Tag Archives: Mike Masnick

The Royal Bank of Canada reports ‘Humans wanted’ and some thoughts on the future of work, robots, and artificial intelligence

It seems the Royal Bank of Canada ((RBC or Royal Bank) wants to weigh in and influence what is to come with regard to what new technologies will bring us and how they will affect our working lives.  (I will be offering my critiques of the whole thing.)

Launch yourself into the future (if you’re a youth)

“I’m not planning on being replaced by a robot.” That’s the first line of text you’ll see if you go to the Royal Bank of Canada’s new Future Launch web space and latest marketing campaign and investment.

This whole endeavour is aimed at ‘youth’ and represents a $500M investment. Of course, that money will be invested over a 10-year period which works out to $50M per year and doesn’t seem quite so munificent given how much money Canadian banks make (from a March 1, 2017 article by Don Pittis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] news website),

Yesterday [February 28, 2017] the Bank of Montreal [BMO] said it had made about $1.5 billion in three months.

That may be hard to put in context until you hear that it is an increase in profit of nearly 40 per cent from the same period last year and dramatically higher than stock watchers had been expecting.

Not all the banks have done as well as BMO this time. The Royal Bank’s profits were up 24 per cent at $3 billion. [emphasis mine] CIBC [Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce] profits were up 13 per cent. TD [Toronto Dominion] releases its numbers tomorrow.

Those numbers would put the RBC on track to a profit of roughly $12B n 2017. This means  $500M represents approximately 4.5% of a single year’s profits which will be disbursed over a 10 year period which makes the investment work out to approximately .45% or less than 1/2 of one percent. Paradoxically, it’s a lot of money and it’s not that much money.

Advertising awareness

First, there was some advertising (in Vancouver at least),

[downloaded from http://flinflononline.com/local-news/356505]

You’ll notice she has what could be described as a ‘halo’. Is she an angel or, perhaps, she’s an RBC angel? After all, yellow and gold are closely associated as colours and RBC sports a partially yellow logo. As well, the model is wearing a blue denim jacket, RBC’s other logo colour.

Her ‘halo’ is intact but those bands of colour bend a bit and could be described as ‘rainbow-like’ bringing to mind ‘pots of gold’ at the end of the rainbow.  Free association is great fun and allows people to ascribe multiple and/or overlapping ideas and stories to the advertising. For example, people who might not approve of imagery that hearkens to religious art might have an easier time with rainbows and pots of gold. At any rate, none of the elements in images/ads are likely to be happy accidents or coincidence. They are intended to evoke certain associations, e.g., anyone associated with RBC will be blessed with riches.

The timing is deliberate, too, just before Easter 2018 (April 1), suggesting to some us, that even when the robots arrive destroying the past, youth will rise up (resurrection) for a new future. Or, if you prefer, Passover and its attendant themes of being spared and moving to the Promised Land.

Enough with the semiotic analysis and onto campaign details.

Humans Wanted: an RBC report

It seems the precursor to Future Launch, is an RBC report, ‘Humans Wanted’, which itself is the outcome of still earlier work such as this Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship (BII+E) report, Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, March 2017 (authors: Creig Lamb and Sarah Doyle), which features a quote from RBC’s President and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) David McKay,

“Canada’s future prosperity and success will rely on us harnessing the innovation of our entire talent pool. A huge part of our success will depend on how well we integrate this next generation of Canadians into the workforce. Their confidence, optimism and inspiration could be the key to helping us reimagine traditional business models, products and ways of working.”  David McKay, President and CEO, RBC

There are a number of major trends that have the potential to shape the future of work, from climate change and resource scarcity to demographic shifts resulting from an aging population and immigration. This report focuses on the need to prepare Canada’s youth for a future where a great number of jobs will be rapidly created, altered or made obsolete by technology.

Successive waves of technological advancements have rocked global economies for centuries, reconfiguring the labour force and giving rise to new economic opportunities with each wave. Modern advances, including artificial intelligence and robotics, once again have the potential to transform the economy, perhaps more rapidly and more dramatically than ever before. As past pillars of Canada’s economic growth become less reliable, harnessing technology and innovation will become increasingly important in driving productivity and growth. 1, 2, 3

… (p. 2 print; p. 4 PDF)

The Brookfield Institute (at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) report is worth reading if for no other reason than its Endnotes. Unlike the RBC materials, you can find the source for the information in the Brookfield report.

After Brookfield, there was the RBC Future Launch Youth Forums 2017: What We Learned  document (October 13, 2017 according to ‘View Page Info’),

In this rapidly changing world, there’s a new reality when it comes to work. A degree or diploma no longer guarantees a job, and some of the positions, skills and trades of today won’t exist – or be relevant – in the future.

Through an unprecedented 10-year, $500 million commitment, RBC Future LaunchTM  is focused on driving real change and preparing today’s young people for the future world of work, helping them access the skills, job experience and networks that will enable their success.

At the beginning of this 10-year journey RBC® wanted to go beyond research and expert reports to better understand the regional issues facing youth across Canada and to hear directly from young people and organizations that work with them. From November 2016 to May 2017, the RBC Future Launch team held 15 youth forums across the country, bringing together over 430 partners, including young people, to uncover ideas and talk through solutions to address the workforce gaps Canada’s youth face today.

Finally,  a March 26, 2018 RBC news release announces the RBC report: ‘Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption’,

Automation to impact at least 50% of Canadian jobs in the next decade: RBC research

Human intelligence and intuition critical for young people and jobs of the future

  • Being ‘human’ will ensure resiliency in an era of disruption and artificial intelligence
  • Skills mobility – the ability to move from one job to another – will become a new competitive advantage

TORONTO, March 26, 2018 – A new RBC research paper, Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption, has revealed that 50% of Canadian jobs will be disrupted by automation in the next 10 years.

As a result of this disruption, Canada’s Gen Mobile – young people who are currently transitioning from education to employment – are unprepared for the rapidly changing workplace. With 4 million Canadian youth entering the workforce over the next decade, and the shift from a jobs economy to a skills economy, the research indicates young people will need a portfolio of “human skills” to remain competitive and resilient in the labour market.

“Canada is at a historic cross-roads – we have the largest generation of young people coming into the workforce at the very same time technology is starting to impact most jobs in the country,” said Dave McKay, President and CEO, RBC. “Canada is on the brink of a skills revolution and we have a responsibility to prepare young people for the opportunities and ambiguities of the future.”

‘There is a changing demand for skills,” said John Stackhouse, Senior Vice-President, RBC. “According to our findings, if employers and the next generation of employees focus on foundational ‘human skills’, they’ll be better able to navigate a new age of career mobility as technology continues to reshape every aspect of the world around us.”

Key Findings:

  • Canada’s economy is on target to add 2.4 million jobs over the next four years, virtually all of which will require a different mix of skills.
  • A growing demand for “human skills” will grow across all job sectors and include: critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.
  • Rather than a nation of coders, digital literacy – the ability to understand digital items, digital technologies or the Internet fluently – will be necessary for all new jobs.
  • Canada’s education system, training programs and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate the new skills economy, resulting in roughly half a million 15-29 year olds who are unemployed and another quarter of a million who are working part-time involuntarily.
  • Canadian employers are generally not prepared, through hiring, training or retraining, to recruit and develop the skills needed to ensure their organizations remain competitive in the digital economy.

“As digital and machine technology advances, the next generation of Canadians will need to be more adaptive, creative and collaborative, adding and refining skills to keep pace with a world of work undergoing profound change,” said McKay. “Canada’s future prosperity depends on getting a few big things right and that’s why we’ve introduced RBC Future Launch.”

RBC Future Launch is a decade-long commitment to help Canadian youth prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. RBC is committed to acting as a catalyst for change, bringing government, educators, public sector and not-for-profits together to co-create solutions to help young people better prepare for the future of the work through “human skills” development, networking and work experience.

Top recommendations from the report include:

  • A national review of post-secondary education programs to assess their focus on “human skills” including global competencies
  • A national target of 100% work-integrated learning, to ensure every undergraduate student has the opportunity for an apprenticeship, internship, co-op placement or other meaningful experiential placement
  • Standardization of labour market information across all provinces and regions, and a partnership with the private sector to move skills and jobs information to real-time, interactive platforms
  • The introduction of a national initiative to help employers measure foundational skills and incorporate them in recruiting, hiring and training practices

Join the conversation with Dave McKay and John Stackhouse on Wednesday, March 28 [2018] at 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. EDT at RBC Disruptors on Facebook Live.

Click here to read: Humans Wanted – How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption.

About the Report
RBC Economics amassed a database of 300 occupations and drilled into the skills required to perform them now and projected into the future. The study groups the Canadian economy into six major clusters based on skillsets as opposed to traditional classifications and sectors. This cluster model is designed to illustrate the ease of transition between dissimilar jobs as well as the relevance of current skills to jobs of the future.

Six Clusters
Doers: Emphasis on basic skills
Transition: Greenhouse worker to crane operator
High Probability of Disruption

Crafters: Medium technical skills; low in management skills
Transition: Farmer to plumber
Very High Probability of Disruption

Technicians: High in technical skills
Transition: Car mechanic to electrician
Moderate Probability of Disruption

Facilitators: Emphasis on emotional intelligence
Transition: Dental assistant to graphic designer
Moderate Probability of Disruption

Providers: High in Analytical Skills
Transition: Real estate agent to police officer
Low Probability of Disruption

Solvers: Emphasis on management skills and critical thinking
Transition: Mathematician to software engineer
Minimal Probability of Disruption

About RBC
Royal Bank of Canada is a global financial institution with a purpose-driven, principles-led approach to delivering leading performance. Our success comes from the 81,000+ employees who bring our vision, values and strategy to life so we can help our clients thrive and communities prosper. As Canada’s biggest bank, and one of the largest in the world based on market capitalization, we have a diversified business model with a focus on innovation and providing exceptional experiences to our 16 million clients in Canada, the U.S. and 34 other countries. Learn more at rbc.com.‎

We are proud to support a broad range of community initiatives through donations, community investments and employee volunteer activities. See how at http://www.rbc.com/community-sustainability/.

– 30 – 

The report features a lot of bulleted points, airy text (large fonts and lots of space between the lines), inoffensive graphics, and human interest stories illustrating the points made elsewhere in the text.

