Adobe and Nikon’s Master Plans

This is just a red herring

Maybe you heard the one where a monopolistic photo editor software developer complains that someone is screwing up their plan? That’s what happened the other day when one of the Photoshop original developers complained that Nikon wasn’t playing fair. Some bad-ass digital cameras today have the ability to save the photos in a raw mode, including info on light intensity, which allows for much more powerful digital photo editing.

Nikon apparently decided they didn’t like the idea of photographers using other software to access their raw mode, so they did what any reasonable company would do — they encrypted it. Now Photoshop is claiming they can’t decrypt it without potentially being liable under the DMCA for breaking that encryption. This is either a serious misinterpretation of the DMCA or a huge smokescreen for Adobe’s eventual goals.

For those of you not familiar with the DMCA, it prohibits breaking digital protection schemes, such as encryption, under a variety of circumstances. I think the intent was primarily to prevent people from profiting from the sale of such software or devices (think Sklyarov and the Adobe eBooks encryption). It’s also being used to stop individuals from releasing software into the wild that breaks business models (like DeCSS).

I find any claim of copyright on a photograph’s format highly dubious, much less encryption of that format. The hidden secret is that to violate the DMCA you must also violate copyright laws. No copyright violation means there’s no DMCA violation. If that’s Adobe’s justification for this mess, they’re just lying.

Furthermore, I don’t think they’re violating the DMCA’s tests. The DMCA has three main “tests” as written into the law to determine whether you’re liable or not — the primary function of the technology is to break the protection (for Photoshop, editing photos), the technology has little value other than breaking the protections (again, photo editing), and the technology is marketed as something to remove such protection schemes which then violates copyright (and again, editing photos). I don’t see how adding decryption of this raw photo format breaks any of these rules.

In fact, the DMCA says in section a.1.B that it “shall not apply to persons who are users of a copyrighted work which is in a particular class of works, if such persons are … adversely affected by virtue of such prohibition in their ability to make noninfringing uses of that particular class of works under this title.” I think this raw format encryption represents exactly this exemption. Accessing and editing your own photos are probably the best noninfringing uses I’ve ever heard in the history of DMCA issues.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer, but I know bullshit when I see it. So what’s Adobe’s game? For one, they want to avoid a costly lawsuit as does Nikon, but that’s a bit naive. They might also want to avoid paying Nikon for their software or Adobe’s own software engineers to break the encryption. I see two other big issues that they may be thinking about. First, Adobe is worried about losing their position in the digital photo editing realm. It’s not that there’s any fear of another piece of software competing with Photoshop in the near future. It’s just that they worry about people buying any other piece of software from any other vendor because of technology lock-in, wasting valuable money that they might not spend on Photoshop or other Adobe products.

Second, Adobe worries that this is the tip of the iceberg for photo companies adding similar “features” to their digital cameras. Adobe wants this to stop now before things get worse. Of course, Adobe doesn’t care about whether or not the file formats are encrypted. Adobe does care that their software is compatible with all those protected formats. In short, Adobe wants free or cheap licenses for those file formats, and there’s no better way to reach that goal than after a storm of free negative publicity against Nikon. Politicians already knew the value of free publicity, getting free airtime for their campaign commercials on news programs. This is the Internet way of doing the same thing.

So Nikon looks to be the loser in this little game, right? I guess they are. They’re probably worried about a couple of things — that someone will break their proprietary raw file format (which has already been done), that their competitors will use the unencrypted format to their advantage, that they won’t collect rent from Nikon digital camera users by requiring them to pay for the decryption software or for enhanced features in such software, or that they won’t collect rent from groups like Adobe or other software developers who want to be compatible with their new cameras. In this case, Nikon simply had the unfortunate honor of being the sacrificial lamb for Adobe’s holy vision.

What’s the best solution? Nikon should open their protection scheme for anyone who wants it for free. Simply protecting the data will ensure a protest by users, other software developers, and Richard Stallman. Nikon won’t sell any more cameras by protecting their photo format, so is it worth even the potential of negative publicity? No. The value is in the camera, not the file format. For Adobe, open formats are good, but twisting the arms of companies in related lines of business won’t accomplish anything either.

This should serve as an example to all you companies out there with proprietary, encrypted, or otherwise sheltered formats. Don’t protect the stuff that doesn’t mean anything to you. Selling high quality products will sustain your company, not improving your crappy encryption. If anything, making the formats open will improve your status and bump up your sales a bit.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to get people to play with you. Adobe and Nikon demonstrated the wrong way of doing it this time. But they are not alone, and I’ll be sure to point out as many acts of technology stupidity as I can in the future of this web site.

Interdisciplinary chaos

That load of skeptical, arrogant, jump-to-conclusions, narrow-minded bastards…

I’m mad now… News of a research project I’ve been involved in broke on Slashdot today. $3.3 million from the MacArthur foundation to research kids and technology. Everyone seems to misunderstand it:

Let’s see: $3.3M / 3 professors / 3 year study = $366K/year/each.

