Copyright Act of 1790

Perverse Incentives created Patent Trolls

Rackspace is one among many businesses to have recently been attacked by the patent trolls that Kirby Ferguson talked about in Everything Is A Remix.

Fortunately for all of us, they are standing up for themselves (and for everyone else too) by fighting back. It’s a costly battle, but I’m delighted to see them stepping up. If you can afford it, then please contribute funds to them so they know we appreciate their having chosen the more costly road in service of the common good.

Patent and copyright laws are both in serious need of radical reform in the US and globally, and I thank Rackspace for not caving in to the patent trolls, but as they wrote, it has become a never-ending game of whack-a-troll.

That’s because with existing legislation, the patent troll business model is financially very sound if also inherently corrosive to society as a whole. “The dynamics of local vs. global optimization” is jargon from the team-building and process-design communities that applies here: a successful business strategy for the patent trolls is a huge failure for the community as a whole. This could also be considered a perverse incentive.

There are perverse incentives in both copyright and patent law that undermine the original Constitutional goals of “promot[ing] the Progress of Science and useful Arts…” that are especially powerful in our age of ever-increasing innovation where digital computers and The Internet have created a radically different “landscape” than that which existed when the first such laws were drafted.

Ideally, thoughtful legislative reforms would prevent such perverse incentives in the future so that both copyright and patent law would once again be aligned to serve the common good rather than the good of a few.

Alan Schoenbaum (Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary for Rackspace) wrote the aforementioned blog post and in doing so, quoted Joel Spolsky: “Life is a bit hard sometimes, and sometimes you have to step up and fight fights that you never signed up for.” This is a great segue, for large and democratic communities (such as those Joel Spolsky helped create with full of good questions and answers could go a long way towards helping to craft such thoughtful legislative reforms. See Ask Patents for such a community on patents, and CopyrightX for such a proposed community on copyright.

Anyone who feels strongly about these issues, please go get involved by “Follow”ing the proposed CopyrightX community and submitting 5 Example Questions. If you need help coming up with good Example Questions, see Prof. Fisher’s CopyrightX lecture on the music industry for some ideas. With enough voting and other participation, the CopyrightX community proposal can graduate to an actual community like Ask Patents.

And with two vibrant communities full of good questions and answers related to IP law, perhaps future legislation will be free of perverse incentives, and we can once again rely on our laws to serve ALL of our best interests.

In the interim, thanks again Rackspace for being willing to continue the costly game of whack-a-troll on behalf of all of us.

Looking forward to seeing what comes out of this!

Campus Entrepreneurship

Startup Mason and The Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship are hosting HackMason 1.0 on April 5th and 6th. We will be offering broad #highered challenges for our attendees (sign up here). One of the challenges will involve developing for edX and its Xblock. Here are some basics at GitHub on XBlock Courseware Components from (created by Harvard and MIT):

XBlock is a component architecture by for building courseware.

This is a pre-alpha release of the XBlock API, to gather input from potential users of the API. We like what is here, but are open to suggestions for changes. We will be implementing this shortly in the edX LMS.

This repo contains the core code for implementing XBlocks as well as a simple workbench application for running XBlocks in a small simple environment.

BackgroundEdX courseware is built out of components that are combined hierarchically. These include components like…

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Knight News Challenge

Check out our Knight News Challenge entry proposing an experimental copyright-free zone.

The Knight News Challenge accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information. Winners receive a share of $5 million in funding and support from Knight’s network of influential peers and advisors to help advance their ideas.

CopyrightX Google+ Community

The CopyrightX StackExchange community proposal is great for posting Example Questions so as to move the proposal forward to the next phase, but I think it’s not so great for discussion (by design). That said, however, discussion is often a good thing in the right place.

So I created a CopyrightX Google+ Community for discussions about copyright in general and CopyrightX on SE in particular. It’s private and not indexed by the search engines. If you’d like to receive an invitation, please comment here or send email to from your Google+ associated email address. Please note that the invitation will not show up as an email message or even a notification in G+. It seems to show up in your G+ circle feed/stream. If you don’t see it, try searching your stream for the community name which is of course just CopyrightX.

Why SE has great value to communities

The 2013 moderator election for is a vivid example of why StackExchange has such great value to communities. Has anyone ever seen anything like this on a discussion forum? I haven’t. was the first community hosted by StackExchange, but any community with adequate interest could be doing the same kinds of things as what you see here in StackOverflow.