There is no bibliography or any form of note telling you where to find the sources for the information in the report. The 2.4M jobs mentioned in the news release are also mentioned in the report on p. 16 (PDF) and is credited in the main body of the text to the EDSC. I’m not up-to-date on my abbreviations but I’m pretty sure it does not stand for East Doncaster Secondary College or East Duplin Soccer Club. I’m betting it stands for Employment and Social Development Canada. All that led to visiting the EDSC website and trying (unsuccessfully) to find the report or data sheet used to supply the figures RBC quoted in their report and news release.

Also, I’m not sure who came up with or how they developed the ‘crafters, ‘doers’, ‘technicians’, etc. categories.

Here’s more from p. 2 of their report,

CANADA, WE HAVE A PROBLEM. [emphasis mine] We’re hurtling towards the 2020s with perfect hindsight, not seeing what’s clearly before us. The next generation is entering the workforce at a time of profound economic, social and technological change. We know it. [emphasis mine] Canada’s youth know it. And we’re not doing enough about it.

RBC wants to change the conversation, [emphasis mine] to help Canadian youth own the 2020s — and beyond. RBC Future Launch is our 10-year commitment to that cause, to help young people prepare for and navigate a new world of work that, we believe, will fundamentally reshape Canada. For the better. If we get a few big things right.

This report, based on a year-long research project, is designed to help that conversation. Our team conducted one of the biggest labour force data projects [emphasis mine] in Canada, and crisscrossed the country to speak with students and workers in their early careers, with educators and policymakers, and with employers in every sector.

We discovered a quiet crisis — of recent graduates who are overqualified for the jobs they’re in, of unemployed youth who weren’t trained for the jobs that are out there, and young Canadians everywhere who feel they aren’t ready for the future of work.

Sarcasm ahead

There’s nothing like starting your remarks with a paraphrased quote from a US movie about the Apollo 13 spacecraft crisis as in, “Houston, we have a problem.” I’ve always preferred Trudeau (senior) and his comment about ‘keeping our noses out of the nation’s bedrooms’. It’s not applicable but it’s more amusing and a Canadian quote to boot.

So, we know we’re having a crisis which we know about but RBC wants to tell us about it anyway (?) and RBC wants to ‘change the conversation’. OK. So how does presenting the RBC Future Launch change the conversation? Especially in light of the fact, that the conversation has already been held, “a year-long research project … Our team conducted one of the biggest labour force data projects [emphasis mine] in Canada, and crisscrossed the country to speak with students and workers in their early careers, with educators and policymakers, and with employers in every sector.” Is the proposed change something along the lines of ‘Don’t worry, be happy; RBC has six categories (Doers, Crafters, Technicians, Facilitators, Providers, Solvers) for you.’ (Yes, for those who recognized it, I’m referencing I’m referencing Bobby McFerrin’s hit song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy.)

Also, what data did RBC collect and how do they collect it? Could Facebook and other forms of social media have been involved? (My March 29, 2018 posting mentions the latest Facebook data scandal; scroll down about 80% of the way.)

There are the people leading the way and ‘changing the conversation’ as it were and they can’t present logical, coherent points. What kind of conversation could they possibly have with youth (or anyone else for that matter)?

And, if part of the problem is that employers are not planning for the future, how does Future Launch ‘change that part of the conversation’?

RBC Future Launch

Days after the report’s release,there’s the Future Launch announcement in an RBC March 28, 2018 news release,

TORONTO, March 28, 2017 – In an era of unprecedented economic and technological change, RBC is today unveiling its largest-ever commitment to Canada’s future. RBC Future Launch is a 10-year, $500-million initiative to help young people gain access and opportunity to the skills, job experience and career networks needed for the future world of work.

“Tomorrow’s prosperity will depend on today’s young people and their ability to take on a future that’s equally inspiring and unnerving,” said Dave McKay, RBC president and CEO. “We’re sitting at an intersection of history, as a massive generational shift and unprecedented technological revolution come together. And we need to ensure young Canadians are prepared to help take us forward.”

Future Launch is a core part of RBC’s celebration of Canada 150, and is the result of two years of conversations with young Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

“Young people – Canada’s future – have the confidence, optimism and inspiration to reimagine the way our country works,” McKay said. “They just need access to the capabilities and connections to make the 21st century, and their place in it, all it should be.”

Working together with young people, RBC will bring community leaders, industry experts, governments, educators and employers to help design solutions and harness resources for young Canadians to chart a more prosperous and inclusive future.

Over 10 years, RBC Future Launch will invest in areas that help young people learn skills, experience jobs, share knowledge and build resilience. The initiative will address the following critical gaps:

  • A lack of relevant experience. Too many young Canadians miss critical early opportunities because they’re stuck in a cycle of “no experience, no job.” According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 83 per cent of educators believe youth are prepared for the workforce, but only 34 per cent of employers and 44 per cent of young people agree. RBC will continue to help educators and employers develop quality work-integrated learning programs to build a more dynamic bridge between school and work.
  • A lack of relevant skills. Increasingly, young people entering the workforce require a complex set of technical, entrepreneurial and social skills that cannot be attained solely through a formal education. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum states that by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill-sets of most occupations will be different from today — if that job still exists. RBC will help ensure young Canadians gain the skills, from critical thinking to coding to creative design, that will help them integrate into the workplace of today, and be more competitive for the jobs of tomorrow.
  • A lack of knowledge networks. Young people are at a disadvantage in the job market if they don’t have an opportunity to learn from others and discover the realities of jobs they’re considering. Many have told RBC that there isn’t enough information on the spectrum of jobs that are available. From social networks to mentoring programs, RBC will harness the vast knowledge and goodwill of Canadians in guiding young people to the opportunities that exist and will exist, across Canada.
  • A lack of future readiness. Many young Canadians know their future will be defined by disruption. A new report, Future-proof: Preparing young Canadians for the future of work, by the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, found that 42 per cent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of being affected by automation in the next 10 to 20 years. Young Canadians are okay with that: they want to be the disruptors and make the future workforce more creative and productive. RBC will help to create opportunities, through our education system, workplaces and communities at large to help young Canadians retool, rethink and rebuild as the age of disruption takes hold.

By helping young people unlock their potential and launch their careers, RBC can assist them with building a stronger future for themselves, and a more prosperous Canada for all. RBC created The Launching Careers Playbook, an interactive, digital resource focused on enabling young people to reach their full potential through three distinct modules: I am starting my career; I manage interns and I create internship programs. The Playbook shares the design principles, practices, and learnings captured from the RBC Career Launch Program over three years, as well as the research and feedback RBC has received from young people and their managers.

More information on RBC Future Launch can be found at www.rbc.com/futurelaunch.

Weirdly, this news release is the only document which gives you sources for some of RBC’s information. If you should be inclined, you can check the original reports as cited in the news release and determine if you agree with the conclusions the RBC people drew from them.

Cynicism ahead

They are planning to change the conversation, are they? I can’t help wondering what return they’re (RBC)  expecting to make on their investment ($500M over10 years). The RBC is prominently displayed not only on the launch page but in several of the subtopics listed on the page.

There appears to be some very good and helpful information although much of it leads you to using a bank for one reason or another. For example, if you’re planning to become an entrepreneur (and there is serious pressure from the government of Canada on this generation to become precisely that), then it’s very handy that you have easy access to RBC from any of the Future Launch pages. As well, you can easily apply for a job at or get a loan from RBC after you’ve done some of the exercises on the website and possibly given RBC a lot of data about yourself.

For anyone who believes I’m being harsh about the bank, you might want to check out a March 15, 2017 article by Erica Johnson for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Go Public website. It highlights just how ruthless Canadian banks can be,

Employees from all five of Canada’s big banks have flooded Go Public with stories of how they feel pressured to upsell, trick and even lie to customers to meet unrealistic sales targets and keep their jobs.

The deluge is fuelling multiple calls for a parliamentary inquiry, even as the banks claim they’re acting in customers’ best interests.

In nearly 1,000 emails, employees from RBC, BMO, CIBC, TD and Scotiabank locations across Canada describe the pressures to hit targets that are monitored weekly, daily and in some cases hourly.

“Management is down your throat all the time,” said a Scotiabank financial adviser. “They want you to hit your numbers and it doesn’t matter how.”

CBC has agreed to protect their identities because the workers are concerned about current and future employment.

An RBC teller from Thunder Bay, Ont., said even when customers don’t need or want anything, “we need to upgrade their Visa card, increase their Visa limits or get them to open up a credit line.”

“It’s not what’s important to our clients anymore,” she said. “The bank wants more and more money. And it’s leading everyone into debt.”

A CIBC teller said, “I am expected to aggressively sell products, especially Visa. Hit those targets, who cares if it’s hurting customers.”

….

Many bank employees described pressure tactics used by managers to try to increase sales.

An RBC certified financial planner in Guelph, Ont., said she’s been threatened with pay cuts and losing her job if she doesn’t upsell enough customers.

“Managers belittle you,” she said. “We get weekly emails that highlight in red the people who are not hitting those sales targets. It’s bullying.”

Some TD Bank employees told CBC’s Go Public they felt they had to break the law to keep their jobs. (Aaron Harris/Reuters)

Employees at several RBC branches in Calgary said there are white boards posted in the staff room that list which financial advisers are meeting their sales targets and which advisers are coming up short.

A CIBC small business associate who quit in January after nine years on the job said her district branch manager wasn’t pleased with her sales results when she was pregnant.

While working in Waterloo, Ont., she says her manager also instructed staff to tell all new international students looking to open a chequing account that they had to open a “student package,” which also included a savings account, credit card and overdraft.

“That is unfair and not the law, but we were told to do it for all of them.”

Go Public requested interviews with the CEOs of the five big banks — BMO, CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank and TD — but all declined.

If you have the time, it’s worth reading Johnson’s article in its entirety as it provides some fascinating insight into Canadian banking practices.

Final comments and an actual ‘conversation’ about the future of work

I’m torn, It’s good to see an attempt to grapple with the extraordinary changes we are likely to see in the not so distant future. It’s hard to believe that this Future Launch initiative is anything other than a self-interested means of profiting from fears about the future and a massive public relations campaign designed to engender good will. Doubly so since the very bad publicity the banks including RBC garnered last year (2017), as mentioned in the Johnson article.

