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Posted on Techdirt - 25 May 2017 @ 11:58am

Brazilian Journalist Detained By UK Border Police For Reading A Book About ISIS

from the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover dept

Just last week, we reported on how a British human rights activist was held at London's Heathrow airport by UK border police, and risked prison for failing to hand over his passwords. Now we learn from the Independent about a Brazilian journalist, Diogo Bercito, who was detained at Manchester airport for reading a book during his flight there:

He was reading The Isis Apocalypse, by former adviser to the US State Department on terrorism issues Will McCants. It explores the ideology of the terrorist organisation and is often used as a reference for journalists and researchers.

That seems a perfectly reasonable thing for a journalist to be reading in order to understand the background to the Manchester attack, which Bercito had been sent to cover for his employer, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. But it was apparently enough for the border police to pull him in for questioning. His passport and press credentials were taken away, and he waited for an hour before he was interviewed. The police officers then explained exactly why Bercito had been singled out for special attention: another passenger on his flight had felt "uncomfortable" about his choice of reading matter.

To be fair, you can't really blame the Manchester border police for following up on that complaint, given the terrorist attack that had taken place in the city just 24 hours before. But it's a sad reflection of the effectiveness of the authorities' scaremongering that some members of the public feel the need to report someone because he or she was reading about ISIS. What next: reporting people to the police for watching TV reports about terrorism?

After a few questions, Bercito was allowed to continue with his journey, with the friendly warning not to read his book in public -- in case other, similarly-nervous people thought he was a terrorist -- as well as a less-friendly threat:

Mr Brecito said they then returned his passport to him, but warned that "if they wanted, they could keep him for a long time".

And they're right -- as David Miranda discovered the hard way.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 May 2017 @ 6:05pm

Financial Times Editorial: Time To 'Ditch' Corporate Sovereignty In Trade Deals

from the more-trouble-than-it's-worth dept

The European Union's top court has just handed down an important ruling about an otherwise minor trade deal between the EU and Singapore. The two sides initialled the text of the agreement in September 2013, and since then it has been waiting for the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to hand down its judgment. The issue is who gets to sign off on the deal: is it just the European Union, or do all 28 Member States of the EU need to agree too? There's clearly a big difference there, because in the latter case, there are 28 opportunities for the deal to be blocked, whereas in the former situation, the EU can simply wave it through on its own. The CJEU ruling (pdf) is fairly straightforward: the EU can sign and conclude trade deals covering most areas, but not for a few that must involve the EU Member States. Of most significance is the following:

The regime governing dispute settlement between investors and States also falls within a competence shared between the EU and the Member States. Such a regime, which removes disputes from the jurisdiction of the courts of the Member States, cannot be established without the Member States’ consent.

That is, the thorny area of corporate sovereignty, also known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), is one of the few that requires the approval of all Member States. There's an interesting corollary to that ruling: if the EU wants to agree trade deals as quickly as possible, without the risk of Member States vetoing them -- as Wallonia did with CETA -- it should not include a corporate sovereignty chapter.

If it seems hopelessly naïve to think that might ever happen, here's an editorial in a ruthlessly hard-headed newspaper, the Financial Times (FT), recommending that it should (paywall):

[The CJEU's ruling] would be an excellent opportunity for the EU to go further, and reverse one of its bigger recent errors in trade policy. It should ditch the whole idea of having rules on investment, or at least rules allowing companies to sue a government directly, in FTAs. Such "investor-state" provisions have attracted intense opposition, not just from the Walloons but also from anti-corporate campaigners.

Removing these rules would ease the way for future deals. As they do not seem to encourage foreign direct investment, they are more trouble than they are worth. Freed from this unnecessary encumbrance, the EU would find it easier to sustain with its quiet run of closing bilateral trade pacts.

When Techdirt first started writing about corporate sovereignty, four years ago, it was an obscure area of trade policy that few knew about. The insiders who were familiar with the mechanism assumed it was a fixed and indispensable part of free trade deals. Now we have one of the most influential business newspapers calling it an "error" that should be "ditched," since ISDS chapters are "more trouble than they are worth." We've come a long way.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 May 2017 @ 3:45pm

China To Require Drone Owners To Register, Just As Similar US Requirements Are Struck Down

from the not-what-you-might-expect dept

The South China Morning Post has a story about a new requirement for drone owners in China to register with the country's civilian aviation regulator starting next month. So is this yet another example of the Chinese authorities clamping down on a potentially subversive new technology by ensuring that drone use can be tracked? Well, that might be one reason, but it's probably also to do with this:

The move is the latest by Chinese authorities to tackle the drone safety threat after the illegal use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) made headlines at least a dozen times since the beginning of 2017.

The latest case was in April when more than 240 flights were disrupted by drones flying near Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport in southwest China, leaving 10,000 travellers delayed.

And if you still think this is another manifestation of China's authoritarianism, just using safety as a pretext, you might like to bear in mind that the US authorities have required drone owners to register their machines for over a year. However, those regulations have just been struck down by a federal court in Washington, D.C., and it's not clear what the FAA will now do. Perhaps more interesting than arguing about China's real motives here, is information in the South China Morning Post story about who is using this technology in China:

Once the preserve of the military, they are now used in a wide range of industries, from aerial surveillance of crops to search operations and delivery of medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions. For Chinese consumers, drones have become the favoured gadget for taking aerial videos and photos.

There are also estimates of future growth:

The overall UAV market in China is expected to reach 75 billion yuan (US$10.9 billion) by 2025, of which consumer drones will contribute 30 billion yuan while agricultural and forestry drones, as well as security drones, are likely to account for 20 billion yuan and 15 billion yuan respectively, iiMedia Research said in a report last year.

It's worth noting that the company generally regarded as world's top drone maker, DJI, is also Chinese. Given the activity and importance of the sector, what's surprising is not that China has brought in registration requirements for drone owners, but that it has taken so long.

