dinsdag 11 mei 2010

Re: Patently Ridiculous

After reading Ed's post about software patents I remembered a story that occurred around the time when I fell in love for the first time with the game of Go.

It must have been a good ten years ago, or more, when I frequently played on the Internet Go Server. When you are a beginner you have to work your way up the ladder by winning games. One way of winning is to challenge players of around your ranking.

When I challenged one of the lower rated players, I stumbled upon a guy who was hiding from his fellow Masters in Go by logging in with an alias. However, he forgot to unset the "open" flag so I found myself playing against a much stronger opponent. This is something you just cannot win (there is no such thing as luck in Go.)

While we were playing and chatting, he introduced himself as Jean-loup Gailly. I Yahooed him (no Google back then) and found out that he is one of the authors of gzip and masters several other crafts very attractive to the inner-geek (like his work on pulsars).

While I don't know his stance on software patents, I assume that he is against them. Jean-loup has analyzed several patents to make sure that the gzip software avoids all of them.

Jean-loup on his website [3]:

"I have probably spent more time studying data compression patents than actually implementing data compression algorithms. I maintain a list of several hundred patents on lossless data compression algorithms, and I made sure that gzip isn't covered by any of them. In particular, the --fast option of gzip is not as fast it could, precisely to avoid a patented technique."

He continues by making an interesting remark:

"The first version of the compression algorithm used by gzip appeared in zip 0.9, publicly released on July 11th 1991. So any patent granted after July 11th 1992 cannot threaten gzip because of the prior art, and I have checked all patents granted before this date."

I understand from this that patents are void if somebody can prove that the invention was done before it was filed. So filing patents for simple things might not be so damaging as it appears (somebody try to file a patent for the singleton pattern and see what happens). This is called prior art.

The big crunch
One interesting story of Jean-loup is about a compression technique claiming to be so effective that it could compress any file with at least one bit. Of course, a child can see that this would recursively compress the output file to zero bits. The US patent office worked on this patent for three years before finally granting the patent.


[1] While I was researching for this blog post I found out that there is a free iPhone client for Go.
[2] Carl Barks, the famous Donald Duck cartoonist, once drew a story where Donald Duck and his nephews salvaged a ship by pumping thousand of ping-pong balls into it. The word goes that this story prevented granting of a patent (unfortunately this appears to be a hoax).

3 opmerkingen:

  1. Have you signed at http://petition.stopsoftwarepatents.eu/ ??

  2. Wim,
    The problem with prior art is the legal cost of defending oneself. The US patent office is drastically understaffed and overburdened with patent applications, and as a result many patents are granted even when prior art exists. If you are sued by a company that holds such a patent, you have to pay the legal cost of defending yourself against it; that cost is often too much to bear, especially for small companies.
    Maybe organizations such as EFF can/will help in some cases, but not in the majority.
    Then there is the sue / counter-sue issue, such as what is currently going on between Apple and Nokia ad Apple and HTC. No good for consumers will ever come from any of those suits or counter-suits, unless the result is negotiated cross-licensing agreements between the companies. But why do we need expensive, slow patent infringement lawsuits to get there?

  3. Eric's point of view is supported by this opinion:

    quote of an attorney (not me):
    "In the USPTO, one can only NOT get a granted patent by NOT filing an application", though it was most probably better worded.

    Hence, the verification and filtering process for
    strong and valid patents is shifted from start (search, examination) to courts and future, when money has been invested, factories built, goods sold etc.

    Selecting the court (divorce? or technically skilled ~, experience with patents, licences, royalites) adds to legal and financial insecurity.

    At this stage, payments can be tripled and what was once a good idea put on paper for some thousand dollars of fees becomes a game-dominating cliffhanger for hundreds of millions.