Also, RBC and who knows how many other vested interests appear to have gathered data and information which they’ve used to draw any number of conclusions. First, I can’t find any information about what data RBC is gathering, who else might have access, and what plans, if any, they have to use it. Second, RBC seems to have predetermined how this ‘future of work’ conversation needs to be changed.

I suggest treading as lightly as possible and keeping in mind other ‘conversations’ are possible. For example, Mike Masnick at Techdirt has an April 3, 2018 posting about a new ‘future of work’ initiative,

For the past few years, there have been plenty of discussions about “the future of work,” but they tend to fall into one of two camps. You have the pessimists, who insist that the coming changes wrought by automation and artificial intelligence will lead to fewer and fewer jobs, as all of the jobs of today are automated out of existence. Then, there are the optimists who point to basically every single past similar prediction of doom and gloom due to innovation, which have always turned out to be incorrect. People in this camp point out that technology is more likely to augment than replace human-based work, and vaguely insist that “the jobs will come.” Whether you fall into one of those two camps — or somewhere in between or somewhere else entirely — one thing I’d hope most people can agree on is that the future of work will be… different.

Separately, we’re also living in an age where it is increasingly clear that those in and around the technology industry must take more responsibility in thinking through the possible consequences of the innovations they’re bringing to life, and exploring ways to minimize the harmful results (and hopefully maximizing the beneficial ones).

That brings us to the project we’re announcing today, Working Futures, which is an attempt to explore what the future of work might really look like in the next ten to fifteen years. We’re doing this project in partnership with two organizations that we’ve worked with multiples times in the past: Scout.ai and R Street.

….

The key point of this project: rather than just worry about the bad stuff or hand-wave around the idea of good stuff magically appearing, we want to really dig in — figure out what new jobs may actually appear, look into what benefits may accrue as well as what harms may be dished out — and see if there are ways to minimize the negative consequences, while pushing the world towards the beneficial consequences.

To do that, we’re kicking off a variation on the classic concept of scenario planning, bringing together a wide variety of individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas to run through a fun and creative exercise to imagine the future, while staying based in reality. We’re adding in some fun game-like mechanisms to push people to think about where the future might head. We’re also updating the output side of traditional scenario planning by involving science fiction authors, who obviously have a long history of thinking up the future, and who will participate in this process and help to craft short stories out of the scenarios we build, making them entertaining, readable and perhaps a little less “wonky” than the output of more traditional scenario plans.

There you have it; the Royal Bank is changing the conversation and Techdirt is inviting you to join in scenario planning and more.

Making a trademark claim memorable and fun

Usually when I write about intellectual property, it concerns technology and/or science disputes but this particular response to an alleged trademark violation amuses me greatly, swipes at a few Canadian stereotypes, and could act as a model for anyone who wants to lodge such protests. Before getting to the video, here are some details bout the dispute from a July 13, 2017 posting by Mike Masnick for Techdirt,

… — a few years ago, there was a virally popular rap song and video, by Brendan “B.Rich” Richmond, called Out for a Rip, spoofing Canadian culture/stereotypes. It got over 12 million views, and has become a bit of an anthem.

So, yeah. Coca Cola is using the phrase “out for a rip” on its Coke bottles and Richmond and his lawyer Kittredge decided the best way to respond was to write a song calling out Coca Cola on this and then recording a whole video. At the end of the video there’s an actual letter (part of which is dictated in the song itself) which is also pretty damn amusing:

Dear Coke,

I represent Brendan (B.Rich) Richmond (a.k.a. Friggin’ Buddy). You jacked his catchphrase, but you already know that.

Buddy owns the registered trademark “OUT FOR A RIP” in Canada (TMA934277). The music video for buddy’s original composition “OUT FOR A RIP” has been viewed more than 12 million times. Canadians associate the phrase “OUT FOR A RIP” with him.

Personally, I’m pretty psyched about this once-in-a-career opportunity to send a demand letter in the form of a rap video. Nonetheless, unlicensed use of OUT FOR A RIP violates my client’s rights. From what I understand, you guys do fairly well for yourselves – at least in comparison to most other multinational corporations, the GDP of most countries, or, say, the average musician, right? No room in your budget to clear IP rights?

Contact me no later than August 1, 2017 to discuss settlement of this matter. If you do not wish to discuss settlement, we require that you immediately cease using the OUT FOR A RIP mark, recall all OUT FOR A RIP bottles, and take immediate steps to preserve all relevant evidence in anticipation of possible litigation.

Regards,
Rob Kittredege

….

Here’s the ‘cease and desist’ video,

Enjoy!

Radical copyright reform proposal in the European Union

It seems the impulse to maximize copyright control has overtaken European Union officials. A Sept. 14, 2016 news item on phys.org lays out a few details,

The EU will overhaul copyright law to shake up how online news and entertainment is paid for in Europe, under proposals announced by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker Wednesday [Sept. 14, 2016].

Pop stars such as Coldplay and Lady Gaga will hail part of the plan as a new weapon to bring a fair fight to YouTube, the Google-owned video service that they say is sapping the music business.

But the reform plans have attracted the fury of filmmakers and start-up investors who see it as a threat to European innovation and a wrong-headed favour to powerful media groups.

A Sept. 14, 2016 European Commission press release provides the European Union’s version of why more stringent copyright is needed,

“I want journalists, publishers and authors to be paid fairly for their work, whether it is made in studios or living rooms, whether it is disseminated offline or online, whether it is published via a copying machine or commercially hyperlinked on the web.”–President Juncker, State of the Union 2016

On the occasion of President Juncker’s 2016 State of the Union address, the Commission today set out proposals on the modernisation of copyright to increase cultural diversity in Europe and content available online, while bringing clearer rules for all online players. The proposals will also bring tools for innovation to education, research and cultural heritage institutions.

Digital technologies are changing the way music, films, TV, radio, books and the press are produced, distributed and accessed. New online services such as music streaming, video-on-demand platforms and news aggregators have become very popular, while consumers increasingly expect to access cultural content on the move and across borders. The new digital landscape will create opportunities for European creators as long as the rules offer legal certainty and clarity to all players. As a key part of its Digital Single Market strategy, the Commission has adopted proposals today to allow:

  • Better choice and access to content online and across borders
  • Improved copyright rules on education, research, cultural heritage and inclusion of disabled people
  • A fairer and sustainable marketplace for creators, the creative industries and the press

Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, said: “Europeans want cross-border access to our rich and diverse culture. Our proposal will ensure that more content will be available, transforming Europe’s copyright rules in light of a new digital reality. Europe’s creative content should not be locked-up, but it should also be highly protected, in particular to improve the remuneration possibilities for our creators. We said we would deliver all our initiatives to create a Digital Single Market by the end of the year and we keep our promises. Without a properly functioning Digital Single Market we will miss out on creativity, growth and jobs.

Günther H. Oettinger, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, said: “Our creative industries [emphasis mine] will benefit from these reforms which tackle the challenges of the digital age successfully while offering European consumers a wider choice of content to enjoy. We are proposing a copyright environment that is stimulating, fair and rewards investment.”

Today, almost half of EU internet users listen to music, watch TV series and films or play games online; however broadcasters and other operators find it hard to clear rights for their online or digital services when they want to offer them in other EU countries. Similarly, the socio-economically important sectors of education, research and cultural heritage too often face restrictions or legal uncertainty which holds back their digital innovation when using copyright protected content, including across borders. Finally, creators, other right holders and press publishers are often unable to negotiate the conditions and also payment for the online use of their works and performances.

Altogether, today’s copyright proposals have three main priorities:

1. Better choice and access to content online and across borders

With our proposal on the portability of online content presented in December 2015, we gave consumers the right to use their online subscriptions to films, music, ebooks when they are away from their home country, for example on holidays or business trips. Today, we propose a legal mechanism for broadcasters to obtain more easily the authorisations they need from right holders to transmit programmes online in other EU Member States. This is about programmes that broadcasters transmit online at the same time as their broadcast as well as their catch-up services that they wish to make available online in other Member States, such as MyTF1 in France, ZDF Mediathek in Germany, TV3 Play in Denmark, Sweden and the Baltic States and AtresPlayer in Spain. Empowering broadcasters to make the vast majority of their content, such as news, cultural, political, documentary or entertainment programmes, shown also in other Member States will give more choice to consumers.

Today’s rules also make it easier for operators who offer packages of channels (such as Proximus TV in Belgium, Movistar+ in Spain, Deutsche Telekom’s IPTV Entertain in Germany), to get the authorisations they need: instead of having to negotiate individually with every right holder in order to offer such packages of channels originating in other EU Member States, they will be able to get the licenses from collective management organisations representing right holders. This will also increase the choice of content for their customers.

To help development of Video-on-Demand (VoD) offerings in Europe, we ask Member States to set up negotiation bodies to help reach licensing deals, including those for cross-border services, between audiovisual rightholders and VoD platforms. A dialogue with the audiovisual industry on licensing issues and the use of innovative tools like licensing hubs will complement this mechanism.

To enhance access to Europe’s rich cultural heritage, the new Copyright Directive will help museums, archives and other institutions to digitise and make available across borders out-of commerce works, such as books or films that are protected by copyright, but no longer available to the public.

In parallel the Commission will use its €1.46 billion Creative Europe MEDIA programme to further support the circulation of creative content across borders . This includes more funding for subtitling and dubbing; a new catalogue of European audiovisual works for VoD providers that they can directly use for programming; and online tools to improve the digital distribution of European audiovisual works and make them easier to find and view online.

These combined actions will encourage people to discover TV and radio programmes from other European countries, keep in touch with their home countries when living in another Member State and enhance the availability of European films, including across borders, hence highlighting Europe’s rich cultural diversity.

2. Improving copyright rules on research, education and inclusion of disable [sic] people

Students and teachers are eager to use digital materials and technologies for learning, but today almost 1 in 4 educators encounter copyright-related restrictions in their digital teaching activities every week. The Commission has proposed today a new exception to allow educational establishments to use materials to illustrate teaching through digital tools and in online courses across borders.

