Information Theory & Intellectual Property

Information: A Very Short Introduction by Luciano Floridi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). (TS-3). (MAM-3). Floridi is the Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University. This short book explains the emergence of the information society; defines data and the mathematics of information theory; and applies these concepts to a range of domains, from biology to economics. Floridi’s major contribution to information ethics is The Philosophy of Information (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) (TS-4) (MAM-4).


The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick (New York: Vintage, 2012). (TS-3). (MAM-3). Gleick (Chaos: Making A New Science) uses Claude Shannon’s information theory to examine the history, cultural impact, and social shaping effects of information. Gleick’s book has some excellent historical sections on pre-computer designer Charles Babbage, programmer Ada Byron, cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, mathematician Alan Turing, and other exemplars of information theory. This book will broaden your awareness of how information choices can shape your creative horizons.


Intellectual Property Strategy by John Palfrey (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2011). (TS-3). (MAM-3). Intellectual property (IP)—exclusive rights for copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets—is a complex and evolving legal field that relates to the creation, assignment, and use of information. Palfrey’s primer defines what IP is, and how it can be developed, assigned, acquired, and securitised. He identifies alternatives to the “sword and shield” legal approach. For an alternative primer focusing on IP management and opportunity evaluation see Stephen J. Frank’s Intellectual Property for Managers and Investors: A Guide to Evaluating, Protecting, and Exploiting IP (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) (TS-3) (MAM-3). For specialist topics on globalisation, biotechnology, entertainment, and information technology see Michael A. Gollin’s Driving Innovation: Intellectual Property Strategies for a Dynamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) (TS-4) (MAM-4).

13th January 2013: Aaron Swartz, RIP

26-year-old internet activist Aaron Swartz — who co-wrote the RSS specification at 14; worked on Creative Commons, co-founded the site Reddit; and fought Internet censorship bills — committed suicide on Friday.


Swartz faced potentially 30 to 50 years in prison for using MIT’s computer network to download four million academic articles from the JSTOR repository. US Department of Justice (DoJ) prosecutors alleged that Swartz’s actions would lead to the loss of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property into the public domain because of data theft. JSTOR declined to pursue charges. MIT hesitated — likely due to Swartz’s hacked access of their network and JSTOR institutional requirements — and because of MIT’s policies and procedures on the appropriate use of its information technology and internet networks. This gave the DoJ and a Federal grand jury the pretext to pursue charges against Swartz. Wired journalist Kevin Poulsen details the “cat and mouse” game between MIT and Swartz over JSTOR’s articles. Forensic expert Alex Stamos offers a critical view of the DoJ’s allegations about Swartz’s use of MIT’s computer network and JSTOR downloads.


Cory Doctorow has written a powerful Remembrance that touches on Swartz’s battle with depression. Lawrence Lessig acknowledges that what Swartz did was “morally wrong” — if the DoJ allegations were proven to be true — and counter-contends that the DoJ prosecutor acted as a bully: prosecutorial over-reach and disproportionate legal charges. The Atlantic Monthly‘s James Fallows also notes Swartz’s contributions to information access, and his depression. The Electronic Freedom Foundation‘s Peter Eckersley has praised Swartz’s political activism and contributions to significant internet projects. The New Yorker‘s Caleb Crain wrote about Swartz’s activist causes. Swartz’s family will hold a memorial service and has launched the Remembrance site Remember Aaron Swartz. has launched The Aaron Swartz Collection.


JSTOR’s response to Swartz’s death: “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”


Swartz’s case raises significant issues that academics and institutions have largely failed to confront. Many publishers require academics to sign over their full intellectual property rights to the journal in order to be published. Some also require payment for publication. These norms and practices resemble music industry ‘payola’ from the 1950s and 1960s: pay-to-publish and little artistic or academic control over the creative outputs and intellectual property. In academia, if you don’t abide by these norms and practices then you are very unlikely to get funding, time for research, tenure, or academic promotion. Repositories like JSTOR are also important to academic researchers — and very expensive to access as an individual without an institutional subscription (which is also expensive). If — as the DoJ alleges — there is millions to be made from published academic articles — it is being made by an international publisher oligopoly — and not by the academic researchers who create the intellectual property, or the institutions and universities who facilitate the research and provide resources to research teams.


