ajflynn-io

The tech blog of Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer

January 2022

Preamble

The following is an experiment in AI assisted writing, using https://novelai.net/ and their hosted GPT-J-6B AI writing model (which was created by https://www.eleuther.ai/) . I have appended some notes at the end about what the AI model contributed to the story (so as not to spoil the story before you read it).

The story began with a simple prompt to the AI: “Kallor lurched back as the surprise blow struck home“. I had no more idea than that. What came from the AI’s response turned out to be something that reads like an excerpt from a classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel.

While some have criticised the GPT AI models as “derivative” in their writing style, I would challenge anyone to find any fiction that is not derivative of its genre and of similar works that came before it.

The writing process was more engaging and fun than I expected. While I have experience with creative writing, having an AI assisting me made it feel like the characters and scenarios had a life of their own as I wrote. I had no idea what would happen next, and there were surprises at every turn. I was as much reading the story myself, as I was writing it as I went.

My input was required to guide the story at certain points, and make choices about re-rolling AI output when its suggestions seemed dull or absurd. On occasion I applied polish and rewrote some portions of the AI’s output to better suit what I felt was a good story line, while keeping the intent and meaning as close to what it originally generated as possible.

If I had to estimate, I’d say the AI provided about 50% of the content you will read below, by the time I cut, edited, re-rolled responses and provided my own prose.

One issue GPT-J-6B seems to struggle with is giving characters and locations unique names (I found it was taking names directly from a particular popular pre-existing fantasy world, which I confirmed after a quick google search). So I had to change the names it provided for the characters. It also has trouble moving on from a scene. Without prompting to end a scene, it would ramble on, long past what would be considered good writing practice.

It has some problems with maintaining small points of logic and continuity from one paragraph to the next (though it does well enough), which was the greatest cause of the need to re-roll or edit its output. Though it surprised me multiple times by being able to accurately recall and use facts about characters and places, taken from far earlier in the story.

The greatest strength I found about writing with an AI partner is that it provided me with ideas and organic and surprising responses from characters in real-time as I wrote. Tools like https://novelai.net/ and the GPT-J-6B AI model have reignited my interest to pursue creative writing for fun, and have also shown me the huge potential they have to assist professional creative writers in producing scripts for books, games, movies, and so on.


The Story

xxvi.

