criticism for bias but are generally respected for their journalism, so I checked. It’s been debunked as invented by Russian journalists. Shortly after someone posted a very unlikely-sounding story about massive ill treatment and incarceration of LGBTx people in Chechnya, the source was Daily Mail and I refuse to click on Daily Mail links but I can Google it. Horrifyingly it’s true, with multiple reports from credible sources.

How can you tell if something is really fake news?

Let’s be clear there are a number of ways a news report can be wrong.

  • error
    the news centre may have got its facts wrong. Reputable news organisations avoid this and apologise quickly when it happens.
  • bias
    the news centre may have a stated bias, The Economist for example is slightly right wing, the Guardian is slightly left.  You can read both of the same events. In fact that’s healthy.
  • misleading
    the news centre starts with a viewpoint and presents information to support that viewpoint. Most news centres are guilty of this at some point (and remember editorial is not the same as news). At last year’s remembrance service in London one news outlet claimed that the leader of the Labour political party had danced, and they had the pictures to prove it.
  • facts are fabricated with the idea of changing your opinion, this is what I would consider “fake news”, and the above story that BBC/CNN had fabricated information on attacks in Syria falls into this category. As does a certain head of state’s statements on many issues.
  • satire
    there are some great satire pieces out there, but as the news gets weird it can be hard to tell which is real. That is predicted by Poe’s Law.

There are four things to consider when examining the news

  • what quality is the source?
  • how accurate is the reporting?
  • is there bias in the reporting?
  • is it a joke (satire)?

There’s a graphic doing the rounds online that puts these characteristics into one handy chart. (Originally created by Vanessa Otero)

media analysis

I’ve seen some criticism out there already, from both sides, so please use this as a starting point to create your own guide on what to read. (Personally I’d have put “The Atlantic” to the right of the Grauniad).

There is a call for the various social media to do more to prevent the publication of fake news – particularly following the climax of Pizzagate when a guy with a gun turned up at an innocent Pizza joint based on fake news reports. BBC’s Click Podcast covered some of the reasons that technology is not and easy, or complete, answer.

FactCheck.org produced a guide on spotting fake news, their whole article is worth reading but this infographic summarises the main points.

How to spot fake news

Note that we need to check our own biases. A lot of news is being presented in a very binary fashion, with predictable partisan lines being drawn. Checking our own biases means being aware of how our own views play into what we want to believe. We all need to hold ourselves to a high standard in what we read, repeat, post, and believe.

My reaction to the flood of news reports from the various world horrors going on is to check and recheck the news I’m reading and to try to read mostly from the upper oval, in light green. I’m also trying not to get into link wars, but to have discussions and add links when asked for evidence. I have also take to asking people for evidence of their claims, so far none of the people asked have been able to provide any (even the Facebook friend who virtually shouted at me to “GO and READ”.)

There’s no technical solution to fake news.  It comes down to all of us paying attention. We need to find ways of distinguishing the real news, understanding our biases, being vigilant on what we believe and taking responsibility for what we post.

POSTSCRIPT

Alvaro Cabellero kindly sent me a link to Mike Caulfield’s excellent article How “News Literacy” Gets Web Misinformation Wrong. It’s a sixteen minute read; the tldr advice is;

I have a simple web literacy model. When confronted with a dubious claim:

  • Check for previous fact-checking work

  • Go upstream to the source

  • Read laterally

It’s a good process, and will get you to an assessment of the quality of the journalism pretty quickly.

Image:  News  |  Jenn   | CC BY 2.0

 

Scandals and Company Culture

Shhh; Scandal and culture

Years ago a court judge in New Zealand was convicted of expenses fraud, the judge’s defense was that he hadn’t understood what the forms required. The public reaction was disbelief; either he just thought he could get away with it or he was too stupid to be a judge.

