Software patents

Like most programmers, I too hate software patents. But until now, I’ve never had a fine example of how bad they really are (though I’ve written about intellectual property in general before).

But now I just found another granted patent application linked on reddit.

The patent covers… linked lists.

Granted. It’s linked lists with pointers to objects further down the list than the immediate neighbors, but it’s still a linked list.

I’ve first read about linked lists when I was 13 and I read my first book about C. This was 13 years ago – way before that patent application was originally filed.

So seeing a technology in use for at least 13 years being patented as «new invention», I’m asking myself two questions:

  1. How the hell could this patent application even be accepted seeing that it isn’t inventive at all?
  2. Why do companies file trivial patents for which prior art obviously exists and which are thus invalid to begin with?

And based on that I’m asking the world: Why don’t we stop the madness?

But let’s have a look at the above two points. Answering the first one is easy: The people checking these applications have no interest (and no obligation) to check the applied patents. In fact, these «experts» may even be paid per passed patent and thus are totally interested in letting as many patents pass as possible. Personally, I also doubt their technical knowledge in the fields they are reviewing patents in.

Even more so: Most of these applications are formulated in legal-speak which is targeted to be read by lawyers which usually have no clue about IT, whereas the IT people usually don’t understand the texts of the applications.

Patent law (as trademark law) basically allows you to submit anything and it’s the submitters responsibility to make sure that prior art doesn’t exist. The patent offices can’t be hold liable for wrongly issued patents.

And this leads us to question 2: Why submit an obviously invalid patent?

For one, patent applications make the scientific achievement of a company measurable for non-tech people.

Analysts compare the «inventiveness» of companies by comparing the sheer number of granted patents. A company with more granted patents has a better value in the market and it’s only about market-value these days. This is one big motivation for a company to try and have as many patents granted as possible.

The other issue is that once the patent is granted, you can use that (invalid) patent to sue as many competitors as possible. As you have the legally granted patent on your side, the sued party must prove that the patent is invalid. This means a long and very expensive trial with an uncertain outcome – you can never know if the jury/judge in question knows enough about technology to identify the patent as false or if they will just value the legally issued document higher than the possible doubts raised by the sued party.

This makes fighting an invalid patent a very risky adventure which many companies don’t want to invest money in.

So in many (if not most) cases, your invalid patent is as valuable as a valid one if you intend to use it to sue competitors to make them pay royalty fees or hinder them at ever selling a product competing to yours – even though your legal measure is invalid.

One more question to ask: Why does the Free Software community seem so incredibly concerned about software patents while vendors of commercial software usually keep quiet?

It’s all about the provability of infringing upon trivial patents.

Let’s take above linked-list patent: It’s virtually impossible to prove that any piece of compiled software is infringing on this (invalid) patent. In source form though, it’s trivially easy to prove the same thing.

So where this patent serves only one purpose in the closed source world (increased shareholder value due to higher amount of patents granted), it also begins to serve the other purpose (weapon against competitors) in a closed source world.

And. Yes. I’m asserting that Free as well as Non-Free software infringes upon countless of patents. Either willing or unwilling (I guess the former is limited to the non-free community). Just look at the sheer amount of software patents granted! I’m asserting that it’s plain impossible to write software today that doesn’t infringe upon any patent.

Please, stop that software patent nonsense. The current system criminalizes developers and serves no purpose that trademark and intellectual property laws couldn’t solve.

Wii in a home cinema

The day before yesterday I was lucky enough to get myself a Wii.

It was and basically still is impossible to get one here in Switzerland since the launch on December 8th. So I was very happy that I got the last device of a delivery of like 15 pieces to a game shop near where I work.

Unfortunately, my out-of-the-box experience with the Wii was quite poor which is why I didn’t write the review yesterday – I wanted to spend a bit more time with the console before writing something bad about it.

Here’s my story:

I’m using a projector, a receiver and a big screen – a real home cinema.