The proposed Directive will also make it easier for researchers across the EU to use text and data mining (TDM) technologies to analyse large sets of data. This will provide a much needed boost to innovative research considering that today nearly all scientific publications are digital and their overall volume is increasing by 8-9% every year worldwide.

The Commission also proposes a new mandatory EU exception which will allow cultural heritage institutions to preserve works digitally, crucial for the survival of cultural heritage and for citizens’ access in the long term.

Finally, the Commission is proposing legislation to implement the Marrakesh Treaty to facilitate access to published works for persons who are blind, have other visual impairments or are otherwise print disabled. These measures are important to ensure that copyright does not constitute a barrier to the full participation in society of all citizens and will allow for the exchange of accessible format copies within the EU and with third countries that are parties to the Treaty, avoiding duplication of work and waste of resources.

3. A fairer and sustainable marketplace for creators and press

The Copyright Directive aims to reinforce the position of right holders to negotiate and be remunerated for the online exploitation of their content on video-sharing platforms such as YouTube or Dailymotion. Such platforms will have an obligation to deploy effective means such as technology to automatically detect songs or audiovisual works which right holders have identified and agreed with the platforms either to authorise or remove.

Newspapers, magazines and other press publications have benefited from the shift from print to digital and online services like social media and news aggregators. It has led to broader audiences, but it has also impacted advertising revenue and made the licensing and enforcement of the rights in these publications increasingly difficult.The Commission proposes to introduce a new related right for publishers, similar to the right that already exists under EU law for film producers, record (phonogram) producers and other players in the creative industries like broadcasters.

The new right recognises the important role press publishers play in investing in and creating quality journalistic content, which is essential for citizens’ access to knowledge in our democratic societies. As they will be legally recognised as right holders for the very first time they will be in a better position when they negotiate the use of their content with online services using or enabling access to it, and better able to fight piracy. This approach will give all players a clear legal framework when licensing content for digital uses, and help the development of innovative business models for the benefit of consumers.

The draft Directive also obliges publishers and producers to be transparent and inform authors or performers about profits they made with their works. It also puts in place a mechanism to help authors and performers to obtain a fair share when negotiating remuneration with producers and publishers. This should lead to higher level of trust among all players in the digital value chain.

Towards a Digital Single Market

As part of the Digital Single Market strategy presented in May 2015, today’s proposals complement the proposed regulation on portability of legal content (December 2015), the revised Audiovisual Media and Services Directive, the Communication on online platforms (May 2016). Later this autumn the Commission will propose to improve enforcement of all types of intellectual property rights, including copyright.

Today’s EU copyright rules, presented along with initiatives to boost internet connectivity in the EU (press releasepress conference at 15.15 CET), are part of the EU strategy to create a Digital Single Market (DSM). The Commission set out 16 initiatives (press release) and is on the right track to deliver all of them the end of this year.

While Juncker mixes industry (publishers) with content creators (journalists, authors), Günther H. Oettinger, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society clearly states that ‘creative industries’ are to be the beneficiaries. Business interests have tended to benefit disproportionately under current copyright regimes. The disruption posed by digital content has caused these businesses some agony and they have responded by lobbying vigorously to maximize copyright. For the most part, individual musicians, authors, visual artists and other content creators are highly unlikely to benefit from this latest reform.

I’m not a big fan of Google or its ‘stepchild’, YouTube but it should be noted that at least one career would not have existed without free and easy access to videos, Justin Bieber’s. He may not have made a penny from his YouTube videos but that hasn’t hurt his financial picture. Without YouTube, he would have been unlikely to get the exposure and recognition which have in turn led him to some serious financial opportunities.

I am somewhat less interested in the show business aspect than I am in the impact this could have on science as per section (2. Improving copyright rules on research, education and inclusion of disable [sic] people) of the European Commission press release. A Sept. 14, 2016 posting about a previous ruling on copyright in Europe by Mike Masnick for Techdirt provides some insight into the possible future impacts on science research,

Last week [Sept. 8, 2016 posting], we wrote about a terrible copyright ruling from the Court of Justice of the EU, which basically says that any for-profit entity that links to infringing material can be held liable for direct infringement, as the “for-profit” nature of the work is seen as evidence that they knew or should have known the work was infringing. We discussed the problems with this standard in our post, and there’s been a lot of commentary on what this will mean for Europe — with a variety of viewpoints being expressed. One really interesting set of concerns comes from Egon Willighagen, from Maastricht University, noting what a total and complete mess this is going to be for scientists, who rarely consider the copyright status of various data as databases they rely on are built up …

This is, of course, not the first time we’ve noted the problems of intellectual property in the science world. From various journals locking up research to the rise of patents scaring off researchers from sharing data, intellectual property keeps getting in the way of science, rather than supporting it. And that’s extremely unfortunate. I mean, after all, in the US specifically, the Constitution specifically says that copyrights and patents are supposed to be about “promoting the progress of science and the useful arts.”

Over and over again, though, we see that the law has been twisted and distorted and extended and expanded in such a way that is designed to protect a very narrow set of interests, at the expense of many others, including the public who would benefit from greater sharing and collaboration and open flow of data among scientific researchers. …

Masnick has also written up a Sept. 14, 2016 posting devoted to the EU copyright proposal itself,

This is not a surprise given the earlier leaks of what the EU Commission was cooking up for a copyright reform package, but the end result is here and it’s a complete disaster for everyone. And I do mean everyone. Some will argue that it’s a gift to Hollywood and legacy copyright interests — and there’s an argument that that’s the case. But the reality is that this proposal is so bad that it will end up doing massive harm to everyone. It will clearly harm independent creators and the innovative platforms that they rely on. And, because those platforms have become so important to even the legacy entertainment industry, it will harm them too. And, worst of all, it will harm the public greatly. It’s difficult to see how this proposal will benefit anyone, other than maybe some lawyers.

So the EU Commission has taken the exact wrong approach. It’s one that’s almost entirely about looking backwards and “protecting” old ways of doing business, rather than looking forward, and looking at what benefits the public, creators and innovators the most. If this proposal actually gets traction, it will be a complete disaster for the EU innovative community. Hopefully, Europeans speak out, vocally, about what a complete disaster this would be.

So, according to Masnick not even business interests will benefit.

Robots, Dallas (US), ethics, and killing

I’ve waited a while before posting this piece in the hope that the situation would calm. Sadly, it took longer than hoped as there was an additional shooting incident of police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17, 2016. There’s more about that shooting in a July 18, 2016 news posting by Steve Visser for CNN.)

Finally: Robots, Dallas, ethics, and killing: In the wake of the Thursday, July 7, 2016 shooting in Dallas (Texas, US) and subsequent use of a robot armed with a bomb to kill  the suspect, a discussion about ethics has been raised.

This discussion comes at a difficult period. In the same week as the targeted shooting of white police officers in Dallas, two African-American males were shot and killed in two apparently unprovoked shootings by police. The victims were Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Tuesday, July 5, 2016 and, Philando Castile in Minnesota on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (There’s more detail about the shootings prior to Dallas in a July 7, 2016 news item on CNN.) The suspect in Dallas, Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old African-American male had served in the US Army Reserve and been deployed in Afghanistan (there’s more in a July 9, 2016 news item by Emily Shapiro, Julia Jacobo, and Stephanie Wash for abcnews.go.com). All of this has taken place within the context of a movement started in 2013 in the US, Black Lives Matter.

Getting back to robots, most of the material I’ve seen about ‘killing or killer’ robots has so far involved industrial accidents (very few to date) and ethical issues for self-driven cars (see a May 31, 2016 posting by Noah J. Goodall on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Spectrum website).

The incident in Dallas is apparently the first time a US police organization has used a robot as a bomb, although it has been an occasional practice by US Armed Forces in combat situations. Rob Lever in a July 8, 2016 Agence France-Presse piece on phys.org focuses on the technology aspect,

The “bomb robot” killing of a suspected Dallas shooter may be the first lethal use of an automated device by American police, and underscores growing role of technology in law enforcement.

Regardless of the methods in Dallas, the use of robots is expected to grow, to handle potentially dangerous missions in law enforcement and the military.


Researchers at Florida International University meanwhile have been working on a TeleBot that would allow disabled police officers to control a humanoid robot.

The robot, described in some reports as similar to the “RoboCop” in films from 1987 and 2014, was designed “to look intimidating and authoritative enough for citizens to obey the commands,” but with a “friendly appearance” that makes it “approachable to citizens of all ages,” according to a research paper.

Robot developers downplay the potential for the use of automated lethal force by the devices, but some analysts say debate on this is needed, both for policing and the military.

A July 9, 2016 Associated Press piece by Michael Liedtke and Bree Fowler on phys.org focuses more closely on ethical issues raised by the Dallas incident,

When Dallas police used a bomb-carrying robot to kill a sniper, they also kicked off an ethical debate about technology’s use as a crime-fighting weapon.

The strategy opens a new chapter in the escalating use of remote and semi-autonomous devices to fight crime and protect lives. It also raises new questions over when it’s appropriate to dispatch a robot to kill dangerous suspects instead of continuing to negotiate their surrender.

“If lethally equipped robots can be used in this situation, when else can they be used?” says Elizabeth Joh, a University of California at Davis law professor who has followed U.S. law enforcement’s use of technology. “Extreme emergencies shouldn’t define the scope of more ordinary situations where police may want to use robots that are capable of harm.”

In approaching the question about the ethics, Mike Masnick’s July 8, 2016 posting on Techdirt provides a surprisingly sympathetic reading for the Dallas Police Department’s actions, as well as, asking some provocative questions about how robots might be better employed by police organizations (Note: Links have been removed),

The Dallas Police have a long history of engaging in community policing designed to de-escalate situations, rather than encourage antagonism between police and the community, have been handling all of this with astounding restraint, frankly. Many other police departments would be lashing out, and yet the Dallas Police Dept, while obviously grieving for a horrible situation, appear to be handling this tragic situation professionally. And it appears that they did everything they could in a reasonable manner. They first tried to negotiate with Johnson, but after that failed and they feared more lives would be lost, they went with the robot + bomb option. And, obviously, considering he had already shot many police officers, I don’t think anyone would question the police justification if they had shot Johnson.