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Posted on Techdirt - 19 May 2017 @ 3:23am

British Human Rights Activist Faces Prison For Refusing To Hand Over Passwords At UK Border

from the digital-strip-search dept

As Techdirt readers will recall, in 2013 David Miranda was held by the UK authorities when he flew into Heathrow airport, and all of his electronic equipment was seized, in an act of blatant intimidation. His detention was under Schedule 7 of the UK's Terrorism Act, which, as its name implies, is supposed to be used only if someone is involved in committing, preparing or instigating "acts of terrorism."

That was clearly ridiculous in Miranda's case, and it's just as outrageous in the latest example of UK border bullying, this time against Muhammad Rabbani. He's a British citizen, and the international director of Cage, which describes itself as "an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror." The Guardian fills in the background:

Rabbani, 35, from London, is involved through Cage in investigating torture cases. He said he was stopped at Heathrow in November returning from one of the Gulf states where he had been investigating a torture case allegedly involving the US.

He said he handed over his laptop and mobile phone but refused to provide his passwords. Although not a lawyer, he said the laptop contained information about the case and the client refused permission to release it. Rabbani was then arrested.

Rabbani later said that he felt that he had been subjected to a "digital strip search," and pointed out:

Using this power, [UK] officers can compel a person to surrender their passwords without cause and there's also no right to remain silent. There is nothing like this anywhere in the Western world.

Rather than dropping the case, this week the UK authorities have formally charged Rabbani under the Terrorism Act. He told the Guardian that he intends to fight, because the move has "serious implications" for journalists, lawyers and human rights, even though he faces three months in jail if he loses. This may be the first time Rabbani's been charged, but he is certainly no stranger to being stopped by the UK border officials:

Rabbani said he had been detained 20 times over the last decade by border officials and had handed over his laptop and mobile phone. On previous occasions, after refusing to hand over passwords, they were returned to him and he was allowed to go. But not on this occasion.

He's not alone in being subjected to this kind of harassment by the UK authorities. Figures published in an article on the Middle East Eye site reveal just how ineffective Schedule 7 examinations are at spotting terrorists:

More than 28,000 people were subjected to Schedule 7 examinations in 2015-16 resulting in about 10,000 intelligence reports being filed, according to a report by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

About 500,000 are also estimated to have been subjected to pre-examination screening questions in the same period.

According to 2016 statistics, only 0.02 percent of stops lead to an arrest. An even smaller number lead to criminal charges.

The good news is that the UK court of appeal has already criticized Schedule 7 for forcing people to betray confidences and thus make it unlikely that others would trust them again with information in the public interest. That holds out the hope that Rabbani will ultimately win in the courts, since his case is very similar. The bad news, of course, is that the US is thinking of demanding passwords from every foreigner who visits the US.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 May 2017 @ 6:28pm

US Court Upholds Enforceability Of GNU GPL As Both A License And A Contract

from the but-might-that-prove-a-mixed-blessing? dept

Free software dominates modern computing, from smartphones to supercomputers -- only the desktop remains a stronghold of proprietary code. Most of that free software has the Linux kernel at its heart, and a key element in the success of Linux -- and of thousands of other coding projects -- is the GNU General Public License. Although the first version of the GNU GPL was released by Richard Stallman back in 1989, and version 3 was issued in 2007, there have been surprisingly few court cases examining it and other open source licenses, and whether they are legally watertight.

A key case is Jacobsen v. Katzer from 2008. As a detailed Groklaw post at the time explained, the US appeals court held that open source license conditions are enforceable as a copyright condition. Now we have another important judgment, Artifex v. Hancom, that clarifies further the legal basis of open source licenses. It concerns the well-known Ghostscript interpreter for the PostScript language, written originally by L. Peter Deutsch, and sold by the company he founded, Artifex Software. Artifex was a pioneer in adopting a dual-licensing approach for Ghostscript. That is, you could either use the software under the GNU GPL, or you could avoid copyleft's redistribution requirements by taking out a conventional proprietary license.

Hancom is a South Korean company that produces Hangul, word-processing software that is primarily used in South Korea as an alternative to Microsoft Word. Artifex says that Hancom incorporated Ghostscript into its Hangul software, but neither sought a proprietary license, nor complied with the terms of the GPL by releasing the source code for the application that incorporated Ghostscript. As a result, Artifex took legal action, alleging copyright infringement and breach of contract. Hancom asked the court to dismiss Artifex's complaint on several grounds, but they were all denied. The most significant ruling is on Hancom's claim that the GNU GPL was not a contract. In her order, embedded below, Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley wrote:

The GNU GPL, which is attached to the complaint, provides that the Ghostscript user agrees to its terms if the user does not obtain a commercial license. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant used Ghostscript, did not obtain a commercial license, and represented publicly that its use of Ghostscript was licensed under the GNU GPL. These allegations sufficiently plead the existence of a contract.

That's an important new ruling. The judge also affirmed a result of the Jacobsen v. Katzer case, that even though code released under the GPL is available free of charge, damages could still be awarded because:

there is harm which flows from a party's failure to comply with open source licensing.

A useful analysis of the judge's order on the Lexology blog explains the pros and cons of bringing cases under copyright and contract law:

Generally, copyright claims may afford plaintiffs more damages and stronger remedies than contract claims. However, contract claims may help a plaintiff pursue a violator's worldwide conduct in a way that jurisdictional limits on copyright claims might not allow. Breach of contract claims may also be able to address reputational harm and other indirect non-economic benefits that a plaintiff might derive from enforcing open source license conditions. A breach of contract claim might also, in certain instances, allow for specific performance of open source obligations.

