Getting a little bit back from Elsevier

The British-Dutch mega-publisher Reed Elsevier spent more than 3 million dollars in bribes lobbying fees in the US last year. What the publisher hopes to get back for this money? It probably won’t be a more balanced and more honest form of copyright. The US politicians that were bolstered by this “support” have been bullying most of the rest of the world into accepting always stronger and more bizarre forms of copyright. Those countries unwilling to participate are threatened with economic sanctions.

On January 1 of this year ‘t was more than 70 years ago that son of Elsevier founder Jacob G. Robbers died. In our current climate copyrights last insanely long, but not for ever. To be precise, in the Netherlands copyrights last until 70 full calendar years after the death of the author. On January 1 of this year I uploaded Herman Robbers’ De Vreemde Plant (The Strange Plant) to The Internet Archive. Please consider that a tiny remuneration from Elsevier for whatever copyright hell it’s going to loose on Dutch citizens.

(Lobbying story via Teleread.)

My first plagiarism

I’ve been plagiarized! Yes, I know. What happened is that Expactica, a website for expats…

Wait, I first have to explain to you what expats are, in case you need to have this explained to you. Expats are people that move to another country. But they are not emigrants. As the name implies, they frame their new position in terms of the original country; the name they give themselves is openly hostile to the new culture. Why would the Dutch put up with such people? Well, I don’t know. “Emigrants” are from all walks of life, and continuously get heaps of shit poured down their collars for not “integrating” fast enough. “Expats” on the other hand are actually hostile to the Netherlands, get nothing but praise, and are usually white Anglo-Saxon butt-corkers.

Oops! I almost suggested that racism comes into play here, though of course as everybody knows there is no racism in the Netherlands. Look at Geert Wilders — not directly, you’ll go blind. As once Andrew Rilstone so eloquently put in between his regular bouts of nut-job Christianism, where I can no longer find it, condemning religions is just a way of being a racist without going to jail for it. Muslims are brown people. You want to slag off brown people? Slag off Islam. But racism is a form of extremism, and if you claim that Dutch politician Wilders, the most vocal critic of Islam in the Netherlands, is an extremist, you go to jail. Ipso facto, there is no racism in the Netherlands.

So where were we? Ah yes, plagiarism. I co-blog at 24 Oranges, a site that provides news about the Netherlands in English. So does the excellent, and so does A moderator at the Expatica forums copied one of my articles wholesale (link to original, link to copy). That’s copyright infringement, that is. But I don’t care so much about that. Obviously the person who copied it liked my article enough to copy it, and to copy it verbatim at that. And it’s only free publicity for me, right? Wrong.

For some reason, my name did not appear in the copy. If you look closely though, you’ll see what appears to be an honest mistake. There is a source statement, but it accidentally links to a third party that has nothing to do with publishing the story. The Expatica moderator obviously wasn’t trying to get credit for something she had not written. She merely misattributed the story.

A friend said about plagiarism: “Why worry about this instance? You could be plagiarized a thousand times without ever finding out about it.” But I did find out about it, and this is my worry: that people who discover both stories (which is not hard, as accidentally Googling for a phrase unique to my story will show you both) may think that I am the plagiarist. It’s not so much that I must be known as the original author, but rather that I could do without a bad reputation. People don’t look further than the web; what evidence can I present that I am the original author? What happens if further websites plagiarize me: would that be only further evidence that I am a plagiarist? (“Look, he stole from more than one website.”)

So I wrote to Expactica, and asked them to put things right. Guys, I sort of wrote, please correct the source statement. And now we’re more than a week further, and no response. Not even a nyeh nyeh, we’re not going to do it. I know they got my message, because I used their online form (the only way to get into contact with them).

The next step would be to take legal action. First, an official DMCA like complaint, either to Expatica themselves or to their upstream host. Then, a lawsuit. And you know what? That’s just too much work, and a little bit in just too expensive. The courts in this country will only give you real damages, and not even that. So, a couple of hundreds euros and lots of lost time in, and all I would have gotten was lousy justice. So I won’t take further action, and just hope my reputation will remain unscathed. (I rather guess it will.)

What have we learned here:

  • may not be the most reliable of parties. Don’t buy their stuff! Boo! Hiss!
  • I can easily go off the main track for rants that have little to do with the matter at hand.
  • I have too much time on my hands.
  • Any or none of the above.

Donna Wentworth had an interesting opinion about plagiarism that may be more robust in these networked times than just “it’s bad.”

Question: copyright on text adventure walkthroughs

I am getting lazier every day; I have done absolutely nothing to find the answer to the following question (the sixth in a series) myself.

6. Can there be a copyright on a text adventure walkthrough?

(And: who owns this walkthrough?)

