Software Patents are Bad for Europe

Since man first invented the wheel, society moves forward technologically by inventors standing on the shoulders of those who came before. This advance in our knowledge has improved our lives immeasurably, so much so that society wants to encourage inventiveness, by rewarding those that invent new things a monopoly in that invention (a patent) in exchange for the knowledge that future generations can build upon.

Since man first invented the wheel, society moves forward technologically by inventors standing on the shoulders of those who came before. This advance in our knowledge has improved our lives immeasurably, so much so that society wants to encourage inventiveness, by rewarding those that invent new things a monopoly in that invention (a patent) in exchange for the knowledge that future generations can build upon.

It is important to understand this clear quid quo pro between society and the inventor. Based on that understanding it is not unreasonable to expect that if the patent grant is going to generate a great deal of money for the holder, that society should expect a similar degree of inventiveness for others to build upon.

This to me is the crux of the problem with grants of patents on Business Methods or Software Functions (I use this word function here because the alternative, the actual software itself – which does take considerable time and effort to get right – is already protected by the monopoly rights of copyright. Defining functionality is comparatively a trivial exercise.). The level at which patent protection can be applied for is several thousand times simpler than would be needed in a fully functioning business, or a substantial software programme. Whilst a physical product can be broken down into smaller patentable components, the ratio is nowhere near as great.

This leads to two consequences. Firstly, and this is the most important point, is that to achieve anything useful in writing a software program, you could potentially be effected by thousands of patents on the little individual functions making up software. Secondly, these little individual functions do not provide anything like the benefit to society that would be appropriate for the monopoly position granted to them.

It is also worth asking why patent protection is being considered at all. Given that we already have copyright as a mechanism for society to give a monopoly to encourage invention why do we think that the patent approach is always needed.

It costs money to obtain a patent. This mitigates against the small organisation spending the time an effort to patent all the various small functions that go up to make any useful software program. By contrast, large global corporations can afford to invest to that level. The consequence of that is that only the large mulinationals can really protect themselves via the patent route.

Considering this from a European perspective, all of the substantive software companies with the one exception of SAP are American. Thus allowing patents of software functions in Europe can only harm Europe.

But there is a broader problem. Open source software, developed by the thousands of individual contributors around the globe are able to develop software that can – for the first time – compete against the monopoly stranglehold that Microsoft has on the industry. Unfortunately open source software has a real problem. It has been competing on technical excellence spread by word of mouth, and unlike normal commercial enterprises does not translate that technical advantage into money. This prevents it from either entering into the patent game, or from spending the cash lobbying governments to take decisions in its best interest.

Monopolies are not in the best interests of society (even more so when the monopoly is based on the other side of the world from your society). That is why we have many many mechanisms to prevent monopolies from abusing their monopoly powers. With open source we have another mechanism that can fight against these monopolies. But allowing software patents could so easily destroy that weapon.

Be Wary of Digital Rights Management (DRM)

I have just been reading an article in which Bill Gates is justifying the introduction of digital rights management into Windows Media Centre. In essence he is saying that the content producers own the Intellectual Property (IP) and can put whatever rights they like on it. If there are no restrictions the the Media Centre will play the content, but if the producer has put restrictions on it using DRM, then the media centre will respect those rights.

I have just been reading an article in which Bill Gates is justifying the introduction of digital rights management into Windows Media Centre. In essence he is saying that the content producers own the Intellectual Property (IP) and can put whatever rights they like on it. If there are no restrictions the the Media Centre will play the content, but if the producer has put restrictions on it using DRM, then the media centre will respect those rights.

There seems to be a large flaw in this argument which is what makes some people (myself included) wary of Digital Rights Management. IP holders are granted the rights that they have to control content by the state to give people an incentive to innovate. But those rights are not absolute. There are certain freedoms that everyone has (like allow people to include small extracts of a whole work for use in a new work). The issue with DRM is that is does not necessarily also enforce those freedoms. So if a content producers adds DRM to his IP and then distributes he may give you less rights than you are legally entitled.