Since that early example I’ve looked at company scandals and the explanations given with a suspicious eye. In every case there are signs of how the company culture has effectively colluded around the scandal – it’s never just one person, it’s people turning a blind eye, it’s fear of whistleblowing, it’s the company culture, it’s the CEO.

Following the Enron scandal I heard a story, possibly apocryphal, of a manager who joined the company. Shortly after joining he heard that the ambitious revenue targets had been sent out across the company, requiring a jump of 25% in sales from one quarter to the next. At the end of the next quarter, to his amazement, those sales targets had been met across the company. He smelt something rotten and decided to update his CV and move on, he was not surprised when the Enron scandal broke. At the time it was the biggest corporate bankruptcy the world had seen. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to prevent scandals of this scale ever happening again (it didn’t).

In the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme his family members were involved in the company, including his brother who was appointed as Chief Compliance Officer. There are rules in many companies about potential conflict of interest when partners or family members work together.

More recently Wells Fargo came under fire for the cross-selling scandal where staff opened credit card accounts for non-exisiting clients in order to meet targets. In companies employees focus on what gets rewarded; and when enough pressure is applied from their bosses and their colleagues some will break rules to meet those targets. The company directors’ failure to halt the scheme was called “gutless” by Elizabeth Warren – the company maintains that the employees – all 5,600 of them (so far) acted alone. Either the bosses knew or they should have know, but so far none have taken responsibility.

John Oliver’s piece on the US police system exposes the myth of the “one bad apple” and looks at some of the systemic issues behind the fatal police shootings in the US. The failures of process and policy erode the public trust in the police, reducing their ability to their job.

The points John Oliver makes could equally apply to businesses.

  1.  Leadership
    Your leader must lead, her actions must demonstrate her high ethical standards and she should speak clearly and frequently about the company’s ethics.
  2. Monitor/Collect data
    We can now analyse data and patterns of performance, look at patterns and changing patterns. At a financial institute I worked at we were required to take a break of at least two weeks. HR sold it as being good for employees but my security colleagues gave another explanation, the two week break was long enough to highlight any odd activities.
  3. Avoid conflict of interests
    Keep review processes independent, external if possible. Don’t hire siblings or partners into the same field. Declare any outside interests that might raise a red flag – I wrote some columns for a (former) supplier. I had to declare this and I donated the income to charity to remove any potential conflict. Independent reviews make a difference
  4. Transparent Processes
    The more open you are, the more public you can be about your processes, the less opportunity there is for fraud or scandal. A very simple example; some universities are using blockchain to certify their qualifications, as that becomes a public record there is no chance to create a fake degree.
  5. Rewards
    Be careful what you reward, that will direct the employee’s focus and in extreme cases leads to unethical behaviour to reach stretch targets.
  6. Whistleblower procedure
    Even with all the best practices in place something could go wrong. Create a robust, independent whistleblower procedure.  Whistleblowers are generally punished for coming forward, be the exception.

Building a scandal resistant company culture is not easy; not doing so is expensive, even fatal.

Image: Shhh  |  Grey World  |   CC BY 2.0

At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.

Holocaust MemorialSo in amongst the one hundred and ninety eleven crazy things coming out of the White House was the President’s statement regarding Holocaust Remembrance Day. (I’d link to the official version but it seems to be removed from the White House site). The statement managed to omit any mention of Jews, genocide or anti-semitism. This is not an “honest mistake”, and no Trump spokesperson has since corrected the error. As Deborah Lipstadt wrote in the Atlantic;

The de-Judaization of the Holocaust, as exemplified by the White House statement, is what I term softcore Holocaust denial.