But, still, at the very least, the whole situation raises a lot of questions about the legality of police using a bomb offensively to blow someone up. And, it raises some serious questions about how other police departments might use this kind of technology in the future. The situation here appears to be one where people reasonably concluded that this was the most effective way to stop further bloodshed. And this is a police department with a strong track record of reasonable behavior. But what about other police departments where they don’t have that kind of history? What are the protocols for sending in a robot or drone to kill someone? Are there any rules at all?

Furthermore, it actually makes you wonder, why isn’t there a focus on using robots to de-escalate these situations? What if, instead of buying military surplus bomb robots, there were robots being designed to disarm a shooter, or detain him in a manner that would make it easier for the police to capture him alive? Why should the focus of remote robotic devices be to kill him? This isn’t faulting the Dallas Police Department for its actions last night. But, rather, if we’re going to enter the age of robocop, shouldn’t we be looking for ways to use such robotic devices in a manner that would help capture suspects alive, rather than dead?

Gordon Corera’s July 12, 2016 article on the BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) news website provides an overview of the use of automation and of ‘killing/killer robots’,

Remote killing is not new in warfare. Technology has always been driven by military application, including allowing killing to be carried out at distance – prior examples might be the introduction of the longbow by the English at Crecy in 1346, then later the Nazi V1 and V2 rockets.

More recently, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones such as the Predator and the Reaper have been used by the US outside of traditional military battlefields.

Since 2009, the official US estimate is that about 2,500 “combatants” have been killed in 473 strikes, along with perhaps more than 100 non-combatants. Critics dispute those figures as being too low.

Back in 2008, I visited the Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert, where drones are flown from.

During our visit, the British pilots from the RAF deployed their weapons for the first time.

One of the pilots visibly bristled when I asked him if it ever felt like playing a video game – a question that many ask.

The military uses encrypted channels to control its ordnance disposal robots, but – as any hacker will tell you – there is almost always a flaw somewhere that a determined opponent can find and exploit.

We have already seen cars being taken control of remotely while people are driving them, and the nightmare of the future might be someone taking control of a robot and sending a weapon in the wrong direction.

The military is at the cutting edge of developing robotics, but domestic policing is also a different context in which greater separation from the community being policed risks compounding problems.

The balance between risks and benefits of robots, remote control and automation remain unclear.

But Dallas suggests that the future may be creeping up on us faster than we can debate it.

The excerpts here do not do justice to the articles, if you’re interested in this topic and have the time, I encourage you to read all the articles cited here in their entirety.

*(ETA: July 25, 2016 at 1405 hours PDT: There is a July 25, 2016 essay by Carrie Sheffield for Salon.com which may provide some insight into the Black Lives matter movement and some of the generational issues within the US African-American community as revealed by the movement.)*

Using copyright to shut down easy access to scientific research

This started out as a simple post on copyright and publishers vis à vis Sci-Hub but then John Dupuis wrote a think piece (with which I disagree somewhat) on the situation in a Feb. 22, 2016 posting on his blog, Confessions of a Science Librarian. More on Dupuis and my take on it after a description of the situation.

Sci-Hub

Before getting to the controversy and legal suit, here’s a preamble about the purpose for copyright as per the US constitution from Mike Masnick’s Feb. 17, 2016 posting on Techdirt,

Lots of people are aware of the Constitutional underpinnings of our copyright system. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 famously says that Congress has the following power:

To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

We’ve argued at great length over the importance of the preamble of that section, “to promote the progress,” but many people are confused about the terms “science” and “useful arts.” In fact, many people not well-versed in the issue often get the two backwards and think that “science” refers to inventions, and thus enables a patent system, while “useful arts” refers to “artistic works” and thus enables the copyright system. The opposite is actually the case. “Science” at the time the Constitution was written was actually synonymous with “learning” and “education” (while “useful arts” was a term meaning invention and new productivity tools).

While over the centuries, many who stood to benefit from an aggressive system of copyright control have tried to rewrite, whitewash or simply ignore this history, turning the copyright system falsely into a “property” regime, the fact is that it was always intended as a system to encourage the wider dissemination of ideas for the purpose of education and learning. The (potentially misguided) intent appeared to be that by granting exclusive rights to a certain limited class of works, it would encourage the creation of those works, which would then be useful in educating the public (and within a few decades enter the public domain).

Masnick’s preamble leads to a case where Elsevier (Publishers) has attempted to halt the very successful Sci-Hub, which bills itself as “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers.” From Masnick’s Feb. 17, 2016 posting,

Rightfully, this is being celebrated as a massive boon to science and learning, making these otherwise hidden nuggets of knowledge and science that were previously locked up and hidden away available to just about anyone. And, to be clear, this absolutely fits with the original intent of copyright law — which was to encourage such learning. In a very large number of cases, it is not the creators of this content and knowledge who want the information to be locked up. Many researchers and academics know that their research has much more of an impact the wider it is seen, read, shared and built upon. But the gatekeepers — such as Elsveier and other large academic publishers — have stepped in and demanded copyright, basically for doing very little.

They do not pay the researchers for their work. Often, in fact, that work is funded by taxpayer funds. In some cases, in certain fields, the publishers actually demand that the authors of these papers pay to submit them. The journals do not pay to review the papers either. They outsource that work to other academics for “peer review” — which again, is unpaid. Finally, these publishers profit massively, having convinced many universities that they need to subscribe, often paying many tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for subscriptions to journals that very few actually read.

Simon Oxenham of the Neurobonkers blog on the big think website wrote a Feb. 9 (?), 2016 post about Sci-Hub, its originator, and its current legal fight (Note: Links have been removed),

On September 5th, 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to nearly every scientific paper ever published immediately to anyone who wants it. …

This was a game changer. Before September 2011, there was no way for people to freely access paywalled research en masse; researchers like Elbakyan were out in the cold. Sci-Hub is the first website to offer this service and now makes the process as simple as the click of a single button.

As the number of papers in the LibGen database expands, the frequency with which Sci-Hub has to dip into publishers’ repositories falls and consequently the risk of Sci-Hub triggering its alarm bells becomes ever smaller. Elbakyan explains, “We have already downloaded most paywalled articles to the library … we have almost everything!” This may well be no exaggeration. Elsevier, one of the most prolific and controversial scientific publishers in the world, recently alleged in court that Sci-Hub is currently harvesting Elsevier content at a rate of thousands of papers per day. Elbakyan puts the number of papers downloaded from various publishers through Sci-Hub in the range of hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to a running total of over 19 million visitors.

In one fell swoop, a network has been created that likely has a greater level of access to science than any individual university, or even government for that matter, anywhere in the world. Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge. This is important now more than ever in a world where even Harvard University can no longer afford to pay skyrocketing academic journal subscription fees, while Cornell axed many of its Elsevier subscriptions over a decade ago. For researchers outside the US’ and Western Europe’s richest institutions, routine piracy has long been the only way to conduct science, but increasingly the problem of unaffordable journals is coming closer to home.

… This was the experience of Elbakyan herself, who studied in Kazakhstan University and just like other students in countries where journal subscriptions are unaffordable for institutions, was forced to pirate research in order to complete her studies. Elbakyan told me, “Prices are very high, and that made it impossible to obtain papers by purchasing. You need to read many papers for research, and when each paper costs about 30 dollars, that is impossible.”

While Sci-Hub is not expected to win its case in the US, where one judge has already ordered a preliminary injunction making its former domain unavailable. (Sci-Hub moved.) Should you be sympathetic to Elsevier, you may want to take this into account (Note: Links have been removed),

Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher and by far the most controversial. Over 15,000 researchers have vowed to boycott the publisher for charging “exorbitantly high prices” and bundling expensive, unwanted journals with essential journals, a practice that allegedly is bankrupting university libraries. Elsevier also supports SOPA and PIPA, which the researchers claim threatens to restrict the free exchange of information. Elsevier is perhaps most notorious for delivering takedown notices to academics, demanding them to take their own research published with Elsevier off websites like Academia.edu.

The movement against Elsevier has only gathered speed over the course of the last year with the resignation of 31 editorial board members from the Elsevier journal Lingua, who left in protest to set up their own open-access journal, Glossa. Now the battleground has moved from the comparatively niche field of linguistics to the far larger field of cognitive sciences. Last month, a petition of over 1,500 cognitive science researchers called on the editors of the Elsevier journal Cognition to demand Elsevier offer “fair open access”. Elsevier currently charges researchers $2,150 per article if researchers wish their work published in Cognition to be accessible by the public, a sum far higher than the charges that led to the Lingua mutiny.

In her letter to Sweet [New York District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet], Elbakyan made a point that will likely come as a shock to many outside the academic community: Researchers and universities don’t earn a single penny from the fees charged by publishers [emphasis mine] such as Elsevier for accepting their work, while Elsevier has an annual income over a billion U.S. dollars.

As Masnick noted, much of this research is done on the public dime (i. e., funded by taxpayers). For her part, Elbakyan has written a letter defending her actions on ethical rather than legal grounds.

I recommend reading the Oxenham article as it provides details about how the site works and includes text from the letter Elbakyan wrote.  For those who don’t have much time, Masnick’s post offers a good précis.

Sci-Hub suit as a distraction from the real issues?

Getting to Dupuis’ Feb. 22, 2016 posting and his perspective on the situation,

My take? Mostly that it’s a sideshow.

One aspect that I have ranted about on Twitter which I think is worth mentioning explicitly is that I think Elsevier and all the other big publishers are actually quite happy to feed the social media rage machine with these whack-a-mole controversies. The controversies act as a sideshow, distracting from the real issues and solutions that they would prefer all of us not to think about.

By whack-a-mole controversies I mean this recurring story of some person or company or group that wants to “free” scholarly articles and then gets sued or harassed by the big publishers or their proxies to force them to shut down. This provokes wide outrage and condemnation aimed at the publishers, especially Elsevier who is reserved a special place in hell according to most advocates of openness (myself included).

In other words: Elsevier and its ilk are thrilled to be the target of all the outrage. Focusing on the whack-a-mole game distracts us from fixing the real problem: the entrenched systems of prestige, incentive and funding in academia. As long as researchers are channelled into “high impact” journals, as long as tenure committees reward publishing in closed rather than open venues, nothing will really change. Until funders get serious about mandating true open access publishing and are willing to put their money where their intentions are, nothing will change. Or at least, progress will be mostly limited to surface victories rather than systemic change.

