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Boing Boing reports on coded identifying information that many color printers surreptitiously store in each page they produce. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has reverse-engineered the system one company, Xerox, uses to encode time, date, and printer serial number in the documents their machines produce.

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  1. Isn’t that a violation of Xerox’s intellectual property rights?

  2. What are the dots for?

    My guess would be to trace people who attempt to counterfeit currency. Start passing around funny money, and the secret service tracks your printouts back to the store who sold you the printer, and then to you.

    The Service also “requests” that graphics programs like Photoshop be crippled so as to refuse to manipulate images of Benjamins (and Jacksons and Hamiltons and Washingtons too, probably).

    Also cool: one of the guys (Andrew Huang) who reverse-engineered the dot patterns went to my high school.

  3. I wonder how long before we see ‘mod chips’ designed to zero out this info…

  4. Harry Gilchrest,

    It looks like this isn’t patented, so no. Trade secrets (if that is what it is) can be reverse-engineered in this way with no legal sanction (assuming that the individual involved in doing such has no duty – typically via contract – about such a revelation).

  5. Harry and Hakluyt,

    I would agree that this isn’t a breach of copyright (or patent). However, the DMCA outlaws some kinds of circumvention and reverse-engineering, and has been used as a hammer to chill all kinds of reverse engineering that has nothing to do with copyright. So it would not surprise me if Xerox thought about taking legal action. But then, this is the EFF, and they don’t put up with that kind of crap.

  6. that reminds me i need to be up to date with my yearly pledge to the eff.

  7. Wait, so are libertarians and “Reasonoids” for, or against, intellectual property rights? I would have thought the former…

  8. Unbelievable.

    The EFF actually did something.

  9. Wait, so are libertarians and “Reasonoids” for, or against, intellectual property rights?

    Yes.

  10. I get it. “Reasonoids” are of “two minds” on the issue. Let me put it another way. There are legally-based arguments for and against intellecutal property rights (often ruled by lobbying groups on either side, e.g. Lawrence Lessig/EFF and Jack Valenti/MPAA). And underlying these are economically-based arguments, e.g. with regard to incentives — how to properly reward IP creators — and other practical issues — how do you price a product whose marginal cost is zero? I was just wondering where libertarians came out on these issues, such as reverse engineering, if at all.

  11. Harry,

    If “libertarians”, and/or “Reasonoids”, for that matter, were all of one mind, your question might have relevance. But as it stands, it’s not too different from asking such useless questions as “how do southerners feel about soft-boiled eggs?” What are you looking for? A consensus? A majority opinion poll? I just don’t get it—because I guaran-f’ing-tee that if you ask 10 libertarians/reasonoids how they feel about intellectual property rights, you’ll get 11 different answers.

    It astounds me how often folks think that “libertarians”, as a population subset, are going to have a single hard-and-fast answer to a complex question.

  12. Harry Gilchrist,

    Probably depends on which one of us you talk to.

  13. Anyway, so…

    No, reverse engineering in and of itself shouldn’t be prohibited, just an attempt to make a profit from it.

    I stand somewhere in the middle on IP rights. I don’t believe in over-controlling nonsense like the broadcast flag, which forces electronics companies to cripple their own hardware. Nor should I be prohibited from backing up my own CD’s. At the same time, the massive file-sharing that is made possible by the internerd is obviously unfair to artists. It’s a difficult quandary, because much of the issue can only be addressed with limited-effect actions that are reactionary, not catch-all principled rules that would be impossible to enforce.

    Which brings us back to libertarianism and IP. Libertarianism is primarily an idea about how government should work…and is often based on principles, not reactionary laws that are designed to produce a particular pragmatic outcome…and those kinds of laws are pretty much the only way to address IP with any sort of hope of success (given the obvious inability to enforce most “principled” hard-n-fast laws).

    That’s the long answer as to why you’ll get no consensus from libertarians on IP.

  14. That’s why I conditioned my query with an “if at all,” recognizing there may not be a consensus or even a quorum, for that matter. I just figured that since property rights is a subject that should be near and dear to libertarians’ worldview, intellecutal property rights might be something “Reasonoids” might have an opinion on, or that Reason Magazine (reasonably?) might have an official editorial stance on, although I have not been able to gather one. Hence my inquiry. Sorry to have upset the hornet’s nest, so to speak! Cheers =D

  15. Harry,

    No hornets nest or anything like that, I just see it all too much. Anyway, even on the broader issue of property rights, you’ll get different answers from different libertarians, especially when you introduce issues like externalized effects.

  16. I wonder if the code also goes beyond counterfeit currency and is part of the war on terrorism and the war against fill in the blank. The dots sure help forensic investigators nail down the source of a document more readily than a broken letter on a typewriter. And while organizations like the FBI can track down electronic communications, I’m sure they would welcome an assist with any paper trail.

