What happens when rich, poor, and middle-class countries get together to agree on future IP regulation? If your answer was anything but “gridlock,” you’re an incurable optimist.
Last week’s WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) meeting was supposed to mark an important step forward for the WIPO Development Agenda, but instead left it standing in place. The Development Agenda began in 2004 when Brazil and Argentina introduced a proposal for future WIPO regulation that would make WIPO into something more than the international IP police. Future WIPO decisions would be guided by this Development Agenda, which seeks a balance between copyright holders and the public, especially in developing countries where access to IP (think patented drugs, for instance) is a huge concern. The Agenda would also make WIPO into more of a development body by directing the organization to provide technical assistance for developing countries.
WIPO agreed to adopt a Development Agenda and held three meetings on the topic last year. What emerged was a set of 111 proposals (PDF) grouped into six categories. Last week’s meeting of the Provisional Committee on Proposals for a Development Agenda (PCDA) was supposed to come up with a recommended list of proposals to present to the WIPO General Assembly in September. Coming up with proposals is simpler than agreeing on them, though, and the meeting ended up with little consensus on the most important issues.
The EFF attended the meetings and has posted both notes and transcripts on their web site (day one, day two, and day three). Progress was impossible, as the group could not even decide how to evaluate the proposals. On the last day, Brazil and Argentina both announced their withdrawal from the meeting due to concerns that the method of selecting proposals for recommendation had been unfair and that most of their core concerns had not been included. In the end, the PCDA punted, sending the matter back to the WIPO General Assembly.
Depending on what proposals are ultimately passed, the Development Agenda could have a significant impact on issues such as health care and the public domain in countries across the globe. It could also ensure that countries have some leeway in passing their own IP laws, rather than following WIPO decisions in lockstep. Finally, the Agenda would put much more emphasis on technology transfer and technical assistance designed to benefit up-and-coming countries who want to compete in the knowledge economy.
Whether the full General Assembly can come to more consensus than the PCDA remains to be seen. The September meeting will no doubt be contentious, as the EU and the US wield so much power and oppose many of the projected changes.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer just had a chat with Blake Ross of the Firefox team, talking over points such as the project’s success and how Microsoft motivated the whole project. Blake says that Microsoft’s lack of browser innovation in the absence of decent competition makes him “furious,” and that the Google tie-in is based more on the search engine’s quality than on any marketing agreement.
But while it’s a good read, the interview is short on future direction. Let’s take a look at the published plans to see what’s coming up in the next couple of major Firefox releases.
First, there’s Bon Echo, aka Firefox 2.0. We have reported on that version’s progress a few times already, so let me just point out a few corrections and changes to the earlier plans. It has been said that Windows ME support would be dropped, but apparently not in Bon Echo. The “priority 1” platform support list includes Windows Vista/XP/2000/ME (but not 98), as well as Mac OS X 10.2 and up, and Red Hat Linux (no specific version). Other Linux versions are P2, meaning they will probably be supported but there are no guarantees.
Support for themed or branded builds is high on the wish list, indicating a desire to branch out to more distribution partners. Some functions currently handled by elective extensions, such as session resume after restarts and crashes, or on-demand spell check functions, are slated for inclusion. Syndication feed handling needs more work, as does the fit-and-finish of the overall application interface. The stated goal is to make Firefox look and feel like a native application across Windows, OS X, and Gnome environments.
Otherwise, not much seems to be changing. There are no major code overhauls here, and a greater focus on bugfixing than on performance improvement. In addition, the new database version of the bookmark and history systems have been shelved for now. That system and overall performance improvements are scheduled for Firefox 3 at this point, along with greater standards compliance, better security, and i18n internationalization support.
In general, it looks like Firefox 2 is a spit-and-polish job, designed to look and feel as professional as possible, and leaving the really big changes for the next major release. Along with the marketing-friendly branding feature and the “sizable chunk of revenue” the Mozilla project has amassed from search engine deals and the like, I think I can smell a nice, big marketing push alongside the final release of Bon Echo. Will we all be sick of Firefox TV commercials soon?
Music industry lawsuits: they’re not just for the West anymore. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the international body charged with protecting music labels, has announced its plan to sue Yahoo China within the next couple of weeks over the search engine’s alleged links to sites hosting pirated music.
Similar action was also taken last year against the leading Chinese search engine, Baidu.com. The IFPI’s threats are based on the claim that it is illegal to link to illicit material, a claim bolstered by a new Chinese law. Bloomberg has the details:
The federation is also considering using a new Chinese law that came into effect July 1 that fines distributors of illegally copied music, movies and other material over the Internet as much as 100,000 yuan ($12,500). As of today, Chinese search engines operated by Yahoo China and Baidu.com provide links to other Web sites hosting illegally copied songs.
The law says a Web site is jointly liable with the host of the pirated files for infringement “if it knows or should know that the work, performance or sound or video recording linked to was infringing.”