I think Dupuis is referencing a conflict theory (I can’t remember what it’s called) which suggests that certain types of conflicts help to keep systems in place while apparently attacking those systems. His point is well made but I disagree somewhat in that I think these conflicts can also raise awareness and activate people who might otherwise ignore or mindlessly comply with those systems. So, if Elsevier and the other publishers are using these legal suits as diversionary tactics, they may find they’ve made a strategic error.

ETA April 29, 2016: Sci-Hub does seem to move around so I’ve updated the links so it can be accessed but Sci-Hub’s situation can change at any moment.

Copyright and patent protections and human rights

The United Nations (UN) and cultural rights don’t immediately leap to mind when the subjects of copyright and patents are discussed. A Mar. 13, 2015 posting by Tim Cushing on Techdirt and an Oct. 14, 2015 posting by Glyn Moody also on Techdirt explain the connection in the person of Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights and the author of two UN reports one on copyright and one on patents.

From the Mar. 13, 2015 posting by Tim Cushing,

… Farida Shaheed, has just delivered a less-than-complimentary report on copyright to the UN’s Human Rights Council. Shaheed’s report actually examines where copyright meshes with arts and science — the two areas it’s supposed to support — and finds it runs contrary to the rosy image of incentivized creation perpetuated by the MPAAs and RIAAs of the world.

Shaheed said a “widely shared concern stems from the tendency for copyright protection to be strengthened with little consideration to human rights issues.” This is illustrated by trade negotiations conducted in secrecy, and with the participation of corporate entities, she said.

She stressed the fact that one of the key points of her report is that intellectual property rights are not human rights. “This equation is false and misleading,” she said.

The last statement fires shots over the bows of “moral rights” purveyors, as well as those who view infringement as a moral issue, rather than just a legal one.

Shaheed also points out that the protections being installed around the world at the behest of incumbent industries are not necessarily reflective of creators’ desires. …

Glyn Moody’s Oct. 14, 2015 posting features Shaheed’s latest report on patents,

… As the summary to her report puts it:

There is no human right to patent protection. The right to protection of moral and material interests cannot be used to defend patent laws that inadequately respect the right to participate in cultural life, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, to scientific freedoms and the right to food and health and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Patents, when properly structured, may expand the options and well-being of all people by making new possibilities available. Yet, they also give patent-holders the power to deny access to others, thereby limiting or denying the public’s right of participation to science and culture. The human rights perspective demands that patents do not extend so far as to interfere with individuals’ dignity and well-being. Where patent rights and human rights are in conflict, human rights must prevail.

The report touches on many issues previously discussed here on Techdirt. For example, how pharmaceutical patents limit access to medicines by those unable to afford the high prices monopolies allow — a particularly hot topic in the light of TPP’s rules on data exclusivity for biologics. The impact of patents on seed independence is considered, and there is a warning about corporate sovereignty chapters in trade agreements, and the chilling effects they can have on the regulatory function of states and their ability to legislate in the public interest — for example, with patent laws.

I have two Canadian examples for data exclusivity and corporate sovereignty issues, both from Techdirt. There’s an Oct. 19, 2015 posting by Glyn Moody featuring a recent Health Canada move to threaten a researcher into suppressing information from human clinical trials,

… one of the final sticking points of the TPP negotiations [Trans Pacific Partnership] was the issue of data exclusivity for the class of drugs known as biologics. We’ve pointed out that the very idea of giving any monopoly on what amounts to facts is fundamentally anti-science, but that’s a rather abstract way of looking at it. A recent case in Canada makes plain what data exclusivity means in practice. As reported by CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] News, it concerns unpublished clinical trial data about a popular morning sickness drug:

Dr. Navindra Persaud has been fighting for four years to get access to thousands of pages of drug industry documents being held by Health Canada.

He finally received the material a few weeks ago, but now he’s being prevented from revealing what he has discovered.

That’s because Health Canada required him to sign a confidentiality agreement, and has threatened him with legal action if he breaks it.

The clinical trials data is so secret that he’s been told that he must destroy the documents once he’s read them, and notify Health Canada in writing that he has done so….

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Trans Pacific Partnership is a proposed trade agreement including 12 countries (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam) from the Pacific Rim. If all the countries sign on (it looks as if they will; Canada’s new Prime Minister as of Oct. 19, 2015 seems to be in favour of the agreement although he has yet to make a definitive statement), the TPP will represent a trading block that is almost double the size of the European Union.

An Oct. 8, 2015 posting by Mike Masnick provides a description of corporate sovereignty and of the Eli Lilly suit against the Canadian government.

We’ve pointed out a few times in the past that while everyone refers to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement as a “free trade” agreement, the reality is that there’s very little in there that’s actually about free trade. If it were truly a free trade agreement, then there would be plenty of reasons to support it. But the details show it’s not, and yet, time and time again, we see people supporting the TPP because “well, free trade is good.” …
… it’s that “harmonizing regulatory regimes” thing where the real nastiness lies, and where you quickly discover that most of the key factors in the TPP are not at all about free trade, but the opposite. It’s about as protectionist as can be. That’s mainly because of the really nasty corprorate sovereignty clauses in the agreement (which are officially called “investor state dispute settlement” or ISDS in an attempt to make it sound so boring you’ll stop paying attention). Those clauses basically allow large incumbents to force the laws of countries to change to their will. Companies who feel that some country’s regulation somehow takes away “expected profits” can convene a tribunal, and force a country to change its laws. Yes, technically a tribunal can only issue monetary sanctions against a country, but countries who wish to avoid such monetary payments will change their laws.

Remember how Eli Lilly is demanding $500 million from Canada after Canada rejected some Eli Lilly patents, noting that the new compound didn’t actually do anything new and useful? Eli Lilly claims that using such a standard to reject patents unfairly attacks its expected future profits, and thus it can demand $500 million from Canadian taxpayers. Now, imagine that on all sorts of other systems.

Cultural rights, human rights, corporate rights. It would seem that corporate rights are going to run counter to human rights, if nothing else.

Art project (autonomous bot purchases illegal goods) seized by Swiss law enforcement

Having just attended a talk on Robotics and Rehabilitation which included a segment on Robo Ethics, news of an art project where an autonomous bot (robot) is set loose on the darknet to purchase goods (not all of them illegal) was fascinating in itself (it was part of an art exhibition which also displayed the proceeds of the darknet activity). But things got more interesting when the exhibit attracted legal scrutiny in the UK and occasioned legal action in Switzerland.

Here’s more from a Jan. 23, 2015 article by Mike Masnick for Techdirt (Note: A link has been removed),

… some London-based Swiss artists, !Mediengruppe Bitnik [(Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo)], presented an exhibition in Zurich of The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland. Specifically, they had programmed a bot with some Bitcoin to randomly buy $100 worth of things each week via a darknet market, like Silk Road (in this case, it was actually Agora). The artists’ focus was more about the nature of dark markets, and whether or not it makes sense to make them illegal:

The pair see parallels between copyright law and drug laws: “You can enforce laws, but what does that mean for society? Trading is something people have always done without regulation, but today it is regulated,” says ays [sic] Weiskopff.

“There have always been darkmarkets in cities, online or offline. These questions need to be explored. But what systems do we have to explore them in? Post Snowden, space for free-thinking online has become limited, and offline is not a lot better.”

Interestingly the bot got excellent service as Mike Power wrote in his Dec. 5, 2014 review of the show. Power also highlights some of the legal, ethical, and moral implications,

The gallery is next door to a police station, but the artists say they are not afraid of legal repercussions of their bot buying illegal goods.

“We are the legal owner of the drugs [the bot purchased 10 ecstasy pills along with a baseball cap, a pair of sneaker/runners/trainers among other items] – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code, says Smoljo. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”

The project also aims to explore the ways that trust is built between anonymous participants in a commercial transaction for possibly illegal goods. Perhaps most surprisingly, not one of the 12 deals the robot has made has ended in a scam.

“The markets copied procedures from Amazon and eBay – their rating and feedback system is so interesting,” adds Smojlo. “With such simple tools you can gain trust. The service level was impressive – we had 12 items and everything arrived.”

“There has been no scam, no rip-off, nothing,” says Weiskopff. “One guy could not deliver a handbag the bot ordered, but he then returned the bitcoins to us.”

The exhibition scheduled from Oct. 18, 2014 – Jan. 11, 2015 enjoyed an uninterrupted run but there were concerns in the UK (from the Power article),

A spokesman for the National Crime Agency, which incorporates the National Cyber Crime Unit, was less philosophical, acknowledging that the question of criminal culpability in the case of a randomised software agent making a purchase of an illegal drug was “very unusual”.

“If the purchase is made in Switzerland, then it’s of course potentially subject to Swiss law, on which we couldn’t comment,” said the NCA. “In the UK, it’s obviously illegal to purchase a prohibited drug (such as ecstasy), but any criminal liability would need to assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Masnick describes the followup,

Apparently, that [case-by[case] assessment has concluded in this case, because right after the exhibit closed in Switzerland, law enforcement showed up to seize stuff …

!Mediengruppe Bitnik  issued a Jan. 15, 2015 press release (Note: Links have been removed),

«Can a robot, or a piece of software, be jailed if it commits a crime? Where does legal culpability lie if code is criminal by design or default? What if a robot buys drugs, weapons, or hacking equipment and has them sent to you, and police intercept the package?» These are some of the questions Mike Power asked when he reviewed the work «Random Darknet Shopper» in The Guardian. The work was part of the exhibition «The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration» in the Kunst Halle St. Gallen, which closed on Sunday, January 11, 2015. For the duration of the exhibition, !Mediengruppe Bitnik sent a software bot on a shopping spree in the Deepweb. Random Darknet Shopper had a budget of $100 in Bitcoins weekly, which it spent on a randomly chosen item from the deepweb shop Agora. The work and the exhibition received wide attention from the public and the press. The exhibition was well-attended and was discussed in a wide range of local and international press from Saiten to Vice, Arte, Libération, CNN, Forbes. «There’s just one problem», The Washington Post wrote in January about the work, «recently, it bought 10 ecstasy pills».