In his overview of Swartz’s “brilliant life and tragic death”, Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias touched on the academic access issue:


Should people illegally duplicate academic research? I’ll just say that the other day a friend mentioned to me an academic article that he was interested in and I thought the title and abstract were interesting too. But none of us could read it. So I went on Twitter and asked if any of the academics among my followers would send me a copy. Within an hour I had a couple dozen instances of the article in question, forwarded a copy to my friend, and we both read it. That to me seemed wonderful. The public directly and indirectly subsidizes an awful lot of academic research on the theory that knowledge is an important public good. So the public should have access to it! We should be able to arrange the institutions such that this vast storehouse of human knowledge is open to the world without people breaking into closets at MIT or having a large social media presence they can take advantage of.


One initial solution to these issues is mandated publishing in open access repositories: a solution that internet activists like Swartz have helped to conceptualise, and to diffuse as a social innovation. He might even have played a further role in this important, unfolding debate — apart from interesting blog posts and a Twitter feed.


Now, we’ll never know.

19th September 2012: On CRC PhDs

The Australian‘s Jill Rowbotham on Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) and PhD programs:


The $165 million annual program is also the 12th largest provider nationally of research students, including those undertaking research masters degrees, according to Nigel Palmer from the University of Melbourne who authored the study, The CRC Contribution to Research Training.


Rowbotham’s reportage omits a crucial detail: Who controls the PhD’s resulting intellectual property?


In 2006, a former colleague and I were offered PhD scholarships at the Smart Internet Technology CRC (SITCRC) to research internet futures and would be based at Swinburne University. The offer was an Australian Postgraduate Award equivalent amount plus CRC top-up funding of $10-15,000. The contract’s catch-all clause was that the CRC would gain the PhD’s intellectual property and would control the ‘decision rights’ for its public dissemination and commercial use. The former colleague and I both rejected the deal and retained our existing roles. We privately felt this was a way for the SITCRC to pad its research outputs with minimal investment in research programs. I later saw a PhD candidate criticise the SITCRC for this policy in an internet media interview. The SITCRC projected over its existence that it would have 100 PhD students; in reality it had about 30. I worked on the successful bid for the Smart Services CRC and its initial organisational plans had similar goals to recruit and fund PhD students. (In 2011, I began a part-time PhD in political science at Monash University and you can read my initial proposal here.)


Palmer and Rowbotham appear to take the CRC’s industry collaboration viewpoint at face value. Yes, this has benefits: PhD researchers often learn project management skills and gain knowledge of specific industries. There are many different types of CRCs, and variances in organisational cultures and research management practices (which an aggregate level analysis can miss). However, there are also often strict, commercial non-disclosure agreements on research and publication that affect the collegiality of CRC PhD programs. These non-disclosure agreements can isolate PhD researchers: if you don’t sign then you don’t get the PhD stipend or CRC research position. I have talked with several current PhD students at other CRCs who are frustrated by these agreement clauses. The CRC focus on industry reports is also at odds with the Excellence for Research in Australia’s emphasis on publication in high-impact, peer reviewed academic journals (an issue raised in ERA 2010 reviews by former researchers at another CRC). If the CRC embargoes research or modifies it then the delays and changes can detrimentally affect a researcher’s publication track record and thus their competitiveness and future career path. Finally, the former senior quality officer in me wonders: “leads world in collaboration” compared with whom? Stanford’s innovation programs and Silicon Valley? Stanford and Sandhill Road‘s venture capital firms?


CRCs are complex, collaborative vehicles for industry research. There are lots of potential improvement opportunities.


For some background on this, read my 2008 submissions to the Review of the National Innovation System (PDF) and the Review of the CRCs Program (PDF).

17th February 2012: Academic Entrepreneurs & Intellectual Property

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeven recently started an important debate about academic blogging in the Australian community of international relations (IR) academics. It raises issues about communicating IR and national security knowledge to a broader audience. Roggeven’s post attracted responses from Professor Nick Bisley (La Trobe University), Dr. Nicholas Farrelly (Australian National University), and myself. In an overview, Roggeven also mentioned the role of intellectual property in either fencing off or facilitating the dissemination of academic research. A response to several points that these authors raise:


1. The academic entrepreneur may be an empowering self-image. Benjamin Cohen suggests in International Political Economy: An Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) that those who conceptualised IPE in the 1970s were intellectual entrepreneurs. Lisa Stampnitzky‘s influential 2008 PhD on counter-terrorism studies (PDF) juxtaposes the efforts of core academics, think-tank pundits and journalists as idea entrepreneurs. Richard Slaughter, Sohail Inayatullah, and others played similar roles in the formation of academic futures studies and strategic foresight. At its extreme are former academics like David E. Shaw and Jim Simons who left academia to fund ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds. The mid-ground is held by academics like Clayton Christensen, Andrew Lo and Robert Shiller who separate their basic research from commercially-oriented applied research and institutional vehicles.


