Book Experiment #2: Interop

Urs Gasser and I began a research project in 2005 to study Interoperability (Interop, for short). Our gameplan was to answer a straightforward question: do higher levels of interoperability lead to increased innovation? A few years and many case studies later, we had found a general correlation between more interop and more innovation in the context of information technologies.

But we also had discovered a few order things that we had not expected. We found that we were seeing interop stories everywhere we looked. Interop seemed to matter outside of the IT context, too. We also found that people in a wide range of fields had also been thinking about interop: those who care about economics, computer science, systems theory, complexity theory, and so forth. We decided that there might be a book project that could build from the base of our research into those original case studies.

As we began to write up the longer-form argument, we agreed also to experiment with the format of the book, as we had done in the context of Born Digital, Intellectual Property Strategy, and other book projects. The premise here, with Interop, (now, in fact, published as a book, by Basic Books) is to present the book along with a rich set of case studies, available freely online, that have served as the raw data for the analysis and theory we present in the book version. Our early case studies on digital music, digital identity, and mash ups in the social web were the first three. Over the next few years, we worked with a strong team of interns, as always spread across two research centers (the Berkman Center at Harvard in the US and the FIR ate the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland), to produce several more. These new case studies, also published freely online, range more broadly.

Over the next few weeks, we will roll out pointers, from our blogs, to these online case studies about interop. They can be read as standalone pieces or, better yet, as a companion to the Interop book itself. We look forward to your feedback.

Navigate 2008 Day Two Tidbits

Day 2 tidbits from Navigate ’08 by the IAPP and team: JZ told us that Mrs. Beasley, his fabulous and famous dog, has two tracking devices: a RFID chip and a GPS device. Why? They serve distinct purposes. The RFID chip is for if she gets lost and shows up at a vet’s office, in which case they can scan her and find the wayward owner (here, JZ). The GPS device gives JZ Mrs B’s whereabouts at any time. It’s turned out to be useful twice.

On the substance of the sessions, I was surprised by what amounts to another tidbit: this high-level crew of participants — including leaders from private sector, public sector, academia, and from around the world — seemed to think that greater alignment of privacy rules is desirable and possibly feasible. The consensus was not in favor of perfect “harmonization,” but rather forms of alignment that respect cultural differences, help consumers, and enable commerce to thrive. Easier said than done, to be sure, but I was surprised at the degree of consensus. The two keywords that seemed to resonate most: “alignment” and “interoperability.”

(There were specific caveats: 1) not enough public awareness and not enough pain by businesses to get this done; 2) need to scrap the bilateral approaches in a world of cloud computing; 3) enforcement challenges will abound.)

Francois Leveque on Standards, Patents, and Antitrust

As part of our [email protected] celebration this year, we at the Berkman Center tonight welcome Francois Leveque, professor at the Ecole des Mines, Paris, and visiting prof at the faculty of law at UC Berkeley. He’s presenting the findings of two new papers, each co-authored with Yann Meniere: “Technology standards, patents and antitrust” and “Licensing commitments in standard setting organizations.”

Prof. Leveque offers us a series of insights about the interaction of economics and law in the context of patents in the standards setting process. One key finding of his papers: it would be best for consumers and for innovation in general for the licensing of patents by players in standards setting processes to occur ex ante, rather than ex post. More surprising, he and M. Meniere argue that it also may be better, under some circumstances for the patent holder also to set the royalty level ex ante. He notes that, in this setting, the interests of consumers and patent owners are aligned. As he goes on to explain, in other settings, these interests may not be so well aligned. Read the papers for more insights, including with respect to the VITA royalty cap policies, ways to mitigate the costs of the risk of hold-up, and his proposal of announcing a royalty cap ex ante as a more flexible means of accomplishing such mitigation while still enabling patent holders to revise the royalties.

Prof. Leveque very kindly participated in both the Weissbad (Switzerland) and Cambridge (MA, USA) workshops that guided our work on Interoperability and Innovation over the past year. His interventions were crucial to informing our understanding of these complicated matters and he was unusually generous with his input, for which Urs Gasser and I and our teams are extremely grateful.

How Long Will Scrabulous Last in Facebook?

I am curious to see how long Facebook leaves this app up after this WSJ article. Scrabulous, a Facebook app made by third-party developers, is an obvious knock-off of Scrabble. One might reasonably raise copyright and trademark issues related to it (perhaps the Scrabulous developers could withstand these complaints; query as to Facebook’s willingness to put itself in harm’s way, though, as potentially secondarily liable). Coming our way in the near-future, a new form of Web 2.0-fired dispute: there are very interesting issues brewing related to Facebook’s role as a platform for other applications and its policing function. Interoperability is a great thing, and Facebook has done well to open up its API. But when a controversy strikes over an app that is framed in Facebook, on which developers and investors have invested time and capital, and into which people have mixed their personal information, who decides whether the app stays or goes? The judge and jury are likely to be Facebook employees, at least in the first instance. Jonathan Zittrain has been teaching about this issue of Private Sheriffs for a long time, with more on this topic coming in his forthcoming book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It.