What does it mean for a society, when there are robots which act autonomously? Who is liable, when a robot breaks the law on its own initiative? These were some of the main questions the work Random Darknet Shopper posed. Global questions, which will now be negotiated locally.

On the morning of January 12, the day after the three-month exhibition was closed, the public prosecutor’s office of St. Gallen seized and sealed our work. It seems, the purpose of the confiscation is to impede an endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited by destroying them. This is what we know at present. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art. We’d also like to thank Kunst Halle St. Gallen for their ongoing support and the wonderful collaboration. Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions.

This project brings to mind Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics and a question (from the Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Three Laws of Robotics (often shortened to The Three Laws or Three Laws, also known as Asimov’s Laws) are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws are:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Here’s my question, how do you programme a robot to know what would injure a human being? For example, if a human ingests an ecstasy pill the bot purchased, would that be covered in the first law?

Getting back to the robot ethics talk I recently attended, it was given by Ajung Moon (Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia [Vancouver, Canada] studying Human-Robot Interaction and Roboethics. Mechatronics engineer with a sprinkle of Philosophy background). She has a blog,  Roboethic info DataBase where you can read more on robots and ethics.

I strongly recommend reading both Masnick’s post (he positions this action in a larger context) and Power’s article (more details and images from the exhibit).

Cardiac pacemakers: Korea’s in vivo demonstration of a self-powered one* and UK’s breath-based approach

As i best I can determine ,the last mention of a self-powered pacemaker and the like on this blog was in a Nov. 5, 2012 posting (Developing self-powered batteries for pacemakers). This latest news from The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is, I believe, the first time that such a device has been successfully tested in vivo. From a June 23, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

As the number of pacemakers implanted each year reaches into the millions worldwide, improving the lifespan of pacemaker batteries has been of great concern for developers and manufacturers. Currently, pacemaker batteries last seven years on average, requiring frequent replacements, which may pose patients to a potential risk involved in medical procedures.

A research team from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), headed by Professor Keon Jae Lee of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at KAIST and Professor Boyoung Joung, M.D. of the Division of Cardiology at Severance Hospital of Yonsei University, has developed a self-powered artificial cardiac pacemaker that is operated semi-permanently by a flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator.

A June 23, 2014 KAIST news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more details,

The artificial cardiac pacemaker is widely acknowledged as medical equipment that is integrated into the human body to regulate the heartbeats through electrical stimulation to contract the cardiac muscles of people who suffer from arrhythmia. However, repeated surgeries to replace pacemaker batteries have exposed elderly patients to health risks such as infections or severe bleeding during operations.

The team’s newly designed flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator directly stimulated a living rat’s heart using electrical energy converted from the small body movements of the rat. This technology could facilitate the use of self-powered flexible energy harvesters, not only prolonging the lifetime of cardiac pacemakers but also realizing real-time heart monitoring.

The research team fabricated high-performance flexible nanogenerators utilizing a bulk single-crystal PMN-PT thin film (iBULe Photonics). The harvested energy reached up to 8.2 V and 0.22 mA by bending and pushing motions, which were high enough values to directly stimulate the rat’s heart.

Professor Keon Jae Lee said:

“For clinical purposes, the current achievement will benefit the development of self-powered cardiac pacemakers as well as prevent heart attacks via the real-time diagnosis of heart arrhythmia. In addition, the flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator could also be utilized as an electrical source for various implantable medical devices.”

This image illustrating a self-powered nanogenerator for a cardiac pacemaker has been provided by KAIST,

This picture shows that a self-powered cardiac pacemaker is enabled by a flexible piezoelectric energy harvester. Credit: KAIST

This picture shows that a self-powered cardiac pacemaker is enabled by a flexible piezoelectric energy harvester.
Credit: KAIST

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Self-Powered Cardiac Pacemaker Enabled by Flexible Single Crystalline PMN-PT Piezoelectric Energy Harvester by Geon-Tae Hwang, Hyewon Park, Jeong-Ho Lee, SeKwon Oh, Kwi-Il Park, Myunghwan Byun, Hyelim Park, Gun Ahn, Chang Kyu Jeong, Kwangsoo No, HyukSang Kwon, Sang-Goo Lee, Boyoung Joung, and Keon Jae Lee. Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201400562
Article first published online: 17 APR 2014

© 2014 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

There was a May 15, 2014 KAIST news release on EurekAlert announcing this same piece of research but from a technical perspective,

The energy efficiency of KAIST’s piezoelectric nanogenerator has increased by almost 40 times, one step closer toward the commercialization of flexible energy harvesters that can supply power infinitely to wearable, implantable electronic devices

NANOGENERATORS are innovative self-powered energy harvesters that convert kinetic energy created from vibrational and mechanical sources into electrical power, removing the need of external circuits or batteries for electronic devices. This innovation is vital in realizing sustainable energy generation in isolated, inaccessible, or indoor environments and even in the human body.

Nanogenerators, a flexible and lightweight energy harvester on a plastic substrate, can scavenge energy from the extremely tiny movements of natural resources and human body such as wind, water flow, heartbeats, and diaphragm and respiration activities to generate electrical signals. The generators are not only self-powered, flexible devices but also can provide permanent power sources to implantable biomedical devices, including cardiac pacemakers and deep brain stimulators.

However, poor energy efficiency and a complex fabrication process have posed challenges to the commercialization of nanogenerators. Keon Jae Lee, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at KAIST, and his colleagues have recently proposed a solution by developing a robust technique to transfer a high-quality piezoelectric thin film from bulk sapphire substrates to plastic substrates using laser lift-off (LLO).

Applying the inorganic-based laser lift-off (LLO) process, the research team produced a large-area PZT thin film nanogenerators on flexible substrates (2 cm x 2 cm).

“We were able to convert a high-output performance of ~250 V from the slight mechanical deformation of a single thin plastic substrate. Such output power is just enough to turn on 100 LED lights,” Keon Jae Lee explained.

The self-powered nanogenerators can also work with finger and foot motions. For example, under the irregular and slight bending motions of a human finger, the measured current signals had a high electric power of ~8.7 μA. In addition, the piezoelectric nanogenerator has world-record power conversion efficiency, almost 40 times higher than previously reported similar research results, solving the drawbacks related to the fabrication complexity and low energy efficiency.

Lee further commented,

“Building on this concept, it is highly expected that tiny mechanical motions, including human body movements of muscle contraction and relaxation, can be readily converted into electrical energy and, furthermore, acted as eternal power sources.”

The research team is currently studying a method to build three-dimensional stacking of flexible piezoelectric thin films to enhance output power, as well as conducting a clinical experiment with a flexible nanogenerator.

In addition to the 2012 posting I mentioned earlier, there was also this July 12, 2010 posting which described research on harvesting biomechanical movement ( heart beat, blood flow, muscle stretching, or even irregular vibration) at the Georgia (US) Institute of Technology where the lead researcher observed,

…  Wang [Professor Zhong Lin Wang at Georgia Tech] tells Nanowerk. “However, the applications of the nanogenerators under in vivo and in vitro environments are distinct. Some crucial problems need to be addressed before using these devices in the human body, such as biocompatibility and toxicity.”

Bravo to the KAIST researchers for getting this research to the in vivo testing stage.

Meanwhile at the University of Bristol and at the University of Bath, researchers have received funding for a new approach to cardiac pacemakers, designed them with the breath in mind. From a June 24, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Pacemaker research from the Universities of Bath and Bristol could revolutionise the lives of over 750,000 people who live with heart failure in the UK.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is awarding funding to researchers developing a new type of heart pacemaker that modulates its pulses to match breathing rates.

A June 23, 2014 University of Bristol press release, which originated the news item, provides some context,

During 2012-13 in England, more than 40,000 patients had a pacemaker fitted.

Currently, the pulses from pacemakers are set at a constant rate when fitted which doesn’t replicate the natural beating of the human heart.

The normal healthy variation in heart rate during breathing is lost in cardiovascular disease and is an indicator for sleep apnoea, cardiac arrhythmia, hypertension, heart failure and sudden cardiac death.

The device is then briefly described (from the press release),

The novel device being developed by scientists at the Universities of Bath and Bristol uses synthetic neural technology to restore this natural variation of heart rate with lung inflation, and is targeted towards patients with heart failure.

The device works by saving the heart energy, improving its pumping efficiency and enhancing blood flow to the heart muscle itself.  Pre-clinical trials suggest the device gives a 25 per cent increase in the pumping ability, which is expected to extend the life of patients with heart failure.

One aim of the project is to miniaturise the pacemaker device to the size of a postage stamp and to develop an implant that could be used in humans within five years.

Dr Alain Nogaret, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Bath, explained“This is a multidisciplinary project with strong translational value.  By combining fundamental science and nanotechnology we will be able to deliver a unique treatment for heart failure which is not currently addressed by mainstream cardiac rhythm management devices.”

The research team has already patented the technology and is working with NHS consultants at the Bristol Heart Institute, the University of California at San Diego and the University of Auckland. [emphasis mine]

Professor Julian Paton, from the University of Bristol, added: “We’ve known for almost 80 years that the heart beat is modulated by breathing but we have never fully understood the benefits this brings. The generous new funding from the BHF will allow us to reinstate this natural occurring synchrony between heart rate and breathing and understand how it brings therapy to hearts that are failing.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the BHF, said: “This study is a novel and exciting first step towards a new generation of smarter pacemakers. More and more people are living with heart failure so our funding in this area is crucial. The work from this innovative research team could have a real impact on heart failure patients’ lives in the future.”

Given some current events (‘Tesla opens up its patents’, Mike Masnick’s June 12, 2014 posting on Techdirt), I wonder what the situation will be vis à vis patents by the time this device gets to market.

* ‘one’ added to title on Aug. 13, 2014.

Green chemistry and zinc oxide nanoparticles from Iran (plus some unhappy scoop about Elsevier and access)

It’s been a while since I’ve featured any research from Iran partly due to the fact that I find the information disappointingly scant. While the Dec. 22, 2013 news item on Nanowerk doesn’t provide quite as much detail as I’d like it does shine a light on an aspect of Iranian nanotechnology research that I haven’t previously encountered, green chemistry (Note: A link has been removed),

Researchers used a simple and eco-friendly method to produce homogenous zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles with various applications in medical industries due to their photocatalytic and antibacterial properties (“Sol–gel synthesis, characterization, and neurotoxicity effect of zinc oxide nanoparticles using gum tragacanth”).