Kallor lurched back as the surprise blow struck home. The iron-shod club smashed into his side, driving him to his knees. He felt something tear into his ribs, and he fell forward onto the ground, hands clasped over the wound. The pain was excruciating, but he gritted his teeth and held still until it subsided. Then he rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. His lungs were burning. There was a roaring in his ears that sounded like the sea; his eyes were filled with stars. But at least he could breathe again. His foe hovered above him, somewhere above the encroaching blackness that threatened to swallow his vision. The man's face was contorted by hatred and fury. In one hand he clutched a club, in the other a heavy knife. He raised the club high above his head again and screamed, “Die!” Spent of every last drop of strength and will, Kallor drew his final breath and waited for the fatal blow to fall. But nothing came, save the man towering over him giving an odd choking grunt. Then his would-be executioner looked up to the ceiling as a sudden violent spasm rocked his whole body. He keeled over backward like a toppled sack of potatoes. Standing over Kallor now was the barmaid looking bewildered, holding a long narrow dagger, which was noticeably bloodied. She seemed no more than fourteen years old. “What happened?” she asked. Kallor closed his eyes, his thoughts spinning wildly. “You saved me.” “I did? I mean, you're bleeding all over my floor. You might die yet.” He reached out and gingerly touched his side. A thin line of blood had begun to seep through his shirt and his fingers. “I bleed because my heart still beats. So I have no complaints. I don't think my wounds are mortal, if I can tend to them immediately. I might impose a little more and ask for some thread, a needle, strips of cloth for bandages and a bottle of your stiffest liquor. Oh and a mug. I won't need it all for the wound.” She stared down at him, then nodded and hurried off. Kallor lay there, listening to the sounds of her feet padding away. It seemed he'd lost consciousness for a moment, yet he never lost track of the pounding rhythm of his own heart. The girl returned with all he had asked for, as well as a bucket and rag, and began cleaning up the blood and spilled ale. “What's your name, old man?” she asked. “My name is Kallor,” he said, as he sat up. He ripped his already ruined shirt open wider and poured the anonymous clear liquid from the greasy bottle onto his bloodied side. The agony that swept along with it told him the girl had rightly chosen some potent stuff. Forgoing the mug, he took a generous swig of the fire-water directly from the bottle's neck. “I'm Tula”, said the girl as she scrubbed the floor but kept her eyes on Kallor. He winced at the subsiding sting at his side. “You've earned your wages, Tula.” “That's nice. But this is a normal day's work in these parts.” She wiped her hands clean and sat down beside him. “A nasty gash. Hold still and I'll stitch you up. I can't think how you'll do it yourself.” “I don't want to look at it. Just do what needs doing.” She frowned, but set about unwrapping the makeshift bandage and threading the needle. “You're pretty old to be travelling alone, aren't you?” She gave the dead man laying beside Kallor a swift kick full of contempt before beginning to stitch Kallor's wound closed. “I see bastards like him around here too often. You should be more careful who you pick fights with.” “He was after me. Not the other way round”, Kallor spoke between gritted teeth as the needle bit his flesh over and over. “I guess so. But whatever you did to anger someone like him, I'd avoid doing it ever again. And you shouldn't travel alone.” “It is better to rove in company, lass. Agreed. I'm looking to arrange just that. A company that might venture with an old man such as me. To Talon pass. And beyond.” She finished sewing the wound, cut the remaining thread with the still bloodied dagger, and dabbed at Kallor's exposed side with a wet cloth. “There's a trader called Bachellan”, she said. “He travels with a caravan. I hear they're going at least as far as Talon. If you get the chance, why not join them? They leave soon, I think. They'll take care of you. If you can make yourself seem useful to them, anyhow.” “Thank you, Tula.” She nodded. “I know where he's camped. On the south road. If you go down to the harbour, turn left and keep walking till you reach the river. Follow the bank upstream. He's got a big grey horse. Tell him Tula sent you. That might improve your chances.” Kallor groaned