This week, we were horrified by the story of Ashely Cervantes, an 18-year-old who customs agents subjected to vaginal and rectal probes by a local doctor in a search of nonexistent drugs. TexasAndroid won most insightful comment of the week by pointing out the staggering addition of insult to injury in the case:
On top of everything else, the hospital had the gall to bill her for their "services". Calling them slime buckets is an insult to slime.
Speaking of bogus searches by law enforcement, we actually saw something positive on that front too this week, when a court refused to uphold evidence seized during a bogus traffic stop. Daydream took second place for insightful by lamenting the fact that this was news at all:
Everyone, take a moment to consider why something that should be normal, a court rejecting illegally acquired evidence, is notable enough to feature on Techdirt's front page.
For editor's choice on the insightful side, we start with the unfolding saga of CBS/Paramount and the Star Trek fan film Axanar. After one commenter suggested that calling it a "fan film" is "offensive to the people who own the rights", and Mason Wheeler responded with an indignant rebuttal highlighting the critical difference between compensation and permission:
Then screw them. The idea that you can "own the rights" to culture itself is offensive on a far more fundamental level.
If Paramount said "we own Star Trek and so if you want to make a fan film, you have to pay us 5% and display a prominent notice that this is a fan work and not actually affiliated with Paramount," that would be one thing. But saying "no, you can't build on this, so shut the whole thing down" is crossing a line that no one should ever have the right to cross.
Meanwhile, after a surprising win for Led Zeppelin in the jury trial over alleged copying in the iconic Stairway to Heaven, one commenter (quite fairly) pointed out that the band does have a history of failing to credit their sources of inspiration (and more than inspiration), and that in this particular case they seem to have "tweaked the notes enough to get away with it". While there's a solid argument that Led Zeppelin hasn't always been the most upstanding moral citizen as far as giving credit where it's due, jupiterkansas rightly rejected that particular condemnation:
"tweaking the notes enough to get away with it" is basically how all music is made.
Didn't Paramount watch their own film?
The fair use rights of the many fans outweigh the needs of the few qur petaQ at Paramount.
For second place, we head to yet another grapple over rights, this time between Dweezil Zappa and the other heirs to the Zappa estate over his right to name his tour "Zappa Plays Zappa". The tour has now been renamed "50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants — The Cease and Desist Tour" which is just great, leading Mike to request a tour t-shirt from anyone who might be able to pick one up. Crade wondered if this was just a clever reason-to-buy ploy by Dweezil:
stupid? or genius!
The whole thing was a setup to sell Mike a shirt.
For editor's choice on the funny side, we start by taking a break from copyright and trademark fights to look at our old friend: ridiculous design patents. This time it was General Mills staking a claim to tortilla bowls, of all things, which led Mark Wing to rejoice about this great age we live in:
It's an exciting time to be a lover of Mexican food with all this innovation in the tortilla sector.
Finally, we head to the disturbing reasoning from a judge who said the FBI can freely hack people's computers since people get hacked by regular ol' hackers all the time. This seemed odd to say the least, but David explained it using a perennial piece of reasoning:
You don't want the criminals to have the drop on the FBI, do you?
If crimes are outlawed, only criminals will be able to commit crimes.
That's all for this week, folks!
Five Years Ago
This week in 2011, amid lots of IP chaos, we offered up a two-part history of the many "killers" of the music industry, first in the analog era and now in the digital one. Undeterred, Universal Music was in the midst of going to war with popular hip-hop blogs and websites for posting tracks (most if not all of which the artists wanted posted). If you doubt that last bit, consider that one of the targets was 50 Cent's own official website. There was also a lot of buzz about the awesome new social music service turntable.fm, and we wondered how long it would take for the RIAA to kill it (it's gone now, by the way).
While a new filing in the Rojadirecta case elaborated on how ICE's domain seizures violate the first amendment even as Senatory Patrick Leahy was celebrating them, rightsholders in the UK were seeking their own web censorship powers. Hollywood was busy too, with the MPAA lobbying to get law enforcement to behave as its own private police force and trying to convince ISPs to become copyright cops, too.
Ten Years Ago
Five years earlier in 2006, there was a very similar history lesson for the people thinking about entertainment industry legislation: Gary Shapiro of the CEA took out a full page advertisement in the Capitol Hill newspaper highlighting, once again, all the past freakouts about new technology destroying music and movies. This was important considering big legal questions like deep linking of MP3s, and mean lawsuits like Paramount suing an amateur filmmaker for making his own 12 minute version of an Oliver Stone movie. Not to mention the creepy prevalence of the MPAA hiring people to stalk and/or hack potential legal targets, and the agency's generally high levels of bullshit.