First, some definitions. A text adventure is a type of video game. Specifically, it is a type that is known as an adventure game: you replay a story that the programmer has come up with. You give the computer instructions, and in response the story unfolds. Typically, the instructions you give aid in the solving of puzzles. For instance, the computer has just told or shown you that you are in a room with a locked door, and in order to get on with the game you need to figure out how to unlock the door. Maybe there’s a key in the plant pot?

Text adventures are adventures in which these instructions are given by typing in English commands at a prompt. Typically the dialogue between the player and the computer goes as follows:

COMPUTER: You are in a room with a door to the North. There is a plant pot here.


COMPUTER: The door is locked.


COMPUTER: With what?


COMPUTER: You don't have the key.


COMPUTER: What do you know? Somebody has left a key here! (Transfering key to player)


COMPUTER: The door is now open.

As you can see, the language employed by the player is pretty terse. This is partially to save time, but also partially because the so-called parsers that text adventure programmers use to “understand” the player, regardless of how rich and complex they are, still only cover a tiny sub-set of all possible English sentences, even if you limit this sub-set to one that is useful for the game at hand.

Now, a definition of the term walkthrough: a list of commands (in order) needed to solve the entire game.

Finally, you may need to know that there are linear and non-linear games: the former allow for only one possible path through the puzzle tree. Non-linear games on the other hand can be solved in different ways. (To return to the example: perhaps you can break the door open with a crow bar that just happened to be in your knap-sack.)

The above, by the way, is not a hypothetical question. If you strip away everything but the domain name in the URL of this entry, and press Enter, you will soon find yourself at a website that publishes walkthroughs for text adventures. If I were to find walkthroughs on the web without a license, would I be allowed to publish them here? And what if I found one with a license; would I be able to get the ‘author’ prosecuted for copyfraud?

Earlier questions

  1. Why does a work published after the death of an author receive a copyright? (answer)
  2. How can SNTE (the firm that maintains and exploits the Eiffel tower) claim a copyright on the image of the illuminated Eiffel tower when the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas has had a very similar lighted Eiffel tower since two years before?
  3. What rights does Microsoft base it’s licenses for protocols on?
    (2+3 as yet unanswered)
  4. Is it possible to create a public domain image based on copyrighted sources? (as yet unanswered)
  5. Who owns the copyright on an interview; the interviewer, the interviewee, or both? (partially answered)

The goal of copyright law is to stimulate creation

Copyright law is based on the wisdom that “you cannot compete with free”. If an author creates a work, and others give that work to readers for free, the author is likely to have a hard time making money with the work.

(Or so the theory goes. There are many authors who do exactly that; they give free access to their works and rely on secondary means to generate income — think rock bands that sell access to their concerts after an audience has been formed by free access to their works. But that aside.)

This informal rule describes what economists call “market failure”: the market reaches an undesirable result in the distribution of goods or services, as perceived by the public. Politicians fear that this market failure will drive potential authors away from producing creative works.

Where the free market fails to improve society, the government must intervene. For instance, in the case of a natural distaster that disrupts the distribution of goods (market failure), many governments step in and give gratis food to those who claim to need it.

This government intervention, although doing good on the whole, typically has negative side-effects. In the example of the disaster area, the government’s actions undermine the livelihoods of local producers who are just as stricken as their potential buyers, and whose chances of survival are largely dependent on there being a market in the first place. Since food is free in this situation, the local producers of food go bankrupt.

So when a government battles market-failure, it must make very sure that the negative side-effects are worth it. For instance, it is not the government’s task to ensure certain business models survive. If a local producer in a disaster area cannot compete with the free food handed out, that’s just tough luck. The government has to weigh two bads against each other, and choose the least among them. And although it would be nice of such a government to also support the local producers, for instance through the means of subsidies, it is by no means morally required to do so.

In the case of creative works, governments try to combat market failure by censorship; people and organisations other than the authors of those works are forbidden to copy those works. The right to copy belongs to the authors.

It is obvious that censorship is a bad thing, and it is only one of the many bad side-effects of copyright law. Nevertheless, most current governments feel that the potential good of copyright outweighs the very real negatives.

The reasoning behind the desire to combat market failure in the creative arena by introducing copyright law seems to be as follows:

  • It is good to have works that the public can disseminate.
  • In order to stimulate the creation of works, the authors should be given a chance to recoup their investments.
  • In order for authors to recoup their investments, they should be able to publish their works in exchange for money/goods/services.
  • At this point market failure occurs.
  • In order to combat market failure, we make it illegal for the public to disseminate the works…
  • … unless they have bought the authors’ permission to do so.

Another aspect of copyrights is that they often can be traded entirely. It is not uncommon in some areas of the creative world that publishers buy all or most of the copyrights, or negotiate extremely far-reaching licenses.

