Copyright hell: larrakins and astrologers

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

People who support a reasonable balance between encouraging creation of artistic works by allowing creators to profit from them, and the interests of wider society in benefiting from the free availability of creative works (or even of facts) aren’t having a good day.

Larrikin vs Australian Music

Skud has covered this over at Save Aussie Music:

Today EMI Australia lost their High Court appeal against Larrikin Music in the Kookaburra/Land Down Under case…

Leaving aside the problems with the copyright system, let’s just take a moment to look at Larrikin, the folk music label that holds the rights to “Kookaburra”. Larrikin was founded in 1974 by Warren Fahey, and sold to Festival Records in 1995. Festival, owned by Murdoch, was shut down and its assets sold to Warner Music Australia in 2005, for a mere $12 million.

Larrikin was home to a number of Australian artists, among them Kev Carmody, Eric Bogle, and Redgum

Kev Carmody, one of Australia’s foremost indigenous musicians, released four albums on Larrikin and Festival between 1988 and 1995, none of which are available on iTunes nor readily available as CDs (based on a search of online retailers). …

Warner bought Larrikin Records’ assets — two decades of Australian music — not because they want to share the music with the public, but to bolster their intellectual property portfolio, in the hope that one day they’ll be able to sue someone for using a riff or a line of lyrics that sounds somewhat like something Redgum or Kev Carmody once wrote. They do this at the expense of Australian music, history, and culture.

Lauredhel covered the case earlier at Hoyden too, focussing on whether the claim of infringement stands up to a legal layperson’s listen test and musical analysis: You better run, you better take cover.

Astrologers versus software creators and users

Have you ever selected your timezone from a list which lists them like this: “Australia/Sydney”, “Europe/London”? Then you’ve used the zoneinfo database.

Timezones are complicated. You can’t work out what timezone someone is in based purely on their longitude, have a look at this map to see why. Timezones are highly dependent on political boundaries. On top of that, daylight savings transitions are all over the map (as it were). Some countries transition in an unpredictable fashion set by their legislature each year. Sometimes a sufficiently large event (such as the Sydney Olympics in 2000) causes a local daylight savings transition to happen earlier or later than that government’s usually predictable algorithm.

Therefore computer programs rely heavily on having a giant lookup table of timezones and daylight saving transitions. Data is needed both for the present, so that your clock can be updated, and for the past, so that the time of events ranging from blog entries to bank transactions can be correctly reported.

A great deal of software, including almost all open source software, relies on the freely available database variously called the tz database, the zoneinfo database or the Olson database.

Arthur David Olson (the “Olson” in “Olson database”) announced yesterday:

A civil suit was filed on September 30 in federal court in Boston; I’m a defendant; the case involves the time zone database.

The ftp server at has been shut down.

The mailing list will be shut down after this message.

The basis of the suit is that the zoneinfo database credits The American Atlas as a source of data, and The American Atlas has been purchased by astrology company Astrolabe Inc, who assert that the use of the data is an infringement of their copyright. Whether this is true is apparently highly arguable (in the US it seems to hinge on whether it’s a list of facts, which aren’t copyrightable) but in the meantime the central distribution point of the data is gone. And it could be a long meantime.

Now, people still have copies of the database (if you run Linux you probably do yourself). However, the source of updates has been removed, which means it will be out of date within a few weeks, and the community that created the updates has been fractured. Various people are doing various things, including a defence fund, a fork of the mailing list, and discussions about re-creating or resurrecting the data in other places. All a great waste of many creative people’s time and money, gain to society from Astrolabe’s action yet to be shown.

More information:

Update (Oct 17): ICANN takes over zoneinfo database

On 14th October the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages key Internet resources (notably, the global pool of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses) on behalf of the US government, put out a press release (PDF) announcing that they were taking over the zoneinfo database:

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) today took over operation of an Internet Time Zone Database that is used by a number of major computer systems.

ICANN agreed to manage the database after receiving a request from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

The database contains time zone code and data that computer programs and operating systems such as Unix, Linux, Java, and Oracle rely on to determine the correct time for a given location. Modifications to the database occur frequently throughout the year…

“The Time Zone Database provides an essential service on the Internet and keeping it operational falls within ICANN’s mission of maintaining a stable and dependable Internet,” said Akram Atallah, ICANN’s Chief Operating Officer.

I wonder if ICANN’s not-for-profit status is useful here. Just as Project Gutenberg can make United States public domain texts available globally, even though texts published prior to 1923 are not public domain world-wide, ICANN may present a less tempting target for lawsuits than other possible homes for the zoneinfo database.