Fifteen Years Ago
It was a different time in 2001, when we could be surprised by the fact that teenagers were adopting the internet en masse or that Amazon wasn't dead yet. Doctors were still fairly resistant to using technology like email and the first IBM PC was a mere 20 years old. The hot new TLDs on the block were .biz and .info, and buyers were competing over popular picks like show.biz and sex.info, while Network Solutions was busy trying to sabotage the whole .biz enterprise. "Cyber Rage" was a new notion that would evolve into today's doxxing, swatting and other nastiness, and one group was so miffed by digital smut that it sought to send Yahoo execs to jail as pornographers.
Eight-Two Years Ago
The FCC is a big and complex regulatory body that has a massive impact on all modern communication innovation in America — and it was on June 19th, 1934 that it came into existence after the passage of the Communications Act of 1934.
Awesome Stuff: Cycle Better (Innovation)
This week, for the cyclists out there, we've got a pair of new crowdfunded devices that aim to enhance your experience on your bike — then after that, we've got a shameless plug for the new Techdirt t-shirt.
Blubel is a navigation system that has been simplified and redesigned specifically for cyclists, wrapped up inside a bicycle bell that connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth. Instead of a full map-based system, Blubel boils navigation down to a straightforward directional indicator: as you ride, the ring of LEDs on the bell shift to alert you to turns and point you in the right direction. But it's also an actual bell, and what's more, every time you ring it the whole system gets smarter. Since most navigation systems are tailored for drivers first and foremost, bell rings from all Blubel users are recorded as waypoints in a shared map algorithm and used to calculate smarter cycling routes throughout the area, resulting in a community-driven navigation database. The associated app lets you plan routes and set destinations, and it also records data and gives you access to lots of metrics about your ride, much like a fitness app.
While Blubel wraps navigation tools in a bell, CLASSON wraps indication and safety tools (and some navigation assistance) in a helmet. The CLASSON helmet contains cameras which can record your ride like a dashcam or a GoPro, but that's not their primary function: they are hooked into a smart system that offers a variety of features. First, it monitors your blindspots, and activates subtle visual indicators on the helmet's visor to let you know when a car is approaching to your side — a huge boon for cyclists in busy urban environments. Next, they monitor your arm movements to translate physical turn signals into blinking turn indicator lights on the helmet, and it can detect deceleration to activate a brake light — a huge boon for night-time cyclists. Plus, similar to the Blubel, it can guide you to destinations chosen on the associated app using a simple directional indicator system also built into the visor.
P.S. Check out the latest t-shirt from Techdirt!
Yesterday, we launched a new t-shirt on Teespring, available only for a limited time!
This spin on the infamous 80s anti-piracy campaign is only available until July 4th, so get yours today (it's also available as a women's tee and a hoodie).
When law enforcement agencies want to know what people are up to, they no longer have to send officers out to walk a beat. It can all be done in-house, using as many data points as can be collected without a warrant. Multiple companies offer "pre-crime" databases for determining criminal activity "hot spots," which allow officers to make foregone conclusions based on what someone might do, rather than what they've actually done.
Not that's it doing much good. For all the time, money, and effort being put into it, the databases seem to be of little utility.
Many law enforcement agencies use software to predict potential crime hot spots, and the police in Kansas City, Mo., and other places have used data to identify potential criminals and to try to intervene.
In Chicago, where there has been a sharp rise in violent crime this year, the police have used an algorithm to compile a list of people most likely to shoot or be shot. Over Memorial Day weekend, when 64 people were shot in Chicago, the police said 50 of the victims were on that list.
So much for "intervention." Having a list of people who have a higher risk of being shot doesn't mean much when all it's used for is confirming the database's hunches. However, these same databases are being put to use in a much more functional way: determining sentence lengths for the criminals who have been arrested.
When Eric L. Loomis was sentenced for eluding the police in La Crosse, Wis., the judge told him he presented a “high risk” to the community and handed down a six-year prison term.
The judge said he had arrived at his sentencing decision in part because of Mr. Loomis’s rating on the Compas assessment, a secret algorithm used in the Wisconsin justice system to calculate the likelihood that someone will commit another crime.
We're locking up more people for more years based on criminal activity they'll no longer have the option of possibly performing. This is nothing new. Sentencing enhancement is based on a lot of factors, not all of them confined to proprietary databases. But what is new are the algorithms used to determine these sentence enhancements, most of which belong to private companies who are completely uninterested in sharing this crucial part of the equation with the public.
In Mr. Loomis' case, the software determined he would be likely to engage in further criminal activity in the future. A so-called "Compas score" -- provided by Northpointe Inc. -- resulted in a six-year sentence for eluding an officer and operating a vehicle without the owner's consent. His lawyer is challenging this sentence enhancement and going after Northpointe, which refuses to release any information about how the Compas score is compiled.
