Can We Stop a Canadian Copyright Disaster?

Unlike some of my friends, I rarely take any kind of significant interest in politics. I do a bit of research around elections to figure out who to vote for, and then generally leave matters to attend to themselves.

There is, however, one area of politics and law that is of great interest to me, and that is where it interacts with technology. Generally, Canada has had a fairly sensible approach to law and technology, but this may be changing due to pressure from the United States.

Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law.  Recently, he published this article, which suggests that the government may try to push through some rather disastrous reforms to Canadian copyright law without any public consultation at all, despite the outcry prompted by previous attempts.  This rather irritated me, so I actually followed the article’s suggestion, and wrote to Industry Minister Jim Prentice, Prime Minister Harper, and my local MP Bob Rae.  A version of that letter is included here.

I am writing this letter to express my grave concern over reports that new copyright reforms are going to be pushed through the House of Commons.  While (arguably) there is need for some degree of copyright reform, I am troubled by talk that the proposed reforms will mimic the draconian and useless elements of the United States copyright law, especially their Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has largely been a disaster and subject to much systematic abuse.

More specifically, however, I am deeply concerned by one particular element: anti-circumvention legislation.  However, I should first perhaps give a little background about myself, to give my arguments a degree of context.

I am currently a PhD Candidate in Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto.  During this degree, I have taken a course in Computer Security, and prior to this degree, my Masters degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland focussed on Cryptography and Security.  Thus, I have a deep understanding of the technological protection measures that might be covered under anti-circumvention legislation.

As an engineer (as well as an aspiring writer), intellectual property is my lifeblood.  I have great respect for copyright laws and the need for them, but not in the form suggested by the US DMCA.  Canada should be a leader in following fair copyright principles, as outlined by Michael Geist online.

But rather than simply rehash others’ arguments about the need to balance consumer rights against creator rights and corporate rights, I will instead share my own views (informed by my engineering education) on why anti-circumvention legislation is not only undesirable but potentially dangerous.

The gist of anti-circumvention legislation is that any circumvention of technological protection measures (TPMs) put in place by a content provider is a crime, as is sharing information on how to circumvent such measures.  This is deeply problematic.

From a purely academic point of view and speaking as a former security researcher, this means that no one is allowed to even try to circumvent TPMs, which is not conducive to making sure that such measures actually work.  It is a fundamental principle of security research that there is no “security through obscurity” – something is only secure if it is secure even when everything is known about it.  Thus, anti-circumvention legislation can have a chilling effect on legitimate scientific research.

Of course, TPMs are inherently flawed – giving people content secured with TPMs while also giving them the ability to view the content (however limited that ability may be) means that TPMs can never be secure.  No one has yet developed a TPM that can’t be circumvented, which is why corporations are pushing for anti-circumvention legislation, but this simply leads us to more pressing concerns about consumer rights and the law.

The purported purpose of using TPMs is to stop people from doing illegal things with the protected content.  As a side effect, it often also stops people doing legal things with the content that they own.  (For example, if I buy music from the iTunes music store, it will not work as-is on my RCA mp3 player, even though that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do with a digital copy of music I own, and is indeed the purpose of buying a digital copy.)

Of course, as I mentioned above, no one has actually produced a TPM that works completely.  They cannot stop illegal uses of the content.  Hence, the industry pushes to make circumventing the TPMs illegal.  This defies logic in two ways.  First, anyone circumventing a TPM to use the content illegally is, well, already doing something illegal – anti-circumvention legislation is not going to deter that, nor is it necessary to make an already-illegal act a crime.  Secondly, it makes circumventing TPMs for legitimate reasons illegal, criminalizing people for using content they own in a legal manner.

So, ultimately, TPMs do not stop illegal use of material, and anti-circumvention legislation only tries to make something already illegal illegal, as well as make something legal illegal.  It will criminalize consumers for using content they paid for in a manner consistent with and allowable under all reasonable interpretations of copyright law – including some of the proposed amendments and exemptions rumoured to be in the forthcoming legislation.

This is also problematic from a consumer rights view, as it gives the content producers control over how people use and access their purchases.  This is not only inconsistent with established views on what purchasing a song, or a book, or a movie actually means, but also introduces a whole host of problems.