There is a myth surrounding copyright that say that authors deserve to earn their livelihoods with their works. Note that this is not how copyright law works. Copyrights give an author the means to try and monetize their works, but this right does not guarantee that every author will make a living of producing works; and it is definitely not the meaning behind the law to have copyrights act as a generator of social welfare. The authors get their copyrights, but they themselves have to make sure these copyrights then turn into money.

The reality is that very few authors who write for money actually earn their livelihoods through their copyrights. The reasons for this are a result of how the markets work, and are manifold and outside the scope of this article. Suffice it say that buyers also have a say in the market, and are willing to invest only a certain amount of money in the creation of works. Also, many third-parties are involved in the production of works that also need to be recompensed.

In the above the terms “author,” “reader,” “writing,” and “publisher” are used as generic terms; they may for instance also refer to composers and record labels.

[heavily simplified schema of \"How Copyright Works\"]

SVG source file

Also read (Dutch)
– “Rapport Auteursrecht en Informatiemaatschappij | 24-02-2004″
– “Auteursrecht: economische lust of last?” (2003)

Question Copyright: what’s the purpose?

Question Copyright (dot org) asked a number of people in Chicago (on what looks like a university campus) what the purpose of copyright is. The film takes a little under 11 minutes and is titled “Interviews, Chicago 2006.” The answers varied somewhat.

Distributed translation experiment, conclusions

A couple of lessons I learned from my distributed translation experiment:

1. Don’t worry about volunteers showing up. Initially nobody seemed to be interested in participating, but after a while somewhere from ten to twenty people turned up, which was more than enough for my purposes. I had advertised my experiment in four places: this blog, the Dutch forum at Distributed Proofreaders, a chatty general purpose Usenet group, and a mailing list for (non-literary) professional translators. OK, so do worry, a lot. :) Thing is, if you’ve made something interesting, people will come and take a peek.

2. Don’t just dabble. I set up the site as minimally as possible using the very simple Usemod wiki. Usemod is great because it so small; you can easily modify it if you have simple needs. Unfortunately, spammers found out about the site rather quickly and began hitting it heavily. If I had used better developed software, such as the Mediawiki, I could probably have turned on all kinds of anti-spam measures that were now not available to me, and that would have been too much work to develop. Even then I could probably have switched to Mediawiki, but that seemed too much work to me for a simple experiment. In hind-sight that would have allowed me to keep the experiment running, so it’s a pity I chose not to take that path.

3. Don’t underestimate your volunteers. I had assumed that the level of quality would be fairly high, but perhaps a little too consistent; and in order to remedy this I had planned to add a few bad translations myself (remember, the experiment was to measure differences in consistency). Not necessary, it turned out. The quality of submitted translations was both high and varied.

4. Let your volunteers find things out for themselves. I had planned a translation dictionary, but nobody used the pages I set up for that. No need to provide your volunteers with things you think they would need, only provide them with what they actually need.

Looking at other translation projects:

5. There are more ways to skin a cat. My experiment was set up to find out what happens when different volunteers tackle one paragraph at a time. That idea was borrowed from Distributed Proofreaders, where volunteers work at one page at a time. My fear was that you cannot slowly build a literary translation when every translated paragraph ends up with a different style (Wikipedia syndrome). My hope was that you could solve this problem by having post-processors try to smooth out the differences.

Harry auf Deutsch worked this way; volunteers would each get assigned a small bunch of pages; then chapter managers would iron out the differences chapter-wide, and a book manager would do something similar for an entire book.

I have since seen another distributed translation project that takes a radically different approach. Although volunteers there are still free to tackle a work one paragraph at a time, in practice they work on much more, sometimes even on entire novels at a time. The difference is that they limit themselves in the quality levels they try to achieve. The first volunteer or set of volunteers uses software to generate a machine translation. The second volunteer for a work tries to produce a rough translation from the machine translation. The third tries to clean up that rough translation a bit.

Dutch e-books from Project Gutenberg, DBNL and Project Laurens Jz Coster

About a month a go I promised I would blog a bit about the difference between the major Dutch projects for public domain e-books.

I’m talking about:

  • books
  • in electronic format
  • with the copyrights expired
  • in Dutch
  • available for free
  • over the internet
  • in a format that allows mix, rip and burn.

That’s a pretty narrow subset of all literature ever created, but it works for me, because I’m Dutch, I can read, I have an internet connection, and I don’t like others to dictate what I should and should not do with that which I download. Also I don’t mind reading off a screen as long as that screen is attached to a pocket-sized lightweight hand-held device.

The major distinctions between Project Gutenberg, Project Laurens Jz. Coster (henceforth: Project Coster) and the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (DBNL) in terms of literary content are:

  • Project Gutenberg also produces non-fiction, magazines, and translations of foreign classics,
  • Project Coster seems to have most of the Dutch classics
  • Project DBNL has in-copyright works

All three projects carry some of the major public domain classics, and all three projects carry obscure novels.