(It’s worth reading the whole of her article)

Indeed the White House statement refers to “innocent people”, here’s a screen grab I took from the video in the Times article linked above.

screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-16-03-28

We all know that Jews were not the only people the Nazis sought to persecute and kill, the list of victims includes Roma, journalists, trade unionists, homosexuals, anarchists, priests, intellectuals, the disabled, and many others.  The total death toll of the Holocaust is usually given as 11 million; roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York and Chicago.  The White House seems to be trying to whitewash its message as more “inclusive”, but it cannot be beyond the abilities of White House staffers to write an inclusive message of remembrance and mention Jews. This was a conscious attempt to remove Jews from Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I write this sitting in Amsterdam, a city with a nickname “Mokum” that comes directly from Yiddish.  The legacy of the World War II Nazi occupation of Amsterdam is visible throughout the city. Of the approximately 80,000 Jews living in Amsterdam in 1941 an estimated 80% were killed in Nazi death camps. I am a five minute walk from the house of the most famous resident to share that history; Anne Frank. The National Holocaust Museum is in this city, housed in a former theatre that the Nazis used as a holding centre for Jews about to be deported. There are monuments and subtle memorials around the city, on the Nieuwe Keizersgracht the names of those removed from their homes on the opposite side of the canal are set into the pavement. This is known as the “Schaduwkade”or Shadow Quay, alongside each name is the name of where they died; Auschwitz, Sobibor, Buchenwald. Places famous for their terror.

The near complete destruction of Amsterdam’s Jewish community is so well etched into the city’s history that I give a silent cheer when I see a menorah, or lights at Hannukah.

There is no forgetting here.

If the White House wants to remind us to remember other victims we can do that.

Under the Third Reich the Nazis;

  •  controlled the media
  • censored the arts
  • burnt books
  • implemented a police state in which arrests were arbitrary.
  • eliminated freedom of speech
  • eliminated freedom of the press
  • removed the functioning judicial system and established a court system that would deliver verdicts as instructed.
  • arrested and killed those who opposed them, often without a fair trail (yeah, that happens in a police state).
  • incarcerated millions of people and forced those they didn’t kill to live in starvation.
  • labelled those incarcerated with a coded triangle to represent their “crime”.
  • saw a mass exodus of Jews and other minorities who felt at risk from every territory they invaded, (and the world did not always accept those refugees, those who worked to get people to safety are remembered as heroes)

So yes Mr Trump and your cronies, on Holocaust Memorial Day we remember what was destroyed under the Nazi regime. All of it.

There will be other memorial days, most countries have their own war memorials and many Jewish communities around the world observe Yom HaShoah. The world is watching the US right now, in horror. I watch and hope that our descendants do not need to create new memorials for the outcomes of this current regime.

 

Post Script; I usually avoid politics and religion, but as I sat down to write a serious post on communication and technology this was the only thing that I could write about. Normal posting will resume next week. Maybe. 

 

Image: Holocaust Memorial 2  |  Ian Southwell  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Maths Meme

There are variations on this maths meme, some have a cowboy theme, some have hamburgers, but the most recent has snowflakes on it. It doesn’t matter the solution is the same. Here’s the meme;

Maths Meme

I saw this on Facebook and beneath it are thousands of comments with a range of answers, the six most common answers were; 15, 16, 17, 25, 60 and 70. Here’s the breakdown of the last 122 responses on the meme I saw.

percentage of responses 12% correct

The right answer is there, but it’s one of the lower scoring answers. So how are so many people getting it so wrong?

There are three errors people can make; two are observational, and one is to do with a convention in maths relating to the order of operations.

Here’s how to solve it.

Step 1 Snowflakes;

snowflakes

3 snowflakes = 30, so 1 snowflake = 10

Step 2 Candy Cane;

maths meme

1 snowflake + 2 Candy Canes = 20, so 1 Candy Cane = 5

Step 3 Wine;

maths meme

1 candy cane + four glasses of wine = 9, so one glass of wine = 1

I think this is the first place people make mistakes, they solve this equation as “wine= 2” which ruins their chances of solving step 4.

Step 4 Final Equation;

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-14-07-58

Candy cane = 5, 1 glass of wine = 1, snowflake 10, so the equation becomes;

5 + 1 x 10 = ?

