The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: November, 2009

What has Glenn Beck done?

He lodged a complaint with the WIPO under the UDRP against a domain name owner he said was violating his trademark (see what I did there). An American individual registered a domain name which linked his name with various criminal acts — however the site didn’t accuse him of doing the acts, they just wanted to know why he won’t come out and publicly deny the serious allegations, a satirical reference to Beck’s own interviewing style — Beck promptly took legal advice and this led to the WIPO hearing. The extra-legal Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy is not perfect, it’s been widely criticised from the very outset for issues of accountability and bias not least in that the initial source of the policy is the World Intellectual Property Organisation and asking the WIPO how you should deal with copyright disputes between trademark owners and domain name owners is a little bit like asking the KKK how you should deal with disputes between white people and black people.

On the other hand, this dispute is quite a reassuring note that in the case of fairly clear situations the process does work. The UDRP deals with trademark violation and this is not a trademark violation so the action can’t succeed and that’s what’s been decided, although on a different ground because the domain name was held to be similar enough to be confusing.

It’s the specific details of the dispute which are quite entertaining. The reason behind the registrant registering the specific domain name he did is because it’s an Internet meme. It’s not the registrant making false allegations of felonies by Glenn Beck, he’s just copying a joke that’s on FARK. The third pillar of the test requires the trademark owner to prove bad faith so this is a huge deal. The thing is that Internet memes are elements from a (primarily American) subculture and it’s impossible to assume that any particular WIPO panel sitting in Geneva will know a lolcat from a rickroll. This means that the respondent’s submission needed to include a potted history of the Internet meme in between naturally quite dry analysis of relevant precedent and procedural (as opposed to legal) argument. It’s inordinately awesome to read about Leroy Jenkins on letter headed paper.

Perhaps most hearteningly of all is the statement released by the registrant after the decision was made – in the statement he gives Beck control of the domain (despite the panel ruling in the registrant’s favour) and says that the only reason he even disputed the point was to defend the American Constitution’s protections of free speech from Beck. It’s a surprisingly powerful and elegant declaration of patriotism for a dispute that came out of an Internet in-joke.

Arstechnica have a good, factually oriented review of the dispute that’s worth a read.

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The paperless law student – part 2

Earlier, in the back to school period, I discussed the benefits and costs of going paperless as a student. I think it’s a really worthwhile choice which has a lot of benefits down the line. My main concern is simply the high initial cost of converting from paper to paperless which means that it is a better option for people who are making money from doing it as a job because it will severely cut into your beer money.

I think it’s hard to talk about people going paperless in 2009 without mentioning the eBook reader, the new group of devices which are being marketed as a way to replace the printed book.

The science bit

The market has pretty much expanded from very little into the next big thing based almost entirely on the invention of a small (but growing) American company that worked out how to make very small magnetic objects reliably rise and fall in a grid pattern. Unlike the great majority of modern technology this relies on moving part because once you’ve moved the parts to where you want them you can leave them there with no extra energy use. This means that the ereader expends energy “printing” the page – putting the eInk particles where they’re supposed to be – but then doesn’t need any more to keep the text on the page.

This differs from a traditional display because earlier technologies do not create a fixed image – a CRT monitor draws images onto the screen with a scanning electron beam on a phosphor screen and an LCD monitor uses an arrangement of gates which produces a coloured filter for a backlight to shine through. That electron beam and that backlight both require continuous power to operate. The main benefit of a fleeting, dynamic way of generating images is that it can be very good for conveying moving images, whereas eInk is limited by the physical speed of the particles. That’s bad for movies but text has never moved in its life and that means the technology is good for dedicated book readers.

This is really all by to the by, because how the underlying technology works rarely affects how good it is for users.

Ebook readers

The message to take away is simply that because it’s not a continuously operating device means that you don’t measure the battery life by how long it can be on for (because the device is only on for short spurts) but by how many times the display changes. That’s why the Sony Pocket Edition is rated as having enough “battery life for nearly 6,800 page turns.” The amount of time that is depends on how quickly you can read that number of pages.