However, the fact that Artifex may now proceed, drawing on both copyright and contract law, raises the important question of how those interact. Mike wrote about this back in 2010, and pointed to a longer discussion of the legal questions involved. The decision by the District Court for the Northern District of California to allow Artifex to move forward with its case is certainly an important confirmation of the legal solidity of open source licensing. But it also brings with it important questions about the role of contracts in the world of free software.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 May 2017 @ 6:30am

Hollywood Helps China Set Up National Surveillance And Censorship System To Tackle Copyright Infringement

from the how-long-before-the-MPAA-asks-for-the-same-in-the-US? dept

The Copyright Society of China has just launched a new site, called the 12426 Copyright Monitoring Center, whose job is to scan the entire Chinese Internet for evidence of copyright infringement. As a post on the EFF site explains, its scope is incredibly wide:

This frightening panopticon is said to be able to monitor video, music and images found on "mainstream audio and video sites and graphic portals, small and medium vertical websites, community platforms, cloud and P2P sites, SmartTV, external set-top boxes, aggregation apps, and so on."

Quite how it manages to monitor SmartTVs and external set-top boxes in people's homes is not clear, but the fact that it even claims to be searching them is pretty worrying, since it may be true.

When it finds content that matches material submitted to it by a copyright holder, the Center provides them with a streamlined notification and takedown machine, from the issuance of warning notices through to the provision of mediation services.

Complementary to that "streamlined" search and takedown system, the Center's technology provider offers a preemptive platform filtering solution:

The Content Filtering System automatically matches, retrieves, de-emphasizes, and automatically alerts or filters content related to copyrighted content or content in violation, by means of content matching technology; thereby it reduces the labor costs and the potential risk of content infringement. It can be applied to cloud disks and all kind of platforms including music, video, pictures, literature and other media contents.

Of course, such automatic filtering systems can't encompass all the subtleties of copyright law, and inevitably take a very crude approach that generally amounts to "when in doubt, block". Once in place, they can also easily be extended, for example to "content in violation", as here. The Chinese system comes from the company First Brave, which claims to be the "world's leading copyright monitoring and distribution service provider". That's probably just the usual hyperbole at the moment, but it's not impossible that it could become true as a result of moves in the EU.

There the main copyright legislation is being updated, supposedly to make it fit for the digital world. And yet, alongside the ridiculous snippet tax, which would create a new ancillary copyright for newspaper publishers (as if they needed any more monopolies), there is an even more dangerous proposal to require major online platforms to filter all user uploads before posting them. That's very similar to the Chinese content filtering system -- good news for First Brave -- and would be just as toxic to freedom of expression and privacy.

The Chinese upload filtering system on its own would be bad enough, but coupled with a similar requirement in the EU, it would pose a real threat in the US too. The copyright industry would doubtless claim that since it is being done everywhere else, there is no reason why Internet platforms should not roll out the same system in the US.

The head of the MPAA, Chris Dodd, used exactly this argument back in 2011 to call for online censorship in the name of reducing copyright infringement. It's noteworthy that two of the six major Hollywood studios that make up the MPAA, 21st Century Fox and Warner Bros., are listed at the bottom of the 12426 Copyright Monitoring Center's home page as partners in the new venture. Once the service has been up and running for a while, we can expect breathless reports from the MPAA on how well the surveillance and censorship system is working in China, along with yet more demands that something similar be set up in the US.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 May 2017 @ 6:11pm

China's New Online Encyclopedia Aims To Surpass Wikipedia, And To 'Guide And Lead' The Public

from the great-wall-of-culture dept

China has a long history of producing encyclopedias that goes back thousands of years. One of the most famous works is the fifteenth-century Yongle encyclopedia, which had over 15,000 volumes, and is still the largest paper-based general encyclopedia ever created. More recently, the main publication in this field was the Encyclopedia of China, whose first edition had 74 volumes. Later, CD-ROM and online versions were added. The third edition has just been announced, and although it is not quite on the scale of the Yongle encyclopedia, it is ambitious in its scope:

The third edition of the Chinese Encyclopaedia is currently China's largest publication project, with more than 20,000 authors from universities and research institutes contributing to articles in more than 100 disciplines.

Designed to be the nation's first digital book of "everything", it will feature more than 300,000 entries, each about 1,000 words long, making it twice as large as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and about the same size as the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia.

As the article in the South China Morning Post notes, access to Wikipedia is patchy in China. Most of the uncontroversial articles can be read, but searches for sensitive keywords such as "Dalai Lama" and even "Xi Jinping," have a habit of timing out. The new project is clearly designed to steer people towards safer opinions:

"The Chinese Encyclopaedia is not a book, but a Great Wall of culture," Yang Muzhi, the editor-in-chief of the project and the chairman of the Book and Periodicals Distribution Association of China, told senior scientists at a meeting at the headquarters of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing on April 12, according to a report on the academy’s website the next day.


Yang told the meeting China was under international pressure and felt an urgent need to produce its own encyclopaedia to "guide and lead the public and society".

Speaking of Wikipedia, Yang went on:

"The readers regarded it to be authoritative, accurate, and it branded itself as a 'free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit', which is quite bewitching," he wrote. "But we have the biggest, most high-quality author team in the world ... our goal is not to catch up, but overtake."

China certainly has the resources to complete this huge project by 2018, its planned launch date. And once those 300,000 entries are available to "guide and lead the public," it's hard not to think that accessing the rival Wikipedia will be made so hard that most people will give up trying, and stick with the new Chinese Encyclopedia. At that point, the Chinese authorities will indeed have created a "Great Wall of culture" to complement that Great Firewall of China, both designed to keep out all those inconvenient ideas.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 May 2017 @ 11:42am

Just Because Eli Lilly's Corporate Sovereignty Claim Over Patents Failed Doesn't Mean The Threat Has Gone Away

from the don't-relax-yet dept

Back in March, Mike wrote about how Eli Lilly's demand for $500 million "compensation" from Canada for rejecting two of its patents was finally thrown out. This was a long-running story, and was widely-regarded as a crucial test. Had Eli Lilly won, people suggested, it would have opened the floodgates for many such corporate sovereignty claims. Some also claimed that Eli Lilly's defeat showed what is officially known as the "investor-state dispute settlement" (ISDS) system was actually working well, and needed neither abolishing nor tweaking. But an interesting analysis by Cynthia Ho, who is a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, suggests that things might not be so clear cut. Here are the key points she makes in a column published by Intellectual Property Watch:

It is true that Eli Lilly ultimately failed to persuade the investment tribunal that Canada's invalidation of two patents, based on its interpretation of "useful," compromised guarantees under NAFTA's investment chapter. But, it should be noted, this failure was principally evidentiary in nature. That is, Eli Lilly failed to provide adequate evidence in support of its claims, all of which were premised on its assumption that there was a dramatic change in the law. The tribunal, however, never questioned whether IP rights that were invalidated consistent with domestic law could constitute a violation of international investment law. Even more importantly, the tribunal never questioned whether patent laws consistent with TRIPS could nonetheless be challenged as compromising investment agreements. In addition, although some have suggested that Eli Lilly could not win, the tribunal explicitly stated that the claim was not frivolous.

