Harry's Home on the Web
The site offers a free API to convert postcodes into latitude and longitude coordinates. This is an important thing to be able to do: the postcode is a de facto standard for specifying locations on the web. Any site that needs to know your location will ask for your postcode — from mapping, to political engagement, to useful local services.
Unfortunately, the Royal Mail owns the postcode database, and maintains a stranglehold on it. They won’t let you use it for a website unless you pay them exorbitant fees (£1000+). This might be ok if you’re a big company, but lots of the most useful services aren’t. Those people have no choice but to use whatever data they can find on the web — something which, among other things, is very inconvenient. We decided to make it easier, and take that step out of the process. We do the tricky bit — sniffing the data out from the corners of the web — and pass it back to as structured information that developers can use to create sites that make people’s lives easier and better.
The site’s been up for nearly a month, and it’s been busy. Already, three libraries have been donated by volunteers — with no prompting — that make it much easier to submit requests using PHP, Perl or Ruby. Scores of people have sent us messages of support. I’ve even been hugged. We’ve been written about by Guardian Tech and FreeOurData. The site has served lots and lots of requests to people doing useful things.
We’re delighted that it’s going so well, but we have big ambitions — so please help spread the word. We’d love to see lots of useful services using the site. The more people who do, the more irrefutable our argument will be when it comes time to persuade Government and the Royal Mail that the status quo just won’t do.
So please, blog about ErnestMarples.com. Tell your friends, colleagues, cats and dogs. Send tweets pinging round the world. We need all the help we can get.
There’s a pretty good chance that there is copyright in the National Portrait Gallery’s photographs of paintings, which are currently the subject of a legal spat between NPG and a volunteer for the The Wikimedia Foundation. Intuitively, that seems like a bad thing — but is it? And if so, what does it mean for the future of digitisation?
Others have done a much better job of explaining the legal situation than I could, so I won’t talk about that. I’m more interested in the policy position that we should be adopting than the one we’ve found ourselves in.
Intuitively, I feel that there shouldn’t be copyright in the images that Wikimedia are using. That their importance trumps NPG’s desire to exploit them commercially: these paintings are an important and unique part of our culture’s history. This isn’t just academic: it has real impact.
All that said, a policy position that there isn’t copyright in these images might do more harm than good.
There are a huge number of historic works in the world. Digitising them is important: both to make them more widely available and for their preservation. Unfortunately, it’s expensive to do, especially when the works are old and fragile.
It’s appealing to say that digitisation should be funded from general taxation and the works placed in the public domain for all, but I think that the cost is probably significant — certainly enough to make it politically untenable.
The usual solution is a compromise between public ownership and private investment. A company invests in digitising a set of works in return for the exclusive right to distribute their digital copies for a limited period — say twenty years — after which the works return to the public domain*. Of course, this approach relies on copyright.
It’s hard to create a system of copyright that caters well for both approaches. If there is copyright in an exact copy, there will forever be people who aggressively defend those rights in order to protect their revenue — and frankly, when £1m has been spent producing the copies, that’s not unreasonable.
Without copyright, there’d be much less incentive for anyone other than Government to digitise anything. It’s almost certain that most historic archives would never become available to the public.
Copyright exists to provide an incentive to create things. It’s a monopoly right created by Government for a specific purpose, designed to ensure that works eventually return to the public domain, as these paintings have. My gut says there shouldn’t be copyright in these images, that these exact copies are substantively identical to the original public domain works, and should therefore be public domain themselves.
My brain says that’s completely illogical — and that in fact, a copy of a work is by definition a different work, and should therefore be protected by copyright. That in fact, copyright is doing the exact job that it was created for: providing a incentive for these images to have been made in the first place.
If there was no copyright in these images, would NPG still have spent £1m digitising them? I doubt it. And perhaps therein lies the rub.
* Disclaimer: this was the impression that I got from a long chat with David Thomas, of the National Archive — but that was years ago and I wasn’t entirely sober.
I’m a bit of an addict of Dragons’ Den. It’s great TV — but occasionally, people get really screwed.
I was watching Dragons’ Den on Dave the other day, when David Lees arrived to pitch for some money.
David Lees was an engineer of many, many years’ experience. He designed things, invented things, created new and patentable ideas and generally made lots of money for his employer. Eventually, he set off on his own, producing high-end stands for Plasma TVs — the kind you see at conferences and other big events. He sought an investment of £225,000 for 10% of his company.
So far, so good. A typical scenario. What makes this one different is that the company was very successful: it had consistent sales and was profitable. In fact, its success had already led to an offer from Panasonic to buy the company for £3.25m. Lees wanted a Dragon’s involvement primarily in order to secure a better deal — logical, perhaps, but unwise.
Obviously, the Dragons were interested: they could have accepted his equity offer, sold the company for, say, £4.5m, and doubled their money. Probably all within a few months.