Ebook readers have the option of, generally, being used to display books licensed from the sponsoring bookseller’s shop which is great if that’s how you buy books (it isn’t personally). I think it has great potential for updateable textbooks which apply their own errata and apply the differences between editions if that’s the way publishers want to play it. Right now I think the potential lies in the ability of these devices to display your own documents. I think the ability to load up an ereader with a load of case reports and then read that on the bus is paradigm shifting.

This has additional benefits in that because the image is static it doesn’t cause headaches from forcing people to squint at flickering displays and because there’s no backlight you aren’t forced to stare at a light.

The competition

Just because the underlying technology is well suited to displaying text this doesn’t mean that you should buy every product which uses it and displaying text on its own is something that computers have been able to do for a very long time. Ebooks readers are not the only option available here.

Your laptop

The obvious alternative is just a laptop – it will read any format you should care to name, runs off a battery, is portable, does more than just text and you probably already have one. It’s not ideal for reading on the bus, the LCD screen is backlit and the battery won’t last particularly long. But it does so many other things as well and it is likely to be a product that many people will already own, and that makes it practically free to use as an ebook reader.

The mobile phone

An unexpected new contender is the mobile phone, people have been using PDAs to read text for many years and the phone is converging on the same areas. These are good because they’re so much smaller and more portable and have long battery lives. On the other hand, this all depends on the quality of the screen. One of the most often recommended devices for reading books is the iPhone, which has an undeniably pretty screen, on the other hand it is an excruciatingly expensive way to read on the bus. It’s a good product and if you use it as a phoning, mobile emailing, mobile webbing, app running device then it’s really good. If you’re only using it to read Westlaw PDFs on the bus, though, the initial cost and monthly fees make it a difficult purchase.

The photocopier

A good photocopier costs many thousand pounds and weighs an unbelievable amount. It is beyond the dreams of any student to own. However, many facilities give you access to such a photocopier for around 3-5p a sheet. That means that you can have a 5 page report to read on the bus in black and white for about 25p, and the truly frugal student will take steps to get that price down further – by printing on both sides of page or by fitting more than one page onto each physical page. I think the photocopier is the main enemy of the ebook reader because you need to print between 3600 and 6000 pages before you would have saved money by buying Sony’s cheapest ebook reader (the Pocket PRS-300). That’s a really long term investment to save a bit of paper. I think you’d need to really need the extra advantages of the ebook reader to make it a more convincing option.

Reasons to buy right now

This is the hard thing, I don’t see a reason to buy just right now. I think the technology is extremely impressive and I think the datapad from Star Trek is nigh but at present buying one is a huge expense, particularly because you know it will get better and cheaper as time goes on. It’s hard to justify the expense when centralised photocopying exists. Once prices come down I think we’ll really reach a point where it’ll be hard to tell why you’d ever print a document out but we’re really not there yet.

The main reason to buy now is simply if you want one, it’s not long til Christmas, but I imagine this will rapidly change as prices come down (and they will).

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File formats and the pirate bay

The Pirate Bay is a great source of material for blog posting. Oddly enough this isn’t about the issue of, you know, their big court case. This is actually about their rather entertaining “Legal Threats” page. The Pirate Bay has (had?) a policy whereby if you found someone had posted a torrent with your copyrighted material on the Pirate Bay tracker / search engine you could write to the Pirate Bay and they… will promptly ignore it. Or they’ll send you a cheeky reply.

They post the letters they get on this page. Generally what they have are copies of emails which are very simply the plain text listings of the emails, generally with lots of lawyerly signatures including the words of “STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL” etc. However, one of the documents is interesting because it’s a PDF. The Pirate Bay took this and replied back with a 1 megabyte image in .BMP format which looked a lot like this:

Pirate Bay message

“I can use annoying formats too” they say. But is PDF annoying? I’m not so sure.

With my techie hat on I know that the best form to find text in is simple, human readable plain text, the sort of thing you’d get if you typed it in Notepad. It’s just the words, you can do anything with it, you can copy and paste it into any other program and every computer can interpret it in such a way as to let you see it on any computer you can find. However, with my (law) student hat on I happen to really like the not so humble Portable Document Format.

What is PDF?

