Open public information! NSW RailCorp insanity edition

What do we want on mobile phone? Public transport time table information. It helps commuters and saves the environment. Is there anyone who could be harmed? No, but provide a value opportunity and there is some moron ready to take it away.

According to this ZDNet report, Alvin Singh, who has developed Transit Sydney – an iPhone application that provides a train timetable for Sydney – took his application to the No.2 spot for travel applications on the iTunes App Store only to be sent a legal cease and desist notice from Rail Corporation NSW:

[DDET Read more]

“I advise that copyright in all CityRail timetables is owned by RailCorp,” said the email, which has been seen by “Any use of these timetables in a manner which breaches copyright by a third party can only occur through the grant of a suitable licence by RailCorp.”

This is a government organisation whose statement of values includes “We work hard to provide quality customer service” and “We work within a just culture that will be honest and ethical” but want to put up barriers to get key information out to customers at no cost to them.

Singh took the legal route and here is what he found:

Asked under what terms a developer could get access to a “suitable licence” as per the email sent to Singh, Rea said such licences are currently unavailable to developers while RailCorp firms up its own mobile development strategy. A timetable application for iPhone and other mobile users is expected later in the year, he said, although it was not yet clear whether this would be provided for free or at a price.

Oh great. Suggest the only route is to do A and then so you can’t do A. Their own “mobile development strategy”? Come on. What is the harm? So long as Singh doesn’t claim to be official and customers are informed, then there is no problem.

Here is what RailCorp say:

“RailCorp’s primary concern here is that our customers receive accurate, up-to-date timetable information,” RailCorp spokesperson Paul Rea explained. “This includes details of service interruptions, special event services, track work and other changes.”

Well actually, is RailCorp worried that customers who know about timetables might complain when the trains don’t run on time? Hmm, maybe they want to provide ‘indicative’ timetables only.


Will Twitter survive?

I just watched the TED talk by Evan Williams about how Twitter is giving rise to interesting and unexpected applications (link). It really speaks to the benefit of having a flexible interface that other people can use to build innovative applications upon. It’s early days yet, and I can’t help but wonder if Twitter will survive as a separate entity. Who does it really appeal to? Despite reports of becoming more mainstream, Twitter only has a few million users, a small fraction of online users. After tinkering around with it a little, I think the underlying technology is quite easily replicable by other firms. The IP doesn’t seem easy to protect, and network lock-in doesn’t seem as strong as for other applications like email and facebook. I suspect that as a user, I could easily switch to another provider with a single ‘tweet’ to all my followers to find me at the new provider. And, where will their revenue come from? My prediction is that if it proves succesful, we’ll see tweeter-like status updates built into everything ranging from your google desktop to your mobile phone. Even now, Joshua thinks his facebook status update is more useful.

Videos: IPRIA Commercialising Inventions Conference

Last week, IPRIA and the AIC held a conference on commercialising inventions. We have now made selected video recordings of the event available online, with permission of the speakers. Bronwyn Hall and Alfonso Gambardella gave the keynote presentations. The conference website is at (click the “program” button). To watch the videos, visit

Commercialising Inventions – What’s the Story?

Forced expiration of DRM?

Much of the content online these days is protected by DRM, i.e., technology designed to limit copying or lock the consumer into using specific players. From a user’s perspective, it is pretty annoying. I propose we legislate the forced expiration of DRM content. When producers think of this concept, they imagine that a file would self-destruct after a certain number of viewings, or after a predefined time period. I suggest that we require the opposite to happen: any content for public distribution that is DRM-protected should automatically become unlocked after a specified amount of time. After that it can be viwed unlocked. This isn’t a new idea: patents and copyrights expire after a limited timeframe, anyways. Why lock up obsolete content? Much of the stuff on sites like zinio quickly become outdated. This is true even for non electronic materials (last week, our very own Mark Crosby was spotted trying to give away old issues of a revered academic journal; luckily it was not DRM protected).

Reading aloud

Does reading a book to a group of people/children violate copyright laws? Apparently there is some objection to Amazon’s Kindle 2’s text to voice feature that allows books to be read out loud.

That’s the question raised Tuesday by the Author’s Guild, an advocacy group for writers. Paul Aitken, the group’s executive director objects to the text-to-speech feature on Amazon’s Kindle 2 digital-book reader. Aitken told The Wall Street Journal: “They don’t have the right to read a book out loud. That’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

So I am guessing that somehow when I read to my kids that isn’t a public performance, even a bad one! But what about when libarians or school teachers do so? Lawyers out there, feel free to chime in. I’ll preface the answer: if so, the world has gone mad!

[Update: Apparently teachers are fine in Australia. Not sure about the rest including Prime Ministers and Premiers reading to kids anywhere.]

Randomised Business Trials

There has been lots of discussion about the need for randomised trials in policy evaluation (just google “Andrew Leigh” and “randomised” to see what I mean). However, the same logic — that choices can use evidence — applies to business as well. In particular, David Pogue is interested in whether electronic books will deter book piracy. As a result, he and his publishers are proposing the following:

Early next month, the company will also start selling electronic versions of certain books with no copy protection. For a single price (cheaper than the printed-book price), the package will include the book in three formats: PDF, Mobipub (compatible with the Amazon Kindle), and Epub (soon to be compatible with the Sony Reader).

Anyway, I’ve agreed to try an experiment involving one of my books (“Windows Vista: The Missing Manual”): to offer it as part of that buy-the-electronic-versions program.

O’Reilly is also offering five other books in these formats, including Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Third Edition and Open Sources 2.0. The company plans to announce other titles in July.

Now how Pogue and his publisher will use and analyse the data is still open. But it will be there. However, it is not clear how randomised the trial is. How were these candidate books selected? If it was out of hat then fine. But also, there is some contamination coming from the announcement in the New York Times. Nonetheless, at least it is a move in an interesting direction. Precisely the sort of thing that can help resolve the “someone is wrong on the Internet” feeling.