Which looks really really easy, and if you put it into a calculator it gives you just one answer not 6, so what goes wrong?

Some people don’t notice that it’s a multiplication sign, and add it up to 16 – or 17 if they didn’t notice that it was just one glass of wine.

The next thing is that there is a maths convention around the order of operations that I learnt as “BODMAS”, which means that there is a correct order to do the addition and multiplication in. Multiplication comes first.

So the answer is 15. (Don’t believe me? Try putting it into a calculator.)

If you don’t use BODMAS, then you get 60 – or 70 if you didn’t notice the wine glass.

So that accounts for the correct answer and 4 of the most common incorrect answers.  The least common incorrect answer is 25, which you get if you use  the BODMAS convention but don’t realise there’s only one glass of wine.

Only 12% of my (not very random) sample got the right answer. The overwhelming majority 84% did not know/use the BODMAS convention, but presumably went to school at some point. Maths teachers the world over have been crying into their wine seeing the answers.

I’ve summarised the possible wrong answers into one handy image. Feel free to share.

maths meme

 

2016; What a Year

2016 What a Year

Well, wasn’t it?

There is the ongoing Syrian war, a humanitarian crisis as desperate migrants try to cross the mediterranean, there is a war in the Yemen, unrest in Iran, instability in the EU, Brexit, attacks in Nice, Turkey, Orlando and Germany, the continuing rise of the Islamic State, the election of Trump, clowns got creepy, a long list of celebrities who died this year, and to cap it off the word of the year is “post-truth“.  The Olympics usually cheer everyone up but even that had its moments with the diving pool changing colour, sexist coverage, and a certain US swimmer having his own “post-truth” moment.

The old news adage “if it bleeds it leads” is true, and the news cycle is so short and so global it feels like there’s blood all over my screen some days. Add to that the contentious comments generated on social media by much of the news and it has been pretty hard to read at times.

But did anything GOOD happen in 2016?

Ebola Vaccination

In 2014/2015 there were a series of Ebola outbreaks in east Africa with almost 30,000 cases reported and more than 10,000 deaths. This debilitating deadly disease now has a vaccination and the epidemic was declared over by WHO in June to little fanfare. Kudos to the scientists that quietly got on with developing the vaccine, and the bureaucrats who did their job to get it into the field. The medical teams – made up local and international experts – that stayed and treated the patients knowing that not much could be done and that a third would die are heroes.

Columbia at Peace

After 50 years of war, deaths of 220,000 and 6M displaced people there is a peace accord signed between the Columbian state and the FARC rebels. It’s now ratified by the parliament, and the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with a citation that includes “The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.”

World Poverty Declined

By 58%, 74% or 5.6% depending on the measure used. The big difference in the numbers is due to differences in methodologies, the first two look only at income, the last at a more multi-dimensional view of poverty. Which ever is used millions of people are no longer living in poverty – which is good news. Of course this took more than just 2016, but the announcement was 2016. Small warning – if climate change continues this measure of progress will be reversed.

Animal News

Seaworld stopped breeding orca, Ringling brothers retired their elephants. Pandas were moved from “endangered” to “vulnerable”, making them a step further away from extinction.

Heroes

There’s a saying that when the going gets tough the tough get going, in 2016 some of the people who got going have achieved amazing things here are a few of my heroes for 2016.

MSF; this year and every year. They continue to provide emergency healthcare to people in the most vulnerable parts of the world. This year their difficulties have included bombing of their hospital in Yemen.  Their work continues in 2017, you can support them.

Ebola doctors & nurses; as above

Proactiva Open Arms; in 2015 a bunch of Spanish life savers decided to use their skills to rescue those flying Syria and trying to cross the Mediterranean and find safety in Greece. Since then they’ve expanded their operations to large boats and more areas and rescued thousands. They’re not the only group doing this, while governments stand by, and all those making the ocean rescues are heroes. You can support them.