As Ho points out, there are a number of troubling aspects to the tribunal's decision, even if it went against Eli Lilly. The main one is that countries still have the threat hanging over them of corporate sovereignty cases being brought and won because of disputes over patents and copyright. That would represent a radical departure from traditional ISDS cases, which are typically over physical assets like mines and oil fields. Moreover, she suggests that even if a new law were fully consistent with the main Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) treaty, it could still be challenged using a corporate sovereignty claim -- in effect, setting ISDS tribunals above global agreements like TRIPS:

the tribunal stated that a judicial decision could form the basis of an investment claim without any actual denial of justice. In addition, while the Eli Lilly tribunal stated that it is inappropriate for ISDS tribunals to serve as an "appellate tier" over domestic decisions, it would be premature to assume, as some have suggested, that this single decision obviates any such concern. Importantly, there is no precedent in investor-state disputes and, unlike the [World Trade Organization] system where panel decisions tend to be consistent and uniformity is promoted with a standing appellate body, there are often inconsistent investor-state rulings with no current mechanism to promote uniformity.

The rest of Ho's column explores these and other concerns, and is well-worth reading. It may be that her fears are overblown, and that Canada's success in defending its patent system will discourage others from bringing similar cases. But given the unpredictable nature of ISDS cases, and the fact that a new wave of speculative funding is available, it is quite likely that investors will be emboldened to try their luck in this area again, irrespective of the Eli Lilly defeat.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 May 2017 @ 6:30pm

Mounting Privacy Problems In Europe For Facebook's Acquisition Of WhatsApp

from the statement-of-objections dept

When it comes to online privacy, the European data protection authorities tend to be quite interventionist as they try to police the movement of personal data within and out of the EU. The concerns over the Safe Harbor and Privacy Shield frameworks are one manifestation of this. Another is the increasing EU scrutiny of Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp.

A couple of years after Facebook acquired WhatsApp, the latter announced that it was updating its terms and privacy policy so as to allow user data to be transferred to its parent company. Johannes Caspar, the Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in Hamburg, where Facebook has its German headquarters, was unhappy with that move. He saw it as harmful to users' privacy, not least because there was no way to opt out of the data sharing. In September last year, he ordered Facebook to stop collecting data from WhatsApp, and to delete anything it had already brought across. Facebook appealed against the decision, and the Administrative Court of Hamburg has now handed down its ruling, which is to deny the US giant's request for Caspar's order to be revoked (pdf):

Facebook has appealed to the administrative court against the order in the preliminary proceedings. The goal was to repeal the immediate enforcement. The court rejected this request today and clarified the fact that it does not see any legal basis for the planned data exchange. Facebook can not invoke interests of its own business because the complete data exchange is neither necessary for the purpose of network security or business analysis nor for advertising optimization. Furthermore, the court clarifies that there is no effective consent from WhatsApp users for a data exchange with Facebook. As a result, the administrative court is making a clear consideration in the context of the preliminary legal proceedings: the interests of the approximately 35 million German WhatsApp users predominates the economic interest of Facebook in a suspension of immediate enforceability.

That's not the only problem Facebook faces in Europe. A little while after WhatsApp announced that it would be consolidating its user data with Facebook, the European Commission sent what is called a "Statement of Objections" to Facebook, alleging that:

the company provided incorrect or misleading information during the Commission's 2014 investigation under the EU Merger Regulation of Facebook's planned acquisition of WhatsApp.

The problem is that:

When reviewing Facebook's planned acquisition of WhatsApp, the Commission looked, among other elements, at the possibility of Facebook matching its users' accounts with WhatsApp users' accounts. In its notification of the transaction in August 2014 and in a reply to a request of information, Facebook indicated to the Commission that it would be unable to establish reliable automated matching between the two companies' user accounts.

Once WhatsApp and Facebook started carrying out precisely that kind of automated data matching last year, the Commission naturally wondered whether Facebook had been totally frank in its answers. The company had until January 31 to explain itself, and the Commission is now deciding whether it feels it was given misleading information. If it does, the consequences may be quite costly. Under EU law, Facebook could be fined 1% of its global turnover -- which would amount to around $179 million based on 2015 revenues. On its own, that probably wouldn't be too much of a problem for the deep-pocketed company. But combined with the ruling in Germany, and the possibility that data protection authorities in other countries will follow suit -- the law is the same throughout the EU, after all -- these European concerns about privacy are turning into a major a headache for Facebook.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 May 2017 @ 6:15pm

New Tools Allow Voice Patterns To Be Cloned To Produce Realistic But Fake Sounds Of Anyone Saying Anything

from the shopped-images-are-so-yesterday dept

Fake images, often produced using sophisticated software like Photoshop or the GIMP, were around long before so-called "fake news" became an issue. They are part and parcel of the Internet's fast-moving creative culture, and a trap for anyone that passes on striking images without checking their provenance or plausibility. Until now, this kind of artful manipulation has been limited to the visual sphere. But a new generation of tools will soon allow entire voice patterns to be cloned from relatively small samples with increasing fidelity such that it can be hard to spot they are fake. For example, in November last year, the Verge wrote about Adobe's Project VoCo:

"When recording voiceovers, dialog, and narration, people would often like to change or insert a word or a few words due to either a mistake they made or simply because they would like to change part of the narrative," reads an official Adobe statement. "We have developed a technology called Project VoCo in which you can simply type in the word or words that you would like to change or insert into the voiceover. The algorithm does the rest and makes it sound like the original speaker said those words."