Instead, though, they absolutely shafted him: offering him the £225k for 50% of the company — thus valuing it at a mere £450k — when they knew that the company was almost certainly worth over seven times that amount.
I was a little surprised to see such shamelessly naked exploitation. To my utter astonishment, rather than laughing at them heartily and telling them to shove right off, he acccepted the deal. I was practically spitting at the telly.
Thankfully, the Dragons took so long getting a deal together that by the time it was ready, Lees decided he was doing well enough on his own, and didn’t go through with it.
A narrow escape.
After posting about the iPhone yesterday, I thought I should mention that figuring out what service was best for me was a real pain. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t.
Because I had unusual plans — buying a Pay & Go phone and then switching to a 1-month rolling contract — I rang O2 twice before buying anything. I wanted to make sure that Visual Voicemail, unlimited wifi and tethering would work on a non-iPhone contract, and was assured that they would be.
After getting the phone, I found that Visual Voicemail didn’t work, and called O2, assuming it was a configuration problem… but no. They said Visual Voicemail and tethering are unavailable on anything other than an iPhone contract, which is not what they said before. I suggested some possible solutions to this:
Could you turn on these features without using an iPhone contract? Answer: No. Apparently it’s “technically impossible”.
Could you put me on an iPhone contract with an appropriate discount and no minimum term (since I already have the phone) Answer: No. “The system won’t let me do that.” — “Can I speak to someone who can authorise it?” — “No one could authorise that” — “What!?”
I had a bit of a go at the guy and was called back by a manager, who offered me a month’s free line rental to make up for it, but still. I felt pretty messed around, especially since i had taken so much care to ensure that everything would be ok. Ho hum.
In any case, I do now have the new iPhone, and it’s lovely (despite O2′s crummy 3G coverage), and I’m terribly happy with it. It is an awesome piece of kit: so awesome, it turns out, that it can even balance out the monumental crapness of mobile phone companies.
Edited to add:
I forgot to mention that O2 were pretty rubbish even before I got my hands on the phone. I ordered it online on the Friday morning when it was released. The website asked me when I wanted when I wanted it to be delivered, so I picked a free slot on Monday morning. It didn’t arrive. My card was billed — all, I thought, was good. I rang O2, and they said it would arrive in the next couple of days.
On Tuesday, perhaps over-enthusiastically, I rang O2 again to ask when it would come, only to be told that they’d run out of stock and cancelled the order.
Beyond the initial confirmation email, I didn’t hear from them at all. They didn’t tell me a thing. #Fail.
Phew. I feel tired just having written the title.
I recently got the new iPhone 3GS. I wasn’t convinced by previous iPhones but this one, and the release of OS3, seemed to fix a lot of the problems with old models — copy & paste, video, HSDPA — as well as being thoroughly good-looking.
The one thing I don’t want ever again is an 18-month contract. I think they’re nuts. 18 months of lock-in in a sphere of technology where improvements seem to appear every 6 or 8 months just isn’t sensible, especially in a fiercely competetive market for service providers: I guarantee there’ll be much better tariffs available for new customers in a year than there are now.
So, I wanted to get hold of the phone without the contract. The obvious way to do it is to buy the phone on Pay & Go and then take out a rolling 1-month contract. I crunched the numbers and it’s a perfectly sensible thing to do, financially speaking. Over 18 months, the total cost is almost the same:
|Tariff||Cost of Phone||Monthly charges||Total cost||Total cost/month|
|18-month iPhone Contract||£274.23||£34.26||£890.91||£49.50|
|1-month SIM Only Contract||£538.30||£20||£898.30||£49.91|
That’s for the 32Gb model. With the 16Gb model, SIM-only is actually slightly cheaper. But what do you get for your money?
|18-month iPhone Contract||600||500||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes, 3Gb — £15 extra|
|1-month SIM Only Contract||600||1200||One or the other||No||Dongle, 3Gb — £14.69 extra, includes unlimited wifi|
My feeling is that SIM-only is definitely better. There’s no way to get visual voicemail, but that’s not a killer feature for me.
The lack of tethering is annoying, but not critical — partially since a dongle costs the same, but also because most of what I’d do with a tethered connection (email, twitter, the odd bit of web browsing) I can do on the phone almost as easily. That a dongle comes with unlimited wifi is a nice bonus, though I’m not sure how that’s managed: it might only work with the laptop, and not the phone, depending on how they authenticate people who are connecting to a hotspot.
Another nice plus is that with a dongle on SIM-only, you end up paying £35/mo — the same as what you’d pay on an iPhone contract without tethering — though the actual cost over 18 months is of course the same.
There is one caveat that’s worth mentioning: most mobile companies, presumably including O2, will actually let you change your tariff 15ish months into an 18 month contract. If you dropped down to the £20 iPhone tariff, that’d change the figures — but not by much. Also, if you’re anything like me, it’s worth making sure your phone is insured whichever route you take.
Coming up tomorrow: the saga of Harry’s phone switch, aka: “Mobile phone companies are crap“.
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