The election there starts on 8 March and ends on 12 March, so the page linked above may look different depending upon which day you check it. Also, if you’re not logged in to your SE account (and also if you haven’t started an account in the StackOverflow community), then you won’t see the number of votes each candidate currently has, and you won’t see up- and down-arrows to vote for any of the candidates, but you’ll at least see their self-descriptions.

What CopyrightX needs now

As of this moment, CopyrightX has 4 followers (one of which is me), and although having followers is great, what the proposal really needs now are Example Questions (EQs) and voting activity by the followers. In my last post, I mentioned that I’d address voting in a later post, and I’ll do that briefly here.

Recall that like all SE communities, CopyrightX is not a discussion forum. CopyrightX will be defined by questions and answers. But also recall that in the definition phase, not even answers are involved. At this point, only questions (more specifically, Example Questions) will define CopyrightX.

Example Questions (EQ)

Every SE network user is allowed to contribute up to 5 Example Questions (EQ) to any one community proposal. Thus far, I’ve contributed my allotment of EQs to CopyrightX and am permitted by the SE software to contribute no more unless I first delete one of my existing EQs. And it’s not really even as simple as deleting an EQ. Instead, I think I vote to delete an EQ and the other followers may also vote on that too. I’m pretty happy with my 5 EQs though (in spite of their having received some down-votes and some negative feedback in the comments, so I’ll leave them as is for now.

So for the 3 other current followers of CopyrightX, the best way for you to contribute to this community proposal now is to think long and hard about the best 5 EQs that you can come up with. My fellow classmates in HLS1x will, I think, have no problem with that, but if you’d like some advice on what kinds of EQs you should post to CopyrightX then please feel free to ask me in email and I’ll try to offer some suggestions.

Each question helps to define our community (and may be difficult to delete), so please think carefully about the EQs that you post to CopyrightX. Each EQ will need to be pithy (less than or equal to 150 characters and the SE software enforces this limit). Each EQ will also need to be very specific and answerable. See the other SE users’ comments on my 5 EQs for some thoughts on what types of EQs to post and (perhaps more importantly) what types of EQs to avoid. The best types of EQs are probably ones that you know the answers for and could cite the source of the specific answer if asked to do so (again, we should be posting no answers at this point though). Maybe “What is the duration of copyright protection in the USA without renewal?” would be a good EQ. I’m thinking that a poor choice for an EQ would be something like, “What are moral rights?” because it’s not very specific (they vary from nation to nation) and it’s open to a great deal of interpretation. If you have a great EQ in mind but it won’t fit in the character limit, then try to pare it down and then post it and elaborate upon it using the comment field that will appear directly below the EQ after you post it.


The other main thing that CopyrightX needs now is voting activity by the followers. The SE software hides who votes for what and how they vote (except cumulatively; see below), so I’m not sure if any of the CopyrightX followers have done any voting. I have a feeling that none have voted, and if that’s the case, then the proposal really needs your votes.

SE users can vote on almost anything. We can vote on EQs (CopyrightX needs this), proper questions (in the site and CopyrightX needs this too), answers, comments, announcements (just below the community description) and I think those are all the possibilities but you should keep an eye out for up-arrows and down-arrows throughout the site.

Voting improves your own reputation score (I know I still need to explain this in the context of SE but hopefully the word is at least partially self-explanatory) though only slightly I think. Voting also affects other SE users reputation scores. Be careful about down-voting because new SE users require a certain reputation score to gain the privilege of down-voting, and perhaps more importantly, down-voting often lowers your own reputation score slightly (although this may not be true in the case of EQs), so it’s something that you probably won’t want to do much of until your reputation score is in the hundreds. You are only allowed to cast 5 up-votes for EQs in any one proposed community, so use your votes wisely. There may be a similar limit on down-votes although I’m not sure yet. In particular, don’t up-vote any EQs that already hold a score of 10. Such votes are wasted in terms of moving the community proposal forward and you’re only allowed to vote up 5 EQs. Furthermore, the SE software often prevents your going back later and revising a vote, so vote carefully and thoughtfully. Also, I think that your SE profile keeps track and makes public your cumulative voting record, so if you submit 15 down-votes and only 2 up-votes then that says something about your judgment that you may not want to make public (even if you’re not using your full legal name on SE).

So that’s what CopyrightX really needs now. Please write 5 thoughtful and specific EQs and please vote on 5 EQs.

