The high cost of low price: Wal-Mart’s website discrimination barely scratches the surface.

While I sympathize with Robert Accettura that discrimination of this sort against web browsers is objectionable (particularly when important services like disaster relief service forms only allow Microsoft Internet Explorer users), there are Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price movie postermany stronger reasons to object to Wal-Mart; we barely need to get into how their website won’t let Firefox users view movies.

  • Wal-Mart exploits their employees around the world with pay so low Wal-Mart almost gets the labor for free,
  • mom-and-pop shops can’t compete with Wal-Mart because of Wal-Mart’s unfair competition (partially due to worker exploitation, partially due to getting tax abatements and gifts from towns seeking a Wal-Mart store),
  • the biggest class action lawsuits in the US are suits against Wal-Mart. The current lawsuit alleges systematic discrimination against women employees, previous suits included workers getting locked in and not being paid for their full working hours,
  • Wal-Mart parking lots are notoriously unsafe places to be and Wal-Mart could make this significantly better at virtually no cost,
  • Wal-Mart employees give many orders of magnitude more money to charity than the Walton family yet employees make so much less than the Walton family (which is worth billions),
  • learn about how Wal-Mart ignores threats to ecology until they’re shamed into reacting.

None of these things are hard to find online, but Robert Greenwald’s documentary “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” documents it all quite well. A lot of people have neighbors who work at Wal-Mart and you can learn a lot about the Wal-Mart corporation by talking to them.

Joshua Frank lays out Democrat line on Iran

The American hypocrisy on nuclear weapons says that the US is allowed to have and build nuclear weapons, sell or give them to our wholly-owned subsidiary, Israel, but Iran (and probably every other country) cannot have nuclear weapons. America can’t bully those who already have nuclear weapons, hence the hypocrisy of how the US dealt with Iraq (invasion, occupation) versus North Korea (negotiation). Of course, it would be best to not have nuclear weapons at all, anywhere in the world. But the US cannot easily satisfy its imperial plans that way.

Joshua Frank lays out the Democratic line on Iran including a summary of three Democratic party candidates’ positions, Senators Clinton, Edwards, and Obama:

To put it bluntly, none of the front running Democrats are opposed to Bush’s dubious “war on terror” or his bullying of Iran. They support his aggression in principle but simply believe a Democratic presidency could handle the job more astutely. All put Israel first and none are going to fundamentally alter U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Times like these require bravery. They require a fight. A fight against immoral and illegal policies. A fight against tyranny. A fight for freedom. Freedom from hatred. Freedom from occupation. Americans and the people of the Middle East deserve better than Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama. They deserve to live their lives without the threat of warfare and bloodshed. They deserve to live without fear.

How is your proprietor treating you?: Steve Jobs tries to justify the whip.

“DVD Jon” Johansen’s DRM blogiPod+iTunes+DRM responds to the recently published Apple open letter (where Jobs tries to justify digital restrictions management and place Apple in the position of unwilling proprietor).

Steve Jobs tried to persuade you to believe that proprietors keep networks from being “gum[med] up”. Much credit for a more broad perspective on Apple’s DRM (called “FairPlay”) goes to the EFF’s Fred von Lohmann who reported in May 2004 that Apple wouldn’t remove FairPlay DRM if they could, and how this debunks the notion that Apple is not somehow pressed into DRM by the record labels. von Lohmann also warned us that with DRM-laden online music services the Customer is Always Wrong.

This also highlights just how much more naïve or greedy computer software/hardware and consumer electronics manufacturers are. They could have stood firm against DRM and given the RIAA/MPAA clients nowhere to go but to comply with the media we have enjoyed up to now (media that allows playing anywhere, re-recording into other media, and sharing without hassle). It’s up to us to show them that we won’t trade away our freedom for the latest addition to some music or movie library. DRM is always a bad choice.

Other topical posts on this blog include my take on Wil Wheaton’s view of Apple restoring his lost iTunes tracks.

Debunking MPAA’s claims: “Canadian camcords … have become a leading source of worldwide Internet film piracy”?