Since then, things have moved on apace. Last week, the Economist wrote about the French company CandyVoice:

Utter 160 or so French or English phrases into a phone app developed by CandyVoice, a new Parisian company, and the app's software will reassemble tiny slices of those sounds to enunciate, in a plausible simulacrum of your own dulcet tones, whatever typed words it is subsequently fed. In effect, the app has cloned your voice.

The Montreal company Lyrebird has a page full of fascinating demos of its own voice cloning technology, which requires even less in the way of samples:

Lyrebird will offer an API to copy the voice of anyone. It will need as little as one minute of audio recording of a speaker to compute a unique key defining her/his voice. This key will then allow to generate anything from its corresponding voice. The API will be robust enough to learn from noisy recordings. The following sample illustrates this feature, the samples are not cherry-picked.

Please note that those are artificial voices and they do not convey the opinions of Donald Trump, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

As Techdirt readers will have spotted, this technical development raises big ethical questions, articulated here by Lyrebird:

Voice recordings are currently considered as strong pieces of evidence in our societies and in particular in jurisdictions of many countries. Our technology questions the validity of such evidence as it allows to easily manipulate audio recordings. This could potentially have dangerous consequences such as misleading diplomats, fraud and more generally any other problem caused by stealing the identity of someone else.

The Economist quantifies the problem. According to its article, voice-biometrics software similar to the kind deployed by many banks to block unauthorized access to accounts was fooled 80% of the time in tests using the new technology. Humans didn't do much better, only spotting that a voice had been cloned 50% of the time. And remember, these figures are for today's technologies. As algorithms improve, and Moore's Law kicks in, it's not unreasonable to think that it will become almost impossible to tell by ear whether the voice you hear is the real thing, or a version generated using the latest cloning technology.

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Posted on Techdirt - 28 April 2017 @ 9:35am

Want To Promote Breastfeeding? That's A Trade Barrier, Says US Trade Rep

from the milk-of-human-kindness dept

As most people know, babies who are breastfed from birth enjoy a wide range of benefits. Here's what the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), a global organization with nearly $5 billion of funding, has to say on the topic of breastfeeding:

It has profound impact on a child's survival, health, nutrition and development. Breast milk provides all of the nutrients, vitamins and minerals an infant needs for growth for the first six months, and no other liquids or food are needed. In addition, breast milk carries antibodies from the mother that help combat disease.

Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of chronic conditions later in life, such as obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, childhood asthma and childhood leukaemias. Studies have shown that breastfed infants do better on intelligence and behaviour tests into adulthood than formula-fed babies.

Formula milk, by contrast, can actively harm babies:

Formula is not an acceptable substitute for breastmilk because formula, at its best, only replaces most of the nutritional components of breast milk: it is just a food, whereas breast milk is a complex living nutritional fluid containing anti-bodies, enzymes, long chain fatty acids and hormones, many of which simply cannot be included in formula. Furthermore, in the first few months, it is hard for the baby's gut to absorb anything other than breastmilk. Even one feeding of formula or other foods can cause injuries to the gut, taking weeks for the baby to recover.

The case for breastfeeding, and against formula milk, seems pretty clear. But a new publication from the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the "2017 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers" (pdf), begs to differ. As a post on the Public Citizen site explains, the USTR calls out several countries for promoting breastfeeding over formula as a "technical barrier to trade" that might harm the profits of US industries. These are some of the polices that the USTR wants eliminated:

Hong Kong: The Report criticizes a Hong Kong draft code, designed to "protect breastfeeding and contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants and young children." USTR labels the policy as a technical barrier to trade due to its potential to reduce sales of "food products for infants and young children."

Indonesia: USTR labels a draft regulation in Indonesia that would prohibit the "advertising or promotion of milk products for children up to two years of age" as a technical barrier to trade.

Malaysia: USTR questions Malaysia's proposed revisions to "its existing Code of Ethics for the Marketing of Infant Foods and Related Products" that would restrict corporate marketing practices aimed at toddlers and young children.

Thailand: The report critiques Thailand for introducing a new regulation that would impose penalties on corporations that violate domestic laws restricting the "promotional, and marketing activities for modified milk for infants, follow-up formula for infants and young children, and supplemental foods for infants."

Although "technical barriers to trade" sound like a minor issue, they lie at the heart of modern trade deals. Traditional tariffs are now relatively low in many parts of the world, which means that the hard part of trade negotiations is often these "non-tariff barriers" (NTBs). Indeed, it was in large part a failure to agree on the removal of NTBs that caused the TAFTA/TTIP talks to grind to a halt, and then end up in limbo when the Trump administration took them over.

The USTR's attack on policies that promote breastfeeding over formula milk may seem extreme. But they are typical of the way the USTR views the world primarily through the optic of boosting the profits of US companies, with no thought to the harms this may inflict on people in other nations as a result. No wonder that trade deals are viewed so negatively in many parts of the world.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 April 2017 @ 9:24am

Australia's Copyright Agency Keeps $11 Million Meant For Authors, Uses It To Fight Introduction Of Fair Use

from the not-very-fair dept

Even though stories of copyright collecting societies failing to distribute the monies that they collect to artists abound -- we wrote about one just a few weeks ago -- this doesn't seem to discourage others from continuing to bend the rules somewhat. Here, for example, is a story from Australia, where there is a major battle to switch to a US-style fair use approach to copyright. Naturally, the affected industries there hate the idea of allowing the public a little more leeway in the use of copyright materials. So Australia's copyright collection agency decided to build up a war-chest to lobby against such changes. The Sydney Morning Herald explains where the money for that fighting fund is coming from:

Australia's government-mandated copyright collection agency has been diverting payments intended for journalists and authors to a [$11 million] "future fund" to fight changes to the law.