as he lurched to his feet, aided in no small part by the slight but surprisingly strong young girl. “I'll remember that, Tula. Thank you.” “Anytime.” He dropped what remained of his coins on the counter, and staggered towards the door, pausing to collect his weapons and gear. He quickly reached into his satchel, checking the precious and mysterious letter from Etherwyn was where he'd left it. Belatedly he glanced back at the cadaver on the floor. “Ah, I should help you clean up.” Tula shrugged. “It's not like he's going anywhere.” “Will this be trouble for you and the owner? I can vouch for you. I'll see that you bear no blame.” Her gaze hardened. “I don't need your protection, old man. Just mind your own business.” “Fair enough. I apologize. You've done me a favour, and I thank you for it. Now, if I may, I shall leave you to your work. I have a long journey ahead of me. Though first I'd best stop by a taylor,” he tugged at the bloodied strips of his ruined shirt, hanging from his side, “and find myself some new clothes.” Tula collected the coins and stuffed them into her apron. “Don't worry about it.” Kallor made his way out into the street, where the morning air was crisp and cold, the sun still hidden behind thick clouds. He shivered as he walked. His head ached terribly, and he suspected he had suffered a concussion. He would need to be careful. But first things first. He found a taylor's shop and entered without knocking. The proprietor rose from behind his counter, wiping his hands on a stained towel. “Well met, sir. Do come in. What can I do for you today?” “Good morning, Master Taylor. My name is Kallor, and I am in need of a new shirt and some trousers. As well as a hat and boots. Also, a cloak. I have been forcibly relieved of, or have had ruined, all said items and they need replacing. And only what you have ready to take. I have no time to wait while you make or mend.” The taylor eyed Kallor suspiciously, just now noticing his ripped and blood stained shirt. “I see, and you will forgive me for asking, but I will require payment up front. No credit here. I do not know you, good sir.” “Of course, Master Taylor. How much will you charge?” “Three silvers.” Kallor winced, and pulled his last posession of any value (save his sword, with which he would never part), from his finger; a simple gold ring. “Take this, and give me what change you think fit. It's all I have.” The taylor took the ring and hefted it, then turned to scrape it gently on the stone bench behind him. “Hmm, it'll do. I'll give you the clothes and five silver in return. Nothing more.” Kallor sighed, but felt no strength left to haggle or beg. “Very well, thank you. That will suffice.” He left the shop with a new, if limited and slighlty ill fitting, wardrobe and a sense of relief. He made his way to the town's small but busy fishing harbour, and then south to the river, as instructed. He found the trader's camp by the southern road without difficulty. A dozen covered wagons and twice as many armed men filled a clearing. The men were busy hitching the wagons to horses and loading boxes and sacks of goods. It seemed they were soon to be leaving. Bachellan was a short, heavyset man with a pockmarked face, a round nose and an oversized head. He was sitting atop his large grey horse, a broad smile fixed on his face as he watched Kallor approach. The trader was dressed in fine, supple leather armour, with a black cloak wrapped tight around his shoulders. He had two swords strapped to his sides, and a crossbow resting on the saddle before him. The trader's eyes narrowed slightly when he saw Kallor approaching, and the smile vanished. Kallor halted a dozen paces from the trader, then bowed his head. “Master Bachellan. Tula sent me your way. I am Kallor, and I would offer you my services. I wish to venture to Talon. I would aid your caravan any way you see fit, if I might accompany you and receive food and bedding in return.” “Is that so?” Bachellan's tone was flat, unimpressed. “And why should we take an old man like you with us?” “Because I can fight.” The trader snorted. “So can I. And I don't need a bodyguard as old as my grandfather. Besides, I don't trust you.” “I can prove my worth.” “We'll see.” Bachellan pointedly gripped the hilt of the long sword at his right hip, and then leapt out of the saddle and landed on the ground with all the poise of a hungry tiger. Kallor drew his sword. A stabbing pain shot down his wounded side, but he did his best not to show it. The trader drew his own blade, and then he and Kallor attacked each other.