Please also consider voting on the 4 discussion questions (and their answers and comments) that are currently associated with the proposal. My second discussion question “Why has CopyrightX been closed” was particularly controversial and earned at least 5 down-votes. This lowered my reputation slightly but I posted that question in order to try and draw the SE exec’s attention to the issue (he was unresponsive in email and I felt like hours were precious at that time because I had only an hour or so before just announced the proposal to about 1,000 people; because he had closed it, nobody was allowed by the SE software to follow the community in the wake of my announcement) and also to try and explain to any of the 1,000 people I had just alerted that it had only recently been closed and was subject to imminent reopening (so that they might come back and check again later). If you think that any of my 4 discussion questions (DQs) have merit, then please consider up-voting them. This would improve my reputation score slightly, but much more importantly, it shows other SE users who are not CopyrightX followers and who are watching this community how you feel about these DQs. I was able to get the proposal reopened about 18 hours after it was closed primarily because of my having posted that -5 scoring DQ (though I might have been able to do the same without including the email message I sent him in the public DQ). In that regard, my feeling is that the DQ deserves a better score than -5, but up-votes are only likely to come from CopyrightX followers.

About StackExchange (SE)

I think SE may be a new experience to some of my readers, so I’m going to try and explain it here the way I see it. Corrections welcome. Someone else wrote this about SE with regard to his proposed community for Building Performance Simulation & Analysis.

SE jargon (words that you think you may know what they mean, but that have a slightly—and importantly—different meaning in the context of SE than you may be accustomed to) words are in bold below.

Not a Discussion Forum

First, it would be a big mistake to think of SE as a discussion forum. The designers and users of SE have gone to great lengths over 5+ years to intentionally stifle discussion per se, and if you post something on pretty much any part of SE that seems “discussion-y,” then you will probably find someone coming along and reminding you not to do that and maybe even editing your post. It may come as a surprise to learn that other SE users are able to edit some of the things you post there, but it’s true and I think it’s a good thing in the long-term even if it feels wrong initially.

SE literally and strictly “…has eschewed social networking conventions like letting users follow each other, the way Quora does. It also lets people sign in with fake names. ‘It all comes down to: Do you know the answer? Spolsky said.” (pardon the forward reference)

Strictly Questions & Answers

So if it’s not a discussion forum, then what is SE? It’s strictly a Q&A network. In the words of the SE CEO Joel Spolsky, “the goal of the company is to make The Internet a better place to get expert answers to your questions.” He goes on to say, “If you go to ask a question about physics, you don’t go out to a football stadium and shout out ‘Who can answer my question about physics?What you’re going to do is go to a university physics department and try and find someone to help you there, and our idea is to build those [university] departments [in the form of SE communities].”

So if you’re interested in this new CopyrightX community proposal on SE then that’s a really important thing to constantly keep in the back of your mind. We are trying to build a kind-of university department full of experts where people from all over the world who have questions about copyright can just come and ask in our community and get expert answers. That said, however, CopyrightX is not yet that entity. Our community is in its infancy, in a phase called Definition (note well the words, “This proposal is in: Definition. The topic and audience are still being decided.” in the upper right of the proposal page). More on this below.

If you’re one of my fellow students in HLS1x then you may already be an attorney practicing in intellectual property law in your country, and as such you are of course already truly an expert in the sense I mean for CopyrightX (and in every other sense too).

If you’re in HLS1x but you’re not an attorney (like me), then you really should start thinking of yourself as a kind-of expert on copyright already, even though we’ve only been in the class for 3-4 weeks.

If you’re neither an attorney nor in HLS1x but are nonetheless interested enough in CopyrightX to have followed the proposal, then welcome! and please send me an email and introduce yourself (actually I’d appreciate it if all CopyrightX followers sent me an email). In this case, it would be fine to think of yourself as something other than an expert, and non-experts are certainly welcome in CopyrightX. Non-experts on a topic have a very important role in SE communities, and that is asking detailed, concrete, answerable questions. I’ll elaborate on what I mean here in a later post, maybe this weekend.

In all three cases above, if you have followed or intend to follow CopyrightX on SE then you should think of yourself as being part of “…an enthusiastic, committed group of expert users who check in [at SE] regularly, asking and answering questions.” However, we’re not yet in the phase of answering questions because CopyrightX is still in the Definition phase. I’ll explain that below.

The Evolution of a SE Community Proposal

What I’ve done here is to propose a new community on SE. The first thing you need to know about this word propose on SE is that newly proposed communities are pre-programmed to close if they don’t get adequate attention. It is up to the followers and committers of a community proposal on SE to try and ensure that the proposal gets enough attention to survive this pre-programmed closure.  CopyrightX has already been closed once by one of the executives at StackExchange, Inc. through what I’m pretty sure was a misunderstanding, and in trying to get it reopened quickly (I had just announced it to something like 1,000 people only hours before he closed it), I unfortunately annoyed several SE members who demonstrated their disapproval by down-voting my question. More on up-voting and down-voting in a later post.