While hardly surprising that the MPAA misrepresents its own figures, claims losses that aren’t theirs, and tries to convince us fair use doesn’t exist (the last one courtesy of Jack Valenti, invited guest to the Roger Ebert movie festival a few years ago when he spoke in the Pine Lounge of the Illini Union), it’s good to have the details of their arguments debunked. Prof. Michael Geist debunks their latest PR—”Canadian camcords … have become a leading source of worldwide Internet film piracy” (referred to by Boing Boing).

Not surprisingly, none of these figures have been subject to independent audit or review. In fact, AT&T Labs, which conducted the last major public study on movie piracy in 2003, concluded that 77 percent of pirated movies actually originate from industry insiders and advance screener copies provided to movie reviewers.

Moreover, the industry’s numbers indicate that camcorded versions of DVDs strike only a fraction of the movies that are released each year. As of August 2006, the MPAA documented 179 camcorded movies as the source for infringing DVDs since 2004. During that time, its members released approximately 1400 movies, suggesting that approximately one in every ten movies is camcorded and sold as infringing DVDs. According to this data, Canadian sources are therefore responsible for camcorded DVD versions of about three percent of all MPAA member movies.

Second, the claims of economic harm associated with camcorded movies have been grossly exaggerated. The industry has suggested that of recently released movies on DVD, ninety percent can be sourced to camcording. This data is misleading not only because a small fraction of recently released movies are actually available on DVD, but also because the window of availability of the camcorded versions is very short. Counterfeiters invariably seek to improve the quality of their DVDs by dropping the camcorder versions as soon as the studios begin production of authentic DVDs (which provide the source for perfect copies).

The term “piracy” is a propaganda term. Copyright infringement has to do with exclusive power, so focusing on it might not clearly express what you’re getting at. If you want to focus on sharing instead, you should view copying and sharing as such, by name.

If you’re a copyright holder, don’t let the MPAA speak for you.

Internet Archive now makes Ogg Vorbis+Theora too!

When you use The Internet Archive to host your video files, it will offer to make derivative files in alternate formats. Recently, Ogg Vorbis+Theora was added to the list of formats IA will make for you.

This means you can get all sorts of videos in a format anyone can play anywhere using a variety of software without giving up your software freedom. The Ogg Vorbis+Theora files are encoded at roughly the same level of quality people have apparently accepted from Flash video. Higher quality files can be made and uploaded manually, hosted at the IA free of charge.

Thanks Internet Archive!

Why is UIUC supporting Blackboard?

An excellent framing of the debate around challenging Blackboard’s patent (local copies of the news announcement, patent re-examination request, and USPTO’s order for re-examination) which stifles educational software.

Date: Wed, 31 Jan 2007 18:27:28 -0600
From: Nathan Owens
To: cio@uiuc.edu
CC: provost@uiuc.edu
Subject: unethical practices by Blackboard

Dear CIO Kaufman,

A copy of this e-mail is being sent to the Provost.

I am writing to express my displeasure with UIUC’s support for Blackboard, the company from which UIUC purchases the software and services that run Illinois Compass.

As you may know, in 2006 Blackboard was granted a patent giving them exclusive rights over certain Internet-based educational support systems and methods. These methods include previously implemented and rather obvious procedures which allow students and teachers to communicate electronically. As such, Blackboard has little or no basis for holding their patent, and it is currently being challenged. Nevertheless, they have recently shown their willingness to defend that patent with a lawsuit against another educational company.

Few would disagree that student-teacher communication, regardless of the medium over which it is conducted, is a fundamental aspect of education. It therefore causes me some displeasure to know that by buying their products and services, UIUC has facilitated Blackboard’s financial capacity to proceed with an aggressive, antisocial, and ultimately destructive lawsuit. I strongly urge that both you and the University rethink your support for a company whose practices are so antithetical to the University’s mission.

Respectfully,
Nathan Owens
PhD candidate in French Linguistics

Update 2007-02-05: The University’s CIO replied.
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Verizon and Google: abusing their power

BoingBoing has the scoop:

Viacom did a general search on YouTube for any term related to any of its shows, and then spammed YouTube with 100,000 DMCA take-down notices alleging that all of these clips infringed its copyright and demanding that they be censored off the Internet. YouTube made thousands of clips vanish, and sent warning notices to the people who’d posted them, warning them that they were now on a list of potential copyright infringers and telling them that repeat offenses could lead to having their accounts terminated.

