Today’s DRM excuses can be tomorrow’s DRM nightmares

Engadget reports that Apple Computer chief Steve Jobs recently spoke about DRM (digital restrictions management):

Q: I bought the movie Up on DVD, it had a digital download. I put it on my iPad. I hooked up my VGA adapter and tried to play it… but I couldn’t because of HDCP. Can you tell me how you’re helping with this?

A: We didn’t invent this stuff…

Q: But you did deploy it…

A: Well the content creators are trying to protect this stuff, and they’re grabbing at straws. Sometimes they grab the right ones, and sometimes they don’t. If we want access to this stuff, we have to play by some of their rules. I feel your pain.

So for proprietors it’s okay to deflect blame for restricting users from fully controlling their computers and simultaneously profit in restricting the users. Apple is big when it suits them (I’m sure they want consumers to believe they are the pre-eminent vehicle for delivering movies and music) and small and helpless against the publishers when it suits them (“We didn’t invent this stuff….”). This attitude rewards those who restrict and does nothing to help users who want to watch their legally obtained copies of movies as they see fit (dare one want to see a movie on a non-approved screen!).

This attitude is bad in itself, but not life threatening. As it applies to watching movies, this DRM is more annoying than anything else because there are plenty of free software movie players (like VLC) that will happily show you a movie on any device you like ignoring DRM that would otherwise get in your way; you can simply choose those programs instead of the proprietary stuff and go about enjoying a little bit more control over your life.

But what if DRM is in a device you need to live, like a heart pacemaker/defibrillator to monitor and regulate your heartbeats? Nowadays these devices are digital and run on software—software you aren’t privy to inspect, change, or share. Some of them are even set up so the software they run on can be altered remotely. Remote administration is sold on convenience, like proprietary traps usually are: A trained physician puts you within radio distance of a device that alters the pacemaker/defibrillator’s settings entirely wirelessly—no surgery or injection after the initial installation!

Remote control is a convenience you might be willing to accept for your garage and car door. But regulating a critical function in your body? This doesn’t sound so good when you consider the ramifications for a device you depend on in order to live. Brad Kuhn and Karen Sandler, co-hosts of the Software Freedom Law Show, recently discussed this problem. Sandler looked into these devices because she has a enlarged heart. The size of her heart increases her risk of sudden death. She has a pacemaker/defibrillator implanted inside her (it mostly monitors her heart but it could shock her heart to keep her alive). Sandler did research on these devices and learned some of the scary facts about them. She said that not only is patient information is carried in some of these devices which can be retrieved remotely without the user’s consent or knowledge, but she also learned that a similar device’s operation was altered without using the original manufacturer’s hardware. Knowing the risks of remote administration, she chose an older model which requires close contact with the device to be adjusted or interrogated. But most patients are not so well-versed in the consequences of choosing a modern medical implant; they’ll pick one which can be adjusted from a distance using something available to everyone (such as software defined radio, like GNU Radio).

What if manufacturers use DRM to restrict who can administer the implanted device? Why should anyone have to surrender control over their body in this way?

We need software freedom for medical devices. There are compelling ethical reasons we need software freedom for all published software (well-covered ground by the free software movement) but also because our lives could be at stake. Whether you choose to learn, alter, or share this software should be up to you as well.

Update 2010-07-21: SFLC publishes their report on “Safety Benefits of Free and Open Source Software in Critical Technology“. More on this report can be found on their site.

The Sleeping Left: Obama feeds them reasons to object, where’s the outrage?

The Iraq and Afghanistan occupations rage on with no national marches in the US in sight, even while a majority of students are available to participate on summer holiday. In Afghanistan the Obama drone attacks kill civilians a third of the time. On top of all this, “the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally” according to Obama administration’s first National Security Strategy just like what George W. Bush’s administration said. But apparently there’s no time to organize a national protest in a major city, something akin to protesting the Iraq invasion before it began.

The gusher of oil coming out of the Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico is officially the worst oil spill in US history. It’s not hyperbole to call it a gusher. Images from the live camera feed tell the tale.