xxvii.

It was some time during the afternoon of the second day on the road that Bachellan finally spoke to Kallor once more. Kallor couldn't tell if it was wounded pride or quiet respect that had held the trader's tongue since the old man had put him on his arse the previous day. It had taken every bit of strength Kallor had left to beat the surprisingly nimble younger man. But after a couple of swift feints with his sword, and an old trick using a sweeping kick he'd come to rely on a lot more in his advancing age, he'd bested the caravan master and earned his place with the group on the journey to Talon. “So,” Bachellan said, settling back in the saddle and adjusting the straps of his crossbow as he drew his horse level with the one he'd lent Kallor. “I'm curious as to how you managed to best me. I am not only a veteran of countless battles, but also a trained swordsman.” Kallor grunted. “I've been fighting since I could walk. And I have a talent for it. My father taught me.” “I see. We are almost to Talon. Will you be continuing on to Dhurjis? Or perhaps the Fallen Towers?” Kallor remained tight lipped. “You're not going to answer?”, asked Bachellan. Kallor subconsciously clutched at the seemingly impossible summons from Etherwyn, now hidden safely in his cloak's breast pocket. Who would believe him if he said his long-dead queen had written to him, begging his aid. And he was tired of making up lies. “No. I won't answer. But I mean no offense”, Kallor said. “None taken. It's none of my business. Well, we will be arriving in Talon tomorrow. After that, the caravan will be crossing the Iron Desert. If we must part ways at the pass, so be it. Though I could do with your sword arm for the next part of the journey. Grey hair on your head or no. It's more dangerous than traveling this road, to venture beyond Talon pass. A great deal more dangerous.” Kallor nodded. “I understand. And I thank you again for the food and the loan of this horse.” “You're welcome”, said the merchant. “Will your caravan be stopping long in Talon?”, Kallor asked. “We will. A few days. I have some business to attend to. There is a man there I must meet. A fellow named Raymon Vandaris. He's a merchant of sorts, though he does a lot more than trade. You might say he's a collector of oddities. I would like to buy his latest acquisition.” “Acquisition?” “Yes. An artefact. A relic. Something that belonged to the Eyeless God.” Kallor scoffed. “Fairytales.” “I assure you, it is real.” “Then why would he sell it to you?” “He cares for money even more than his collection of curios. I see value in this artefact beyond mere riches.” “How so?” “Though he does not know it, the relic is a weapon. A terrible, deadly magic weapon. I would like to study it, to learn its secrets. Its power. And to keep it out of the wrong hands, of course.” “I see. And how much will it cost?” “Two thousand gold pieces.” Kallor laughed. “That's ridiculous! You would pay that for a piece of folklore and myth?” “Not for a fanciful legend”, said Bachellan, “but for a weapon once owned by a god. It is real, and it can be used. I will pay that price.” “Even if it turns out to be worthless?” “It won't.” Kallor frowned, but held his tongue. There seemed no sense in arguing with a senseless man. Best to let this clearly wealthy trader waste his money how he saw fit. “Kallor, I would ask one thing of you before we part ways at the pass. Accompany me to see Vandaris. He wouldn't appreciate me taking along any of my guards. But he'll make the same mistake regarding you that I did; he'll underestimate you. He won't think you a threat. I'll claim you're an associate. An elderly advisor. You're the perfect discreet protection.” “I'm not a bodyguard”, Kallor said, shaking his head. Bachellan put on one of his patented beatific smiles. “I will pay you well for your service.” Kallor grunted, and thought of his empty coin pouch. “All right, I'll do it. But are you expecting an attack in the middle of the city? You don't trust this trader?” Bachellan dropped his smile, and looked pensive. “I trust Vandaris well enough. I simply want to be sure that he has nothing to hide. You will keep your eyes open, and inform me if you notice anything untoward. You will help me keep my purse safe on the trip through the city to his home, and keep the relic safe as we return to the caravan. Then I pay you and we part ways. Simple.” Kallor paused a moment more before answering, “Very well.” Bachellan smiled, and they rode on in silence until they made campfall for the evening. Kallor was relieved at the thought of earning some easy coin before setting off on the next leg of his journey, but couldn't shake a growing sense of unease. Talk of the Eyeless God and ancient powerful relics was childish fantasy. But to hear a grown man willing to stake a fortune on it was sobering. Bachellan must know something, or have seen something, to convince him the relic was real. But Kallor didn't believe in magic. Not even in legends. Magic was a belief for fools and children. He'd lived long enough to see the world as it truly was. He'd been through wars, and he'd seen men die. The Eyeless God? No, Kallor wasn't ready to believe in that. As he lay on his bedroll that night, he tried to clear his mind of such thoughts. He was exhausted, and fell asleep quickly, but had fitful dreams of vengeful gods, hungry ghosts and restless shadows.


Writing Notes

The story began with a simple prompt to the AI: “Kallor lurched back as the surprise blow struck home”. I provided it no more idea than that. What came from the AI’s responses and my own contributions turned out to be something that reads like a short excerpt from a classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel.

I didn’t know Kallor was an old man, or that his life would be saved by a young barmaid. Tula’s name and personality, as well as her responses to the conversation and actions, were entirely provided by the AI, including her headstrong attitude.