Apache, Sun Tangle over Licenses

The Apache Foundation is accusing Sun of holding out on a license related to a Java test kit. In an open letter, Geir Magnusson Jr of the Apache Foundation says to Jonathan Schwartz, the Sun CEO:

“Since August 2006, the ASF has been attempting to secure an acceptable license from Sun for the test kit for Java SE.  This test kit, called the ‘Java Compatibility Kit’ or ‘JCK’, is needed by the Apache Harmony project to demonstrate its compatibility with the Java SE specification, as required by Sun’s specification license.  The JCK license Sun is offering imposes IP rights restrictions through limits on the ‘field of use’ available to users of our software.

“These restrictions are totally unacceptable to us.  As I explain below, these restrictions are contrary to the terms of the Java Specification Participation Agreement (JSPA) – the governing rules of the JCP – to which Sun is contractually bound to comply as a signatory.”

Interoperability in the software context — especially the free/libre/open source software context — so often turns on field of use and similar provisions in the relevant intellectual property licenses.  Sun has been a huge supporter of the open source movement in many ways, so Mr. Schwartz certainly knows this.  One wonders whether this decision, presuming Apache’s claims are true, to deny such a compatible license was a high-level policy decision or one that just hasn’t been run past the right person at Sun.  We’ll find out, I suppose.

iTunes and EMI Breaking the DRM Barrier

Good news from Steve Jobs, Eric Nicoli, and company: EMI’s music now to be available without Digital Rights Management. A great move for consumers, innovation, interoperability and, one hopes, creative re-use of digital works. (Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing has the definitive post and list of links. Cory suggests that we help out with a thank-you gift for Mr. Jobs.)

Yale ISP's Open Standards Conference

I’m with our friends at the Yale Information Society Project today for a fine conference called the Open Standards International Symposium. Eddan Katz and company have assembled a group from many of the places around the world where this issue is raging, along with representatives of many of the key industry players and stakeholders, like CDT. My notes for the Law panel are here. My focus is on the relationship between open standards and interoperability.

Mobile Identity Workshop and Berkman West Reception

Later this week, the Berkman Center heads west to San Francisco.  We’re hosting an unconference on Mobile Identity, led by fellows Doc Searls, John Clippinger, Mary Rundle, Urs Gasser and others.  It’s free and open, but you should sign up if you’d like to come, as space is limited.  CNet is kindly hosting us.  We’re also planning an informal reception for Berkman Center alums and friends; let one of us know if you’ll be in San Francisco on Friday night and we’ll ping you an invite.

Interoperability and Innovation Research

Today, the Berkman Center joins Urs Gasser and all our friends from the University of St. Gallen in hosting a workshop on interoperability and innovation, in Weissbad, Switzerland. We are in the company of an interesting, eclectic group of technologists, academics, and NGOs leaders. The briefing papers are online.

This workshop is one in a series of such small-group conversations intended both to foster discussion and to inform our own work in this area of interoperability and its relationship to innovation in the field that we study. This is among the hardest, most complex topics that I’ve ever taken up in a serious way.

As with many of the other interesting topics in our field, interop makes clear the difficulty of truly understanding what is going on without having 1) skill in a variety of disciplines, or, absent a super-person who has all these skills in one mind, an interdisciplinary group of people who can bring these skills to bear together; 2) knowledge of multiple factual settings; and 3) perspectives from different places and cultures. While we’ve committed to a transatlantic dialogue on this topic, we realize that even in so doing we are still ignoring the vast majority of the world, where people no doubt also have something to say about interop. This need for breadth and depth is at once fascinating and painful.

In addition to calling for an interdisciplinary and international group of researchers or research inputs, there is no way to talk about interop in a purely abstract way: interop makes sense conceptually online in the context of a set of facts. We’ve decided, for starters, to focus on digital media (DRM interop in the music space in particular); digital identity; and a third primary case (which may be e-Communications, web services, and office applications). One of our goals in this research is to integrate our previous work on digital media, digital ID, and web 2.0 and so forth into this cross-cutting topic of interop.

Another thing is quite clear, as stated most plainly and eloquently by Prof. Francois Leveque of the Ecole des Mines: we need to acknowledge what we do not know, and we really do not know — empirically — to what extent interop has an impact on innovation. A major thrust of our work is to try to establish models of analysis that might help, in varying factual circumstances, in the absence of empirical data as to the costs and benefits of a certain regulatory decision.

This research effort is supported primarily by a gift from Microsoft (as always in our work with corporate sponsors, this gift is unrestricted and mixed with other such unrestricted funds, as well as our core funding from various sources, to mitigate the risk that we are influenced in our work by virtue of sponsorship). We have been blessed by our partners in industry, including many at Microsoft from the Legal and Corporate Affairs group, led by Annemarie Levins on this project, by their willingness to share with us an in-depth view of their work across a range of areas on interop. We’ve also been supported by the input from technologists at IBM and Intel in this event, and many other firms, through our interviewing process. We’d love to hear from other industry, and non-industry, players with an interest in this field.