Obama’s limited moratorium on deepwater drilling doesn’t seem to cover BP’s next oil rig named “Atlantis” from going online soon. Atlantis is said to have 5X more oil than “Horizon”, the rig which blew up and is currently leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico apparently out of control. Atlantis will produce 8.4 million gallons of oil per day. And we know how well BP handles problems: BP is actively damaging recovery efforts by preventing cleanup workers from wearing respirators and ignoring cleanup workers complaints of illness. The wise thing to do is stop all of BP’s rigs since BP refuses to do their work safely. Lawmakers should pass laws that make BP pay 100% of recovery effort costs (yes, despite BP saying they intend to clean up “every drop” of oil from the Gulf’s shores). Strong punitive laws keeps corporate power in check. BP was running Horizon without a remote control shut-off switch used in two other major oil-producing nations, Brazil and Norway, as a last resort protection against underwater spills. The Wall Street Journal points out that American law doesn’t require this switch. Regardless of the efficacy of the switch, you can’t engage an uninstalled failsafe device.

Lax enforcement of extant regulations helped get us to where we are now with Horizon, apparently leading to the deaths of 11 oil rig workers when Horizon exploded. According to McClatchy newspapers, following on are BP’s inadequate responses and inadequate training of personnel tasked with cleaning up their own oil spill. What are the odds that Atlantis received similarly shoddy setup inspection work? What systemic incentive does BP have to train Atlantis personnel better than they apparently trained Horizon personnel?

Yet there’s no large-scale organized outcry from the Left.

Update: Others are noticing how the Left gives Obama a pass on environmental degradation.

Update: The New York Times reports that BP knew of the Horizon’s problems almost a year ago. The NYT says federal regulators only required under 10 minutes to approve BP’s request.

FSF taking the high road again: GNU Go on the Apple “App Store”

Apple is currently distributing an electronic version of the centuries-old board game “Go” called GNU Go. GNU Go’s copyright holder is the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and part of the GNU operating system. GNU Go is licensed to everyone under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Apple imposes numerous restrictions on program use and distribution on all programs distributed via the Apple App Store. These restrictions are incompatible with the GPL; if one cannot simultaneously comply with all of the GPL’s terms and other relevant terms one cannot distribute their program based on GPL-covered code at all (paraphrasing section 7 of GPL version 2 and section 12 of GPL version 3). This makes Apple a copyright infringer. The developers who ported GNU Go to work with the iPhone are infringing the GPL as well, but Apple is the higher profile distributor here and Apple has a commercial interest in attracting more users to the iPhone.

The FSF isn’t starting the discussion with their legal guns drawn like so many copyright holders represented by the Business Software Alliance, Motion Picture Association, and Recording Industry Association of America do. The FSF takes the high road by initially seeking compliance with their license rather than initially suing. In fact, the only unusual note in this situation is that the FSF informed people about this infringement publicly so soon (typically they privately inform the parties involved about the relevant license terms).

The FSF has a history of taking the high road with copyright infringers. This is another example of how the FSF shows us how to behave by demonstrating the right behavior.

But doesn’t the FSF stand to benefit by taking an infringer to court and making an example of them? No. Take it from Eben Moglen, long-time GPL enforcer and president of the Software Freedom Law Center in his essays on enforcing the GPL:

If I had used the courts to enforce the GPL years ago, Microsoft’s whispering would now be falling on deaf ears. Just this month I have been working on a couple of moderately sticky situations. “Look,” I say, “at how many people all over the world are pressuring me to enforce the GPL in court, just to prove I can. I really need to make an example of someone. Would you like to volunteer?”

Someday someone will. But that someone’s customers are going to go elsewhere, talented technologists who don’t want their own reputations associated with such an enterprise will quit, and bad publicity will smother them. And that’s all before we even walk into court. The first person who tries it will certainly wish he hadn’t. Our way of doing law has been as unusual as our way of doing software, but that’s just the point. Free software matters because it turns out that the different way is the right way after all.Eben Moglen

“Sintel” coming soon

The Blender Foundation, primary hackers of Blender, a free software non-linear video editor and 3D renderer, have been working on a new short movie called “Sintel”.

Visit their blog for more details (including licensing) or download other versions of the trailer:

This trailer is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Read John Pilger’s acceptance lecture and his analysis of President Obama

In November 2009 Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger received the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize at a ceremony at the Sydney Opera House. In a lecture as worth watching as Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Pilger points out an uncomfortable truth about the American president:

It doesn’t matter who is president ”“ George Bush or Barack Obama. Indeed, Obama has stepped up Bush’s wars and started his own war in Pakistan. Like Bush, he is threatening Iran, a country Hillary Clinton said she was prepared to “annihilate”. Iran’s crime is its independence. Having thrown out America’s favourite dictator, the Shah, Iran is the only resource-rich Muslim country beyond American control. It doesn’t occupy anyone else’s land and hasn’t attacked any country – unlike Israel, which is nuclear-armed and dominates and divides the Middle East on America’s behalf.

