Posts Tagged ‘patents’

Free-software hippies frothing at Oracle

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Oracle recently sued Google over alleged infringement of Java-related software patents as implemented in the Java-ish userland operating environment of Google’s Android OS.  I haven’t read a good breakdown of the actual alleged violations, so I can’t speak to their merit.  However, it’s not as though Oracle is some patent troll — they legitimately own the intellectual property associated with Java patents by virtue of their acquisition of Sun Microsystems, and they continue to develop Java technology.  Shortly after this announcement, Oracle also announced that they will no longer develop Solaris (the commercial software) through Open Solaris (the open-source development project that has, heretofore, “run ahead” of Solaris).  Instead, Solaris will be developed in-house by Oracle and its source will be released after, not before, a commercial release.

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of free-software enthusiast outrage.  Over at zdnet, there has been (and I’m not joking) nearly one article or blog post per day, all decrying the evil that is Oracle.  The crux of their complaining stems from their underlying assumption that software patents should not exist, and that a company cannot be “a friend of open source” and also defend its intellectual property via software patents.  This is utterly ridiculous.  Oracle’s lawsuit may be meritless (I don’t have the expertise on the exact allegations to say one way or the other), but they’re not evil for killing off a money-losing endeavor (Open Solaris — which was already almost exclusively developed by Sun/Oracle engineers or those working for them through partnership agreements) or claiming a stake in the multibillion dollar mobile OS market that is Android, and which may in fact be based on Oracle-patented technology.  Being “open source” doesn’t necessarily mean “here, take everything for free, I disavow any claim to this.”  That’s what the GPL hippies want “open source” to mean, but that’s not what it meant long before the GPL ever came around.  And, I’ve got no problem with people wanting to develop “Free” (as the GPL hippies define it) software – cool beans for them.  But, they’re crazy to demand that businesses license their software and their intellectual property according to their nutjob demands.  (The GPL hippies aren’t exactly completely altruistic, either.  Though they are bemoaning what they perceive as Oracle “changing the deal” with Java by coming back now and asserting intellectual property rights on something they believed was “Free”, they do the exact same thing if a company improperly appropriates GPL code in to a closed-source product:  they “come back later” and demand that the terms of their intellectual property agreement — the GPL — be enforced).  This latest bout of batshit insane demands from the corners of Free Software enthusiasts only reinforces my underlying belief that Free Software is mostly about one thing for its proponents:  gimme gimme gimme.

droid does?

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Verizon has been pitching their upcoming new consumer smartphone (the Droid) pretty aggressively (bonus points for using hipster douche background music in the spot). I’m currently out of contract on my verizon phone and am looking to upgrade, but verizon’s offerings are notoriously lacking. I have no interest in either a Windows mobile device nor a blackberry. I want something whose interface and usability is on par with my iPod touch, but AT&T is a non-starter for me (bad reception near my house on the South Shore) so I won’t be getting an iPhone.

Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll have to keep waiting. After carefully following the reviews for Verizon’s new Android phones (including the Motorola Droid and the HTC Eris), there are some fatal flaws (for me) in the lineup. The Droid has one of the ugliest, unusually shaped qwerty keyboards I’ve ever seen, and it’s got that curious directional pad off to the side. Well, it turns out that there’s a good reason the Droid has that screwball d-pad: the Droid doesn’t do multitouch input (pinch to precisely zoom out, expand to zoom in, etc). Apparently both the phone and the Android 2.0 software claim to support it, but it’s not enabled on the Droid. So either the support is bad/buggy/incomplete for the Droid’s higher resolution display, or Motorola fears Apple’s patent wrath (in a way that Palm doesn’t because of either cross-licensing or Mutually Assured Destruction from Palm’s own smartphone patent portfolio). With regard to the Eris, this is the hardware for the HTC Hero, which was universally received as underpowered. It also doesn’t run Android 2.0, which I’d want for integrated Exchange support.

Anyway, it looks like I’ll be waiting for another Android 2.0 device, the Palm Pre on Verizon, or a Verizon iPhone. Weak.

TiVo seeks $1B in damages against EchoStar

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Apparently it’s come out that TiVo is seeking 1 billion dollars in damages in its ongoing suit against EchoStar (parent of Dish Network) for violating their patents on low-cost DVR manufacturing.  Though this may seem like a lot, this comes after separate rulings for $90 Million and $190 Million judgments against EchoStar in this same suit.  Over the past several years, EchoStar has attempted to avoid TiVo’s patent-licensing demands by implementing what they claim are non-infringing workaround solutions.  However, the court has ruled that these workarounds have been transparently similar to TiVo’s patent, and has even taken the somewhat unusual stance to demand that EchoStar consult the court first before implementing any further “workarounds”.  This latest demand by TiVo seems to be an attempt to punish EchoStar for what seems to have been willful game-playing with the court and deception regarding their “non-infringing” solutions.

This case is fascinating to me for several reasons.  Primarily, it’s sort of a lightning rod for intellectual-property discussions.  In computer-science circles, this seems to be the big one that anti-software-patent folks point to.  First, I hear people claim that this is solely a software patent, and since they don’t believe software is patentable, they don’t believe TiVo’s case has any merit.  Even if software wasn’t patentable, that argument fails here because there’s a large hardware component (compression hardware-assists — MPEG2 encoders) that are part of the overall system described in the patent, thus this is not solely a software solution.

The other argument is that what TiVo did was obvious and therefore their patent is invalid.  “It’s a VCR using digital parts — obvious!”  Except, combining the digital parts in such a way as to keep the price cheap is a key component of this patent.  Using a software-only solution to construct a DVR is, even now, cost-prohibitive.  (Good ones have hardware encoders — that’s the point).  Also, anyone who’s actually used TiVo software knows that they pioneered tons of stuff that nobody had done with a VCR, such as the “peek-ahead” method of fast-forwarding.  (If you fast-forward and press play, the recording actually starts slightly BEFORE where you had seen when you pressed play — this feature is not feasible with a tape-based VCR).  Lots of DVRs have that now, but I’m pretty sure TiVo did it first.  So, TiVo pursuing its intellectual property is entirely reasonable.  And when the other side is a maliciously bad actor who consistently turned down reasonable licensing deals and instead made transparently-infringing “workarounds”, well, that’s exactly why the tort system has punitive damages.

As to whether or not software should be patentable, I’m fairly firmly planted in the “pro” camp.  We need patent reform to weed out useless patents (such as the string of “on the Internet!” patents of the late-90s/early 2000s, where you could take any algorithm, slap “on the Internet!” on the end of it, and get a patent.  See “one click” from Amazon).  However, we increasingly live in a digital world.  Most things, at some level, are largely AD/DA converters with microcontrollers.  Since we already model complex systems in software (and develop predictive models all the time), the leap to making a physical, real-world-controlling manifestation is frequently a matter of having the right servos, AD/DA converters, and so on.  In other words, if everything eventually becomes controllable primarily through software and we eliminate software patents, does that mean that nothing is (or should be) patentable?  Whether they come out and acknowledge it or not, that seems to be the logical conclusion of the anti-software-patent argument.