Specifically, the monies come from payments made by educational establishments in order to use orphan works. That's a major change of the agency's policy that was not disclosed to the Australian government's Productivity Commission that oversees this area:

[The Copyright Agency] has been criticised in a Productivity Commission review that is before the government over the transparency of its accounts and its practice of retaining, rather than returning, millions of dollars collected from schools and universities on behalf of the owners of "orphan works" who can't be traced.

An examination of accounts shows that in a change not disclosed to the commission or to its members in annual reports, since 2013 it has been channelling that income into a fund set up to campaign against changes to the copyright law.

Between 2013 and 2016 the fund amassed [$11 million].

In other words, schools and universities have effectively been paying to lobby against changes to Australian copyright laws that would be very much in the interest of themselves, the public, and writers, who could use copyright materials more freely under a fair use system. According to the Sydney Morning Herald article, the top three executives at Australia's Copyright Agency are all paid around $200,000 a year to come up with these kinds of ideas. It would be interesting to know whether Australian authors consider that $600,000 well spent.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 April 2017 @ 6:23pm

China's Public Prosecutors Complain About Leak Of Anti-Corruption TV Series They Bankrolled To Raise Awareness

from the in-the-name-of-the-people dept

As further evidence of how things are changing in China when it comes to attitudes to piracy, here's a news item from Caixin about the leak of the hottest TV series there at the moment:

A glossy Chinese television drama, inspired by the country's ongoing anti-graft campaign, has become the latest victim of rampant piracy, fueled by slack laws, weak enforcement and the absence of punitive fines.

A story about China's public prosecutors who dredge up a series of scandals as they investigate shady land deals, organized crime and [state-owned enterprise] reforms, In the Name of the People became an instant hit when it debuted on March 28 and has become one of the most-watched TV programs in Chinese history.

What makes an otherwise humdrum story about popular TV episodes turning up on video-sharing sites rather unusual is who is doing the complaining:

China's state prosecutors' office, which bankrolled the $12 million production, and other producers said they had reported the copyright infringement to police, and urged platforms including cloud services, e-commerce shops and video hosting sites to remove all unauthorized versions, in a joint statement last Thursday.

China's state prosecutors are not normally in the business of bankrolling TV productions. Presumably, they took that unusual step on this occasion because it was important to increase public support for Xi Jinping's long-running fight against corruption's "tigers" and "flies" using a medium that would reach a much wider audience than dull government speeches or press articles exhorting them to do the same.

One of the best ways to ensure the widest possible audience for that message would be to allow the TV series to appear on sites for people to download freely. So asking the companies running them to remove copies in order to "protect" the official broadcasts seems perverse. If anything, it shows that respect for copyright in China has now gone so far as to be harmful to more serious matters like tackling the country's corruption.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 April 2017 @ 7:39pm

After Bill Gates Backs Open Access, Steve Ballmer Discovers The Joys Of Open Data

from the who's-up-for-some-open-source,now? dept

A few months ago, we noted that the Gates Foundation has emerged as one of the leaders in requiring the research that it funds to be released as open access and open data -- an interesting application of the money that Bill Gates made from closed-source software. Now it seems that his successor as Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, has had a similar epiphany about openness. Back in 2001, Ballmer famously called GNU/Linux "a cancer". Although he later softened his views on software somewhat, that was largely because he optimistically claimed that the threat to Microsoft from free software was "in the rearview mirror". Not really: today, the Linux-based Android has almost two orders of magnitude more market share than Windows Phone. However, there's one area of openness that Ballmer seems to have embraced whole-heartedly for his new project USAFacts, which launched this week -- open data:

USAFacts is a new data-driven portrait of the American population, our government's finances, and government's impact on society. We are a non-partisan, not-for-profit civic initiative and have no political agenda or commercial motive. We provide this information as a free public service and are committed to maintaining and expanding it in the future.

We rely exclusively on publicly available government data sources. We don’t make judgments or prescribe specific policies. Whether government money is spent wisely or not, whether our quality of life is improving or getting worse -- that's for you to decide. We hope to spur serious, reasoned, and informed debate on the purpose and functions of government. Such debate is vital to our democracy. We hope that USAFacts will make a modest contribution toward building consensus and finding solutions.

In addition to allowing a wide range of public data sets to be queried using a site-specific search engine, USAFacts also offers synoptic views:

an annual report, a summary report, and a "10-K" modeled on the document public companies submit annually to the SEC for transparency and accountability to their investors.

In an age where "fake news," AKA lies, are common currency, and where the Trump administration is making government more, not less, opaque, Ballmer's philanthropic, fact-based endeavor is particularly welcome. It's also nice to see him following Gates and implicitly acknowledging that open is more powerful than closed.

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Posted on Techdirt - 20 April 2017 @ 6:10pm

Corporate Sovereignty Used To Bully Ukraine, Colombia And Italy For Protecting Public Health And The Environment

from the profits-before-people dept

Corporate sovereignty provisions in investment treaties have become much better known than they were when Techdirt first wrote about them in 2012. Despite that growing awareness, and widespread outrage at the idea that corporations can request secret supra-national tribunals to make awards of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars paid from public funds, companies continue to use the system to bully governments into changing their policies. For example, here is the US pharmaceutical company Gilead successfully deploying corporate sovereignty against the Ukrainian government, as originally reported by Investment Arbitration Reporter:

The dispute with Gilead, which Ukraine's Ministry of Justice had characterized as an $800 million dispute, relates to the drug sofosbuvir (sold by Gilead as Sovaldi). Sovaldi, a highly effective treatment for chronic hepatitis C, has been available in Ukraine -- a country reportedly home to over 2 million people infected with hepatitis C -- since 2015, but the company has lately been locked in a struggle over the ability of generic companies to market cheaper versions of the drug in Ukraine.

According to details of the settlement released by Ukraine's Ministries of Justice and Health, the settlement sees Gilead refrain from pursuing its damages claims against the country, and will see the company offer Sovaldi (and a combination therapy called Harvoni) at a reduced price.

Also, following the settlement, a generic competitor of Gilead has seen its own competing drug de-registered by authorities.