In Australia, we are not told this. It’s taboo. Instead, we dutifully celebrate the illusion of Obama, the global celebrity, the marketing dream. Like Calvin Klein, brand Obama offers the riske thrill of a new image attractive to liberal sensibilities, if not to the Afghan children he bombs.

This is modern propaganda in action, using a kind of reverse racism ”“ the same way it deploys gender and class as seductive tools. In Barack Obama’s case, what matters is not his race or his fine words, but the class and power he serves.

John Pilger

Pilger’s article on Obama as brand and the success with which the American people were led to believe Obama would oppose Bush’s policies reminds us that

In his first 100 days, Obama has excused torture, opposed habeas corpus and demanded more secret government. He has kept Bush’s gulag intact and at least 17,000 prisoners beyond the reach of justice. On 24 April, his lawyers won an appeal that ruled Guantanamo Bay prisoners were not “persons”, and therefore had no right not to be tortured. His national intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, says he believes torture works. One of his senior US intelligence officials in Latin America is accused of covering up the torture of an American nun in Guatemala in 1989; another is a Pinochet apologist. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, the US experienced a military coup under Bush, whose secretary of “defence”, Robert Gates, along with the same warmaking officials, has been retained by Obama.

John Pilger

Why has the liberal left who supported Obama ceded the streets to the Tea Party? What happened to groups like “United for Peace and Justice” organizing millions in the streets of major US cities?

Patent Absurdity: A short movie on the problems of patents covering algorithms used in software

Patent Absurdity explores the case of software patents and the history of judicial activism that led to their rise, and the harm being done to software developers and the wider economy. The film is based on a series of interviews conducted during the Supreme Court’s review of in re Bilski — a case that could have profound implications for the patenting of software. The Court’s decision is due soon.

You can also download the movie from multiple sources (, The Internet Archive, or locally using the links below) and share it with others because this movie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


More in-depth

Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement and one of the speakers in the movie, has been talking about the dangers of software patents for many years. Listen to or download his talk from 2002 or read the transcript of this talk which includes pointers to more information about various points in Stallman’s talk. This talk is interesting because Stallman systematically explains how software patents are harmful to all computer users (Paul Heckel’s threats to Apple and Apple’s response is quite instructive), 3 strategies for dealing with software patents, and the multiple perversites of the patent process.

Stop Software Patents is documenting the case against software patents worldwide.

Frontline’s “Obama’s Deal” doesn’t explain what HMOs fear most

I watched PBS’ “Frontline” called “Obama’s Deal” which attempts to explain the behind-the-scenes machinations that produced an HMO-written American health care plan which essentially forces Americans to purchase a health care insurance package from an HMOs. But I didn’t see any clear examination of what the HMOs were fighting against. Frontline’s report mentioned a little about a “public option” (the details of which were unclear)—a government-funded health care plan. But I knew there was more to it than that.

HR676, Medicare for all, is a long-standing bill which would get the US a larger single-payer health care plan that would cut out the HMOs entirely. This bill is short and easily read in an afternoon. A clear explanation of what this bill says would help audiences understand more of the pressure the HMOs are facing.

Polls of the American people have long indicated what CBS and CNN’s polls indicated in 2007: Americans want universal health care even if it costs more in taxes to get it. A clear explanation of the implications of this for HMOs would have framed the debate around health care more clearly as well.

But Frontline viewers didn’t get any cogent explanations of either HR676 or poll results. Instead Frontline viewers got what commercially-sponsored media is designed to give—mischaracterizations that divert attention away from what its’ sponsors fear.

Dr. Margaret Flowers, M.D. was one of the protesters in Sen. Max Baucus’ hearings in which single-payer advocates were purposefully left out and HMO corporations were overrepresented. Dr. Flowers wrote an article about “Obama’s Deal” in which she explains how and why, as she says, “The producers at Frontline carefully cut single payer out of the film”:

When the host, Mr. Kirk, interviewed me for “Obama’s Deal,” we spoke extensively of the single payer movement and my arrest with other single payer advocates in the Senate Finance Committee last May. However, our action in Senate Finance was then misidentified as “those on the left” who led a “counterattack” because of “liberal outrage” at being excluded. This occurred despite an email exchange following the release of the preview in which I specifically requested that the producers identify that we are a nonpartisan group fighting for single payer: a health reform model based on evidence of what is effective here and abroad and on health policy principles. This mischaracterization unfortunately mirrors the way in which the health industry has portrayed the single payer movement (verified by Wendell Potter, a former Cigna executive).

Dr. Margaret Flowers, M.D.