Definition Phase

The topic and audience of the community proposal are still being decided in this phase. Brand newly proposed communities all need a total of 60 followers and 40 questions with a score of 10 or more in order to move beyond this phase into the next phase. Here are three examples of community proposals in Definition: Medicine (with 40 followers and 27 Example Questions as I write, only 1 of which currently holds a score of 10 or more) and Mechanical Engineering (with 51 followers and 23 Example Questions as I write, 7 questions of which currently hold a score of 10 or more) and Feminism (with 27 followers and 33 Example Questions as I write, only 1 question of which currently holds a score of 10 or more).

Committment Phase

This is where things start to get serious. Your SE reputation (a numerical score by which other SE users can judge you at a glance; more on this in another post) is not really at stake if you’re merely following a community proposal. But if you commit and don’t follow through, then your reputation score will probably suffer (not sure exactly how yet).

By commit, SE means something akin to the following (copied from SE on the day this post was published when I committed to participate in the Space Exploration community): “I commit to participate actively in Space Exploration for at least three months, especially during the private beta, and to ask or answer at least ten questions.” It also means filling in a form with your “Full Name” (though the CEO is on the record in the video above that we’re welcome to use fake names on SE and other users acknowledge having done this for commit phase) and your Primary Role/Interest in the community you are committing to participate in. SE says (somewhere) that your full name does not appear publicly but your Primary Role in the community will be public. My advice is that if you’re the least bit uncomfortable making your full legal name a part of your SE user profile (as I am), then you either use a fake name or something similar but not exactly your full legal name (as I did). The SE software also enforces a limit of either 3 or 4 communities that you’re allowed to commit to participating in. And at this phase in the development of a community proposal, the Example Questions become locked.

A proposed community requires at least 200 people to commit to actively participating in it before it moves to the next phase. Actually it’s more complicated than that. The exact requirements depend on a community commitment score that is the minimum of three scores computed by the SE software using community member reputation scores and number of committed members as inputs. Aside from Space Exploration, another example of a proposed SE community in the Commit phase is Network Engineering.

Private Beta Phase

I’ll write more about this in a later post. CopyrightX is a long way from being here. Reverse Engineering is a SE community proposal that has only just today (edited on 20 March 2013) entered Private Beta Phase.  This question and answer may also enlighten.

Public Beta Phase

I’ll write more about this in a later post. CopyrightX is a long way from being here and I still have to study for HLS1x, but two examples are: Biology where I am most active within the SE network and Philosophy where I just joined yesterday and haven’t yet really participated by either asking or answering any questions though I have enjoyed reading some of them.

Long-Term Perspective

I’ve been a member of the Biology community on SE since December 2012, so I’m still learning about SE networks, but it’s clear to me after participating fairly actively since then that it will serve my best interests here to adopt a long-term (years) perspective within this network of communities. It’s quite clear to me after 20+ years of very active Internet-use that SE is totally new to The Internet and a very positive contribution to it thus far. I hope that it will not eventually become more focused on profit than improving The Internet, but who knows what will happen in the future. This much is clear to me though: in it’s 5-year history (starting with StackOverflow), SE is very quickly becoming the most important and most popular replacement for mailing lists and bulletin boards and discussion forums and the whole previous generation of tools through which Internet users found answers to hard questions. I really think that SE has a long-term future. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the SE software eventually becomes a full-blown Internet protocol like smtp or imap or any of the myriad other Internet protocols that are now invisible to most of us because we use them so often.

Reiterating a part of my last post, one community leader of the Geographic Information Systems (which successfully completed its public beta phase a year ago, thereby escaping pre-programmed closure of the proposal) site summarized the impact on that community:

I’ve been working in the GIS field for almost 15 years and been active on every applicable BBS, mailing list, online forum and wiki for that time. I can honestly state that GIS SE has something that all those others didn’t, and that something is valuable and worth nurturing.

Because of how SE communities are implemented in software (and I’ve really only scratched the surface in explaining that here) I really think that CopyrightX has the potential to become a very powerful and positive influence for everyone in the world with regard to the reform of copyright legislation both nationally and internationally. It may take years to get there, but I think this community will be so important to so many people (because after all, copyright influences all of our lives to a very great degree) that it will be around for many years to come.

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