We usually think of heroes in terms of those putting their lives at risk but there are thousands of people who have opened their hearts, and their homes, to support others in more need.

Dirty Girls of Lesvos, Knit Aid, Homes for Refugees, and there are more groups supporting the refugee crisis; here’s a long list.

I’ve gone on about the refugee crisis because it’s the biggest and most immediate humanitarian challenge we face. But there are other candidates…

Geena Davis, for establishing the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and continuing to work on the visibility of women in the media using the strap-line “If she can see it she can be it”.

The writer of the powerful victim statement in a rape case in the US, showing the insanity of the criminal process that still favours the rapist, especially when the rapist is a young white man with a bright future ahead of him. On the same note Lady Gaga for her haunting performance at the Oscars, and everyone involved in the making of “The Hunting Ground” exposing rape culture on campuses in the US.

On a lighter note; big thanks to all the people behind the Joebama memes, providing a light-hearted release during the US election insanity.

So there’s the good news and the heroes from 2016. Welcome to 2017.

Image; Clown – Ugo Rondine Exhibition, Rotterdam | Louisa Mac  |  CC BY 2.0

Where Did the Honesty Go?

2016sept_honestyOn Thursday afternoon last week I went to take some money out of an ATM. I had to wait in a queue, but when it came to my turn I saw that the person ahead of me had forgotten to take the cash with him.

I took it, and turned looking for the guy, who had by then crossed the road. I shouted, but my voice was lost in the traffic. I made my transaction and raced after him on my bike. I couldn’t find him and after about 15 minutes I gave up and went home.

It wasn’t a small amount, so I contacted the bank via a twitter DM. Based on that discussion I went into a bank branch on Friday to hand in the money. I had to wait. No big deal, I simply read a book, until a very grumpy man began shouting at me (not kidding), I didn’t understand what his problem was but offered to move “Yes move” he shouted. I moved, other customers were as astonished as I was.

It was pretty busy, and the bank staff came to check on what everyone needed as a sort of triage to help people faster. I explained; “Please wait” I was told

I waited.

My turn at the desk came, and it took a phone call and a bit of searching to figure out what to do, apparently this is not a usual situation. I gave them all the info I could, including my own transaction information so that they might be able to track down the poor guy who missed out on his cash.

The bank gave me a small thank you gift in appreciation – super kind of them and certainly not expected.

Now here’s the bit that really struck me. Everyone I encountered was surprised at what I was trying to do. The initial messages on twitter begin with “Wauw” (Dutch for “wow”), the clerk I spoke to reported that the previous customer had heard my statement and commented that “she’s still here having been yelled at trying to do the right thing – we need more people like her”, the clerk herself thanked me and when I said it was what my mother taught me added “we need more mothers like yours”.

Here’s the thing; the money wasn’t mine.

A million years ago I found a watch on a public path, my parents took me to the local police station to hand it in. Some months later the watch hadn’t been claimed and it was returned to the finder – ie; me. I don’t remember what happened to the watch after that, it was a large, man’s watch and not really my style. But the lesson was learnt, if it’s not yours you don’t just take it, you try to get it back to the owner.

So I tried to return the money, and apparently this is so unusual that people are surprised. It’s the honest thing to do. Indeed to me it was the only thing to do.

Does this mean that any of those other people would just have taken the money? Would you have taken it?

Do we really need my mother out there teaching people about being honest and not taking things that aren’t theirs? She’s up for the job I promise you.

When did honesty become so surprising?

Image: Untitled  |  Jane Cockman  |   CC BY-NC 2.0

Externalities

Sept2016ExternalitiesI did just one university course in economics and learning about externalities was pretty much my favourite thing. Suddenly it explained a bunch of things that are wrong with how consumerism works. I still see externalities behind a number of environmental, business and humanitarian issues. In fact globalisation and our use of digital make things worse rather than better.

A quick definition; an externality is a consequence of an economic activity experienced by someone else. The consequence could be positive or negative.