It’s probably worth talking about what PDF is by comparing it to the other options for text.

1) Plain text

Examples, created by: Notepad, Text Editor

Pares everything down to the words themselves. There is no option for formatting, fonts, colours, pages, anything. All you do is type a long sheet of contigous text. The great thing is the sheer efficiency of what you produce. The document provides all the substantive content of the fancier formats but without messing with formatting issues.

Pros

  1. Very lightweight
  2. Easily transferred
  3. Easily modified in many different programs running on many different systems
  4. Easily adapted into other forms, not burdened by extra code put in for formats etc.

Cons

  1. No formatting, at all. Need to use things like *bold* or /italic/ to distinguish formatting
  2. No diagrams. It’s possible to do using letters and symbols but no chance for images in the text
  3. Can be hard to set out – things like footnoting and tables of contents pretty much need to be set out by hand in the vast majority of plain text editors.
  4. Can be very elegant, can be very crude.

2) Rich text

Examples, created by: MS Word, OpenOffice

Pros

  1. Most common kind of text – every web page and every Word document are rich text.
  2. Allows visible formatting – select text and make it bold, italic etc. Allows fonts
  3. Allows image imbedding, depending on the specific format this can be within the file itself (eg, Word documents) or through referencing (eg web pages)
  4. Can be very feature rich – templates, automated footnoting, automated table of conents etc are all possible.

Cons

  1. Extra features means compatibility suffers. Documents created in MS Word may have compatibility issues when opened in slightly different programs, eg. OpenOffice, Word Perfect, Abiword.
  2. Although you can choose various fonts for your documents these fonts will only appear on other people’s computers if they also have the same fonts installed. If they don’t they’ll see a fallback option which you may not have chosen. There are ways around this.
  3. Will not look the same on every computer, settings will vary and the resulting document can be affected.

3) Image

Examples, created by: Paint, Photoshop

I might surprise some people by including this option here but I really do think that image formats are a real option (of sorts) for conveying text on a computer. The flexibility that allows the same picture format to contain a picture a funny cat or a world famous old master also allows it to hold the shape of words.

Pros:

  1. Document looks exactly as it did on your computer for everyone
  2. Very easily shared between users – every modern computer can understand the common picture formats, so no need for specialist software to view it.
  3. Very, very good for diagrams. Will look exactly as intended, allows full colour and photorealistic images to included directly with the text.
  4. Very flexible layout – not bound by justification or layout tags, can put elements in anywhere on the document

Cons

  1. Very big files for email etc (the Pirate Bay image was 1 megabyte for 7 words)
  2. Can be hard to edit, and editing it well requires specialist software that’s hard to use
  3. Can be hard to add extra pages
  4. Not actually text – only an image so can’t be copied and manipulated like a text document

4) Device Independent formats

Examples, created by: Acrobat, Foxit, TeX

Pros

  1. Will look the same on every computer (is device independent). Designed to be transferred between computers
  2. Allows you to rely on page, line numbers because it is identical to each user
  3. Allows direct embedding of images, allows for diagrams to be laid in text exactly where intended by the creator
  4. Is still text, so can be copied and pasted as text. Possible to also have original image as well as text, for example if scanning a book, in the same document
  5. Can be pretty immutable, so provides quite a good historical reference. (eg, harder to edit a PDF report from Westlaw than an RTF)

Cons

  1. Can be “annoying” – that is if you’re browsing the internet and you come across a PDF document your browser will need to load an external reader.
  2. Can be expensive. PDF is officially created by Acrobat and that is not cheap. On the other hand DVI,free PDF and so on are open-source and can be produced by many different formats.
  3. Can be pretty immutable, it can be difficult to just change something in a PDF document.

Now, if I point you to 4ii) I think I will show you a huge reason to like PDF (and other device independent formats). The reason here is to look at the ability to rely on the page numbers – so that useful summation of a case’s ratio at the bottom of page 4 is at the bottom of page 4, on everyone’s computer.

I can’t really understand why you would email someone a PDF version of a letter instead of writing your message in the email itself. I find that strange but I don’t think that means that the format is annoying. Feel free to use these formats in your own workflow. They’re good.