  17. Just because I downloaded an mp3 of Unskinny Bop does not mean that Poison lost out on the sale of a record, regardless of what the RIAA says.

  18. Does anybody really care about the intellectual property rights of a company that engineers its products to snitch on the consumers of those products?

  19. This seems to be a pretty clear-cut situation vis-a-vis IP rights.

    You buy a product. You figure out how part of it works. You tell others what you discovered.

    What about this infringes on any reasonable interpretation of someone’s “intellectual property”? Hell, any criminal statute preventing such behavior would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment.

    I would also say that modifying the printer to not print the dots, and telling others how to make similar modifications, even for profit, is not an infringement on another’s property or intellectual ideas.

    One could make a case if there were some reasonable contract that was signed, preventing the purchaser from disclosing certain facts about the device. But that would be a civil matter, at best, and appears not to be relevant here.

  20. I get it. “Reasonoids” are of “two minds” on the issue.

    It’s not just this particular issue, it’s any and every issue. It’s part of The Plan, you see.

    Planned Obsolesence. Planned Irrelevance. You too can get there, if only you will bitch long enough about what happened yesterday. Or at least no later than this morning.


    It astounds me how often folks think that “libertarians”, as a population subset, are going to have a single hard-and-fast answer to a complex question.

    It astounds me, how you imply that libertarians could see any question as something less than complex.

    Libertarianism is primarily an idea about how government should work…and is often based on principles

    Whose principles, white man?

    Each libertarian has his/her very own government, in his/her very own mind.

  21. If someone discovered that for years car companies have been implanting tracking devices in cars, and someone figured this out and published it, would it somehow be an IP issue?

    My suspicion is that this is some sort of quality control/customer service thing within the company. If it were a sinister plot to be able to fingerprint documents for law enforcement or whoever, all printer companies would have to be in on it, and we surely would have heard about it.

  22. Harry,

    If you’re trying to figure out what libertarians are, give it up. Around here you’ll find everything from statists like joe (that’s little joe, with a little j) to anarchists like Ruthless, to unabashed (and allegedly uneducated) barbarians like me.

    Don’t expect to find anything resembling a common theme when you add it all up. From libertarians you’ll get some astounding, often quite accurate, criticisms of the existing system. Somebody around here will figure out how to demolish any idea that anyone else puts forth.

    But if you look, and the map says we’re at point A, and if you ask “What do we do now?”, all you’ll get back around here is:

    “Those assholes never should have gotten us here in the first place! Don’t expect me to think about what to do next, damned if I’m going to fix somebody else’s mistake.”

  23. btw, Xerox’s yellow dots suck and I don’t plan on buying one of their printers. If ever I can find a printer that isn’t pre-finger printed, I might buy it.

  24. Diversity of opinion is a good thing in a movement devoted to individual liberty. If we all marched lock-step, how meaningful or useful would freedom be?

  25. According to Slashdot, the secret service confirms that it’s an anti-counterfeiting measure.

  26. Libertarianism is great at knowing how to handle a functioning (eg, multiplicity of suppliers) market is operating.

    However, at least the posters here seem to be confounded by the fact that economically free actors will not necessarily converge on functioning markets, and will not neccessaerily maintain functioning markets as functioning markets.

    Anyway, a libertarian consideration of ip is a good example for understanding the healthy relationships between government regulation and functioning markets. In the case of intellectual property, government regulation *creates the market.* Not only that, in the case of patents, government regulators decide on a case-by-case basis whether you get any property in the market or not. Put in these terms, ip sounds like a libertarian nightmare. Yet, most libertarians seem to want to keep some sort of patent and copyright system, even if they quibble about the details of the current system. What a conundrum!

    The way to understand this is to get rid of the rigid, automatic connection between gov’t regulation and harm to functioning markets. IP is a counterexample where gov’t helps the functioning market (in IP) by crreating and administering it. There are other examples where the gov’t regulation is less responsible for creating the market, but can still be very helpful or even neccessary — those who read my posts will know that I am thinking antitrust law as the example here. It is arguable that even p.i. / malpractice law, the (sincere???) bane of big corporation has a substantial role in building the confidence needed to maintain large scale consumer markets.

    Now, none of the preceding means that all or most gov’t regulation helps functioning markets. When the regulation imposes a substantial tax burden, that is a huge negative. When gov’t micromanages busines, that is a huge negative. When gov’t wastes money on ineffective social programs or defense programs that go beyond what it needs to defend the US from a foreign attack, again — huge negatives.

    But don’t let all that wasteful regulation turn you off on gov’t regulation altogether. When the regulation enhances market behavior, it does great good. And it does this good with tax unintensive rules, rather than tax-intensive redistributions of vast sums of money. If all this begins to sound crazy, just take a breath, close your eyes and think of the patent system, our gov’t’s gift to us!