The most common example of a positive externality is the beekeeper who benefits from the neighbouring orchard. Since both parties need each other this seems closer to a symbiosis in biological terms but for the economists it counts as a positive externality.

A common example of negative externality is rubbish; in the above picture the rubbish has a negative impact on the environment, on any business relying on the environment. However the neither the producer of the containers, the restaurant packaging it’s food, nor the consumer making the purchase and dumping the packaging take responsibility for disposing of the rubbish and the cost of clearing it will probably fall to a government entity.

We, as a society, try to limit externalities by putting rules in place to limit the effect, and by providing services – well placed rubbish bins on a beach for example. All of which is funded by taxpayers. This more or less works on a local level.

Globalisation

On a global level it doesn’t work out so well.

My mobile phone was probably manufactured in China and used components or elements extracted in a dozen other countries. Some research indicates that up to 50% of the pollution from a phone production occurs at the first step. There’s a long and complicated chain of manufacture but I’m pretty sure zero eurocent of the amount I paid for the phone made its way back to the mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo where coltan.  (Oh wait, I paid nothing for my phone.)

Digital World

Our digital world is creating brand new externalities we haven’t thought about.

Yep, the Pokemon craze is laden with externalities, that’s why museums, locations, city councils, traffic controllershealthcare officials and governments are making a fuss.

In the Netherlands one tiny town, Kijkduin, has been somewhat over-run by Pokemon players, they’re trying to get Niantic to change the game to reduce the number of Pokemon in the town, they’ve found the numbers overwhelming, and there’s a risk to a neighbouring nature area. The town has already put up more toilets and rubbish bins to cope with the crowds. The cost of that is an externality. It’s a cost the small town is paying for the consequences of Niantic’s popular game.

If I were organising events in the town with such a large attendance I’d need a permit, there’d be a fee, and I’d be the one paying for security and clean up.

So when globalisation and digital collide the potential externalities grow, and right now we don’t seem to have a good way of handling them.
Image: Pollution 2  |  Kim Etherington  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Happy Birthday Mr President

HappyBirthday

I steer clear of politics on this blog and I’m not about to wade into the US presidential election now, except to say… I’m going to miss this president. From the world of digital I can state that it makes a huge difference to have a leader who understands the importance of digital and supports its development. That doesn’t mean they have to be expert in all aspects of digital themselves, but they need to be able to assemble experts and believe them.

Barack Obama used social in his election campaigns and built teams of young, highly skilled experts who used both the democratising potential of social media and the data analytics to develop and improve their campaign.

Once in the White House he’s built a digital team and improved their visible presence online and opened up digital communication – very much a digital coming of age.

He’s taken the stage at SXSW, where he spoke about the importance of technology and digital;

So with Obama leaving who replaces him? Which world leader has an understanding of technology and digital and the courage to lead in a digital world? Well, Justin Trudeau can understand quantum computing, and explain it to a room of reporters. I have some hope for the Canadians.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday Mr President.

Image: IMG_0791 |  Yaniv Yaakubovich  |  CC BY ND 2.0

World Intellectual Property Day

Intellectual Property Day

Today is World Intellectual Property Day, the site commemorating it has film clips from a number of creatives discussing the challenges in intellectual property, and a map of events around the world.

Intellectual property refers to anything created by the intelligence of a person (or group of people), which is then owned by the creators according the law, and which the creators/owners can then sell.  The laws protecting these rights include trademarks, copyright, patents, and industrial design rights.

The fundamental reason for having intellectual property rights is that it allows creators to be paid for their inventions or creations and in that sense it is a good thing.  Musicians, writers, artists and designers get to earn a living. Inventors get to have a temporary monopoly on their invention to earn money from it.

But there are some downsides; defining original work can be challenging, protecting intellectual property rights is difficult, the rights can be inherited and sold like other property, protection is temporary, and the digital world presents its own challenges. I’ll show some examples of these, and point to some ways in which the law is evolving.