Update 2010-04-25: More on this from FAIR.

Michael Moore’s unjustified anger at Ralph Nader

On March 25, 2010 famous documentarian Michael Moore appeared on Democracy Now! (video, audio, transcript) and spoke about how disappointed he was in President Obama’s health care reform (which he got largely right: pushing people into buying health care insurance from HMOs is a strong victory for capitalism; I’d have also pointed out the bailout aspect of it and how insurance is the wrong model for delivering health care because it’s not something we rarely need like fire or flood insurance but I’m not finding fault with what Moore said here) and how the US sorely needs universal single-payer (Moore has backed HR676—Medicare for all—in the past).

But when Amy Goodman asked him about his appearance on Bill Maher’s program where he got on his knee to beg Ralph Nader not to run for President, he did not justify anything he leveled at Ralph Nader:

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, do you still feel the same way? You and Ralph Nader pretty much agree on a lot of things.

MICHAEL MOORE: I have this basic position about Ralph. I’ve known him for many, many years. He has done so much good for this country. People are alive as a result of the things that he worked on over the years. I also believe that he doesn’t really have a handle on what the proper strategy is to get this country in our hands. And, you know, unlike Ralph, I guess maybe I’m not in this for just to say it so I can hear myself talk or to be some””or to take some poser position. And I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh, but I don’t see him ever working with the grassroots or with the people or being in touch with the people in any way, shape or form.

And so, I just””I think that””I mean, what I’ve proposed for the last few years is that if we really want to try and get this power in our hands, in the people’s hands, in the hands of the working people of this country, then we should, on a very grassroots level, from the bottom up, be doing things to””whether it’s running for local office, taking over the local Democratic Party. The game is rigged in America when it comes to third parties. There’s no way that that’s ever going to work. And so, then how””instead of letting the game, I guess, rig us, what can we do to the game itself? And if the game is, well, we have these two political parties which are really very much like one party, why don’t we make sure that one of those parties actually is a second party and start locally and do that? And that’s what I encourage people to do. That’s my approach.

Ralph’s approach is, put his name on the ballot and run for office. Where are we as a result of that? I don’t””you know, I don’t see us anywhere other than in the same pitiful state we’ve been in for some time.

I don’t take his criticism about Nader not working with the people seriously because Moore doesn’t explain how he arrived at this conclusion and because Nader’s policies sound like people-focused policies to me: end the two major occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, pass single-payer universal healthcare, and stop invading other countries to name a few. I’d like to hear Moore explain exactly how running for US President is an improper strategy for increasing public participation in power. Shouldn’t we fault Democrats for doing exactly that?

I’m currently reading “Grand Illusion” by Theresa Amato, Nader’s former campaign manager (at least twice in 2000 and 2004), where she gives a remarkably detailed accounting of the challenges third parties and independent candidates face just to be heard alongside the colluding Democrats and Republicans. She writes very clearly and critiques the situation facing the nation from the position of fairness and what’s in the best interest of the citizen. She details the vindictive litigation, the double standards, and all the other barriers the two major parties use against Nader’s campaign, schemes which adversely affect anyone else’s chances to run and be taken on their merits. I guess I had become used to such explication when I heard Moore on DN! and expected better from him.

There ought to be room for more than one “approach” and more than two candidates from more than two parties (whom even Moore seems to admit are too similar). I’m not disappointed in Obama because I didn’t expect better from him. The way the corporate media kept talking about him told me that he had been vetted by the major donor corporations and come out favorably—Obama’s campaign was a sound investment that would return many times its worth in money, opportunity, and power. I expected that Moore, while caving to the Democratic Party which helps rig elections against third parties and independents, would at least recognize that Nader’s candidacies give Nader supporters someone with an enviable political record to vote for (as opposed to not voting for president at all). Joining one’s oppressor is not how one fights. Clear, continuing, and repeated opposition is how one fights.

Moore really is a Democrat who takes on all of that party’s values on election fairness—”The game is rigged in America when it comes to third parties. There’s no way that that’s ever going to work.” is encouraging capituation. We know how the Democrats will marginalize someone who isn’t a proper corporatist. Look how they treat Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). He ran for President twice and both times made Medicare for All his health care plan. He gets shafted in so-called “debate” time and his fight for single-payer universal health care goes either unmentioned or ridiculed, despite that the country has long supported it (even if it means paying more in taxes in a country that already pays more per capita for healthcare than any other country and doesn’t cover everyone). Corporate rule is how Obama became “electable”.

At least I know I’m not the only one to react against Moore’s unjustified screed.