The caravan leader Bachellan’s personality and responses to Kallor’s conversation are all provided by the AI too. I had no idea he would refuse to accept Kallor as part of the caravan until he bested Bachellan in combat. Him drawing his sword and attacking Kallor was the AI’s idea. While I decided the outcome would be in Kallor’s favour, the AI challenged this story point with Bachellan’s question to Kallor; “I'm curious as to how you managed to best me. I am not only a veteran of countless battles, but also a trained swordsman.” But on the very next line, it also provided Kallor’s response, and further added to what we know of Kallor’s background; Kallor grunted. “I've been fighting since I could walk. And I have a talent for it. My father taught me.”

When Bachellan asks Kallor about his quest (something the AI asked, unprompted by me) I decided not to elaborate. Bachellan was understanding of Kallor’s wish to keep his affairs private, and instead offers Kallor information about his own plans in the city of Talon. The AI came up with the idea of Bachellan meeting a collector of curios named Raymon Vandaris, who was unknowingly in possession of a powerful ancient artifact.

I toyed with the AI’s idea by having Kallor suggest this artifact was a fake. Bachellan refused to be dissuaded of the fact that the object was genuine. The AI then suggested Kallor accompany Bachellan to retrieve the object, which makes for an exciting potential next chapter, I think.

The one entirely original point I injected into this story was the letter from Etherwyn. I wanted to insert some mystery and purpose surrounding Kallor’s journey. Something that might be a good prompt for more chapters in the future.

The closing passage is entirely provided by the AI, except that I edited in a mention of the gods in reference to the artifact. I think it provides a nice amount of mystery and foreboding, and a promise of more adventure to come; “As he lay on his bedroll that night, he tried to clear his mind of such thoughts. He was exhausted, and fell asleep quickly, but had fitful dreams of vengeful gods, hungry ghosts and restless shadows.”

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

November 2021

Check out my short article on new tools that enable Artificial Intelligence to understand abstract concepts, and allow it to contribute to the artistic and creative process like never before.

The full article is available here: https://bit.ly/3cQOOl1

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

September 2021

Check out my brief review of the history, available literature, and the state of the art of multithreading in software applications.

The full paper is available here: https://bit.ly/3kThSw7

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

August 2021

While creating Caelum Magna (a VR Star Map visualisation tool for the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite project, built using Amazon Lumberyard), I investigated optimal architectures for performing large volume high-speed simultaneous database queries, and streaming the resulting data into a 3D simulation in real-time.

I wrote the investigation and results up into a formal research paper, in the hope it will be useful to developers facing the same dilemma; how best to access and move millions of data points in and out of games and simulations in a high performance environment.

Check out the full paper here:

Multi-threaded asynchronous database queries for games and simulations – by Ashley Flynn Investigating the best implementation of process threading and asynchronous queries for the purpose of retrieving information from databases for games and simulations. https://bit.ly/3mmc0O8

As part of the Caelum Magna project, I developed a Gem (a self-contained module) for the Amazon Lumberyard game engine, called PLY, that provides rapid asynchronous access to PostgreSQL database instances. Caelum Magna and PLY use the architecture described in the research paper. Both projects are available on GitHub under open-source licenses.

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

August 2021

Risk management is essential for any project with any team size, big or small. Yet we tend to consider it as an afterthought in game development, whether we’re working as a small independent studio or as part of a larger professional organisation.

It’s often seen as boring, too complex, or just overkill when you have limited resources to dedicate to planning and project management.

Enter the IRM RMS – A simplified risk management standard that is so easy to understand that the whole thing fits into a 14 page guide. The key to any successful business process is that it can be understood and executed by all the stakeholders, and that they feel ownership and value from the process. The IRM RMS helps to achieve this by doing away with the mindboggling complexity of more common standards like ISO 31000.

Check out my essay on the IRM RMS to learn more!