Sunday Spam: scrambled eggs and pesto

I have Instapaper now! Which means I read more stuff. Which means that every so often I will share things with you. On Sundays, sometimes.

This week is biased towards American stuff, because Instapaper’s Browse page tends towards longer stuff from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and so on.

On the Overton window : Thoughts from Kansas

This is one post in a series of discussions among skeptics about whether they should apply skepticism to evaluating their own outreach (see Skepticism means caring about evidence for the main thrust of that). This is an interesting side-note, which is that the Overton window, which is often cited casually by at least some of my activist friends, is not actually a very rigorous or reliable phenomena. (The idea of the Overton window is that the existence of radical voices helps establish a moderate version of the radical’s position by including that radical position in the window of visible opinion.)

Domestic aviation and a carbon price

Robert Merkel sketches out some sums suggesting that on various models, pricing carbon and other climate effects into Australian domestic air travel still makes flying cheaper than high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne.

Can the Middle Class Be Saved?

Don Peck in The Atlantic on the growing gap between the upper-middle (or “professional middle”) and upper-class of Americans (the top 15% or so) and the rest of the middle-class, particularly the non-college educated. Has some interesting observations on gender too, namely that while service and caring jobs are growing in number and manufacturing and construction shrinking, men are not making the switch to the growing fields.

The Youth Unemployment Bomb

More typical Instapaper Browse fodder, this time from Business Week. Revolutions, unrest, and un(der)employed, highly educated, young adults.

Open Source Report: Is Defective by Design getting any traction at all?

An older link I was sent earlier this year as part of a discussion about geeks wanting to make sure their activism makes sense to people who aren’t already converts. It’s criticising the Free Software Foundation’s Defective By Design campaign.

The Attempt to Understand Puerperal Fever in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Influence of Inflammation Theory

I dug this up after a discussion about the process of discovering that puerperal fever could be greatly reduced by birth attendants washing their hands before attending. This is an overview of the eighteenth and nineteenth century theorising about what caused puerperal fever, namely a tension between inflammation theory (a theory that blood was pooling in some part of the body, setting off a general inflammation chain-reaction and requiring blood-letting) and putrid theory, that the body had been poisoned by some external matter and the fever was either the result of this poison or an attempt to throw it off (this theory regarded bloodletting as harmful and focussed on protecting the post-partum woman from breathing fresh air, in many cases).

The interesting thing here, not directly addressed in this link, is that the sheer disgustingness of dissecting corpses and not washing your hands before attending a childbirth is only obvious to us because of germ theory. In fact, regular hand-washing as etiquette is really an artefact of that (see also Karl Schroeder on science-informed etiquette this week). Sometimes the puerperal fever sequence is portrayed as if man-midwives must have been actively callous or hateful to not be washing their hands: in fact, it’s (more?) that they entirely lacked any theoretical framework for believing that what you touched half an hour ago had any serious impact on what you were touching now.

Was Aaron Swartz Stealing? I haven’t been following closely, so this was a good overview from a point of view a little closer to my own perspective on copyright than US governments.

I was pleased to come across this, again via Browse, because previously I’d only read the indictment text.

Digitising letters

I was talking to Valerie Aurora and others on Twitter over the last day talking about Ada Lovelace’s letters, and whether there are copies freely available publicly.

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that many/most letters by historical figures are held in private collections. The collectors are often not doing it for the sake of public history: they are either doing it for family history, or collecting letters in the way one might collect artwork, including for monetary value. Access might or might not be granted by the owners to people wanting to use the letters as source material for biographies and so on. Sometimes a volume of letters (or diaries) might be directly published (eg Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters, which contain excerpts ordered and edited for biographic interest, or Margaret Smith’s The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, which I think is a more complete edition), however the editor of the letters will assert copyright, not unreasonably perhaps given the editing chores and the addition of footnotes, context and so on.

Lovelace’s letters themselves are out of copyright, if I understand correctly (in the US, which is likely to be the strictest, it seems unpublished works authored prior to 1978 are held to the author’s death+70 years rule) but a public domain resource would need to be typed up from the letters themselves rather than from anyone’s existing editions.

It seems what would be most useful would be high definition scans of the letters themselves, without the scanner asserting copyright, hosted by the Internet Archive or similar. Turning these into high quality text transcripts is not trivial, but probably amenable to the efforts of, for example, Distributed Proofreaders, who now provide most of Project Gutenberg‘s new material. Therefore a campaign encouraging people who own collections of historical letters to allow images to be made available is the missing link. Is there such a campaign, or is one needed?