Already there are numerous cases where content providers have arbitrarily decided to stop supporting a particular TPM, and thus left consumers with protected content unable to view it, such as the man who could no longer watch his Major League Baseball downloads.  Even if he breaks the TPM to watch the content he purchased legally, under anti-circumvention legislation he will still be committing an illegal act.  Even companies as large as Microsoft cannot be guaranteed to support their TPMs, and as older approaches are abandoned, users who paid for legal content are left out in the cold.

More recently, we have seen examples of NBC in the United States using a TPM (a broadcast flag) to prevent TV viewers from performing time-shifting and other legal activities.  The FCC attempt to make such a rule mandatory was defeated three years ago, but NBC and Microsoft have voluntarily implemented it anyway, and now it will be illegal for viewers to circumvent that flag to use content in ways they are explicitly allowed.

Of course, this is potentially just the tip of the iceberg, and illustrates how anti-circumvention legislation takes control of content they’ve purchased out of the consumers’ hands and puts it squarely in the hands of corporate interests.  Let us consider the ramifications of this as we look to the future.

Imagine that you record a home movie of your children, and decide to edit it in a program on a Windows computer.  Imagine that program automatically saves your edited video in a protected format.  Now imagine that you want to share the video with someone who uses a Mac or a Linux computer, one without a Microsoft-supported video player.  Even though you own the content, even though you created the content, it would be illegal for you to circumvent the TPM to share your video.

This, of course, could be extended to any kind of document you create, or whose data you own: business documents, medical records, the Great Canadian Novel you’re writing.  Enacting anti-circumvention legislation would give corporate interests the ability to lock you into their product with the use of TPMs, by making such circumvention illegal.

Now, one might argue that you can legislate against these scenarios, put in exceptions for certain other matters, or simply not enforce the law in such cases.  But a law meant to be selectively enforced isn’t much of a law, so isn’t it ultimately easier to not put anti-circumvention legislation into effect in the first place?  If it doesn’t stop illegal activity such as piracy (which, to reiterate, is already illegal), and it does make a multitude of legal activities suddenly illegal, and if it gives control of consumer-purchased content to corporations, wouldn’t it be better to avoid it entirely?

The only people who can argue at all for anti-circumvention legislation are large corporate interests, and that is simply because it gives them the legal tools needed to enforce a monopoly and hold their customers’ content hostage.

Now, there are a multitude of other concerns with any copyright reform, ranging from the chilling effect of takedown notices to online sites (which can “accidentally” be sent out to take down non-infringing but disagreeable content) to overly aggressive punitive damages for non-commercial infringement.

Thus, I urge to you flat-out reject any anti-circumvention legislation that is in the works, and to give serious and meaningful thought to and get public consultation on these other important copyright issues, in order to ensure Canada’s path forward is a bright an open one.

As you may have gathered from my lengthy missive, this sort of copyright reform is an issue I take great interest in.  Out of necessity, this letter was a little glib and a touch alarmist, but I plan to elaborate on these issues in future posts.  However, in the meantime, I encourage everyone to follow the suggestions in Geist’s article and contact the Industry Minister, the Prime Minister, and your local MP to express your desire for extensive and thorough public consultation on any and all proposed copyright reforms for Canada.

Little Brother Toronto Book Launch

Cory Doctorowwriter, blogger, and electronic rights activist — launched his latest novel Little Brother to a packed crowd at the Merril Collection in Toronto on the evening of Thursday, 01 May 2008. Conveniently, I was among that crowd, otherwise this would be a very short blog post.

Oddly enough, I first became familiar with Doctorow through a book on writing science fiction that he co-authored with Karl Schroeder nearly ten years ago. (I have a shelf full of writing books — I know they can’t teach me how to write, but I find it interesting to see the process other writers use, and to steal parts of their process to merge into my own. Reading such books also inspires me to get off my ass and write… for a while, at least.) Perhaps odder still, I haven’t actually read any of his novels to date, though I have enjoyed some of his short fiction.

My interest in Doctorow’s work has, to date, been mostly on the political side of things — specifically, his advocacy for electronic freedom. Through his posts on Boing Boing, and articles elsewhere, he put a spotlight on our electronic rights and freedoms, and the significance of that hit me as I worked on my Master’s research in cryptography. All of these things came together and birthed in me the sole political interest I have, in that mishmash of consumer rights, intellectual property, academic freedom, privacy, and electronic rights and freedoms. (I’m not even sure what to call it, as you can tell, but rest assured I’ll be writing more about it in the future.)