By de-registering the generic competitor to Gilead, the Ukrainian government is allowing the US company's to maintain its monopoly on the drug. In Colombia, the Swiss drug company Novartis also used the threat of a corporate sovereignty lawsuit, in this case to put pressure on the government there to stop it from issuing a compulsory license for a key anti-cancer drug, which would allow low-cost generics to be produced:

Leaked letters (PDF) to the Ministry of Trade and Industry show how Novartis threatened to resort to international investment arbitration for an alleged violation of the Swiss-Colombian bilateral investment treaty (BIT), which was signed by both countries in 2006. This undemocratic procedural mechanism, better known as Investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS), forms part of many trade agreements and allows an investor from one country to bring a case directly against the country in which they have invested before a private international arbitration tribunal, without going through local courts first. This threat has undoubtedly influenced the decision of the Colombian health authorities to stop short of pursuing a compulsory license, focusing only on a price reduction.

It's not just drug companies that try to use ISDS litigation to force governments to reverse their policies. Here's an oil and gas exploration company that is unhappy with a decision by the Italian parliament to ban new exploration and production activity within 12 nautical miles of the coast because of concerns for the environment and the high risk of earthquakes:

Rockhopper Exploration is fighting for compensation from Italy after it banned offshore drilling, leaving the company unable to develop one of its oil and gas fields.

The Aim-listed explorer said that it had begun international arbitration against the country for "very significant monetary damages" over the loss of future profits from its Ombrina Mare field.

Since Rockhopper is an oil exploration company, it must have carried out detailed studies on the geology of the field before deciding to drill for oil and gas. Either its geologists were negligent in not spotting that there was a risk of earthquakes which made the area unsuitable for exploitation, or the company knew about the dangers, and decided to continue with its plans anyway. In any case, it's ridiculous that Rockhopper thinks the Italian government owes it money for "lost future profits" that clearly never existed anywhere other than in the company's fantasies.

This is a general problem with corporate sovereignty claims: they often invoke some mythical "future profits" as if those were indisputable and guaranteed. But business is based on rewarding calculated risk-taking, and that includes the risk that hoped-for profits never materialize. ISDS is an attempt to remove the risk of investment from companies, and place it squarely on the public's shoulders, without any quid pro quo.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2017 @ 5:50pm

China's Precision Censorship Machine Allows Some Controversial Keywords, But Blocks Combinations Of Them

from the politically-problematic-images-also-a-no-no dept

China's censorship of the Internet is both impressively thorough, and yet surprisingly subtle at times. For example, we've already written about ways in which the boundary between censored and non-censored is often vague, which paradoxically encourages people to be even more cautious than they would be with well-defined limits. But hidden among all the uncertainty, are there perhaps some fixed rules about when posts will definitely get censored?

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab decided to find out by investigating one of the topics considered most controversial by the Chinese authorities, the so-called "709 Crackdown." This refers to a major government clampdown that began on July 9 in 2015, when more than 250 Chinese rights lawyers, law firm staff, activists, and their relatives were detained by public security agents across China. Internet users are understandably keen to discuss this important event, and many of those conversations take place on the main blog site in China, Weibo, and using the messaging service WeChat, which is even more popular. But as the researchers discovered, those online conversations were subject to subtle but consistent interference:

as our experiments show, a good portion of that discussion fails to reach Chinese users of WeChat and Weibo. Our research shows that certain combinations of keywords, when sent together in a text message, are censored. When sent alone, they are not. So, for example, if one were to text Mainland China or Wang Quanzhang's Wife or Harassment on Relatives [all written in Chinese characters] individually, the messages would get through. Sent together, however, the message would be censored.

Moreover, for the first time the researchers discovered censorship not just of text, but of images too:

In addition to a large number of censored keyword combinations our tests unearthed, we also discovered 58 images related to the 709 Crackdown that were censored on WeChat Moments for accounts registered with a mainland China phone number. (For accounts registered with a non-mainland China phone number, on the other hand, the images and keyword combinations go through fine).

Neither of these observations is earth-shattering in itself, but they do add usefully to our knowledge of the intricate clockwork of China's mighty censorship machine.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 April 2017 @ 3:24am

Thai Government Forbids Any Online Contact With Three Overseas Critics Of The Monarchy

from the yeah,-that'll-work dept

As long-time Techdirt readers will know, Thailand does love it some lèse-majesté punishments. The country's lèse-majesté law -- literally "injured majesty" -- is used to protect Thailand's monarch from any kind of insult, however slight. It's been applied time and again over the years -- we first wrote about it back in 2007. In the past, the Thai government has done all the obvious things like demanding that local ISPs block sites, snooping on its citizens to find out who might be disrespecting the king, and threatening to throw even foreigners in prison for a very long time. But its latest move on the lèse-majesté front is rather a bold one: it has forbidden its citizens from having any online contact with three critics of the Thai monarchy and government. As the Guardian reports:

A letter from the [Thai] digital economy and society ministry warned citizens that engaging on the internet with the Thai academics Somsak Jeamteerasakul and Pavin Chachavalpongpun as well as the journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall could violate the law.

All three live in outside Thailand but have large online followings in the country for their commentary about the failings of both the junta and the monarchy.

The ministry statement said citizens should not follow, contact or share content from the trio on the internet or social media. The letter added that people who disseminate their information, directly or indirectly, could be violating the country’s Computer Crime Act.