2. Universities and the higher education sector face disruptive innovations. This point came up in a Twitter exchange I had with Ken Wark. Canadian academic David Robinson emphasised the death of universities in New Matilda. Nick Bisley mentions several factors: aging demographics, small numbers, avoidance of “semi-digested thought bubbles”, time, and research incentives which emphasise peer reviewed journal articles over other contributions. I see all of these factors on a daily basis as a research administrator who teaching staff confide in. The Golden Age for professors that Robinson yearns for does not exist for the mid-level or early career academic who is on a casual or short-term contract. I see people trapped in poorly working administrative systems and broken processes that a Six Sigma consultant would reengineer.  Today’s undergraduate students have grown up in a world where the corporate ideals are firms like Apple and Google, whereas many universities are closer to a Yes Minister public service. In this environment, academic blogging is embraced by a minority — usually digital media academics — who see it and social media platforms as a creative tool for self-liberation.


3. Open publishing can enhance peer review processes. Nicholas Farrelly and co-author Andrew Walker extol the power of public blogging to improve the quality of academic research and to create feedback loops with different audiences. Blogging can do so, under specific conditions. Peer review depends on the field, its norms, the specific academic journal, the editorial panel, and the developmental awareness of the reviewers. Unfortunately, the one-way nature of blind peer review in the Australian Research Council competitive grants process and in many journals can lead reviewers to write nasty, brutish, short feedback. This dynamic often disappears when the reviewers’ identities are known to all parties or where the authors have a rejoinder process to clarify the feedback. Blog publishing platforms are perfect for this — but research incentives, metrics and journals prevent the public circulation of drafts for comment outside a conference, seminar, or peer group. An academic with a personal webpage in 1998 had more freedom than an academic does today: publishers have serious restrictions on public dissemination that didn’t exist a decade ago. Institutional repositories are a positive development.


4. Bloggers often have to fight to do academic blogging. In 2003-07, I was a senior researcher at Swinburne University in the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Its brief was to explore the internet’s possibilities – but this didn’t extend to research management or to how it published its own research. The work I did had to navigate institutional capture and commercial embargoes. At the same time, at night I edited the US-based alternative news website Disinformation: we daily published stories and an email newsletter, and I got immediate feedback from readers. “We own you,” was the CRC’s response. Towards the end of my CRC contract, I convinced the CRC to let me write a daily, public blog about relevant news items, trends and developments. It lasted about six weeks before I left: I wrote more timely and public information than the CRC had published of my research in the previous year. Bisley’s “semi-digested thought bubbles” can have more relevance in a climate of time-based competition. Blogging — like regular writing — is not about scarcity and can help you to self-reflect and to write more productively. It’s closer to being a like a good DVD extra or director’s commentary than a finished motion picture film: it can give insight into the creative process and inspire dialogue with others. Apart from writing a PhD, I already have enough journal article ideas for the next four years.


5. Academics need to know — but often don’t — about intellectual property. Sam Roggeven raises the role of intellectual property (IP). In reality, most academics face a ‘stacked deck’ about IP. Teaching staff face complex workload models that are calculated retrospectively, to gain research time. International publishers usually demand that the IP be assigned to them for academics’ journal articles (unless they advocate open publishing).  The articles are needed for competitive grants and for convincing promotions committees about your research track record. Getting research incentive money for published articles depends on knowing how the institutional system works, on your Faculty’s policy, and whether or not you have a full-time academic contract. Some academics try to play the system: ancillary income via consulting and speakers bureaus; publishing in obscure conferences; or going to academic conferences that are really junkets. Research administrators can spot these strategies from looking at the data. Many academics have no idea about how to translate their research into an entrepreneurial venture. This frustrates the IP specialists, lawyers, and research administrators that I know. Areas that have a more laissez-faire approach to IP — like digital media — are more likely to embrace academic blogging. Despite these challenges, it’s possible to still blog about your initial ideas and the writing process, and to craft the insights for a good academic journal. A blog also gives you the visibility for academic citations and helps to build the international research networks needed to advance your career.

Kuznets’ Remakes

Why does Hollywood’s upcoming production slate have so many remakes of classic science fiction, horror and fantasy films?  Depending on your viewpoint, several reasons.

The Writer’s Guild of America‘s 2008 strike affected the ‘deal flow’ of new scripts that Hollywood’s studios may have purchased and fast-tracked out of development hell and into pre-production.  In the language of managerial economics the studios lacked the willingness to pay (WTP) the willingness to sell (WTS) price demanded by WGA members for their services.  Faced with months of industrial action the studios pursued a fallback option: remakes of existing properties.