The IRM Risk Management Standard in Software and Games Development – by Ashley Flynn The origin and history of the IRM Risk Management Standard, its major elements and its adoption for computer games development. https://bit.ly/3jOlqiy

Further recommended reading:

“Key-Risks-Based Mobile Game Pre-production”. GameMakers, USA. https://gamemakers.com/key-risks-pre-production/

“4 ways to lower your risks for game development”. Venturebeat, USA. https://venturebeat.com/2014/11/05/4-ways-to-lower-your-risks-for-game-development-superdata-finds/

“Risk Management in Video Game Development Projects”. IEEE Xplore Digital Library. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6759136

“Managing Risk in Video Game Development”. Gamasutra, USA. https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/191523/managing_risk_in_video_game_.php

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

August 2021

Introduction

Software as a Service (SaaS) is an umbrella term for applications that are provided, hosted and maintained on a server by a third party that customers must access remotely over the Internet. SaaS is one of the concepts now covered under the broader field of “Cloud Computing” (Rouse 2012). Examples of popular SaaS applications available today include the Google suite of products such as Google Docs and Gmail, and even Facebook and Twitter.

The concept of SaaS is not new, with mainframe systems providing a similar business model as early as the 1960s, and famous computer scientists of the era such as John McCarthy predicting the future rise of cloud computing (Childs 2011). However the increase in the use of the SaaS business model in recent years has led to a collision between the business goals of service providers, and the Intellectual Property (IP) rights of its users.

What is Software as a Service (SaaS)?

“Computation may some day be organised as a public utility.” Computer scientist John McCarthy – During a speech to MIT students in 1961.

Typically, a SaaS product will consist of a centrally hosted server-side application, of which there is essentially one instance, and a client-side application, which each customer runs on their own computer. The clients all connect to the same server. The client application usually provides only the functionality required to accept user input and display the application output to the user. The bulk of the application’s logic is executed on the server. The most common form of SaaS client-server application delivery is to access the service via a web browser, with the centralised component hosted on a web server (Singleton 2019).

Examples of popular SaaS applications include the Google suite of tools such as Google Docs, Google Drive, Gmail, Google Maps, and so on. In these cases, the bulk of application logic, data storage and processing occurs on the Google servers. Without access to the Google servers, the client components of these tools either have severely reduced functionality, or do not work at all.

A typical web application delivered in the SaaS way might be hosted centrally on a web server, with a web browser on the customer's local PC acting as the client interface. The web browser component provides enough functionality to display the user interface and accept user input via HTML (utilising software technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript), while the application logic and storage are all handled server-side (utilising an Apache web server, the PHP language and a PostgreSQL database, for instance).

SaaS provides many advantages including;

  • Upgrades to the server application are available immediately to all clients, without necessarily having to update each client application individually.
  • SaaS eliminates the need for organisations to maintain applications on their own servers, which removes the costs of hardware and employing administrators.
  • Reliance on third parties for software security. This can be an advantage if the third party operator has better cyber security expertise and capabilities than the client organisation.
  • SaaS can provide a flexible rent-based ongoing payment structure to access the service, which can be more attractive to customers than paying a larger amount to own the software outright.
  • SaaS offers excellent scalability, with customers being able to use as much or as little of the service as they require, and to change their level of demand on the service at any time.
  • SaaS makes the application highly available, as it is typically delivered via the Internet and can be accessed from any location in the world at any time.

Disadvantages of SaaS include;

  • Reliance on third parties to deliver and maintain the service. If the service owner fails to continue to support and maintain the application, or goes out of business, the service may become unusable.
  • Reliance on third parties for software security. This may be a disadvantage if the provider does not address security issues adequately.
  • Availability issues may compromise functionality. For instance if the service becomes unavailable due to an issue with the servers or internet connectivity, then the application will be unusable.
  • SaaS also involves many potentially negative copyright and intellectual property implications.