WYSIWYG v WYSIWYM

I was thinking the other day about the way we produced documents in the mid 1980’s. It was kicked off by hp setting up a competition to find the oldest laser printer still working, because I headed a product development centre in those days and we had purchased one. I had been thinking of buying a line printer in order to enable our programmers to print out their code and put it into binders. I was approached by our hp saleslady, who enticed me with a fast A4 printer. I had thought this would make it simpler to print code on A4 and put them in smaller binders rather than the large binders we needed before, and duly purchased one.

I was thinking the other day about the way we produced documents in the mid 1980’s. It was kicked off by hp setting up a competition to find the oldest laser printer still working.

I headed a product development centre in those days and we had purchased one.  I had been thinking of buying a line printer in order to enable our programmers to print out their code and put it into binders. I was approached by our hp “saleslady”, who enticed me with a fast A4 printer. It had been the custom to use specialist line printer paper and purchase special binders to store it it, but I had realised this would make it simpler to print code on A4 and put them in standard binders rather than the more expensive specialist ones, and I duly ordered this new printer. It turned out to be one of my better decisions.

What I had not counted on was that we were introducing VDUs on to everyone’s desk for the first time, and therefore suddenly there was a lot less of a requirement for producing paper code listings. However, one of my team created a set of macros for nroff which enabled people to write documents in a text editor, which when processed produced very high quality documentation on the laser printer. For a number of years my team produced documentation that looked as though it had been produced at a professional print shop – when the rest of the company were still using IBM manual typewriters and snowpake.

It was not until several years later that we stopped using that system, at the point when it started becoming feasible to put a PC on everyone’s desk running Microsoft Word. Although we could now do graphics easier (the only large achilles heel of the nroff system) we lost a lot in the consistency of our documentation.

The closest today in lyx. a WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) type of system – but I have a slightly different vision. I would like something that

  • uses docbook xml as the native underlying language
  • provides template based style sheets (using xml formating objects?) which can show how each sort of document should look on screen and printer
  • provide WYSIWYG editing of the style sheets.

UPDATE June 2010. Some years later and I haven’t done anything with this thought. The one big change is SVG (scalable vector graphics) which in essence is a text system to embed drawings.

 

UPDATE November 2012:  I have just come across latex – but perhaps more importantly the tikz library package that allows you to draw high quality graphics in that environment.  A few experiments later and I am able to produce some high quality documents in a house style.  Its not what I was envisaging in 2004, but interestingly the underlying quality of those original 1980s days is surpassed and for the first time with graphics support all in a mechanism that can be properly version controlled with git.  I am developing my house styles as I write this and intend to make it my primary writing environment for the future.

A Nice Little Earner (for my Energy Supplier that is)

Now I know energy prices are rising, but 25% increases each. That is ridiculous.

So I sat down and calculated exactly how much Gas and Electricity I had consumed last year, then took the current tariffs after the price rises and calculated how much I should pay for the year. I then either took off what they owe me (I am in credit on Gas) or added on what I owe them (not so good in Electricity) and calculated my monthly payments to make me break even at the end of the year. This turns out to be a modest rise in electricity £52 per month to £58 per month, and a fairly large decrease in gas (from £75 per month to £52 per month)

Now I know energy prices are rising, but 25% increases each. That is ridiculous.

So I sat down and calculated exactly how much Gas and Electricity I had consumed last year, then took the current tariffs after the price rises and calculated how much I should pay for the year. I then either took off what they owe me (I am in credit on Gas) or added on what I owe them (not so good in Electricity) and calculated my monthly payments to make me break even at the end of the year. This turns out to be a modest rise in electricity £52 per month to £58 per month, and a fairly large decrease in gas (from £75 per month to £52 per month)

I then rang them up to ask how they calculated their numbers. Do you know what they said. “There is something funny with our calculations sometimes it gives numbers that are too high. What do you want to pay”. I told them the result of my calculations, and the call centre person said “yes that seems about right” to both numbers.

What a winner. If I had done nothing they were going to change to the new amount at the next monthly direct debit – and I would have been paying £65/month or £780/year too much. At 6% interest (for an average of 6 months) thats £23.40 extra from me. Multiply that by the 3 million or so customers they have thats around £60 million extra – now that is a nice little earner!