  27. Oh, btw, my promised patent blog is not ready for prime time yet, but it should be by the time h’n’r gets around to a patent related subject again.

  28. “In the case of intellectual property, government regulation *creates the market.* ”

    Well, to put it bluntly, no. People will still buy from reputable sources, who would be the types who would honor their contractual obligations to the artist and not provide free copies. Beyond that, many people, like myself, buy music to support the artist because we like the artist.

    So the market exists whether or not an external copyright regime is present. What the copyright regime does is both (a) allow artists to avoid externality problems and (b) create externalities for everyone else by foisting enforcement responsibilities on the public and on product providers (like DVRs) instead of paying for it themselves.

    It’s a balancing act – the artists clearly deserve to be compensated for their creative act. On the other hand, socializing the costs but privatizing the profits is crony capitalism – one of the basest forms of government outside outright totalitarianism.

    Now, patents, on the other hand, really have no basis in economic libertarianism. There is no empirical evidence that they do anything useful, and an a priori economic analysis leads to the conclusion (as does working in an industry such as pharmaceutical that are heavily involved in patents) that patents distort the market and R&D expenditures in an unproductive way.

  29. Well, to put it bluntly, no. People will still buy from reputable sources, who would be the types who would honor their contractual obligations to the artist and not provide free copies. Beyond that, many people, like myself, buy music to support the artist because we like the artist.

    This is definitely NOT how it works in nations that do not have effective copyright laws. Maybe things would work out differently in Canada or the US if they got rid of copyright law, but I highly doubt it. It is a vision that fills me with happiness, tho, so thanks for the smile!

  30. “This is definitely NOT how it works in nations that do not have effective copyright laws.”

    wrong again. Even in Asia (I assume that is your reference) where pirated copies are freely available and copyrights are at best barely enforced, legal transactions resulting in profit to the producers do occur. The government imposed copyright scheme can and usually does increase profits for participants in the market. But it definitely does NOT create the market.

    Your fantasy world of state created markets brings smiles to the faces of fascist central planners everywhere.

  31. thoreau,

    Diversity of opinion is a good thing in a movement devoted to individual liberty. If we all marched lock-step, how meaningful or useful would freedom be?

    So, we’re contributing diversity of opinion? How original. Nobody has ever done that before.

    Seriously, I understand and agree in principle with your point. I’m just not sure anybody is hearing my point.

    If you want to sell a platform, then you need a positive, forward looking message to carry it.

    If you want libertarian ideas to ever have a significant impact on what’s going on, then you have to figure out how to sell them.

    Seems to me, the vast majority of the time, our “ideas” come across as negatives. That doesn’t sell. And every time I try to push the notion of putting together a positive sounding package, I either get ignored or positively blasted around here.

    We’re never going to agree on everything. But if we don’t agree on something that we can turn into a more positive sounding message, then we’re bound to remain irrelevant.

    Sorry if it pisses anybody off, but I don’t like irrelevance……so I’m bucking the tide here.

    The biggest opportunities we will ever have, are in areas where the powers that be have fucked up the most. These are the places where the ball is just laying there on the field, waiting for somebody with some vision to pick it up and start running it.

    What I usually hear around here is “oh, I’m not going to deal with that, it isn’t my mistake”. Not to jack this thread, but Iraq is one of those opportunities, and “screw it, bring everybody home now and let the terrorists take over” is not the right answer.

    My big point is, the big screw ups are where our big opportunities are going to be. Is anybody thinking that way? Looking for the openings, trying to forge positive messages that are going to sell? I’m just not seeing it around here.

    There is no such thing as magic fairy dust, but persistence comes really close.

    Gotta to try and do some useful work now.

  32. wrong again. Even in Asia (I assume that is your reference) where pirated copies are freely available and copyrights are at best barely enforced, legal transactions resulting in profit to the producers do occur.

    “An estimated 94 percent of all the software currently in use in China is illegal copies, up from 91 percent in 1999, according to a report (PDF) by industry watchdog Business Software Alliance.”

    I guess it depends on whether you see the vessel as 94% empty or 6% full.

  33. and don’t forget, China actually has a copyright law and makes some enforcement efforts (if I recall, people were actually beheaded in the 90s)!

  34. Well, if you’re looking for big screwups, the DMCA seems like a good place to start. My take is that, it’s fine for copyright holders to add copy restricting software to products if they want, but it’s ridiculous to say that consumers who buy those products don’t have a right to remove the restrictions. I bought the DVD, if I want to save it to my hard drive or watch in on my PSP, that’s no concern for the governement.

    Also, fair use laws need to be better codified and copyright expiration times should be shorter. Is there any reason that justifies leaving the Gray Album illegal? It’s been 30 years. The Beatles had their time to make money off it. Now, it’s Dangermouse’s turn!

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