Implications of SaaS for Copyright and Intellectual Property

“With SaaS, the users do not have even the executable file that does their computing: it is on someone else's server, where the users can't see or touch it. Thus it is impossible for them to ascertain what it really does, and impossible to change it.” Richard Stallman, Free Software Foundation (Stallman 2010)

SaaS and Software Piracy

SaaS provides a level of protection against software piracy that is impossible to attain under the traditional software distribution model. SaaS allows the software vendor to retain absolute control of the software’s code, by preventing access to it and only allowing customers to interact with the application’s functionality. In this way, there is no copy of the software that pirates can obtain or distribute. In addition to this, the “service” component of SaaS is an important part of the overall product. Even if customers could obtain an illegal copy of the application, they would have to host it themselves and then would lose many of the benefits afforded by the SaaS model such as reduced hardware costs, reduced administration costs, global availability, and so on.

The centralisation and large community of users accessing a single SaaS application is also a benefit that would be lost if a customer used an illegal copy instead. Imagine obtaining an illegal copy of Facebook’s application code and hosting your own instance. One major benefit of using the genuine social media platform is that it has billions of monthly active users (Noyes 2019), which is something only the genuine Facebook service can provide.

SaaS and the Control of Intellectual Property

Security

The nature of SaaS means that a third party hosts the application remotely on servers some distance away from the customer’s location, often in an entirely different country. The key implication for intellectual property rights is that the customer’s data (their intellectual property) is also hosted remotely by the third party.

For instance, in the case of Google Docs, customers using the service have their written documents stored on Google’s servers. These documents may contain IP as benign as shopping lists, or as valuable as copies of software code in development, an author’s book manuscripts or movie scripts, commercially sensitive research data, patient medical records, or even government secrets.

While SaaS providers typically make assurances about the safety of the data, it can be argued that outsourcing security of valuable IP data is an unacceptable risk. SaaS providers can make mistakes, be negligent, or simply be unable to prevent customer data being compromised even if they employ industry-best-practice security measures.

According to DiGiacomo (2018), there were as many as 115 monthly publicly reported successful cyber attacks globally on major businesses as far back as 2018. The number of undetected attacks, or attacks that have not been made public is surely a much greater number.

Customers concerned about the security of their data that make use of SaaS must be willing to trust a third party with that security. And yet, even major well funded organisations with expertise and enormous security resources at their disposal have proven to be vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Ownership and Control

One of the most troubling aspects of the rise of SaaS is the potential loss of control over intellectual property (Stallman 2010). As customers host more and more of their IP on remote servers controlled by third parties, they are at the mercy of the End User License Agreements (EULA), service contracts, as well as the whims and goodwill of those third parties.

These contracts vary significantly between services and providers. They can range from allowing the customer to retain all rights to IP uploaded to the service, all the way up to the customer signing over the entirety of rights of their IP to the service provider. Often customers will not read the contract terms when using a SaaS application, and may not be aware of what IP rights they have signed away by doing so.

Even after agreeing to the terms imposed by the SaaS provider at the time the customer first uploaded their IP to the service, the contractual conditions governing the ownership of a customer’s IP may later change. Typically the service provider is required to notify customers of contract changes, but may not always do so. The customer may be bound by these changes without consent or confirmation, depending on the nature of the original contract, and specifics of law in the jurisdiction that governs the contract.

Even if the customer is notified of service contract changes that affect their IP, and rejects them, there is often no guarantee that the customer will be able to remove all their IP completely from the service, or be able to easily move their IP to another service. Vendors of SaaS applications have little incentive to make it easy for a customer to move their data to a competing platform.

An additional concern for SaaS customers is the location of hosted data. Due to the global nature of the internet and SaaS applications, a customer’s IP may end up being hosted in any number of jurisdictions outside their country of residence. For this reason it is not always clear to customers which legal jurisdictions their IP may be held in, or what jurisdictions may apply if legal proceedings are brought against the application provider.

This legal ambiguity can have serious consequences when a customer’s IP is accessed outside their home jurisdiction and used in a way they do not authorise. This could occur if the SaaS provider is forced to comply with legal orders from a foreign government, or if the provider itself uses weak IP and privacy law in a specific jurisdiction to gain access to the data legally to use for purposes the customer did not originally agree to. This may include uses such as harvesting data from the customer’s IP for advertising purposes, on-selling it to other third parties, etc.