I wish I could make that kind of money to “discover” that kids use cell phones and e-mail to find out when to meet their “crew” at the mall.


My point is that we should probably take a look at fixing what’s actually broken before trying to play around with gee-whiz high-tech crap that does little/nothing to improve the basics of education.

The following distills the perspectives of our primary investigators Peter Lyman, Mizuko Ito, and Michael Carter, as well as the slew of students, professors, and other advisors involved in this incredible project. Of course, this is entirely my opinion, so don’t complain to them if you don’t agree or if I get it wrong.

I’m not going to respond to the insinuation that these amazing, friendly, funny, selfless, incredibly intelligent professors, one of which is my Master’s final project advisor, are going to do anything but the research they’ve been funded to do. You see, we ARE trying to find out what’s broken. One short version of our research is that educators are severely disconnected from the people they’re trying to educate — making poor choices about technologies to use, not taking into account the technology habits of the very people they’re trying to help among other gaps.

Saying they “use cell phones and e-mail” or that kids do childish things only shows that you’re assuming you know what they’re doing — that you’re holding them to your own ideal of childhood. They may think their activities are perfectly normal, so maybe we’re the ones who should change our habits. The reality is that we can’t be certain of anything because nobody has done the research.

What we aren’t going to do: We aren’t going to suggest they buy 10,000 AMD based, wireless networked PCs running Ubuntu Linux. We’re not out to create things and throw them into the wild to see if kids will use it, wasting the money and momentum of this project. We’re not here to pad our pockets with dead man foundation money, much like the uninformed soul above suggests.

The angry reaction to this story is probably due to the failure of the two other disciplines that focus on kids the most — education and marketing. Those fields treat children as brainwash-able vessels of information absorption, reflecting adults’ perspective about what the children should be and how they should attain their future status. For instance, this perspective has advocated bringing technology into classrooms and forcing kids to learn how to use them. This makes their lives better? Improves their education? This resembles what the kids do with that technology outside the classroom or in the future?

The failure is not understanding the problem from the perspective of the people it impacts the most — the children. This problem is the very reason ethnographic and other qualitative research methods exist. Someone out there has to speak for these kids but not in some disconnected, adult voice. We have to speak for the children in their own voice, in their own words, reflecting their concerns, habits, and preferences as best we can. This is more than understanding that “kids use cell phones and e-mail.” The real understanding will come when we know how and why kids have appropriated these new technologies for their own uses in and out of schools, what uses they’ve created, and using that knowledge to advance the use of technology in education.

Why is there such animosity when disciplines collide? Why do technologists hate social research? I think about my final project research — Berkeley freshmen and communication technology use — and how disconnected developers, educators, and administration are from the needs and habits of those students. I’m especially concerned because my ideas for future research are highly cross-disciplinary. Will my research be rejected outright simply because I’m trying to bring a new perspective into a field with different acceptable methods? That still won’t answer the question which inspired this writing: Why is the Slashdot readership so uninformed when problems don’t directly involve computers?

So for all you people who think this is money wasted, that you can think of better uses for it, that technology should be taken out of schools, or any other reflex reactions, you obviously don’t know a thing about what the goals of this research are. We’re incredibly excited about this research and hope it will solve your concerns as well as ours. At best, we’ll transform education and our understanding about how kids appropriate technologies in new and unexpected ways. At the very least, it will keep a dozen or so graduate students happily employed for three years, doing research and furthering their own education and research goals which, as a graduate student, is a damn good goal too.

Even though I’m leaving this research after I graduate in May, I know it will continue in the good hands of some of the best and brightest people I’ve ever known. And if you think that our PI’s are going to kick back, relax, and bask in their new found wealth, then I can understand exactly why they received the grant and you didn’t.

To all would-be comment spammers

Go somewhere else!

I got my first comment spam last week! I’m so excited! It means my web site has now passed from just some random pages to one that people actually care about enough to use to their own advantage. You call it annoying, but I call it progress.

So to all you comment spammers out there, I highly recommend you don’t try it. I offer the following:

  • All links in comments use rel=”nofollow” and all comment pages plus my comment RSS feed are in my robots.txt file to prevent search engines from counting the links in page ranking.
  • All HTML tags are removed from comments. Too bad.
  • I have filters and I’m not afraid to use them.
  • The only people you’re pissing off are the scarce numbers of readers I have. In other words, you’re not reaching a big audience.
  • Comments like “Your site colors suck!” don’t mean shit to me, and the other readers of this site know that already.

Don’t bother to spam here. Seriously. It’s not worth the time — yours or mine.

Also for the record, I’ve tried very hard to make this site more compliant with accepted practices for blind and low vision readers. Hopefully this hasn’t created any readability or navigation issues as a result. I know the photo pages still need some work, but otherwise the site should be much better than it was before.