This is shockingly bad behaviour on the part of both Viacom and Google, YouTube’s owner.

US Government distributes PDF of 9/11 report with DRM

The 9/11 report is a US government work and therefore is uncopyrighted. It was born into the public domain and should remain there forever. You may deal in the document fully without any restriction due to copyright law.

Some bloggers (Techliberation.com, BoingBoing.net) noticed that the 9/11 report distributed from 9-11commission.gov has Digital Restrictions Management applied—copying a snippet of the report is disallowed in certain PDF readers (such as the Apple and Adobe proprietary PDF readers). Of course, you shouldn’t install proprietary software on your computer; you would use KPDF or some other free software PDF reader. KPDF lets you turn off the DRM in the application preferences, so you can read, print, and copy any part of any PDF document without hassle. It’s not hard to find or make an unencumbered copy of the report without DRM.

Whether the DRM can be circumvented (technically or legally) is a secondary issue here. DRM is inherently a bad idea and we don’t need it, corporate copyright holders have been arguing for it and are trying to convince you that you should want it too. Part of their argument tries to get you to see the world in the most restrictive way: any restriction we can technically impose on others is virtually self-justifying and hardly needs any debate. That state of affairs should not be seen as unavoidable, acceptable, or the default.

Did your proprietor pay the patent bill?

Bizjournals.com reports that

Alcatel-Lucent told a jury it is owed almost $2 billion for Microsoft Corp.’s use of the standard technology for playing music and audio files on a computer…If Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent wins, the way could be cleared for legal actions against the many other companies that rely on MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 technology, commonly called MP3.

To me, the important thing here isn’t whether Alcatel-Lucent wins or loses, it’s primarily that software patents exist, and as a more minor procedural matter that patent license fees can go unpaid without users knowing anything about the lack of payment until it’s too late. If you use Microsoft Windows (any version since Microsoft Windows 95), MacOS X, or most portable digital audio players, you have an MP3 player, perhaps also an MP3 encoder. MP3, unlike Ogg Vorbis which””functionally””does the same thing, is patent-encumbered. Had distributors focused on Ogg Vorbis, millions of users wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in right now, not knowing whether the proper patent fees have been paid.

As we know from Paul Heckel’s patent threat against Apple, patent holders can come after users too””you don’t need to distribute anything to infringe upon a patent. In the 1990′s, Heckel had a patent which does something so obscurely described in his patent application I can’t summarize it for you here. His lawyers told him that Apple’s Hypercard program was doing something that infringed upon his patent. So Heckel went to Apple and said as much. Apple wasn’t very impressed with this, so Heckel threatened Apple’s users. On page 109 of Richard Stallman’s book of collected essays (“Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman“) you’ll find a quote from his talk about software patents:

For instance, Paul Heckel””when Apple wasn’t very scared of his threats””threatened to start suing Apple’s customers. Apple found that very scary. They figured they couldn’t afford to have their customers being sued like that, even if they would ultimately win. So the users can get sued too, either as a way of attacking a developer or just as a way to squeeze money out of them on their own or to cause mayhem. All software developers and users are vulnerable.

Perhaps this case will serve as enough of a wake-up call to get people to at least look into using Ogg Vorbis instead of MP3.

Which means more to you: free speech or corporate secrecy?

Apple has been ordered to pay almost $700,000 (Ars Technica, MacNN) for the legal fees of the reporters it sued to find out who their confidential sources were.

There are lots of Apple users on the Progressive Left, people who claim to value freedom of speech for its own sake. I ask you: Is this the kind of behavior you should reward with your money? Is brand loyalty worth more to you than your freedom of speech?

It’s time to more critically examine at what Apple is doing; go beyond warm fuzzies you might get from their ads.

If you’re having a hard time seeing how this case works in your favor, imagine if Apple made something that mattered more (food, for instance) and was able to keep their industrial design descriptions locked up. The same power Apple tried to claim here is the power other corporations would claim tomorrow if they could. They’d be able to hide a number of problems that could adversely affect the health of everyone who ate that food or worked in that business. The more power you place in corporate hands, the more you need to know what corporations do, plan to do, and the more you realize you need democratic control over corporations.