Defining Original Work

Richard Prince, a photographer has tested the definition of “original work” in his work, most recently in an exhibition of screen captures taken from Instagram. His contribution to making this into an original work is a single comment. He is currently being challenged in court regarding one of the images. But he’s won similar cases before, notably when he photographed Marlborough ads and edited them.

Protecting Property Rights

It’s up to the holder of the intellectual property to protect their creation, including finding and prosecuting infringers.

Large organisations, or wildly successful artists can afford agencies and lawyers to sort this out for them. For smaller artists it’s more challenging, although one, Matthew Inman – the genius behind The Oatmeal raised the stakes when one content aggregator when after him in a law suit (spoiler alert; he raised 200,000 USD for charity).

When such cases do come to court there tends to be an out of court settlement that includes a non-disclosure  clause so few details are known and the publicity around the case ends. Examples include “The Full Monty”, which was alleged to be an infringement on the New Zealand play “Ladies Night”. I saw the play back in the late 80s when it was newly released and sat through the movie in 1998 with a strong sense of déjà vu – for the storyline, the characters, and the jokes. But the case is now reduced to a couple of lines in a wikipedia entry.

Rights Sold

Intellectual property rights can, like any other property, be licensed, sold or inherited. (Copyright exists for 50 – 100 years after an author dies for example, the exact length of time depends on the country. )

Which means that the rights can end up being fought over in court, as in Disney’s recent battle over Winnie-the-Pooh.

Temporary Rights

Patents, which protect intellectual property that defines and describes an invention last for 20 years under the WTO guidelines. Copyright extends beyond the death of the creator for 50-100 years, or – in the US – for 95 years after first publication.

This means that with age items become copyright free; you can republish all of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen but you’ll need to wait a bit for Barbara Cartland.

It’s also led to a fascinating controversy over the Diary of Anne Frank. According to Dutch law her original diary enters the public domain this year, as it is 70 years since her death in Bergen-Belsen. But under US law, the copyright extends until 2042, and copies are removed from US sources.

(There’s a second controversy around the copyright of the diaries, relating to authorship, in which Frank Otto has been promoted to co-author which means that copyright is extended on the basis of his lifetime. In the meantime versions are being published in Europe to test this decision).

Digital World

The rise and rise of digital comes about because of the incredible inventiveness of thousands of people. Some of the ideas generated are genuinely original and deserve protection, and some of those have been patented. But there’s been a rise of a counter movement – the “open source” programmers who create code and licence it for everyone to work on.

There have also been over-zealous patenters, in the US you can patent a process without ever developing a working tool. For example the process of assessing someone’s knowledge online and assigning courses based on that test is patented. Even though the exact same process has existed off-line since the Knights of the Round Table. Patent offices seem to be more aware of the digital world now and require a little more originality in a patent that “making it work online”.

In fact some jurisdictions have severely limited the patentability of any software, New Zealand being one. The idea being that software itself isn’t patentable, except in limited examples. The debate continues as to whether this enhances innovation by allowing more people to exploit an innovation, or limits it by removing the right to have a monopoly on a new invention.

Copyright vs Rights Free

The digital world makes it incredibly easy to copy and share content, and I regularly seem claims that “copyright is dead”. There’s a sort of myth around content should be free and copyright is dead but I think this stems from the multiple meanings of “free” in English. Yes content should be free – in the sense of freedom of movement – you are free to express your views, you are free to share content

It doesn’t have to be free – in the sense of no payment necessary. It’s someone’s work. I’m all for openness and sharing of content, which is why this blog is published on a creative commons licence; but recognition and payment should follow the creator.

My perspective is that IP is important but the law is still catching up with the reality, and I’m celebrating World Intellectual Property Day by writing about it.

Image: 3D Broken Copyright  |  Chris Potter  |   CC BY 2.0