Though the explicit threat of a lawsuit is something new, IFPI chief John Kennedy used a May speech in Shanghai to indicate that his organization was prepared to take on more Chinese search engines over the issue of piracy.
It is clear that the ISPs are far from adequately supporting us today. I have been very disappointed in recent months to see some well-known brand names among the internet companies blatantly infringing our members’ rights. Baidu has already been found guilty of copyright infringement in the Chinese courts; China-Yahoo is now in a similar position, choosing to turn a blind eye to the infringements taking place on its service instead of setting the example of responsible practice which we would expect from them. We are watching China-Yahoo closely and will have no hesitating in acting to protect our members’ rights if we should have to.
Though such a lawsuit would hassle Yahoo China (not actually run by Yahoo, but by Chinese operator Alibaba.com.cn), the more interesting aspect to this story is what the recent legal cases say about China. The country has not always been a role model for the rule of law, nor has it always appeared interested in fighting piracy. The situation got so bad that the US threatened to go to the WTO and seek sanctions, but China has recently been saying and doing all the right things. The IFPI suits indicate the entertainment industry’s belief that legal threats now mean something in China, and that the Chinese market is poised for enough growth to make the legal effort worthwhile.
Such moves, coupled with statements from Beijing about the need for China to get serious about enforcement, suggest that the Chinese IP free-for-all may be slowly winding down. With piracy rates for music and software still hovering at 90 percent, substantial change will come slowly, but there’s little doubt that it’s on the way.
July 4th approaches, traditionally the time the US celebrates throwing off the shackles of English Imperialism, with the consumption of large quantities of alcohol and the combustion of large quantities of explosives. However, not everyone is hoping for a big bang. NASA had been planning to return the space shuttle into the skies, and explosions are definitely not on the agenda.
The space shuttle Discovery has sat on the launchpad in Florida for several days now, waiting for the all-clear signal, but first weather, and now safety inspections have been raising red flags. The problem remains the insulation on the large fuel tank that contains the liquid oxygen and hydrogen that fuels the shuttle's main engines. The tank is covered with insulation foam, and bits of this foam can fall off, damaging the orbiter on the way down. Such damage was responsible for the loss of the shuttle Columbia three years ago.
The launch was planned for tomorrow, July 4th, but NASA are meeting today to determine whether or not it is safe to proceed. There are also concerns over whether the repeated draining and filling of the tank is causing flexing that might be the cause of the cracks.
NASA isn't just worried about foam debris. Cape Canaveral is also home to lots of vultures, who feast on the roadkill that results from all the interested visitors. When a 1 kg chunk of foam can result in the loss of an orbiter, a bird strike involving a vulture weighing three times that is a serious problem. As a result, NASA have set a trap several miles away to keep the vultures clear of the launch site. The birds will be released once Discovery is on its way.
When I think of lasers, I think of precision optical devices that take hours of careful alignment to optimize. The reason for this is that stimulated emission is usually much weaker than spontaneous emission and without all the feedback created by carefully placed high reflectivity mirrors there would be no laser. This description, while accurate, ignores the overall physics behind the laser, which is best seen when looking at random lasers.
Random lasers have been around for a few years now and a recent article in Journal of Applied Physics has given me an excuse to write about them. Instead of creating your laser from a nice optically transparent medium surrounded by mirrors, you have simply blast a powder with energy, causing the particles to glow. The trick is that each particle in the powder will reflect light in all sorts of directions and between certain pairs of particles there will exist a path for the light to travel back and forth as though the particles were mirrors. Between the two "mirrors" the light will travel along a complex, narrow path that is much greater than the straight line distance between the two. Thus, in contrast to a conventional laser, where a large volume of material must be excited, only a few atoms take part in the laser process so it is relatively easy to get those atoms in the correct state to lase. Since all the atoms are ready to lase, the mirrors at the end points don't need to be all that good. The best thing is that in any powder this occurs for huge numbers of particles so you end up with more than one laser. This paper uses zinc oxide embedded in a polymer matrix, which holds the powder in a fixed formation, making it much easier to work with. Zinc oxide, when sufficiently excited, lases in the ultraviolet region, where normal semiconductor lasers will not operate. Zinc oxide also has the potential, through some trickery using nonlinear optics, to produce a huge range of colors from the ultra violet out to the mid infrared – a spectroscopist's wet dream.
These laser sources are the very antithesis of normal laser development. No care in construction is required and the system is incredibly robust. If you shake the thing up and down a bit – something that will cause an ordinary laser to hemorrhage – all you get is a group of new lasers. Of course, since the laser is random, no one really knows in which direction it will emit. Since only a few particles make up each laser, the power doesn't really scale to very large numbers. However, this isn't so bad since many laser applications don't require high power but would benefit from reduced cost. The biggest problem, however, is getting these things started. At present a huge pulsed laser, the likes of which would not fit in your CD player is required, which is kind of a problem for those thinking about monolithic applications.