So, perhaps it’s fitting that the first Doctorow novel I’ve picked up is Little Brother, which is about many of those things. He described it as “1984 fan fiction” — the premise is that a bunch of teenagers use their technical knowhow to fight back against an oppressive government that goes too far in demonizing its own citizens all in the name of “security”. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel, and has some high praise from a lot of prominent authors adorning its cover. Hopefully I’ll get to read it soon myself, and see if all the praise is justified.What I can talk a bit more about now is the launch itself.

As I mentioned, it was rather packed. I arrived just as it was close to starting, and already the seats were mostly filled and people were standing around. The wonderful Bakka-Phoenix Books were there to sell copies, and apparently there were snacks too, though they were lost amid the sea of bodies.

Cory started the event by taking a few questions to warm up and let latecomers trickle in. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the questions seemed to be focussed on his activism rather than his writing, although for this book they are nearly the same subject. His answers were natural and well-spoken, which I suppose is also unsurprising given that such work had been his job for several years.

He then treated us to a reading of a chapter from the novel. (The same chapter is podcast here.) There were some laughs, some over-the-top deliveries, and enough action to make we want to move this book up in my “To Read” pile. He took some more questions at the end, and then there was signing of books. Having other things to do, I left after getting mine signed, but there was a long line behind me, and lots of people hanging out. By my estimation, it was a very successful launch, and another great event in the series on Foresight: Speculative Fiction in Canada.

A Writer’s Lament

Given the title, you might be surprised to see that this is not, in fact, another post about writing — at least, not directly. It is rather a ramble about the tools of the writer, better known in this day and age as software packages. This is true for all writers: technical writers, journalists, students, academics, novelists — and yes, even the poet who writes long-hand with a fountain pen in a Moleskine notebook will eventually type it up if he or she wants anyone else to see it.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, of a variety of different kinds. My novel, of course, has consumed a lot of my time, but I’ve also been working on an academic paper, a yearbook, and even a programming language specification. All of this different writing has gotten me thinking about the tools I use for each, how they’re different, and how I’d like for them to be the same.

These musings have been based around a few issues that I keep coming across.

  • When submitting fiction to publishers and editors, they usually want you to use standard manuscript format. I’m sure they have their reasons, but I find it hideous to look at. Though this hasn’t affected me personally — as I have yet to produce anything good enough to submit for publication — I’d like there to be an easy way for me to switch from my preferred format to manuscript format, without having to change the fonts and italics/underlining explicitly every time.
  • I want to be able to control my own data — the text I write should be available to me, even if I no longer use the program I wrote it in.
  • I want an easy way to generate output for different uses — such as going from two-column text for printing to single-column landscape display for screen reading.
  • I want something that is generally easy to use, but has all the functionality you might ever want.

Unfortunately, none of the tools I use regularly can satisfy all of these desires.
I’ve been writing my novel in Corel WordPerfect 12 (the current version is X3, which I assume means 13). It is my favourite word processor. All of my early instruction and word processor use was on Microsoft products, but in university I bought a copy of WordPerfect 8 because it was cheaper, and everything about it was just so much better and easier to use that I never used Word again, apart from single-page documents. (Even those documents were an exercise in frustration, actually.) The “Reveal Codes” feature is a godsend for debugging peculiar word processor behaviour, it has maintained the same file format ever since I’ve been using it, and it had built-in PDF export long before Microsoft ever did.

I’ve also used OpenOffice, and generally like it. A few aspects of how it works are kind of confusing, but that’s to be expected when using a new software package, and it is free, so I can forgive quite a lot. I very much like the use of the open standard file format, and had started to move my general word processing to OpenOffice because of this — but when the latest version kept crashing when I was starting my novel, I had to abandon that approach.

But all word processors have some major flaws. They suck at long and complex documents, and aren’t especially good at doing much beyond simple layout. If you throw in a ton of graphics, they all tend to slow to a crawl. And though many of them try, they aren’t very good at handling structured documents. Thus, for my Masters thesis and all of my academic writing these days, I use LaTeX.

LaTeX is a document preparation and typesetting system, and it excels at producing nice-looking structured documents, though it can do so much more. I use the MikTeX distribution for Windows, along with the free TeXnicCenter editor/IDE to produce my documents, though there are a multitude of other configurations and distributions you can use.