WGA’s delay tactics have given the studios a potential financial windfall in the near-term future.  The studios often already own the intellectual property rights for the remakes.  Demographics such as inter-generational shifts creates two consumer segments: people who remember the original films, and Gen X and Gen-Y viewers who are new.  Ancillary markets can be tapped, from cable television re-runs of the original films to DVD repackages/re-releases, ‘versioned’ editions for collectors, and ‘bundled’ packs of both films.  The studios’ windfall is a short-term boost in cashflow which can be used for working capital management or debt-equity leverage.  New Zealand’s Weta Digital also benefits as the films require its expertise in digital special effects; the studios can minimise their production costs through currency hedging and business process outsourcing.

The global financial crisis also benefits the studios through a market timing strategy for film portfolio management.  The production slate announced so far for 2009-2010 is heavily weighted towards dystopian science fiction films from the turbulent late 1960s and the energy crisis/stagflation early 1970s.  There’s also a few 1930s Depression era monster films and 1950s Cold War science fiction.  American journalist Annalee Newitz, amongst others, has observed that Hollywood studios turn to genre films during times of social dislocation; this thesis is central to 1950s film noir and its neo-noir remanifestation in the early 1990s recession, and may also fit the micro-trend of counterterrorism films in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Cinema Studies scholar Geoff Mayer has also explored this thesis in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema and the Western genre.

However, there’s another potential pattern here that might be worth further research, even though correlation is not causation.  The 1930s Depression era films appear to fit the 54-to-70 year long macroeconomic cycle (aka the KWave) that Soviet mathematician Nikolai Kondratieff proposed, particularly the Fall and Winter periods of stagnation and recession/depression.  The time period between the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s films also roughly fits the 18-year Kuznets Wave identified by Simon Kuznets, and which might explain the deeper/unconscious interest in 1970s film properties.  Add a mid-1990s wave of films (perhaps neo-noir or the heroin chic of My Own Private Idaho and Trainspotting), and you have a series of macreconomic cycles that span film genres, subcultural imagery, inter-generational audiences and new cohorts of film actors, directors, scriptwriters and producers.

It may be a neat backtesting/retrospective explanation of how Hollywood studios can revitalise their institutional power.  Or, it just may be the theoretical framework for the Entourage crew to shed their up-and-coming careers and achieve some real deal-making longevity.

US Accounting Rules & Global Governance

The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States plans to adopt the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) in order to enhance US competition in global markets.  The IFRS would be harmonised with, and may even replace the existing US accounting rules, the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) that the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) oversees.


Critics are concerned the shift from GAAP to IFRS is an ill-fated intervention by US regulators comparable to the administrative burdens of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance.  The perceived ‘institutional creep’ taps deep US fears on the potential for global governance institutions like the United Nations to interfere with US legal jurisdictions, Administration policies and national will.


To manage this resistance the SEC released a public roadmap and conducted a roundtable in December 2007.  However the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson upstaged this initiative in the issues-attention cycle due to their attempts to dampen the fallout in financial markets from the 2007 subprime crisis.  Collectively the SEC, Federal Reserve and US Treasury proposals signal major changes to the US financial system’s regulatory framework.


The SEC’s initiative has (at least) three possible side effects.


The planned harmonisation with IFRS will increase the tension between the SEC and US business leaders and policymakers over gaps in the IFRS, cultural differences, and the compliance mechanisms for regulatory oversight.  The coevolution of the US financial system and global governance will need to be reframed as a systems-level opportunity to overcome partisan interests.


The Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) may be the ‘test case’ for US implementation of IFRS accounting rules.  AUSFTA establishes a bilateral framework on intellectual property rights and strengthens the positive correlation between the US and Australian financial markets.  If it’s really ‘outsourcing’ the US accounting/taxation regulatory regime as its critics believe the SEC is doing so to a ‘friendly’ nation-state.


Enterprise Resource Planning vendors such as Infosys and SAP could also benefit in the SEC’s shift to IFRS.  ERP systems enable trans-national corporations to be scalable and integrate their subsidiaries’ financial reporting through a centralised database, called master data management.  SAP for instance has business rules that harmonise the taxation reporting of different countries.  If the SEC’s roadmap unfolds then SAP and other ERP vendors will have to update their configurable platforms.  IFRS rules could reinvigorate the ERP market for enterprise application integration which uses systems architectures to integrate different computer systems, software, and data.