Zinc oxide nanoparticles have numerous applications, among which mention can be made of photocatalytic issues, piezoelectric devices, synthesis of pigments, chemical sensors, drug carriers in targeted drug delivery, and the production of cosmetics such as sunscreen lotions.

The Dec. 22, 2013 Iran Nanotechnology Initiative Council (INIC) news release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

By using natural materials found in the geography of Iran and through sol-gel technique, the researchers synthesized zinc oxide nanoparticles in various sizes. To this end, they used zinc nitrate hexahydrate and gum tragacanth obtained from the Northern parts of Khorassan Razavi Province as the zinc-providing source and the agent to control the size of particles in aqueous solution, respectively.

Among the most important characteristics of the synthesis method, mention can be made of its simplicity, the use of cost-effective materials, conservation of green chemistry principals to prevent the use of hazardous materials to human safety and environment, production of nanoparticles in homogeneous size and with high efficiency, and most important of all, the use of native materials that are only found in Iran and its introduction to the world.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sol–gel synthesis, characterization, and neurotoxicity effect of zinc oxide nanoparticles using gum tragacanth by Majid Darroudi, Zahra Sabouri, Reza Kazemi Oskuee, Ali Khorsand Zak, Hadi Kargar, and Mohamad Hasnul Naim Abd Hamidf. Ceramics International, Volume 39, Issue 8, December 2013, Pages 9195–9199

There’s a bit more technical information in the paper’s abstract,

The use of plant extract in the synthesis of nanomaterials can be a cost effective and eco-friendly approach. In this work we report the “green” and biosynthesis of zinc oxide nanoparticles (ZnO-NPs) using gum tragacanth. Spherical ZnO-NPs were synthesized at different calcination temperatures. Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) imaging showed the formation most of nanoparticles in the size range of below 50 nm. The powder X-ray diffraction (PXRD) analysis revealed wurtzite hexagonal ZnO with preferential orientation in (101) reflection plane. In vitro cytotoxicity studies on neuro2A cells showed a dose dependent toxicity with non-toxic effect of concentration below 2 µg/mL. The synthesized ZnO-NPs using gum tragacanth were found to be comparable to those obtained from conventional reduction methods using hazardous polymers or surfactants and this method can be an excellent alternative for the synthesis of ZnO-NPs using biomaterials.

I was not able to find the DOI (digital object identifier) and this paper is behind a paywall.

Elsevier and access

On a final note, Elsevier, the company that publishes Ceramics International and many other journals, is arousing some ire with what appears to be its latest policies concerning access according to a Dec. 20, 2013 posting by Mike Masnick for Techdirt Note: Links have been removed),

We just recently wrote about the terrible anti-science/anti-knowledge/anti-learning decision by publishing giant Elsevier to demand that Academia.edu take down copies of journal articles that were submitted directly by the authors, as Elsevier wished to lock all that knowledge (much of it taxpayer funded) in its ridiculously expensive journals. Mike Taylor now alerts us that Elsevier is actually going even further in its war on access to knowledge. Some might argue that Elsevier was okay in going after a “central repository” like Academia.edu, but at least it wasn’t going directly after academics who were posting pdfs of their own research on their own websites. While some more enlightened publishers explicitly allow this, many (including Elsevier) technically do not allow it, but have always looked the other way when authors post their own papers.

That’s now changed. As Taylor highlights, the University of Calgary sent a letter to its staff saying that a company “representing” Elsevier, was demanding that they take down all such articles on the University’s network.

While I do feature the topic of open access and other issues with intellectual property from time to time, you’ll find Masnick’s insights and those of his colleagues are those of people who are more intimately familiar (albeit firmly committed to open access) with the issues should you choose to read his Dec. 20, 2013 posting in its entirely.

About GoldiBlox, the Beastie Boys, girls in science, and intellectual property

This story about GoldiBlox, was supposed to be a ‘feel good’ piece about the company, girls,  and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)—but that was last week. At this point (Nov. 26, 2013), we can add a squabble over intellectual property (copyright) to the mix.

GoldiBlox, a company that makes engineering toys for girls (previously mentioned in my Dec. 6, 2012 posting) has produced an advertisement that has been attracting a lot of interest on the internet including this Nov. 19, 2013 story by Katy Waldman for Slate (Note: Links have been removed),

This is a stupendously awesome commercial from a toy company called GoldieBlox, which has developed a set of interactive books and games to “disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.” The CEO, Debbie Sterling, studied engineering at Stanford, where she was dismayed by the lack of women in her program. (For a long look at the Gordian knot that is women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields,  … . Sterling wants to light girls’ inventive spark early, supplementing the usual diet of glittery princess products with construction toys “from a female perspective.”

We love this video because it subverts a bunch of dumb gender stereotypes—all to the strains of a repurposed Beastie Boys song. [emphasis mine] In it, a trio of smart girls could not be less impressed by the flouncing beauty queens in the commercial they’re watching. So they use a motley collection of toys and household items (including a magenta feather boa and a pink plastic tea set) to assemble a huge Rube Goldberg machine. …

Here’s the video (no longer available with Beastie Boys parody song as of Nov. 27, 2013; I have placed the latest version at the end of this posting),,

You can find GoldieBlox here.

Things have turned a little since Waldman’s rapturous story. The Beastie Boys do not want their music to be used in advertisements, of any kind. From Christina Chaey’s Nov. 25, 2013 article for Fast Company,

Beastie Boys members Mike D and Ad-Rock, who survive the late Adam “MCA” Yauch, have issued the following open letter addressed to GoldieBlox:

Like many of the millions of people who have seen your toy commercial “GoldieBlox, Rube Goldberg & the Beastie Boys,” we were very impressed by the creativity and the message behind your ad. We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering.

As creative as it is, make no mistake, your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads. When we tried to simply ask how and why our song “Girls” had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.

Chaey’s article goes on to document responses from other musicians about this incident and notes that GoldiBlox has not commented.

Techdirt’s Mike Masnic, also has a Nov. 25, 2013 article on the topic where he notes that neither party has filed suit  (at least, not yet),

Now, it is true that some in the press have mistakenly stated that the Beastie Boys sued GoldieBlox, and that’s clearly not the case. GoldieBlox filed for declaratory judgment, which is a fairly standard move after someone claims that you violated their rights. It’s not a lawsuit seeking money — just to declare that the use is fair use. While the Beastie Boys say they made no threat or demand, the lawsuit notes that their letter (which still has not been revealed in full) made a direct claim that the video was copyright infringement, and also that this was a “big problem” that has a “very significant impact.”

As Masnick goes on to mention (Note: A link has been removed),

.. in fact, that in Adam Yauch’s  [deceased band member] will, it explicitly stated that none of their music was ever to be used in advertising. And, from the Beastie Boys’ open letter, it appears that was their main concern.

But, here’s the thing: as principled as Yauch was about this, and as admirable as it may be for him and the band to not want their music appearing in advertisements that does not matter under the law. If the use is considered fair use, then it can be used. Period. There is no clause in fair use law that says “except if someone’s will says otherwise.” The very point of fair use is that you don’t need permission and you don’t need a license.

Sometimes (often) the resolution to these disagreements has more to do with whomever can best afford legal costs and less to do with points of law, even if they are in your favour. From Masnick’s article,

I’ve spoken to a bunch of copyright lawyers about this, and almost all of them agree that this is likely fair use (with some arguing that it’s a totally clear-cut case). Some have argued that because it’s an advertisement for a company that precludes any possibility of fair use, but that’s absolutely not true. Plenty of commercial efforts have been considered fair use, and, in fact, many of the folks who rely the most on fair use are large media companies who are using things in a commercial context.

It’s nice when the good guys are clearly distinguishable from the bad guys but it appears this may not entirely be the case with GoldiBlox, which apparently believes it can grant licences to link to their website, as per Mike Masnick’s Nov. 26, 2013 Techdirt posting on the topic (Note: Links have been removed),

… as noted in Jeff Roberts’ coverage of the case over at Gigaom, it appears that Goldieblox might want to take a closer look at their own terms of service, which makes some absolutely ridiculous and laughable claims about how you can’t link to their website …

… Because just as you don’t need a license to create a parody song, you don’t need a license to link to someone’s website.

I do hope things work out with regard to the parody song and as for licencing links to their website, that’s just silly.  One final note, Canadians do not have ‘fair use’ provisions under the law, we have ‘fair dealing’ and that is a little different. From the Wikipedia essay on Fair Dealing (Note: Links have been removed),

Fair dealing is a statutory exception to copyright infringement. It is a defence, with the burden of proof upon the defendant.

Should I ever learn of the outcome of this GoldiBlox/Beastie Boys conflict I will provide an update.

ETA Nov. 27, 2013: GoldiBlox has changed the soundtrack for their video as per the Nov. 27, 2013 article by Kit Eaton for Fast Company,

The company explains it has replaced the video and is ready to quash its lawsuit “as long as this means we will no longer be under threat from [the band’s] legal team.”

Eaton has more quotes from the letter written by the GoldiBlox team in his article. For the curious, I have the latest version of the commercial here,

I don’t think the new music is as effective but if I remember the video properly, they’ve made some changes and I like those.

ETA Nov. 27, 2013 (2): I can’t believe I’m adding material to this posting for the second time today. Ah well. Katy Waldman over at Slate has weighed in for the second time with a Nov. 27, 2013 article discussing the Beastie Boys situation briefly while focussing primarily on whether or not the company actually does produce toys that encourage girls in their engineering and science efforts. It seems the consensus, such as it is, would be: not really. Not having played with the toys myself, I have no worthwhile opinion to offer on the topic but you might want to check Waldman’s article to see what more informed folks have to say.

Mary Elizabetth Williams in her Nov. 27, 2013 article for Salon.com seems more supportive of the Beastie Boys’ position than the Mike Masnick at Techdirt. She’s also quite critical of GoldieBlox’s open letter mentioned in today’s first ETA. I agree with many of her criticisms.

Hopefully, this will be it for this story.