LaTeX separates the content of the document from its presentation, allowing you to enter the text and identify its structure and meaning with special commands. These special commands are then processed before the document is displayed — sometimes in several passes — so LaTeX is definitely not WYSIWYG. But it does mean that the same document can be reprocessed to produce vastly different kinds of outputs with just a few simple commands, and citations and references are automatically kept up-to-date.

There is a wealth of functionality available to LaTeX — but that is part of its problem. There is so much that you can do with LaTeX, but you are hardly aware of how to do any of it. If you are using standard kinds of output, and don’t need to modify anything at all, its fine, but once you get into customizing the output, things get real hairy, real fast. The extra effort and complication is well worth it for complex documents, but it still leaves something to be desired.

So the word processors are easy to use for entering text, and LaTeX is great for organizing and generating long documents.  Is it so much to ask for something that does both?

What I would like is an XML-based document system, with a nice word processor-style text entry editor, which would allow multiple views to be associated with the single document.  Perhaps at the top of the document window there might be a row of tabs — XML, Word, Manuscript, Slide, Print, and so on — that allow you to switch between the different views to see how your source text will look.  For each view, you can choose to print or output to some other file format.

Now, I’m given to understand that software used for producing huge technical documents has some of these capabilities.  The only existing example I’ve heard of is Adobe’s FrameMaker, but I’ve never had a chance to try it, and it costs a hojillion dollars anyway.  MadCap Software has a competitor in development, called Blaze, that looks promising too — but I’m sure that will also be rather pricey.

Hopefully something reasonable will come along soon, or I’ll get the stupid idea to try writing my own software to do all of this….

Novel Writing — So Far, So Good

So I’m two days into NaNoWriMo, and so far I’m on track with my personal goal of 2000 words per day. Meeting that goal, however, is taking longer than I anticipated.

Part of the problem is that I’m still trying to write something that isn’t terrible. This is, of course, a laudable objective, but when you have to write 2000 words per day in your spare time, it is one that must be sacrificed to placate the gods of quantity. I just have to keep reminding myself that I can fix it up and make it better later, and that no one but me has to see it in this state.

The other problem, of course, is that 2000 words is quite a lot to write in one sitting. I had planned to do it all in a row — a couple of hours, first thing every morning. But that hasn’t been working out so well thus far, so perhaps I’ll split my writing sessions in half — do a thousand words in the morning, and a thousand in the evening. I imagine I’ll wait a few more days to see if things become easier once I get into the habit.

On a related note, I had been intending to use Writer to compose my novel. I like the notion of the Open Document Format, which will help ensure that something will be able to open my novel file ten years down the road — even if I have to write my own software to do it. Thus, it was somewhat distressing to have it respond very sluggishly, and crash twice, taking a bit of text with it that I only managed to salvage by doing a print screen before killing the program. I don’t know whether this is the fault of this new version that I’m running (as the last version I used seemed quite stable and responsive), my computer itself (which has been kind of flaky lately), or the additional dictionaries that I installed, but all I do know is that when I went back to using Corel WordPerfect 12, that worked just fine.

On the topic of dictionaries, please allow me another mini-rant. When I installed this latest version of OpenOffice, being Canadian, I selected Canadian English as my language of choice. This would seem to be a pretty straightforward feature in a word processor, but apparently it is not, as once I started using the software, I noticed that the spell check did not work. After doing some digging online, I managed to find a suggestion to run a wizard to add new dictionaries, and was able to select Canadian, UK, and US English, and French and Canadian French — these being the language variants I might ever need to write something in. This did, indeed, get the spell check working, but I was rather put out that when selecting an alternate language as the default, the program did not:

  1. automatically install the necessary dictionaries;
  2. at least offer a warning that the spell check was not working because a dictionary was not installed;
  3. have an easier method of getting the dictionaries than launching some wizard that was actually what looked like a macro-laden document.

There was a warning that installing too many dictionaries might be problematic, but I’m not sure whether the five I selected count as too many. In any event, I’m rather irritated with OpenOffice, and won’t be using it again for a little while. (This is still good in contrast to the absolute loathing I have for Microsoft Word, which I do not use if there is any other option available to me. Even writing a single page letter in Word can be an exercise in frustration.) If WordPerfect manages to piss me off… well, I guess I’ll just use LaTeX, like I do for all my professional writing.