Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Friday, May 28, 2010

Copyright and copywrong

On Tuesday I went to a copyright seminar organized by InternetNZ. The context is that Parliament is consulting on a Bill (a draft piece of legislation) to replace the appalling section 92A of the Copyright Act, which was killed at the last minute in 2009 by the then new National-led government.

Several themes came out from the seminar. The biggest one for me, which was mainly expounded by Nat Torkington, was that there is not a problem that needs to be solved here. Revenues for all the industries that claim to be affected by unlawful downloads are going up very healthily. They claim that their industries are being devastated by the huge volume of copyright infringements, but you would have to say that these claims are not backed up by the evidence. Even so, the so-called content industries are an order of magnitude smaller than the Internet industries they seek to control.

Another theme was the sheer inappropriateness of Internet termination as a penalty for anything. To the government’s credit, it has made termination a last resort which has to be enacted by a court, but even so it’s just not a useful thing to do. You don’t get your Internet connection cut off for far more serious offences. Why should copyright infringement be so special? We don’t cut the road to someone’s house if they have used it to move stolen goods. Just like road access, the Internet is used by everyone in a building, and by others to deliver services to the building.

The Bill sets out a regime of notices that get passed to and fro between a copyright holder and someone accused of copyright infringement, through the ISP concerned. This is mostly aimed at educating the downloader, many of whom don’t realise that they are doing something or illegal, or that they can be caught. This has always been the approach promoted by InternetNZ and it has a lot to commend it, although it was clear at the seminar that there’s still some detail to be worked out in the way it’s set out in the Bill.

Persisting in illegal downloading would lead to the Copyright Tribunal levying a fine. There was a lot of discussion on how much was reasonable. My view is that it should be set at a multiple of what it would cost to get the files legally, say three times the cost on iTunes. We would also need to figure out what to do if the file isn’t available legally in New Zealand but it is elsewhere – I’d probably suggest setting it at the cost in other markets, to provide an incentive for copyright holders to bring things to New Zealand at the same time as everywhere else. As Clare Curran pointed out in her speech in the House on this Bill, the oscar-winning movie Hurt Locker wasn’t made available in this country for months after it was released elsewhere, and not until after it had won its oscar.

The MED officials present were writing furiously for the most part. I’m hopeful that they took a lot of the very sensible points made back to the drafting process. They will probably be advising the Commerce Select Committee which is considering the Bill at the moment.

Talking of which, that committee has called for submissions by 17th June. It’s a really good idea to send them a submission. The process is straightforward – just write down clearly your arguments and what you want the committee to do with the Bill. You can look at this post for ideas. Probably the biggest point to ask the Select Committee for is to remove Internet account termination as any kind of option, because it’s disproportionate and unworkable.

posted by colin at 3:15 pm  

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Will Fastmail survive?

Yesterday the people who make the Opera browser announced that they had acquired Fastmail.FM, a commercial email host. Does this matter to anyone except the shareholders of those companies?

It might. Email is critical to many of us on the Internet. It may be true that email is for old people, but I find it pretty much essential for a great deal of the Internet’s usefulness. I’m a heavy user, in case you hadn’t gathered. I want to be able receive and send wherever I am and I archive everything. That’s a couple of gigabytes per year.

I move around a lot, connecting to the Internet through two or three different routes every day. Getting and sending email though the day used to be a problem for me because ISPs’ email servers tend to assume that you are connecting through that ISP. In the early 2000s I went through a phase of having to reconfigure the email client on my laptop wherever I was. To get round that I tried putting all email through a server I owned – Qmail on a Mandrake box – running in my home, running on a DSL line with dynamic IP. It does work, but it cost me grief to support it that I just didn’t need. (Gmail was in its infancy and wasn’t allowing you your own domain name at the time. Besides, I don’t like my Gmail address.)

Winding the clock forward to a few years back, I found Fastmail.FM. They are a specialist email hosting provider. They offer IMAP and SMTP over SSL (SSL is important because otherwise passwords are exchanged in plaintext, which might be over public wi-fi) and an email web client. They don’t do much else, but they do provide their email service brilliantly. I’ve been very happy with Fastmail for over three years. All my machines sync to the server, I have a nice fat email archive which I can search instantly, and I send and receive email on the move wherever I am. It’s just one less thing to worry about.

Now, Fastmail is being acquired. By a company with a marginally-functional email service of its own. Hmm.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Opera. They are another plucky David fighting the Goliath of Internet Explorer. They provide a credible browser which lots people like. They haven’t been as successful as Firefox, but then they haven’t had Google’s money behind them. I met their CE at the OOXML standards meeting in Geneva. He was saying some very sensible things.

But, I’m concerned that Fastmail might lose its service as a result. There are plenty of examples of companies getting acquired and effectively ruined. Will the acquisition of Fastmail cause it to lose focus in its email services? Opera says no, of course, and it’s encouraging that they say the Fastmail team will be kept on. Let’s hope that Opera means what it says and that Fastmail gets enhanced, not trashed.

In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what it would take to move my mail archive and where I would move it to.

posted by colin at 1:23 pm  

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