This means that the Wii is usually placed quite far away from either the screen or from the receiver (and especially from the projector about 25 meters in my case). This also means that I get into large issues with the relatively short cable with which you are supposed to connect the sensor bar to the Wii.

And the short A/V-cable didn’t help either, so I also couldn’t just place the Wii near the screen because then I wouldn’t be able to connect it to the receiver.

I ended up placing the Wii more or less in the middle of the room and while I like the looks of the console, it still doesn’t fit the clean look of the rest of my home cinema.

It gets worse though: I placed the sensor bar on the top of my center speaker right below the screen. It turned out though that this placement was too far below my usual line of sight so that the Wiimote wasn’t able to pick the signal up.

So currently, I have placed the sensor bar on top of an awful looking brown box right on the middle of my table – a setup I have to rebuild whenever I want to play and to put away when I’m not playing.

I SO want that wireless sensor bar to place it on the top of my screen.

But the not-quite-working goes on: At first I wasn’t able to connect to my WLAN. The Wii just didn’t find the network. Flashing the ZyXEL AP with a newer software helped there and the Wii recognized the network, but was unable to get an IP address.

Due to the awkward placement it was unable to get a strong signal.

I moved the device more to the middle of the room (making it even more visible to the casual eye) and it was finally able to connect.

My first visit to the shopping channel ended up with the whole console crashing hard. Not even the power button worked – I had to unplug and replug it at which time I had enough and just played Zelda (a review of that jewel will probably follow).

Yesterday I was luckier with the shopping channel (I didn’t buy anything though) and as I had my terrible “sensor bar on a box” configuration already up and running, I got a glimpse of what the Wii out-of-the-box-experience could be: Smootly working, good-looking and a very nice user control interface – using the Wiimote to point at the screen feels so … natural.

In my opinion, Nintendo did an awful mistake of forcing that cable on the sensor bar. As we know by now, the bar contains nothing more than two IR-LEDs. The cable is only for powering them. Imagine the sensor bar being another BT device – maybe mains-powered or battery-powered otherwise (though these IR-LEDs suck power like mad). Imagine the console being able to turn it on and off wirelessly.

The whole thing would not have been that much more expensive (alternatively, they could sell it as an addon) but it would allow the same awesome out-of-the-box experience for all users – even the one with a real home entertainment system.

If it wasn’t Nintendo (I admit that I am a «fanboi» in matters of Nintendo – the conditioning I got with the NES in my childhood still hasn’t worn off), I would have been so incredibly pissed at that first evening that I would have returned the whole console and written one bad review here – even the XBox 360 worked better than the Wii… *sigh*

And all that to save a couple of hours in the engineering department.

External blogging tools

Ever since I started blogging, I have been using different tools to help me do my thing.

At first, I was using the browser to directly write the articles in the MT interface, but after losing a significant amount of text that way, I quickly migrated to writing my entries in a text editor (jEdit back then) and pasting them into the MT interface.

Then I learned about the XML-RPC interface to MT and began using w.bloggar to do my writing, but stagnation and little quirks made me to back to a real text editor which is what I was using for a long time (though I migrated from MT to s9y in between).

Last year, I caught the buzz about Windows Live Writer, which was kind of nice, but generally, I need more freedom in writing HTML than what a WYSIWYG editor can provide me with – especially as I have my special CSS rules for code for example that I prefer to just manually setting the font.

So I was back to the text editor (which went from jEdit to TextMate in between).

And then I noticed the blogging bundle.

The blogging bundle for TextMate allows me to keep writing my blog entries in the tool of choice, while being able to post the finished entries direct from within TextMate.

Basically, you configure some basic settings for your blogs and then you write a colon-separated list of values at the beginning of the document which TextMate uses to post your entry.

It can fetch categories, configure pings and comments, set tags – whatever you want. Directly from your editor where you are doing your writing. Of course you can also fetch older postings and edit them.

So this provides me with the best of both worlds: Direct posting to the blog with one key press (Ctrl-Command-P) while writing in the editor of my choice that is very stable and provides me with the maximum flexibility at laying out my articles.

I love it.