There are some differences in process that may or may not matter to you, depending on your needs. The DBNL claims copyrights on all of its works, regardless of whether they are really in the public domain or not. I tend to regard copyright notices on public domain works as declarations of intent to bite, and will stay away from them.

Project Coster seems to be “dead”. I e-mailed with its head honcho Marc van Oostendorp a couple of years ago, and he as good as confirmed that nothing was happening at Project Coster. Perhaps that has changed in the meantime; at least someone is still taking care of the hosting. On the other hand the broken image on its homepage may be a gentle reminder that you need not look for new versions of old books there.

Project Gutenberg takes all of its works from volunteers, and most of them from a volunteer organisation called Distributed Proofreaders. What’s that to you? Well, if you have scans of public domain books, you might try and run them through Distributed Proofreaders. They’ll do a large part of the error correction and formatting, leaving the stitching together of the pages to you.

Although the DBNL and Project Coster do not release data on the size of their catalog, sampling of their database leads me to believe that their catalogues are bigger than the one of Project Gutenberg, which does release such data.

At the time of writing Project Gutenberg is about to hit 300 etext numbers for Dutch works, which equates approximately to 300 unique works (there are a few bundled works there that are also available separately).

This just in: when checking the DBNL link, I noticed they now prominently feature a rich linguistics section on their front page.

Distributed translation experiment, two years later

Summary: two years ago, I asked people on the internet to help me create a public domain translation of a public domain source text, Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart. The goal was to help establish whether it was possible for a disparate group of translators to create a literary translation. You will find both a description of the experiment and the results below.

Read the rest of this entry »

F.A.S.T. wants to swap courts for ISPs

The British “Federation Against Software Theft,” a sort of RIAA for software, wants ISPs to determine whether their paying customers are file sharers. Until now F.A.S.T. had to go through that most horrid forms of mediation: the legal system. The organisation’s boss John Lovelock thinks that to “go through the courts and get a court order […] is […] awfully long-winded [and] archaic.” Dutch internet lawyer Remy Chavannes comments: “The vigilantes of F.A.S.T. are frustrated […] and would like to play judge. […] But even on the internet taking the law in your own hands is not a solution.”


Via the Iusmentis blog (Dutch).

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

Joep’s wonderlijke avonturen

When I first read Herman Heijermans’ “Joeps wonderlijke avonturen” (Jack’s Wondrous Adventures) I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons. The first was that it was by far not as bad as I had expected based on what little I knew from Heijermans, third hand knowledge I had about his play “Op hoop van zegen” (translated in English in 1928 as The Good Hope). You see, in the days I first read Joep’s, a film had been made of the play; and though I had not read the play, nor watched the play or watched the movie, the latter was talked about so much that it was hard not to escape the idea that “Op hoop van zegen” was melodramatic trash.

The second was that for a large part, Joep’s is a sort of Dutch Frankenstein. Although there apparently were some late 19th / early 20th century Dutch authors that had dabbled in the fantastic (I am thinking of Carel van Nievelt), back then I had yet to come across one.

Joep’s tells the story of a man who has lost sight in both eyes. An eccentric professor tells Joep that he can cure him by transplanting animal eyes. Having little to lose, Joep agrees to the procedure. Unfortunately, he manages to damage his new eyes on several occasions and has to get new ones.

Shelley’s story about Frankenstein’s monster is typically pessimistic in tone; it questions what makes us human, and whether this ‘what’ can be transplanted into non-human beings. And when does a human being lose his humanity? Joep’s does something similar; when the protagonist gets a different animal’s eyes, his character changes too.

This character growth is for the long term though, and so the story nicely segues into its second half. Where Joep starts out as a major misanthropist, his regained eyesight also forces him to see not just his surroundings through new eyes, but also himself.

Upon second reading, the book has lost some of its sparkle to me. Authors could be very wordy in those days, and from what I have read by Heijermans, he particularly seemed to like the sound of his own written voice. The “what I’ve read by” includes fragments of Diamantstad, which ends on a very moralistic note, as does Joep’s. Something I could have done without, especially since Heijermans proves himself to be a talented author otherwise. Critics of his time claimed that his lack of quality was the result of his prolific output. In 1908, the year he published Joep’s, he published four other works. Speaking in his defense though, Heijermans has a knack of realistically shielding the protagonist from seeing other characters the way the reader sees them, which can produce nice foreboding, if the author can pull it off.

I had hoped to send this book to Project Gutenberg, but unfortunately my copy is from 1934, whereas PG for copyright reasons only takes works printed before 1923.

My rating: 3.0 stars