What Northpointe has released are statements that confirm the code is proprietary and that the Compas score is "backed by research" -- although it is similarly unwilling to release this research.
The problem here isn't so much the use of algorithms to determine sentence lengths. After all, state and federal guidelines for sentence lengths are used all of the time during sentencing, which includes factors such as the likelihood of future criminal activity. But these guidelines can be viewed by the public and are much more easily challenged in court.
The use of private contractors to provide input on sentencing renders the process opaque. Defendants can't adequately challenge sentence enhancements without knowing the details of the "score" being presented by prosecutors to judges. The algorithms' inner workings should either be made available to defendants upon request, or the "score" should be determined solely by government agencies, where the data and determining factors can be inspected by the public.
We're now in the unfortunate situation where companies are telling judges how long someone should be locked up -- using data which itself might be highly questionable. The feeling seems to be that if enough data is gathered, good things will happen. But as we can see from Chicago's implementation of this technology, the only thing it's done so far is add confirmation bias toetags to the ever-increasing number of bodies in the city's morgues.
The use of locked-down, proprietary code in sentencing is more of the same. It undermines the government's assertion that prison sentences are a form of rehabilitation and replaces it with the promise that criminal defendants will "do the time" so they can't "do the crime" -- all the while preventing those affected from challenging this determination.
Oculus Reverses DRM Course After Public Backlash ((Mis)Uses of Technology)
Weeks back, Karl Bode wrote about the curious position Oculus Rift had taken in updating its software to include system-checking DRM. VR headset technology and game development, experiencing the first serious attempt at maturity in years, needs an open ecosystem in which to develop. What this DRM essentially did was remove the ability for games designed to run on the Rift from running on any other VR headset, with a specific targeting of community-built workarounds like Revive, which allowed HTC Vive owners to get Rift games running on that headset. Oculus, it should be noted, didn't announce the DRM aspect of the update; it just spit out the update and the public suddenly learned that programs like Revive no longer worked.
The backlash, to put it mildly, was swift and severe. Oculus having been acquired by Facebook likely didn't help what were already negative perceptions, supercharging the outcry with allegations of the kind of protectionism and the lack of care for the public that Facebook has enjoyed for roughly ever. Still, many saw the whole thing as peons screaming at a feudal lord: Oculus would simply ignore the whole thing. Just weeks ago, in fact, Oculus was working journalists at E3 in defense of the DRM.
The problem, [Oculus Head of Content Jason] Rubin said, comes with the wholesale distribution of a hack like Revive to the whole community, rather than to a few individuals. "[A personal hack] is a far cry difference from an institutional tool made and distributed to a mass number of people to [support other headsets], strip out DRM, strip out platform features and the like. For an individual to do that for themselves, that would be all right. Mass distribution is an entirely different situation."
No explanation on why the level of access to the workaround makes all the difference appears to have been offered, but it seems likely that the company didn't want to appear to be going after gamers and tinkerers, only larger development outfits. If so, the attempt didn't work, because software like Revive was in high demand. This is to be expected, as VR is just now starting to sprout from the seeds laid long ago, with impressive but limited options for both hardware and games to run on that hardware. Those limitations mean that any attempt at exclusivity being tied to hardware that is relatively expensive walls off each of the gardens and limits access and interest. For a technology still in its early stages, this would only stifle growth. Hence, the anger from the public.
Anger which appears to have worked, contrary to what some had thought. As silently as Oculus rolled out the DRM, it has now spit out an update which rolls it back. The world found out about it not from Oculus itself, which curiously didn't want to capitalize on some good press for once, but from Revive's development team.
The Oculus team has reversed course on one of its most unpopular decisions since launching the Rift VR headset in April: headset-specific DRM. After weeks of playing cat-and-mouse to block the "Revive" workaround, which translated the VR calls of Oculus games to work smoothly and seamlessly inside of the rival HTC Vive, Oculus quietly updated its hardware-specific runtime on Friday and removed all traces of that controversial DRM.
What's more, Oculus didn't mention the change in its runtime update notes, which are curiously future-dated one day forward on Saturday, June 25. The news instead broke when Revive's head developer posted a note on the project's Github download page. "I've only just tested this and I'm still in disbelief," the unnamed LibreVR developer wrote. Accordingly, the Revive team has since removed the patch's DRM-disabling feature, which had later been implemented as an extreme measure to make Oculus games play on the HTC Vive.
It appears that even when Oculus chooses to listen to its fans and potential customers, it can't be bothered to do so publicly. This strips its ability to claim credit for the move, credit which it desperately needs after several negative news cycles. Still, the company's PR ineptitude aside, it's a nice lesson in what public backlash and shaming can do to pressure a company to be a little more open.