Users accessing a typical social media web application, such as Twitter or Facebook, may upload video, images, or text messages. Text content, even something as informal as text chat messages, still counts as a customer’s IP. While text may appear to have little value when compared to IP such as artwork, images, video and so on, these messages may still be valuable to access for market research and advertising purposes. A company providing a text chat service may be interested in harvesting chat content for keywords and key phrases to help them build profiles of users to either target advertising at those users, or to on-sell data about the users to a third party. Web applications typically have clear definitions in a user contract about what constitutes a customer’s IP, and what rights the provider has to access and on-sell that IP, or data derived from it.

Provides such as Google have gone to great lengths to try to reassure their customers of the security of their IP, with the company having announced it had its Google Drive SaaS application verified by Ernst & Young to ensure it complies with the ISO 27018 privacy standard. Google maintains that this proves its customers’ IP is absolutely private and will not be accessed for the purposes of harvesting targeted advertising data (Kapko 2015).

Conclusion

Despite assurances from some of the biggest SaaS providers in the world, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, the protection of their customers’ IP rights (including rights of ownership, privacy and security) continues to be a point of contention.

While the contract put in place at the time a customer signs up to a SaaS service may promise adequate protection, providers can fall short of these promises or change the terms of the contract at a later time, often without the customer’s consent or knowledge. Even the biggest SaaS providers have been known to change contract terms, or have shown to be vulnerable to security breaches, as any internet connected service always will be.

Questions of jurisdiction in the global SaaS marketplace can lead to ambiguity about where and how a customer’s IP is stored and protected, exposing them to the possibility of their IP being accessed without their permission in an otherwise legitimate and legal manner, such as by state actors ordering a SaaS provider to hand over a customer’s IP via a court order.

These considerations must be foremost in the minds of any individual or organisation looking to migrate their IP and business systems to SaaS platforms. While the advantages of reduced cost, greater availability and accessibility may be highly attractive, the implications for IP rights are dire.

Bibliography

Childs, M. (2011). “John McCarthy: Computer scientist known as the father of AI”. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/john-mccarthy-computer-scientist-known-as-the-father-of-ai-6255307.html

Kapko, M. (2015). “4 out of 5 Google for Work customers avoid Google Drive”. CIO Website, IDG Communications, Inc., USA. https://www.cio.com/article/2985352/4-out-of-5-google-for-work-customers-avoid-google-drive.html

Rouse, M. (2012). “Software as a Service (SaaS)”. Techtarget Website. https://searchcloudcomputing.techtarget.com/definition/Software-as-a-Service

Singleton, D. (2019). “What is SaaS? 10 FAQs About Software as a Service”. Software Advice Website, Software Advice Inc. https://www.softwareadvice.com/resources/saas-10-faqs-software-service/

Stallman, R. (2010). “What Does That Server Really Serve?”. Boston Review, USA. https://bostonreview.net/richard-stallman-free-software-DRM

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

August 2021

Much has been said about the Artificial Intelligence language model GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3) by OpenAI recently. Its capabilities are impressive, and it promises technological and social disruption that has the potential to be both benevolent and malicious.

Left solely in OpenAI’s hands, GPT-3 would remain a black-box proprietary technology with all the restrictions and limitations associated with using software as a service provided by a third party. The ability to freely explore the technology’s capabilities and develop countermeasures for its negative impacts would remain restricted by an organisation making profit-driven decisions about access and control.

To counter this, EleutherAI, a collective of volunteer researchers, engineers, and developers, are working on an open source competitor to GPT-3. The advantages include being able to control the source code and software yourself, train and configure the model on your own domain-specific data, and integrate the technology directly into your own software and business tools without relying on a middle-man.

Further reading:

Ashley Flynn – Games and Simulations Software Engineer Portfolio and contact – https://ajflynn.io/

Back to Latest Posts

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.