The three people concerned are only able to voice their criticisms of the monarchy and government because they live outside the country -- it would obviously be far too risky to do the same inside it. So this latest move is effectively an attempt to forbid Thai citizens from accessing "forbidden" material that lies beyond the Thai government's direct control, and which has proved impossible to block using technical means. It will doubtless be just as futile.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 April 2017 @ 7:20pm

Initiative for Open Citations Takes Alternative Approach To Freeing Up Knowledge

from the structured,-separable,-and-open dept

We've just written about widespread frustration at the slow pace of the shift to open access publishing of academic papers, and about how some major funding organizations are trying to address that. Open access aims to make entire publications publicly available, and that is meeting considerable resistance from traditional publishers who derive their healthy profits from charging for subscriptions. Rather than continue to tackle publishers head-on, an interesting new project seeks instead to liberate only a particular part of each article, albeit an important one. The new Initiative for Open Citations (I4OC) seeks to promote the unrestricted availability of the list of citations that form a key part of most academic articles:

Citations are the links that knit together our scientific and cultural knowledge. They are primary data that provide both provenance and an explanation for how we know facts. They allow us to attribute and credit scientific contributions, and they enable the evaluation of research and its impacts. In sum, citations are the most important vehicle for the discovery, dissemination, and evaluation of all scholarly knowledge.

As the number of scholarly publications is estimated to double every nine years, citations -- and the computational systems that track them -- enable researchers and the public to keep abreast of significant developments in any given field. For this to be possible, it is essential to have unrestricted access to bibliographic and citation data in machine-readable form.

The present scholarly communication system inadequately exposes the knowledge networks that already exist within our literature. Citation data are not usually freely available to access, they are often subject to inconsistent, hard-to-parse licenses, and they are usually not machine-readable.

The I4OC aims to address those problems by encouraging all publishers, whether open access or otherwise, to provide the data on citations found in their journals in a form that is structured, separable, and open. "Structured" here means that it is held in a common data form that is machine readable. "Separable" refers to the fact that even for non-open access materials, the citation data is nonetheless freely available. And "open" means that it is released as raw facts, and thus without a license, or uses a CC0 public domain dedication that makes it quite clear that the citation data can be used for any purpose without needing permission.

As the I4OC home page explains, a key benefit from this new approach is increased discoverability of published articles, since even if they are not freely available, their citation data will be out in the open. Another is citation data can be analyzed in new and complex ways thanks to its machine-readable nature. Finally, it may be possible to create new services and even new businesses based around the new data resource.

All of that is highly welcome, but the fact that a separate initiative was required to make it happen underlines that fact that too much of humanity's knowledge remains locked up behind paywalls, where its full potential is hard to realize. The correct solution to that is not making one element available, but liberating the full texts as open access. And that means real open access, not the subverted kind that Richard Poynder analyzed in his compelling and troubling post "Copyright: the immoveable barrier that open access advocates underestimated".

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 April 2017 @ 3:11am

Portugal Pushes Law To Partially Ban DRM, Allow Circumvention

from the straight-to-the-Priority-Watch-list-naughty-step-for-you dept

You might think that copyright on its own has enough problems. And yet DRM, originally designed to protect digital copyright material from unauthorized copying, has managed to make things much worse. It not only punishes with extra inconvenience those who acquire legal copies -- but not those who manage to find illegal versions without DRM -- it also allows the DMCA to be used to disable competitors' products, to create repair monopolies, and even to undermine the very concept of ownership. You can see why the copyright industry really loves DRM, and fights to preserve its sanctity. And you can also see why the following news from Portugal, where the parliament has just approved a bill allowing DRM circumvention and even bans in certain situations, is such a big deal. As TorrentFreak reports:

The bill, which received general approval last December, tackles the main issues head-on by granting copying permission in some circumstances and by flat-out banning the use of DRM when the public should have right of access to a copyrighted work.

In a boost to educators, citizens will be given the right to circumvent DRM for teaching and scientific research purposes. There will also be an exception for private copying.

The draft also outlaws the use of DRM on copyright works that have fallen into the public domain, works which support cultural heritage, and works that were created by public entities or funded with public money.

Those are all eminently sensible restrictions on DRM, but they are likely to be met with howls of anger by the copyright maximalists if Portugal's president approves the law, as seems likely. That's because it would set a crucial precedent for allowing DRM to be circumvented legally, and establish that DRM can be completely forbidden in some situations. As a result, we can probably expect Portugal to be punished in the traditional manner: by being placed on the ridiculous "Priority Watch" list of the USTR's Special 301 report. If that does happen, let's hope Portugal follows Canada's lead, and treats the move with the contempt it deserves.

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Posted on Techdirt - 10 April 2017 @ 3:43am

India Learns The Hard Way That Equating Patents And Innovation Comes At A Price

from the bankrupt-ideas dept

Last December, we wrote about China reaching a rather questionable milestone: filing one million patents in a single year. As Techdirt has pointed out repeatedly, more patents do not equate to more innovation, so simply filing huge numbers of patents means very little in itself. The government of India has just found this out the hard way. As The Hindu reports, CSIR-Tech, the commercialization arm of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has had to shut down its operations. The reason? It's run out of money as a result of filing too many patents:

CSIR has filed more than 13,000 patents -- 4,500 in India and 8,800 abroad -- at a cost of ₹50 crore [about $7.7 million] over the last three years. Across years, that's a lot of taxpayers' money, which in turn means that the closing of CSIR-Tech is a tacit admission that its work has been an expensive mistake -- a mistake that we tax-paying citizens have paid for.

The Hindu explains that obtaining thousands of patents was not to protect innovative work, or even to boost licensing revenues. Instead, many scientists wanted to have a patent or two to their name in order to make their curriculum vitae look more impressive:

Recently, CSIR's Director-General Girish Sahni claimed that most of CSIR’s patents were "bio-data patents", filed solely to enhance the value of a scientist's resume and that the extensive expenditure of public funds spent in filing and maintaining patents was unviable. CSIR claims to have licensed a percentage of its patents, but has so far failed to show any revenue earned from the licences. This compulsive hoarding of patents has come at a huge cost. If CSIR-Tech was privately run, it would have been shut down long ago. Acquiring Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) comes out of our blind adherence to the idea of patenting as an index of innovation.

India's unfortunate experience is interesting because it shows how the erroneous view that patents are proof of innovation has led scientists to file applications for them purely out of vanity, with serious knock-on effects. Not only is there no evidence that the resulting patents were worth obtaining, but India's CSIR-Tech office has been forced to shut down as a direct result of applying for them.

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